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Berry season begins with Northland plants

A cluster of red berries on a red elderberry on a July day. (Photo by Larry Weber)1 / 2
The twin red berries on a fly honeysuckle now in summer. (Photo by Larry Weber)2 / 2

As we step into this new month of July, we look around to see plenty going on in the world of nature. July is often our hottest month; we can get to 90 degrees and beyond. And these days can also give us thunderstorms.

With many songbirds, July is when the young have grown too big for the nest and move on to their next phase of life as fledglings. It is not uncommon to see spotted young robins now. We are less likely to hear songs of birds defending home territories and feeding their young. Half-grown skunks, raccoons, foxes and rabbits wander through the scene as well.

July is the butterfly month in the Northland, and now we have the highest diversity and populations of these insects, the "flying flowers." Deer flies, mosquitoes, bees, wasps and dragonflies all abound at this time, too. At night we'll see plenty of moths and enjoy watching the flights of fireflies.

With all this potential insect food, spiders and their webs become more common through these 31 days. In the gardens we find early harvest of lettuce and spinach. In the garden during these July days I also frequently see the year's new crop of tiny toads.

June's roadside bouquets of daisies, hawkweeds, clovers, sweet clovers, lupines and vetches are giving way to July's tall cow parsnips, black-eyed susans, milkweeds, fireweeds and evening primroses. By late in the month, we're likely to see early goldenrods and the impressive joe pye weeds. Flowering plants appear to have forgotten the shady woods, but their place is taken by tall, leafy ferns and an ever-increasing number of mushrooms.

On a recent woods walk, I found another product of July: a shrub, fly honeysuckle, with its ripe berries. Usually one of the first bushes to bloom, in May, this small woody plant now holds some of the first berries. Just as the tubular flowers grow in pairs on the branches, so do the twin red berries show up on the plants. Among the many other happenings, July is the beginning of the berry season.

For many of us avid berry pickers, this is a time when we gather seasonal delights. It begins with both the tiny wild strawberries and their much larger domestic cousins. And often during these days we'll harvest the juicy red morsels. Later we move on to gather blueberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, juneberries and pin cherries. Many of these small fruits are brightly colored and quite easy for us to see.

In nature's design, these edibles contain seeds. Being colorful, easy to locate and pleasant-tasting, the berries are taken freely from the plants by animals. Birds, small mammals and bears join us in feeding on these plant products, and so, spread the seeds. This is another example of non-moving plants taking advantage of the moving animals.

But not all of the berries out here now are eaten by humans. One of the first, usually ripe by the beginning of this month, the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), also called red-berry elder, is normally not picked and consumed by us. Other residents, especially the birds, find the tiny quarter-inch red berries on this small tree to be a treat. It seems like not only is elderberry the first tree to have berries; it is also the first to be devoid of its crop.

Back in early May, this little tree of the woods edge established another first as it spread it leaves before the rest. This growth spurt continued and shortly after mid-May, elderberry joined wild plum, juneberry and pin cherry to give abundant white flowers to the spring scene. All of these small blossoms, some of which continue now, get pollinated and form fruits and berries in summer.

To the south of us, common in southern Minnesota and Wisconsin, but unusual in the Northland, the American or purple elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) blooms in late June, often into July, and forms umbels of purple berries in late summer. Our red species holds similar clusters of berries, but comes to maturity in July.

Elderberries, like other small blossoming and fruiting trees, abound along the woods edge where they can get ample sunlight. We might be harvesting other berries in fields and gardens in coming weeks and look up to see these trees with the red berries being visited by hungry birds and mammals. The berry time, which will last for weeks, begins now with these little reds fruits of fly honeysuckle, red elderberry and wild strawberry.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o