The Perfect Flower Family

I think my favorite family of flowering plants has to be the Heath Family, because of it’s diverse plant types, useful fruits and generally small but beautiful flowers.  The Latin name for this family is Ericaceae, which is derived from the Greek ereike, which means, loosely “heather”.  Members of the Heath Family can be found in nearly every corner of the world.

Members of the Heath Family, in general, can tolerate low quality, acidic soils and often grow where other plants cannot. Some in fact, especially the ones that grow in this area, seem to thrive in dry sandy soils.  One fascinating reason for this, it appears, is that most Ericaceae species have symbiotic relationships with fungus that live within the root system.  These fungal mycorrhiza digest bacteria and other matter from the soil and deliver useful nutrients to the roots of the plant.

The most well-known Heath member that grows around here is Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), a low-growing shrub that produces delectable small blue fruits in mid-summer.  Burnett County has been a destination for over one hundred years for blueberry picking, in fact decades ago there was a train that would bring folks up from the Twin Cities for a day trip to pick blueberries.

Worldwide, there are over 4,250 species in the Heath Family.  The family has been divided into 9 sub-families.  Some members of the Heath Family are trees, some are shrubs, and some are herbs.  The species in Wisconsin are either herbs or shrubs.  The plant list for Crex Meadows and Fish Lake Wildlife Areas includes seventeen species in the Heath Family, and there are thirty species that have been identified in Wisconsin.

One common trait of Heath Family members is their evergreen leaves.  Even in the depths of a bleak mid-winter the plant’s leaves are apparent in most species.  In others, such as the bog-loving Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) the leaves turn brown over the winter, but rarely drop off, and green back up in the spring when it flowers.

The flowers of Heath Family species are usually five parted, with their petals fused at the base and often urn-shaped.  They are considered perfect, or hermaphroditic, meaning that they have both the male stamens and female ovaries inside each flower.  Flower color ranges from white to pink.  Many of the Heath Family species produce an edible berry.

Here are most of the heath family species I have been able to identify in Burnett County.  Most have been photographed in Crex Meadows and Fish Lake Wildlife Areas.  A couple were photographed in the Governor Knowles State Forest.  I know I have photos of wintergreen somewhere, but I can’t find them (!), and there are definitely a couple other blueberry species in the area.

Vaccinium angustifolium, Early Blueberry flowers.  A late frost can kill the flowers, which stunts or derails berry development for the year. 
Vaccinium angustifolium, Early Blueberry fruit.  My neighbor brought this bunch to me last summer to show how incredible the season was for her (I told her where to go to pick berries)
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi Bearberry
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, Bearberry flowers.  Bearberry is a low-growing shrub of the barrens.  It is said that bears like to eat the berries!
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi berry 2
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, Bearberry fruit
Bog laurel closeup
Kalmia polifolia, Bog Laurel.  A beauty in the bog, these are flowering now.  If you can get out in it, Reed Lake Bog has a lot of plants.
Bog rosemary portrait
Andromeda polifolia, Bog rosemary.  It grows in the bog, of course, and is flowering now.  It is named for it’s flower’s similarity to a shooting star.
Labrador tesa
Rhododendron groenlandicum, Labrador tea.  Also grows in the bogs, and is flowering now.  First Nations have brewed the leaves as a tea and a spice for meat.  A good place to find some is in the low bog between the South and North units of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area.
Chimaphila umbellata Pipsissewa 2
Chimaphila umbellata, Pipsissewa.  This grows in the woods in sandy soils.  This one gets a lot of it’s nutrients from fungi in the roots.  It is also called Prince’s Pine.
Chimaphila umbellata Pipsissewa closeup
Pipsissewa closeup of flower.  Yes, I was laying on the ground for this shot!
Chamaedaphne calyculata, Leatherleaf branch.  Leatherleaf is one of the earliest plants to flower in the region.  It grows in boggy wetlands.
Chamaedaphne calyculata Leatherleaf
Chamaedaphne calyculata, Leatherleaf shrub.
Monotropa uniflora Indian pipe
Monotropa uniflora, Indian pipe.  Monotropes were once thought of as a different family of plants altogether.  It has no chlorophyll and get it’s food by parasitizing on mycotropial fungi in it’s root system. Since it doesn’t need sunlight to grow, it thrives in very shady places, most often under pine trees.
Hypopitys monotropa, Pinesap (after “bloom”). Very closely related to Indian pipe and grows in similar habitat.

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