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The Northwoods River News | Rhinelander, Wisconsin

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home : outdoors : outdoor news July 20, 2017

7/15/2017 7:26:00 AM
The lake where you live
A beauty to behold
By Ted Rulseh
River News Outdoors reporter

A flower grows at the base of our pier that would look right at home in a botanical garden, in the hair of a wedding flower girl, or in the corsage of a prom queen. It's better, though, exactly where it is, blooming in splendor on the shore of Birch Lake, where I see it every time I go down to the boat.

It looks almost too beautiful to be wild, but it is. It's a northern blue flag, a native member of the iris family, and it's quite common around our northern lakes. It can grow in shallow water but more often sprouts from wet sandy or silty soil, in sunlit or partly shaded places at the margins of lakes and ponds.

The plant stands 2 to 3 feet tall. A fan-like cluster of long, flat, slender green leaves emerge from a shallow rhizome. The flower stalk of each plant can yield three to five blossoms, typically in June and July. From a distance the flower, about 3 inches in diameter, appears violet-blue; but look closely and you'll notice, on the gracefully curved petal-like sepals, a splash of yellow on white, and on the white background an intricate pattern of branching purple veins.

Northern blue flag, a perennial, grows dense roots and rhizomes which help stabilize the soil. Deer don't like to eat it, but muskrats do, and so do various ducks. The showy blooms attract hummingbirds and butterflies, as well as the bees which pollinate the plant. As bees crawl down into the blossom, they rub against the structures bearing pollen, which sticks to their furry bodies. Then they spread the pollen as they travel from flower to flower.

After the blossoms fade, blue flag grows a three-sided seed capsule about two inches long. When the capsule breaks, seeds can fall into the water and float away or be carried by wind, helping the plant to spread. It also expands its reach through extension of its rhizomes and so, left to its own devices, it can propagate reasonably fast in favorable soil conditions.

Northern blue flag is poisonous to humans, especially the rhizomes, which can irritate the skin. However, some Native American tribes used the plant for medicinal purposes, drying the rhizome and using small amounts as a diuretic and a cathartic. Some tribes also used the outermost fibers from the leaves to make strong twine. The roots smell like violets and are sometimes ground to powder and added topotpourri and perfumes.

All in all, northern blue flag isn't of great practical value to humankind; it's the impractical value which matters. It brightens an early-summer morning to walk down to the lakeshore and find the year's first blue flag blossom, spread wide, greeting the sun, droplets of an overnight rain sparkling on the petals.

Most of us would say that's all the value we need.

Ted Rulseh, who lives on Birch Lake in Harshaw, is the author of "The Lake Where You Live," a blog where readers can learn about the lakes they love - the history, geology, biology, chemistry, physics, magic, charm. Visit lakewhereyoulive. Ted may be reached at

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