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Three generations target invasive menace

Students, volunteers and professional conservation workers team up to free a section of the St. Croix River from the grip of yellow irises in this file photo from June of 2016. Often used in ornamental gardens, yellow iris plants that escape into the wild choke out native species. Maria Lockwood

Three generations of learners are pooling their resources to spread the word about a garden plant that's run amok on local waterways. Last week, they tweaked three outreach projects on yellow iris awareness at NorthStar Community Charter School in Minong.

"I think everybody's going to benefit," said teacher Brian Olson.

While not as high-profile as purple loosestrife, nor Eurasian milfoil, yellow iris plants have steadily clogged the St. Croix River headwaters in Solon Springs over the past few years.

"Before we started this, I had no clue that it was even really a thing, and that it was actually bad," said eighth grader Logan Henning. "If you were to see it on a lake, you would just think it was a pretty flower.

"Now that we've seen what they can do, it's obviously a big deal."

Unlike native blue iris, the yellow variety crowds out native species like wild rice to create monocultures. They're also poisonous, so local animals won't eat them. The plants were introduced to the area by gardeners.

"It's like 'Beauty and the Beast,' where yellow iris looks pretty in the garden and then when it gets loose, it's the beast," said Scott Peterson of Gordon, a member of the Friends of the St. Croix Headwaters group.

Last July, Friends members teamed up with the Lake Superior Research Institute to cut large mats of the invader out of the river.

"Once it's in there, it's hard to control," said Peterson. "If no one in Solon Springs had been growing yellow iris historically, it wouldn't be on the river."

As a student with the St. Croix Master Watershed Stewards Certificate Program, he decided to target on the plant. Offered by Environmental Protection Agency, the stewards program is similar to a Master Gardeners program except it lays the groundwork for mobilizing citizens to protect the health of the lower St. Croix River.

Peterson tapped the charter school students for his project.

"This is a follow-up to that summer session where we're saying, 'What can we do?'" Peterson said. "Can we prevent people from reintroducing or introducing more plants?"

Olson's seventh and eighth grade students formed three groups to research the threat and create different communication forms — a poster, Power Point presentation and newspaper article — about the menace.

Over the last few weeks, a pair of University of Wisconsin-River Falls students has been helping them design their attack.

"It's a very different project than we've worked on," said Josie Hayes, a senior in the stage and screen arts program. "We were originally thinking about doing something more visual work with the students."

The kids had their own ideas.

"We didn't want to run the project; we just want to help them make something out of this," Hayes said. "We let them take control."

They were impressed with the students' energy, interest and ability to tackle a less-known subject.

"It's really cool to see how passionate they can get about these types of projects," Hayes said. "It will be cool to see where it goes."

The students were surprised to realize that yellow iris can be purchased at greenhouses in Wisconsin. They hope to encourage residents who live within one mile of a waterway not to purchase the ornamental plant. If it's already in your garden, the students had a message.

"It would be nice if you took them out or burned them or threw them away," said Margaret Johnson, 12.

They advised using sunflowers or black-eyed Susans instead.

Their finished posters will be displayed at boat landings, public meeting places and stores by early June. The newspaper article will appear in an upcoming issue of the Northwood News. Student presentations should be available to area organizations this fall.

"It's a good topic and they're a great group of kids," Hayes said.

For information on the stewards program, visit To learn more about yellow iris, search for it at