Most of the Sugarloaf Cove site is upland, which is land that is not covered by standing water. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, plants of the Laurentian mixed forest covered the uplands along the North Shore of Lake Superior. At Sugarloaf Cove, the forest was probably a mixture of birch, aspen, and various conifers.
When Sugarloaf Cove became a pulpwood landing in the 1940s, much of the native vegetation was removed. Buildings and roads were constructed, and familiar garden shrubs and flowers such as lilac and rose were planted. Years of heavy use left the few remnants of the native plant communities severely disturbed. When the pulpwood landing activity ceased, exotic species rapidly colonized many of the disturbed areas.
Exotic or non-native species are plants that are native to other continents or other parts of the United States. Not all non-native plants are a problem, but many have advantages that allow them to become invasive when growing outside of their natural range. Some grow very quickly in disturbed areas and then spread into less disturbed areas where they crowd or shade out other plants. And exotic plants often lack natural population controls because insects and plant diseases seldom travel to new habitats along with their hosts.
By the 1990s, many highly visible areas at Sugarloaf Cove were dominated by exotic species. When the DNR wetland restoration project began, SICA decided to begin a complementary program to restore the most disturbed upland areas by removing exotic species and replacing them with native plants.
A list of the undesirable exotic plants at Sugarloaf Cove was assembled. A program for eradication and control of the exotic species was begun immediately. This included digging up plants and removing flowers and seedheads.
A crucial step for the project was to assemble a list of native North Shore plants that probably grew at Sugarloaf Cove prior to European settlement. Then sources for the native plants had to be located. Even though the native plants still grow wild in many areas, it is illegal to dig them up without permission, and few nurseries carry a good selection of native plants.
In addition, many nurseries sell so-called “native” plants that are actually cultivars, which are human-cultivated varieties of native species, usually selected for some unusual characteristic such as large flowers. The trouble with cultivars is that by selecting for the unusual characteristic, we control the species’ evolutionary course and eliminate genetic diversity, making the cultivars less able to survive in the wild. They become domesticated—just like cows or sheep—and can become totally dependent on humans for survival.
Native seedlings were finally located at Prairie Restoration (Princeton, MN) and Hammarlund Nursery (Esko, MN). Others were started from seeds that were collected within 25 miles of Sugarloaf Cove.
Before planting began it was necessary to determine where plants should be located. Every plant species has specific requirements for light, water, and soil, so the plants had to be carefully matched to the right habitat. Each species was color-coded for the area in which it was to be planted.
In May 2000, SICA’s Executive Director, Terri Port Wright, assembled volunteers from across the state to plant thousands of native flowers, ferns, grasses, shrubs, and trees in the upland areas at Sugarloaf Cove. In addition to members of SICA, volunteers came from Cook County schools, Full Circle, the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth, and the Minnesota Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
Survival and success of the seedlings will depend on many factors, including moisture conditions, competition from exotic species, and browsing by deer and rabbits. Control of exotic species and nurturing of the native species will continue for many years.
“This is one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever been involved in. It’s so rewarding each time I go to Sugarloaf Cove and find the plants alive and doing well.” (SICA Executive Director Terri Port Wright)
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Sugarloaf: The North Shore Stewardship Association
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