Shall we learn some plant names…?

DSC_0816For this week’s entry, we look at a few plant species I found at a small wetland near the lake at Hacklebarney Woods, Montgomery County. It was early March when I visited, and most plants are dormant then, but we can identify at least a few. For the really interested, I recommend guides with titles such as Woody Plants in Winter, or Weeds & Wildflowers in Winter. Our local woody plant guides (Forest and Shade Trees of Iowa; Shrubs and Vines of Iowa, both by van der Linden & Farrar), include winter ID. Beyond the books, I am aware of special training courses available for such work. And I highly recommend the Iowa plants web pages by R.W. Lutz. But in the meantime, here’s a bit to get you started.

DSC_0817The most obvious plant in a marsh is Cattail. The native species is Common or Broad-Leaved Cattail, Typha latifolia. It does in fact have wider leaves, and a larger-diameter pistillate spike (brown “cat’s tail” with seeds & fluff inside) than the Narrow-leaved cattail (Typha angustifolia) which is not native to Iowa. There are some other anatomical differences too, but they all fail us because the two species readily interbreed, and the resulting hybrid cattail (T. x glauca) also breeds with the parental species, so…we have a taxonomic mess. Besides difficult identification, this probably presents ecological implications (assuming the cattails don’t all function the same in an ecosystem…). An interesting situation, one I am considering as a research question. Anyway, these particular plants have characteristics most similar to the Broad-Leaved species.



On the wetland margin we have several trees, all well-known to be wetland species. Characteristics of the overall form of the tree (branching pattern, shape of the crown, roots present near soil) can be helpful, although it’s important to remember that trees grow into a shape through the interaction of genetics and environment. The same tree grown in a different spot, or another time, would grow differently. Anyway, as we have seen at another site, Willow (Salix) is known to lean, fall, and send up new branches…literally cloning itself. The individual here was sprawled into the water and to the opposite side of the swale too. Willlows have slender, flexible branches (traditionally used for basket-weaving, by the way) and interesting buds: they are “naked” (actually, covered by a single scale, rather than the  fish-like overlapping scales typical of most of our deciduous trees). The size and very reddish twigs/buds make me think this individual is Sandbar Willow, Salix interior. (Do you agree? Leave a comment!).



Next we have a related tree (same Family, at least): Eastern Cottonwood, Populus deltoides. The species is common throughout Iowa, and widely planted, but often found growing wild in wet places. Note the smooth light-colored bark high up in the trunk, and corrugated tan/brown bark below. The twigs are glossy (sometimes green-gold) with shiny, pointy buds.

DSC_0825Around the bend we find a tree with shield-shaped features called “leaf scars” on the young twigs, and indeed they were the site of attachment of the leaf last growing season (2017). Look closely, you can even see small plugs (bundle sheath scars) capping the “plumbing” which had attached to the veins in the leaf. Also note that you can distinguish last year’s 2017 growth (darker surface near tip of branch) from older 2016 growth (gray) and the lines separating them  (bud scale scars, where the scales of the winter bud had attached to the stem). Also, note how the scars and small buds are paired up on the stem: such “opposite” leaf arrangement is only found in a few Genera in Iowa: Maple, Ash, Dogwood, Horseshestnut. And this one is Ash (note the fairly stout twig, flattened bud). Ah, but WHICH species of Ash? The brown/gray buds, shape of the leaf scar (and smile-shaped bundle scar within), light gray, smooth (“glabrous”) surface of the twigs…all suggest Red Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) to me. Note the photo here makes the twig look much darker than in real life…but, don’t confuse it with Black Ash.



Lastly, we look at an easier ID. One of the most common trees of wet areas in Iowa, and also popular as a yard tree everywhere: the Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum). Multiple trunks and spreading branching pattern below, including the low branches curving towards the ground before turning up at the ends, all help us identify the species, even from a distance. Reddish branches with opposite leaf scars and clustered buds of scarlet tell more of the story. And…I’m not above referring to a shriveled leaf from last year, still attached to the twig. They all point to Silver Maple, in any case.

Please understand that budbreak (when the leaves and/or flowers open up on the twigs) marks an abrupt end to winter tree identification using the standard keys. Then it’s time to wait for flowers and leaves to properly open, and use the better-known keys found in most guides.

Even if you don’t care to learn the plant names, I hope you’ll stop and study their form, notice their adaptations to the environment, and appreciate their beauty. And if you choose to hug a tree…well, who am I to judge? Have fun!

Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

5 thoughts on “Shall we learn some plant names…?”

  1. May 2, 2018 – A quick comment concerning the nativity of Typha angustifolia. It is not completely clear that T. angustifolia is not native to Iowa (or North America). Research presented in “Range Dynamics and invasive tendencies in Typha latifolia and Typha angustifolia in Eastern North America derived from herbarium and pollen records” in Wetlands 28 (2008) suggests that it may have been present in North America prior to European settlement. Herbaria records (in SEINet) indicate at least one collection in Arizona prior to 1900, and many collections in western states prior to 1930. The Flora of Iowa Working Group reviewed available research and decided to regard it as native to Iowa. Tom Rosburg.


    1. Hi Tom,
      Thanks very much for this clarification. I recall reading (a) paper(s) suggesting T. angustifolia as native to the continent, but not here in the interior. I appreciate that correction. I know at least some will base management decisions on such concerns, so that distinction has meaning.


  2. I appreciate all Typha information and hope there will be more. Below is a brief excerpt from the abstract of one research paper I came across (it’s from WETLANDS and Nancy C. Tuchman is listed as the first author.) But I have no idea how it fits into the big picture. As more wetlands are restored in Iowa, partly to help solve water quality and flooding problems, more land managers may be wondering about Typha. I know of one landowner who works to remove Typha and another who is hoping it will increase enough to support muskrats. It’s confusing.

    “Overall, Typha invasion appeared to displace native species and enrich wetland soils. These changes could benefit Typha at the expense of native species, potentially generating plant-soil feedbacks that pose special challenges for wetland management and restoration.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now that’s another point to ponder! Notice that the author refers to “INVASION” and that sets a certain tone. If, as Tom points out above, all the Typha are native—is there an “invasion?” (Maybe just “colonizing” a habitat??) Beyond that, even when native, species can become dominant in an ecosystem to the detriment of others. And no doubt human activity (altered water flow, nutrient inputs, etc.) will favor spread—weediness—of plants like Typha.


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