The Local Wild: Crayfish: The Poor Man’s Muddy Little Delicacy

Let’s just get this out of the way: I love seafood. Not so much fish (unless it’s whole, head-on), but more so the weird, curious, more interesting types of water-derived meats. I’m talking scallops, mussels, clam, octopus (yes!), oyster, eel, and let’s not forget crab and lobster. Yum!


Thanks to, we now know it’s almost exactly 1,000 miles from Minneapolis to the nearest Atlantic coastline.

Considering Minneapolis is about 1,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and 1,500 from the Pacific, it’s no surprise that Minnesota doesn’t offer up much of a seafood selection. I usually make due with frozen shrimp or fish from the grocery but, if I’m feeling particularly exotic, I venture to the nearest Asian market to quench my seafood appetite. (Being half Asian, I’m partial to not only unique Asian seafood offerings (dried squid strings, anyone?) but also other delectables that fondly remind me of my mother’s kitchen).

Our property here in Cannon Falls has a small man-made pond fed by a constant flow of freshwater from a hillside local wild spring. When we first moved here, the pond was occupied by a small school of pan fish; one huge, very elusive bass; an army of frogs (yes: a group of frogs is really called an army); and, to my elation, a healthy population of crayfish.

My Arkansan dad taught me to call those tasty little creatures crawdads, but the small shellfish go by a surprising variety of other names: crayfish, crawfish, crawlfish, crawldads, freshwater lobsters, mountain lobsters, mud bugs, and (in Australia) yabbies, gilgies, koonacs, redclaw, or marron. What a mouthful!


What do other people in the US call crayfish? My Arkansan dad says “crawdad” (as do I!). Credit: Joshua Katz.


And quite literally just a small mouthful, actually. Crayfish offer little more than a bite of tail meat and a heady—seriously, from their heads—slurp of crustacean-type foie gras. Amy McCarthy, editor of Eater Dallas and Eater Houston, wrote in 2017: “If you’ve been eating crawfish all this time and [left] the heads behind, you’ve sadly been missing out.” She explained further:

“…there is an organ inside [the crayfish head] frequently mistaken as a brain or a big glob of crawfish fat. That mysterious blob is actually the crawfish’s hepatopancreas, which [functions like a liver] … In terms of flavor, the hepatopancreas (often called “crawfish butter”) is sort of like what foie gras would taste like if it came from the sea. As such, it’s a poor man’s delicacy.”

Rusty Crayfish Wisconsin DNR

The rusty crayfish, one of the two invasive crayfish species in Minnesota. Credit: Wisconsin DNR.

What’s the difference between crayfish and lobster? The most obvious difference is size—crayfish are much smaller—but the other is that lobster live in saltwater while crayfish are a freshwater animal. Thus, Minnesota and its “10,000” freshwater lakes (plus all its rivers and streams) makes for an appealing crayfish habitat. According to the Minnesota DNR, there live five species of crayfish in our state: three native and two invasive. (As of 2007, a published paper from Brigham Young University counted over 640 species, with about 382 living in North America alone. That’s a big crayfish family!)


A tidy — though muddy — little crayfish mound. Credit: Jessica Woken.

Crayfish are generally nocturnal and very shy, so it’s rare to see one out and about unless you’re really looking (or hunting). One of the most obvious signs of crayfish population in a body of freshwater is the presence of mud mounds or “chimneys” around the water’s perimeter. These volcano-looking mounds are the tops of crayfish burrows. They measure about 6” in diameter and are topped with a very neat, almost perfect, little 1-2” access hole.

The crayfish population at my own pond remains strong, despite me catching and boiling some for an exotic treat one afternoon, much to the worry of my husband who was convinced I’d get ill from some mystery disease (Note: I did not). This past September I spotted a handful of the softball-sized mud mounds, so it’s nice to know I haven’t completely disturbed the crayfish population with my voracious and curious seafood appetite. And, seeing as they’ve been living here for some years, burrowing deep into the mud to keep from freezing over winter, I think it’s safe to say that there yet lies abundant hope for next spring’s crayfish catching season at this girl’s personal local wild pond. (Psst: Crayfish season goes from April 1 to Nov 30 and, yes, you do need a fishing permit.)


This article is one in a series written for a column titled “The Local Wild” in the Beacon newspaper of Cannon Falls, MN.


The Local Wild: Coyotes, the “Barking Dogs” of North America.

I spent the last two weeks of October visiting family in the high desert of Southern California. That particular part of SoCal is not as glamorous as some mid-westerners assume all of California to be. It’s made of dusty mountains, scrub brush, strong afternoon winds, dry air, and autumn temperatures nearing the 90s. Even so, that particular area has its local wild charms like every other place. One of those charms is shared with Minnesota’s local wild. Which one? The wandering coyote!

A common coyote in Death Valley, California. Photo: Creative Commons.

Many may argue that coyotes can hardly be considered local wild “charms”. These predators are commonly labeled as pests; dangers to small children and pets; carriers of disease; and damagers of property (for instance, they are known to chew off sprinkler heads in search of water). Coyotes do offer some good, though unfortunately the benefits they provide often get ignored in the shadow of their bothersome antics.

Map of Great Plains

The green area indicates the Great Plains, the original territory of the now wide-spread North American coyote. Image: Wiki Commons.

But how did coyotes become so numerous and pesky to begin with? Sadly, us humans are to blame. Before strong hunting regulations were in place hunters freely took out larger predators like bear, mountain lion (aka puma), and wolf that kept the coyote population in check. With those big animals out of the picture, coyotes—which were primarily limited to the Great Plains—were able to easily spread. They’re now a common, and still spreading, predator in North America (yes, even on up in Canada, the Arctic, and down into Mexico!).

In a previous Local Wild where I discussed the famed (or infamous?) Asian Beetle, I explained basic taxonomy using dogs as an example. In that article we learned that coyotes’ scientific (taxonomic) name is canis latrans. The Latin name translates to “barking dog” and is an ode to the sounds coyotes make. But how many different sounds do coyotes make, and why do they make them?

Coyote language is an impressive blend of howls, yelps, barks, yips, whimpers, and calls, all with specific meanings and applications. As far as “how many”, that’s complicated. It’s not so much the number sounds themselves, but the combinations of the sounds that makes coyote communication—otherwise known as “song”—so fascinating. A small trio of coyotes can sing together and make themselves sound like a whole choir is singing together! Some believe coyotes imitate other animals in an effort to lure prey to their location, though that is largely disputed.

Like other scavengers—opossum, turkey vultures, and even bald eagles—coyotes eat carrion, helping to clean dead animal carcasses from the wilderness, an essential but yucky task. But because they’re also skilled hunters of live prey coyotes help keep populations of rabbit, squirrel, gopher, vole, raccoon, opossum, and even woodchuck in check. What would happen if the number of coyotes were to retreat back down to near zero? Well, those smaller populations would boom, creating a whole new local wild problem!

Coyotes are mostly solitary hunters but they’ve been known to hunt in groups when times get tough, like when food becomes scarce deep into a Minnesota winter. They are social animals, though, and live together in packs ranging from 3 to 30 strong. Hunt solo, live together: That’s the coyote way!

All this isn’t to say that coyotes shouldn’t have their limits. I keep poultry and wouldn’t want a “Barking Dog” barking up any of my trees! You can deter coyote from your property by keeping pet food locked up or inside at night, or by installing motion activated lighting or putting out deterrent sprays or alarms. If nothing is working, know that its always open season for coyotes and in many areas property owners are permitted to take coyote by certain means if the animal is damaging property or poses a danger.

Readers are urged to contact the MN Department of Natural Resources ( for laws and details about handling troublesome coyote.


Discover more about the beneficial coyote at Project Coyote.

The Local Wild: The Frighteningly Fast Funnel Weaver Spider

October is here and that means Halloween decorations abound. I’m not a big fan of gory, ghoulish décor or equally grisly horror films, but I do enjoy the more whimsical decorations and entertainment. Of these my favorite are the adorable, often fluffy spiders. I’m tickled by their friendly, yellow eyes glowing from their perfectly round heads; their cartoonish grins affixed via white paint or stitching; and their long legs, soft and spindly, appearing to dance jubilantly even from a standstill (or, rather, a hang-still).

Unfortunately, real life spiders are not—in my mind—at all adorable. Or fluffy. Or jubilant. The film “Arachnophobia” really ruined me and, though I don’t run screaming from the sight of a land-dwelling arachnid, I do keep a wary eye open for them and their webs as I move through the local wild.

My most recent encounter was with a spider who decided to get cozy in a recess of our home’s stone façade, right next to the front door. From the looks of its web it was a barn weaver spider, a small, brown, deeply introverted yet frighteningly fascinating variety of arachnid.

Barn Funnel Weaver Spider_Jessica-Woken-Oct2018

A common barn weaver spider in waiting at the far end of its signature funnel-like web. Photo: Jessica Woken.

Barn weaver spiders are a common type of spider of the family Agelenidae. These spiders enjoy quiet places with lots of dark corners like wood piles, basements, and barns to build their signature funnel webs. The openings of the webs are wide and non-adhesive and progressively narrow into a funnel and end at a sticky silk den where the spider spends most of its time. Barn funnel weavers are not poisonous and will only bite if provoked or startled. Bites are generally mild or even painless and rarely require any medical treatment.

Forget its odd web, though. That’s not the truly fascinating thing about these spiders: it’s their incredible speed you should be mesmerized by. Many describe them as “very fast”; I saw one enthusiastic blogger write “startingly fast”. I, however, prefer to categorize funnel weaver spiders with superheroes like The Flash. It’s difficult to visually catch these arachnids moving from their dens to outer webs as they launch onto prey and to say it happens in the blink of an eye feels absurdly inaccurate. To give an example, a YouTube videographer reduced the playback of a recording of a weaver spider retreating to its den to 5% speed. Even so, the videographer was still barely able to catch the spider FIRST turning around and THEN running away. That said, I consider their quickness more of a teleportation situation and, if these spiders have superpowers like that, I’d rather leave them to their introverted lifestyles at the base of their sticky dens.

Mother Nature does not give anything in the local wild superpowers without reason, and the truth is the weaver spider’s non-adhesive outer web means they need to be quick enough to run out of their dens and catch their prey—generally flies and gnats—before it gets away. One variety of funnel weaver was clocked at 1.73 ft/s. That’s “only” 1.18 mph to us humans but when you consider the size of the runner—that particular specimen was ½-inch long—1.18 mph is incredible! Need some math to convince you? I’m happy to comply!

Let’s say a ½-inch spider has a ½-inch running stride and that this spider runs 1.18 mph. Compare it to the average human’s running stride—66 inches—and we can use basic algebra to calculate X, the human’s comparative speed. The answer? A blazing 155.76 mph.

As a kid in Southern California I’d taunt the west coast’s funnel weaver variety by tossing small pieces of grass onto the outer edge of the web, tricking the poor arachnid introverts into darting out in anticipation of a meal. The spider would appear only to be met by a lousy snip of grass and a human child’s goofy grin. Trick or treat, indeed!

Simply, I’m just glad bigger, more aggressive spiders, including the adorable Halloween decoration varieties, are not weaver spider-fast.


The Local Wild: Asian Beetles & Ladybugs: Same Family, Different Name.

Bust out your vacuum cleaners and hand vacs, folks—it’s beetle season! Autumn is typically greeted with cheers at the colorful foliage and cooler weather but it’s also met with a collective moan of irritation because we know that the local wild’s cool-weather nuisance, the Asian Lady Beetle, is not far behind.

When I refer to these non-native insects as ladybugs many folks are quick correct me with a “They aren’t ladybugs. They’re Asian beetles.” Perhaps they feel as if the term I use is putting them in the wrong? The trouble is they aren’t wrong… but neither am I. This is one of those rare instances where both parties are correct! How? Let me explain by offering a quick refresher course in basic taxonomy, the science dedicated to the classification of organisms.

Scientists classify organisms according to named groupings that cascade from general to specific: Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, Subspecies, with some trickling and even more precise categories beneath. We’ll use man’s best friend to illustrate how this categorizing system works.


Taxonomy, levels of categorization.

Wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs all belong to the kingdom canis, which translates simply to “dog” from the Latin. As you travel further down the taxonomic ladder the animals split off from one another. Coyotes branch away first into their own species, latrans (the scientific name canis latrans translates to “barking dog”, an ode to the wide variety of sounds coyotes make), while wolves and domestic dogs are together in the species lupus (“wolf”). Domestic dogs go a step further into the subspecies familaris, which scientifically categorizes them as canis lupus familiaris or, translated, “the family wolf”.

When it comes to Asian beetles, calling them ladybugs is not incorrect, it’s just less specific. All ladybugs belong to Coccinellidae (say “cox-in-elly-die” and you’ve got the pronunciation right), the widespread family of beetles ranging in size from 0.8 to 18mm that are most easily identified by their smooth, spotted, domed shells. Asian beetles split from other ladybugs down the line into Harmonia (genus) and Axyridis (species). Taxologically they’re referred to as harmonia axyridis. “Asian lady beetle” is the common name people use around this local wild, even though the insect also goes by these other names: Harlequin ladybug, multicolored Asian ladybug, Japanese lady beetle (not to be confused with the Japanese beetle, a different pest entirely), and even Halloween beetle due to their October swarming habits.

Asian beetles have a signature M-shaped black marking on the protonum, the exoskeleton plate covering its thorax, and they can have anywhere from 2 to 22 spots with colors that vary from yellow to red. Asian beetles are generally considered beneficial since they are voracious predators of garden- and crop-harming pests, and indeed that’s why they were brought to North America in the first place in 1978: to get rid of crop pests in place of harmful pesticides. Asian beetles go from helpful to harmful when they swarm, seeking a safe and warm hibernating space, and often move in such numbers that they negatively affect humans’ quality of life. Some individuals experience allergic reactions—ranging from eye irritation to asthma—to the noxious yellow secretion the beetles let loose in self-defense or upon death.


The signature “M” shows proudly on on the protonum of this Asian lady beetle.

If residents wish to deter these beetles without using artificial pesticides, consider mixing together 2 cups water, 5 drops dish detergent, and 10-15 drops of Tea Tree oil in a spray bottle and spraying around doors, windows, or other places Asian beetles like to gather and enter the home. (Beware: Tea Tree oil is toxic to cats. If you keep or have cats that wander around your home, consider a citrus essential oil instead.) I have personally found this Tea Tree oil mixture to be effective.

In closing, if anyone insists our pesky non-native coccinellidae be called Asian beetles instead of just ladybugs, perhaps, in the name of fairness, they should also insist dog owners refer to their canines not merely by kingdom but by most specific subspecies. In which case, congratulations to all you folks with domestic dogs: You can now tell people you don’t have a dog, but a Family Wolf.


This is one in a series of articles written for The Local Wild, a bi-monthly column in the Cannon Falls Beacon.

The Local Wild: Nature Recovers.

Originally published in the Cannon Falls Beacon, 2018.

I was originally going to write this Local Wild on an exceptionally bright green insect I’d discovered in my garden, but after the tragedy of the storm last week I felt compelled to rifle through my photo archives and contemplate on the resilience of Nature.

In early spring, before the snow had fully thawed, a doe passed away on our property. We don’t know what caused her death, but we left her body undisturbed. One, we didn’t want to contract any potential disease that may have caused her end. Two, her final resting spot was out of the way of our usual traffic so we figured to simply let the doe return to dust, as it were. But much more than dust happened.

Over the course of the next few months the corpse of that doe disintegrated, left largely undisturbed except for one instance when I spotted a hungry opossum chewing on a meaty leg for supper at the tail end of the snowy season. But, as that snow melted the tendrils of Mother Nature’s loving hands began to encapsulate the deer, the grasses and wild flora wrapping themselves inside and around her body like a gentle blanket championing her transition from one life into another.

In early July the prairie fleabane began to blossom. Named for its supposed ability to drive away fleas and evil spirits, this annual herb does actually have some and anti-fungal properties. It’s narrow, hairy stems had jutted up between gaps in the unattractive remains as the weather had warmed and, now, the delicate white flowers were creating a rather welcome cover.

At full bloom, around mid-August, it actually became a pleasure to walk by the doe’s “burial” site. I was able to stand as a spectator at Nature’s recovery of something living that had collapsed from life and turn it into a thing of quietude and, dare I say, beauty. And, if I may reference an adage referenced by the Apostle Paul, surely it is true: Death really has been swallowed up in victory.


A doe’s final resting place turns beautiful with cloudy clusters of Prairie Fleabane. Photo: Jessica Woken.

The remains of Cannon Falls in the aftermath of Thursday night’s tornado are gory. It seems ironic and almost confusing how decades old trees that stood tall and proud, silently symbolizing the unbreakable and eternal, were felled by the very hand that created, nurtured, and grew them. The non-permanence of even the seemingly permanent was made apparent. Mourning ensued and continues through the wreckage.

But Nature—of which we are a part—will recover. This truth Mother Nature has shown time and time again. Ergo, WE will recover. Our town will recover. Let us not forget how resilient a people can be; how during the healing process the break in a bone for a time becomes stronger than the surrounding bone that was left intact. For a time, we will be stronger than we were, stronger than our neighbors. Then, eventually, things will resume normalcy. Trust in that.

Even now we are experiencing the blanketing of victory over our remains: a community come together, love we didn’t realize was there is erupting sporadically in tufts and clouds across town, like the fleabane that bloomed from the recesses of the deceased doe’s body.

I envision those little white flowers sprouting up in the nooks and crannies of Cannon Falls: the side streets, the neighborhoods, the cemeteries, the churches. This little white flower that symbolizes exorcism and protection did just that for the ugliness that was a deer carcass. Given time and faith in the gentle, slow, and steady process of Nature, our spiritual fleabane can do the same for Cannon Falls.


The Local Wild: Heed the Majestic Monarch and Be Well.

Originally published in the Cannon Falls Beacon on August 29, 2018.

The thing about writing The Local Wild is that I have to keep my eyes peeled for wilderness at all times in all places. Wilderness doesn’t start at the ambiguous “over there” and end “here” at the border of human civilization, as if the collective Local Wild is conscious of property lines like a good neighbor. Indeed, the wild and our human world overlap in varying shades of density, so it’s worth keeping an eye out in case we humans have an opportunity to be good Samaritans to our local wild cohabitants.

So here we are, nearing the end of another precious summer season and another season of the monarch butterfly. A recent close encounter with one of these royal jewels of the order Lepidoptera (the animal classification of butterflies and moths) has left me bittersweet: sweet because what a rare honor to experience this majestic insect close up, and bitter because these beautiful butterflies are dwindling in number, year by year. Who knows if my 10-month-old son will ever get to touch another one.

In fact, their numbers have dropped near 90% in the last 20 years and, according to, “In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was petitioned to protect the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act.” A decision about the monarch’s status will be made in June 2019.

Though overall numbers have been dwindling, I live on property with lots of milkweed growing around so I’ve seen a handful of monarchs flit around my home. (Milkweed is the only plant monarchs lay their eggs on because it’s the only plant their caterpillars eat; the butterflies, however, will drink the nectar of any number of flowers.) According to, Mexico-bound monarchs will have vacated the state by the end of October; the next, north-bound migration won’t happen until May. That said, what we’re seeing now is probably the final generation of monarch butterflies to cross through our local wilderness until next year.

MonarchButterfly_educational moment_Jessica-Woken-22Aug2018

I offer my son an educational moment with a monarch butterfly. Photo: Jessica Woken.

When I was with my son on a trip to Menard’s last week I noticed something orange on the ground in a cart corral, flittering amidst a pile of asphalt dust and pebbles. That thing was an injured monarch butterfly. It had a leg missing, a wing torn, and the right wing set was inverted (the “bottom” wing lay beneath the “top” wing). I surmised the creature had been hit by a car (hey, it happens) and was either blown by the wind or crawled itself into the cart corral for shelter.

I gently scooped up the winged treasure and—after a brief educational moment for my son—put her (Yes, her. I Googled it.) in my passenger front seat with plans to deposit her on our hillside of milkweed and wildflowers, a more appropriate setting than a dusty parking lot. Never did I expect to have royalty riding shotgun with me, but there it was! I couldn’t help but take a picture.

A couple days later, walking down our driveway, I spotted a smaller, rarer treasure inching its way along the broad leaf of a milkweed plant: a monarch caterpillar! To see one in the flesh gave me hope for the species, offered encouragement to keep mowing around the milkweeds as much as a hassle as it was, and to even purchase milkweed seed to plant in groves around our property.


A monarch caterpillar is spotted on a milkweed leaf. Photo: Jessica Woken

But it doesn’t take living in a rural area to notice nature and reap its benefits. A Canadian study found that just taking a few moments to notice nature—like a tree at the bus stop, dandelion flowers growing in a sidewalk crack, or a butterfly stranded in a cart corral!—can drastically improve your wellbeing.

So, with only a few weeks left to get a glimpse of these amazing creatures, I say now is the time to really take in this gem of the local wild before they either move on to warmer pastures or dwindle off the wildlife map completely. I encourage everyone to pay attention to their surroundings—even when we’re in the midst of our busiest day in an urban setting—because you never know what local wild is hiding out nearby in need of help or just in need of being noticed, for their and our sake.


An injured monarch sits shotgun en route to better pastures. Photo: Jessica Woken

*Author’s Final Note: If you’re considering purchasing milkweed seed to help the monarch, be sure to purchase types that will survive Minnesota’s harsh climate. Visit for information and ordering of a variety of colors, from pink to orange to fuchsia!


The Local Wild: Goldenrod: The Innocent Blooming Bystander

Originally published in the Cannon Falls Beacon on August 22, 2018.


Goldenrod in full bloom. Photo: Jessica Woken.

About this time of year we start seeing them powder the landline in their trademark golden hue, their tops looking like miniature yellow-flocked Christmas trees dancing in the summer breeze atop gangly, thin-leaved stems. They are goldenrod, the perennial herb often considered a weed and even more often blamed for a season crime it does not commit.


A goldenrod plant, pre-bloom. Note the thin, opposite-growing, smooth leaves along a single stalk. Photo: Jessica Woken

If you suffer from hay fever you may groan and give goldenrod flowers the stink-eye, thinking the pretty posies are adding to your daily torment of itching, sneezing, coughing, and all other manner of suffering. Well, I’m here to say: Don’t, because goldenrod doesn’t induce allergic reactions usually associated with seasonal allergies (aka hay fever).

What, you say? That doesn’t make sense! Then why do I get allergies whenever goldenrod flowers appear? The answer lies in the precise time during summer when goldenrod goes into full bloom, which is right when a less showy weed also reaches maturation: Ragweed.


Ragweed. Photo: Krzysztof Ziarnek Kenraiz (Wikimedia Creative Commons).

Ragweed pollen is a very potent and lightweight allergen that disperses on the slightest breeze. Goldenrod’s heavy pollen, on the other hand, spreads with the help of insect or animal and not via the wind and because it doesn’t travel on wind it’s nearly impossible for goldenrod pollen to induce hay fever. Why? Because seasonal allergies are triggered when offending particles are inhaled through the nose or when contact is made with sensitive eye mucous, and the only way for particles to reach the nasal cavity or eyes is—you guessed it—through the air.


It’s common and normal to see these leafy “bundles” atop a goldenrod stalk. Note the flowering stems projecting out of the stalk. Photo: Jessica Woken

Once you know that goldenrod is innocent of all charges, you’ll find the plant isn’t only a pretty marker of the waning of the summer season but that it also offers a number of benefits. It has medicinal and dietary applications; serves as an important source of nectar for bees and butterflies; can be used as a base for yellow dye; and is recognized an indicator of an ecosystem coming back to life after environmental trauma (goldenrod is often the first plant to grow following wildfire).

Goldenrod has also become a popular addition to bouquets for weddings, though florists refer to them by their more proper and more romantic name, Yellow Solidago.

So next time you’re out and about enjoying the fresh air, give good ol’ goldenrod a break. Instead of mistakenly loathing it for the hay fever it hasn’t given you, snip a few of the fluffy yellow tops to display in a flower arrangement or take them home to make a caffeine-free tea that is used by herbalists to reduce inflammation, treat UTIs, break up kidney stones, and as remedy for other common ailments. In doing so you may inspire yourself to develop a new local wild affinity for this pretty and regularly misjudged herbaceous bystander.


The Local Wild: Hellgrammites: Bizarre Bugs

Originally published in the Cannon Falls Beacon on August 1, 2018.

I’d never seen one before. They only live in the Eastern United States and, as a transplant from Southern California, when this big guy crawled out from the rock I was standing on after I turned on my barn’s well faucet I took a wary step back and gasped a huge “What IS that?” to myself.

The “that” turned out to be a 2.5-inch long hellgrammite, the devilish-looking larval offspring of the quite impressive Dobsonfly.

The name hellgrammite alone sounds bizarre enough to be humorous, and any fan of the monster film Tremors might laugh as they recollect the giant Graboids of the 1990 cult classic. However, the fictional underground monsters share enough similarities with hellgrammites that one may begin to think the larva were the inspiration for the film in the first place. Bizarre, indeed.


An angry, 2.5-inch hellgrammite poses on a leaf. Photo: Jessica Woken.

First, like the Tremors monsters, hellgrammites have seriously oversized mandibles. Clearly, one ought to stay away from that end! I did just that with my specimen and was able to pick it up, chopsticks style, and bring it inside for a quick photoshoot. A little research proved my instinct correct: The hellgrammite’s mandibles are strong enough to break skin and, in some cases, draw blood.

Second—and this was quickly observed during my chopsticking maneuvers—hellgrammites have ridiculously limber bodies. My specimen was able to twist and bend his body into fantastic coils in order to evade and bite at my makeshift chopsticks. Surely that kind of mobility helps in satisfying their voracious predatory appetites, the third item on our comparisons list.

Like graboids, hellgrammites pretty much eat anything of appropriate size that moves. They snatch aquatic insects, worms, other larva, and even small minnows or froglings as a meal.

Fourth, a combination of 6 legs and 8 or more tufted projections run the length of the hellgrammite’s body, helping it to maneuver both in water and on land. (Graboids had rows of spikes along their snaky lengths that helped them move through soil.) And maneuver it did! The hellgrammite I caught was adept in moving both forward and reverse, running at the same (and quick) speed in either direction.

After finding these bugs are aquatic, I was surprised that the insect had been so agile on dry land. The only time hellgrammites emerge from water is when they’re on their way to dig a burrow in preparation for pupation or when they’re disturbed, as was the case in my situation. Oops.

But, alas, as fun as it may have been to compare the two, that is where the hellgrammite and graboid similarities end.

Instead of being a danger to humans like the famed Hollywood monsters I jestfully compare them to, hellgrammites actually pose a number of benefits to us humans. They’re adored by anglers and fishermen because they make excellent bait. They’re known by ecologists to be indicators of the health of waterways: Where there are hellgrammites, life flourishes, because the Dobsonfly larva can only survive in clean, well-oxygenated water. Finally, hellgrammites are known to eat the aquatic larva of mosquitos, something anyone who lives in Minnesota can well appreciate and be thankful for.


A male Dobsonfly lands on a photographer’s camera, showing off its impressive size. Photo: Creative Commons. Pavel Kirillov, July 14, 2013.

Forgetting everything else, mature Dobsonflies are simply magnificent. At about 5 inches long, females look like a larger version of their hellgrammite selves but with a pair of huge wings to glide them along. Males are equally aerial and are additionally fitted with a pair of 2-3” mandibles that can’t be missed by any eye, trained or not in the entomological sciences. Despite their tremendous size and intimidating presentation, Dobsonflies are harmless to humans unless provoked, in which case both the larva (hellgrammites) and female adults should be given a wide birth as their mandibles can do painful damage. The poor male, however stunning his display, is really more bark than bite: He cannot create enough leverage with his lengthy jaws to cause much, if any, pain.

If you spot these insects in flight consider yourself blessed: Adult Dobsonflies only live for about a week before dying and, though they aren’t rare insects, their very brief adult lifespans and nocturnal natures make them hard to find.

Furthermore, Minnesota is about as far westward as the Eastern Dobsonfly will travel, making a sighting in Cannon Falls or the surrounding local wild even more, well, bizarre.


The Local Wild: Creepy Jenny: Charlie’s Sister

Published in the Cannon Falls Beacon on July 18, 2018.

All too many Minnesotans are familiar with the quick-spreading wild groundcover commonly referred to as Creeping Charlie. His bundles of cat-foot shaped dark green leaves are easy to spot in early spring when it seems everything else has yet to even thaw.

But, as familiar as you may be with Creeping Charlie, did you know good ol’ Charles isn’t an only child?

CreepingJenny-climbing steps

Creeping Jenny with its signature arrowhead-shaped leaves. Photo: Jessica Woken

Creeping Jenny—proper name Field Bindweed—is a creeping, vining groundcover-type plant that can be just as troublesome as the Charlie version. The two plants aren’t related by scientific name even though they do share a number of other qualities. However, giving them the shared “Creeping” nickname makes it easier to remember field bindweed’s true intentions when you can laugh—or, alternatively, cry—that Creeping Charlie has an equally annoying little sister.

Both creeping and flowering weeds are perennial herbs, meaning they’ll sprout up year after year after arduous year. In some areas of Finland (yet, it grows there, too) patches of Creeping Jenny have been growing in the same locations for centuries.

The reason for field bindweed’s impressive durability?

First, Creeping Jenny’s roots can reach depths of up to 30 feet, which makes them almost impossible to pluck out in their entirety. Pieces of root remaining below the ground surface after weeding will sprout new vines in a short time. If you’re more into spraying than weeding, know that unless herbicide reaches the farthest stretches of the root, chemicals won’t get rid of it either.

CreepingJenny-with Charlie to choke sapling

Creeping Charlie and Jenny join forces to choke a sapling. Photo: Jessica Woken

I know all of this sounds awful, but it is possible to live in harmony with Creeping Jenny as long as you know what to expect of her.Second, like Creeping Charlie, Creeping Jenny is rather possessive about her personal space. Prone to choking out other vegetation, the thin yet surprisingly tough vines will wrap around taller plants like tiny green constrictor snakes, choking them out or weighing them down. If the vines can’t go vertical they’ll gladly spread horizontally up to seven feet from the root center, blocking sunlight and stealing water from less durable flora.

A careful landscaper can use Creeping Jenny to create dense groundcovers that nestle stepping stones along a path and prevent soil from washing away. In addition, Jenny’s possessive tendencies to claim a space for her and her alone will help keep weeds at bay (that is, if you don’t consider dear Jenny a weed herself), which means less pulling and spraying for you. As long as you don’t mind doing a little trimming to keep it in check, Creeping Jenny also works well as a filler for windowbox arrangements and as a low-maintenance vine to create a flowering trellis privacy fence.

CreepingJenny-cluster along stone step

Creeping Jenny cascades over a stone step. Photo: Jessica Woken

Gardeners with an affection for pond greenery and waterscape gardens will find that Creeping Jenny is a beautiful and easily cared for addition. The perennial will actually grow in one inch of water or in floating planters. If left with nothing else to cling to Jenny will hug herself, creating beautiful, tightly bound cascades of bright green leaves and delicate flowers for gardeners to enjoy almost year-round.

Whether you hate her or love her, there is one thing for sure: Creeping Jenny is determined to stick around for a while, so you’d best get properly acquainted.


The Local Wild: Rhubarb: Is it Edible or “Wild”?

Published in the Cannon Falls Beacon, 20June2018.

If you’re a fan of the tart flavor of the rhubarb fruit commonly found in the grocery stores in the early to mid-summer months, you may feel delighted when you happen upon a rhubarb plant growing out on the edges of a farmer’s field or in the bushes along the Cannon bike trail.

But take heed, enthusiastic forager! The plant you see is likely not what you think.

Rhubarb is technically a vegetable, but it’s green- to red-hued stalks are treated more like fruit when it’s cooked to make desserts or chewed raw as a tart garden snack. However, an invasive species of broadleaf weed, more commonly known as burdock, also goes by another name: wild rhubarb. It has several features in common with the edible rhubarb plant we all love but, unlike its lookalike, the stalks of the burdock are not considered edible in the common sense (though the plant can be eaten and is frequently used medicinally).

The most distinguishing and immediately noticeable feature of both edible rhubarb and wild rhubarb (burdock) are the broad, fanning, gently ruffled, bright green leaves. The key visual differences are these: the veins of edible rhubarb leaves are red, like its fruit, and thicker than the green, thin veins of the burdock; and rhubarb’s leaves are smooth and glossy while burdock leaves are matte and have a slightly velvety underside.

The key ingestible difference between the plants’ leaves is very important: Burdock leaf is safe to consume but rhubarb leaf is poisonous and ingesting them can cause respiratory failure or even coma as a result of the oxalic acid in them. (Forager’s Note: As always, do not consume any part of any plant until you are completely certain of that plant’s identification!)

The Local Wild_Rhubarb-Edible-or-Wild

Photocopy of images provided on the original June 20, 2018 printing of “The Local Wild” depicting burdock (wild rhubarb) versus edible rhubarb.

An even closer look and a little time will show that burdock leaves actually stem from, well, a stem, while rhubarb stalks jut out of from rhizomes, or a rootstalk, underneath a broader area of ground. Just remember this: Burdock grows up; rhubarb grows out.

And up is no joke! At its maturation, burdock can reach heights of six feet and their various stems are tipped by the burdock’s characteristic seed, the burr, which adheres so well to almost anything – even leather – that its design was replicated and used as the blueprint for the hook and loop fasteners that go by the generic name Velcro.

Beyond the leaves and height, the stalks (also called stems) of the two plants are nearly indistinguishable to the untrained eye. Because even stalks of ripe edible rhubarb can be bright green as well as deep red, the stalks of burdock are easy to misinterpret since they start as a deep, straight-veined pink or red at the base and fade in a gradual gradient to the same bright green color of the leaves. Side by side, stalks of “immature” or green rhubarb and burdock are hard to tell apart.

A simple taste of the stalk will tell you if you’ve found edible rhubarb or not. Burdock will have a distinctive, slightly bitter vegetable flavor that some foragers compare to raw artichoke; rhubarb will simply taste like rhubarb! And, not to worry: The stalks of burdock are safe to consume, even if they don’t have the best flavor when you cook them up for a pie.

Note: I didn’t take any photos for this initial column, though the Beacon’s editor ended up publishing the piece with the photos shown. In all later columns I’ve submitted original photos with the article text.