Prairie Fen Series – Recognizing a Fen Neighbor

Welcome back to our prairie fen series! The first post took a broad look at what prairie fens are and why they exist. In this post, we will focus on key plants that act as indicator species for a prairie fen community. Using mostly pictures taken from our township’s own fens, we will also dive into the vegetation zones that characterize these unique habitats.

I have been fortunate enough to visit each prairie fen in our township parks. I am always amazed by the diversity of plants I find at each of these sites. I started this series because I had little knowledge of what a prairie fen was, and no idea that I lived among them. Unlike other wetlands, I found that prairie fens blend extremely well into the surrounding environment. Maybe this is why I and so many others were estranged from these fen communities that are my close neighbors here in southern Michigan! A fen could be right under your nose in your local natural area or even your backyard! I hope this post may guide you if you hope to get acquainted with the wondrous prairie fen.

Our prairie fens

We have three prairie fen habitats in three different parks. Each site is unique with its own plant community, land use history, and threats.

We have prairie fen habitat in three of our township parks: Draper Twin Lake Park, Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen, and Fox Nature Preserve. The plants that have greeted me at these prairie fens ranged from recognizable prairie and wetland species to more specialized flora able to survive in difficult environments. With their unique conditions, prairie fens are biodiversity hotspots for plants, animals, and insects in Michigan.

As the book Exploring the Prairie Fen Wetlands of Michigan states, prairie fens typically support twice the plant species found in bogs. Although both fens and bogs exhibit difficult growing conditions, with pH ranges in the extremes, fens exhibit a wider diversity of vegetation types. My last post gave us an important clue to why this is: fens are fed by groundwater seeps. Not all parts of the fen get equal volumes of calcium-rich water, resulting in different growing conditions and different sets of plant species in each fen zone.

Even the topography of a fen depends on the flow and composition of groundwater. Wetlands are usually associated with depressions in the landscape. However, prairie fens can be found as domes within a wetland, on slopes, and in low-lying areas along lakes and streams. Basically, wherever calcium and magnesium-rich groundwater percolates to the surface in southern Michigan, there could be a prairie fen!

When identifying a prairie fen, do not exclude areas that form a mound or on a slope. Figure from Exploring the Prairie Fen Wetlands of Michigan

Other conditions such as peat accumulation and disturbances, both natural and human-caused, can play a role in fen vegetation types. According to Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI), these zones in a fen may include wooded fen, sedge meadow, marl flat, and inundated flat. As reported by the Michigan DNR, the sedge meadow is typically the largest part of a fen, while the wooded fen is found in slightly elevated uplands around the edges. Historically, naturally-caused fires and those lit by Native Americans would burn into prairie fens and maintain a more open structure. Today, the wooded fen may occupy more of the fen and the sedge meadow less due to fire suppression throughout Michigan.

The four vegetation zones of prairie fens. Note that the prairie fens in our parks are not large enough to have all of the four vegetation zones present. All photos are from our township prairie fens except the marl flat, which was taken in Springfield Township.

Prairie fens can look different from one another depending on hydrology, topography, and fire history, so it may be tricky to determine if a wetland is a prairie fen. Luckily, we can use certain plant species as fen “indicators.” Prairie fens have high pH levels due to the calcium and magnesium carbonates in the groundwater, and some plants are only found in these calcareous conditions. Identifying these specialized “calciphile” plants would bring you to a prairie fen classification without having to identify each plant species in the community. However, the lower the habitat quality, the more difficult it is to determine if a habitat is a prairie fen remnant since cattails and other generalist wetland plants typically increase in abundance after disturbance.

The Michigan State University Extension resource on fen evaluation is helpful for all levels of habitat quality. They recommend surveying in late August and early September when many of the calciphilic species are in bloom. Some of the species listed below are calcium-loving, while others occur both in fens and a variety of other wetland types. Continue scrolling to see prairie fen indicator species found in each of the vegetation zones.

Wooded fen

Larix laricina – Tamarack

Eastern Larch, also known as tamarack, is a conifer that breaks all the rules. It is a deciduous conifer that also prefers to grow in the toughest conditions. Tamarack trees are often indicators of all types of peatlands, no matter the pH, but can grow in other wetland types too. Soon they will be turning bright yellow and will eventually lose their needles. The clusters of needles on short shoots that form firework-like sprays from the branches distinguish tamaracks from other conifers in Michigan.

Toxicodendron vernix – Poison Sumac

Similar to tamarack, poison sumac can be found in both acidic and calcareous wetland soils, mostly in southern lower Michigan. I often find that the leaflets of the compound leaves point upwards to the sky. Poison sumac has light gray bark and is less “twiggy,” or finely branched than many other trees and shrubs after it drops its leaves. The photo above (right) shows the awesome fall colors that they will change into. Poison sumac may also be found scattered throughout the sedge meadow zone. Note that species may overlap in several vegetation zones.

Sedge meadow

Parnassia glauca – Grass-of-Parnassus

Grass-of-Parnassus is not a grass, although the smooth stem does tend to blend in with the surrounding grasses. This flower also has nothing to do with Mount Parnassus in Greece. Grass-of-Parnassus is only found in calcareous conditions, making it an ideal fen indicator species.

Pycnanthemum virginianum – Virginia Mountain Mint

Not sure why the common name has mountain, however, the mint part of the name is very suitable. If you are not sure about the ID of a mint, look for the square stem and rub a few leaves between your fingers. Most mint species have that characteristic aromatic fragrance. Common mountain mint occurs in wet meadows like a prairie fen but is not specific to fens. If you look closely at the flowers they are speckled with purple.

Ohio Goldenrod and Riddell’s Goldenrod

Ohio goldenrod (Solidago ohioensis) is easy to identify by its lower, rosette leaves that get quite large, have one central vein, and are flat. The upper stem leaves do not get as big as the lower leaves. The leaves of Riddell’s goldenrod (Solidago riddellii) fold inward like a paper airplane and taper to a point at the end. They have three veins obvious near the base of the leaf blade. Both species have a flat-topped inflorescence and are calciphiles, meaning they are adapted to calcareous soils.

Marsh Bellflower and Kalm’s lobelia

Marsh Bellflower (Campanula aparinoides) on the left and Kalm’s lobelia (Lobelia kalmii) on the right are both calciphilic species that can easily be overlooked among the larger species in the sedge meadow. It is worth crouching down to see these delicate flowers.

Dasiphora fruticosa – Shrubby Cinquefoil

I see this shrub everywhere in residential landscaping. That being said, it is naturally found in alkaline soils and is an indicator of calcareous conditions. In Michigan, it is mostly found in high-quality wetlands.

Rhamnus alnifoliaAlder-leaved buckthorn

Alder-leaved buckthorn is our only native buckthorn and is generally a calciphile found in high-quality wetlands. Although they are a good indicator of prairie fens, they can be tricky as they look similar to their invasive relative; common buckthorn. I can tell the difference as the leaf tips are more pointed than common buckthorn, and the leaf veins more prominent.

Bog Birch and Sage Willow

These low-lying shrubs are great indicators as they tend to stand out and are easy to identify. Both bog birch (Betula pumila) on the left and sage willow (Salix candida) on the right prefer calcareous soils. Bog birch has small oval-shaped serrated leaves while sage willow has striking white-hoary leaves.

Inundated flat

This vegetation zone can be found on the edges of lakes or streams and is dominated by various sedges and rushes. Sedges and rushes are typical in inundated flats and are super cool, but since they are not easy to identify we won’t discuss them in detail here. The Fox Nature Preserve fen is the only prairie fen in our parks with an inundated flat.

Marl flat

Marl flats have strong groundwater seepage and are therefore highly alkaline. Due to the high pH, only species adapted to extreme conditions can survive and the flats are sparsely vegetated. Our township’s prairie fens do not contain marl flats.

Marl flat landscape was taken at Shiawassee Basin Preserve in Springfield Township.

Cypripedium candidum – White Lady’s Slipper

Marl flats contain the most radical plants from rare orchids to carnivorous species such as sundew and pitcher plants.

The most rewarding part of this season was finally being in on the secret of prairie fens. Now that you have been acquainted with some botanical residents of prairie fens, I hope these communities are no longer strangers. To protect imperiled ecosystems I believe we first need to be able to recognize them as fellow neighbors. Only by understanding its parts can we understand the needs of the community as a whole.

Stay tuned for the final post in the series! We will broaden our lens and discuss human-caused threats prairie fens are facing, and what our stewardship team is doing to help.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: Summer’s Long Goodbye Begins

The northern meadow at Stony Creek Ravine, partially fenced off for wetland restoration

Summer’s slow demise in late August/early September urged me to acknowledge the need for letting go. Tiny warblers seem to suddenly disappear as they head south. Canada geese begin their practice runs, forming loose “V’s” while trumpeting across the sky. Hummingbirds feed ravenously at any available nectar, gaining 25-40% of their body weight before the long journey to Mexico. Some fledglings still flutter, cry and pursue their parents for a meal; others hone their newly acquired foraging skills. Spiraling through the trees, they seek out the feast of eggs or caterpillars that the pollinators left behind. The meadows quiet down as molting birds hide their bare heads in the greenery hoping to be unseen. Wasps buzz above our outdoor meals, struggling to supplement diminished sources of food.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

I spent quiet hours at the newer, eastern section of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park during these waning days of summer. Come join me in the thinning sunlight and share the ebullience of young birds, the sprays of grasshoppers beneath my feet, and the persistence of butterflies on late summer blossoms that are hallmarks of this transitional season of the year.

Birds, Experienced and Not-so-experienced, Forage and Flutter

A flock of Barn Swallows gathered on a fence at Stony Creek Ravine after foraging over the wetlands for flying insects

I spent my days at Stony Creek Ravine exploring the open fields visible from the top of the Outlook Hill in the eastern section of the park. Much of this area is fenced in to protect small shrubs and trees planted in the re-emerging wetlands. Thousands of native plants were sown there when the old drainage tiles from previous owners were broken to allow water to flow again to the surface. In the spring, pools form and migrating waterbirds glide in for a bit of R&R.

Right now, though, the fenced-in sections are moist but little standing water remains after a hot summer. Social birds flock to the fences to chatter together. Solitary birds, some unusual ones this season, forage within the fence boundaries. Other just need a place to periodically perch while scouting for seeds among the tall grass and flowers within or around the fencing. My photographer friend, Bob Bonin, generously shared some of his excellent photos of birds he came across while patiently waiting near the fence line. It was the right place to be, as you’ll see below!

Young Fledglings Practice Their Foraging, Flying and Landing Skills

One of my mornings at Stony Creek Ravine was in the company of Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide’s Wednesday bird walks. As we entered the park, we spotted several young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) whisking in and out of the shrubbery, bits of blue on their wings shining in the sunlight. Three of them spent a remarkable amount of time exploring a hole in a distant snag. We wondered if, being cavity nesters, they were just curious about holes in general or if this hole might have been the one from which they fledged only weeks before.

Three young Bluebirds took turns looking into this hole in a snag. Had it maybe been their nesting hole? We’ll never know, will we?

On another visit, an adult Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) regally surveyed the area from the tallest branch of a bare tree. Perhaps the adult I saw (below left) was keeping its eye out for its offspring, a juvenile that Bob Bonin saw a few days earlier (below right.) Both birds will shortly be heading to forests in South America where they will feast on fruit during the winter. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Bob also spotted a female Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) and perhaps one of her offspring. Like their bright orange relatives, the Baltimore Oriole, these birds build pouch-like nests. They breed in our parks each year but are less noticeable to most of us. The male is a dark russet orange and black and the female is yellow. Orchard Orioles depart for their overwintering grounds earlier than many other birds, so by now they’re on their way to Central America.

I fell instantly in love with this little puffball. Local bird expert, Allen Chartier, tells me it’s a juvenile Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). This young bird can relax a bit longer than the distance migrators. Song Sparrows travel around just enough during the winter to keep themselves out of the worst of Michigan’s cold season.

This wee Song Sparrow juvenile can use autumn days to perfect its foraging skills. It will need them to handle a Midwestern winter.

A few other small birds appeared for me along the fence line. A little Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) sings one of the most recognizable calls of a summer day – the rising “Pee – weeeee?” that sounds like an oft-repeated question. Birdsong beginners, like me, appreciate a song that identifies this little flycatcher who can be difficult to spot otherwise. Bob Bonin spotted a little Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) who’ll be heading off to Florida before long. And he also saw a young Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its telltale pink/orange beak and feet.

Breeding Season Over, Adult Summer Visitors Relax Before Migration

My friend Bob brings patience as well as skill to his photography. He caught sight of two birds at the park that people rarely see and waited until he got the shot he wanted. One was a “leucistic” Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) which means that it had partial pigmentation loss. Unlike the complete loss of pigmentation of albinos which also causes white, pink or red eyes, leucistic animals have partial pigmentation loss and their eyes are dark. Bob also waited over two hours for a closeup of another unusual bird, a Sedge Wren (Cistothorus stellaris) as it foraged for spiders and insects down in the dense grass, sedges and small shrubs within the fence. This is ideal habitat for Sedge Wrens, but since they are unpredictable nomads, we can’t count on seeing them every year.

Stony Creek Ravine hosts some more common summer residents as well – and we’re always glad to see them as well.

The plaintive cry of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) fell from the trees around a marshy area filled with sedges (genus Carex), ancient, grass-like plants that thrive in moist ground. When it suddenly appeared overhead, I caught it twice with my camera, once like a magnificent arrow streaking across the sky, and once in mid-scream from a prey’s eye view. Glad I’m too big to be carried away for dinner!

The fierce glare of a red-tailed hawk against the summer sky. What a striking, powerful predator!
The cry of a Red-tailed Hawk must put fear in the heart of every rabbit or field mouse within earshot.

Down Below, Butterflies, Bees and Late-Season Grasshoppers Harvested the Last of Summer’s Bounty

One of late summer’s most glamorous residents appeared in August, the glorious Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), North America’s biggest butterfly. If you’d like to attract some to your garden, two of its favorite native plants are Rose/Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and all of the goldenrods, both of which bloom in late summer and early fall If you can also tolerate thistles, they seem to favor them quite a lot more than we do!

At first glance, it’s easy to confuse the black and gold-spotted dorsal ( upper) sides of the Giant Swallowtail and the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes,) especially if they’re flying. But compare the ventral (lower) side of the wings. The underside of the Giant Swallowtail’s wings are yellow and the Eastern Black’s (below) are black. I was lucky to see both feeding at thistles during my visits to Stony Creek Ravine.

Smaller butterflies and moths float and flutter in the grass as well, of course – and one well-fed caterpillar just chews its way along.

As regular readers know, I’m intrigued by insects of many kinds and want to convince all comers to just enjoy them. So here are some of my other favorites during late summer at Stony Creek Ravine.

Hardy Native Wildflowers Mix with Plentiful Non-natives until Restoration Advances.

A glorious spread of native wetland Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida), a relative of the other Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) that thrives in all types of open habitat.

Though the fields in the eastern section of the park have been cleared of many non-native shrubs, native wildflowers are not plentiful yet in the fields at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. The long stretch of native wetland Black-eyed Susans in the photo above is a glorious exception. Restoration of a healthy habitat with more diversity has begun with seed planting at this large park, but it will take several years to come to fruition. So I have to smile seeing sturdy native blooms holding their own amidst the non-native plants on the Outlook Hill, in the surrounding fields and near the wetlands. Here are some of the other stalwart native competitors declaring their presence at this amazing 268 acre park.

One native plant that’s rampant at the park this year may not please everyone – Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia.) So if you suffer from hay fever, now is not a good time for your visit! Please remember, though, ragweed pollen is dispersed by the wind; that’s why it ends up in noses. So please don’t blame your sneezing on innocent goldenrods that bloom at much the same time. Their pollen is heavy and falls right to the ground, far from sensitive noses!

Common Ragweed, photo by iNaturalist.org photographer pes_c515 (CC BY-NC)

Oh! And One Creepy Fungus that I Just Have to Share!

One of the benefits of being in a birding group is having more eyes and ears seeking out interesting details in the landscape, plus access to other people’s areas of expertise. For example, the energetic, hardworking summer natural areas stewardship technicains each year provide me, at least, with younger eyes and ears, youthful enthusiasm and a knowledge base more updated than mine!

In late July, while walking up the path to the ravine, Emma Campbell, one of this summer’s technicians, stopped to comment on a spiky bump in the trail that most of us stepped around, assuming that it was just a sharp piece of root. But Emma carefully broke off one small portion and finding it white inside, correctly identified as a fungus spookily called Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha). Evidently it’s a common fungus that grows from rotting wood; as you can see below, this one emerged around the remains of a stump. What a Halloween-ish discovery! Thank you, Emma! Wish I could have creeped out some friends with this one when I was a kid!

A fungus called “Dead Man’s Fingers” for obvious reasons.

The “Oohs” and the “Ughs” of Nature’s Impulse to Keep Fostering Life

Unless you are a hopeless romantic, every close observer of the natural world knows that nature is not all “sweetness and light.” The lives around us in nature can be both big and beautiful like the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) or small and homely like the Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea). It can be full of tenderness, like birds tirelessly feeding their young or ruthless in its need to survive, like a hawk tearing the flesh of its prey. It can be inspiring like a flight of fall geese or macabre like the Dead Man’s Fingers fungus. But whatever qualities it has for us humans, nature itself doesn’t judge and never despairs. Against all odds, nature just proceeds eon after eon in service of sustaining life, whatever that takes. The “nature of nature,” as it were, is to adapt, survive and assure the existence of the next generation.

We humans, as just another species, would do well to take a lesson from the creatures and plants that surround us. We cannot afford to despair as our behavior changes the climate, threatening life on this special blue planet. Generations could stretch on into the future indefinitely if we would do as all other creatures have evolved to do – adapt, change, survive and above all, work hard to ensure that long after we’re gone, life continues on a healthier path than we’re on right now. If we do, our grandchildren and their descendants will honor our efforts and that honor will be well deserved. Let’s not disappoint them.

Bogs: The Peculiar Land of Sphagnum Moss

As part of our invasive plant monitoring this summer, the stewardship crew visited the bog of Fox Nature Preserve. To reach the center of the bog we traversed a challenging, muddy route through towering nonnative cattails. As I followed my fellow crew members into the bog of beauty, I suddenly found myself in a pickle as my muck boots sank into the fragile ground in the outer shallow “moat” of the bog. In my miserable attempt to escape its mucky grasp, I heard a loud swoosh as my boots began to fill with water!

The bog at Fox Nature Preserve. Leatherleaf shrubs line the foreground, with tamarack and black spruce trees.

I managed to climb my way out to more “stable” ground, stepping on nonnative cattails. Unfortunately, my boots weren’t so lucky. But Stewardship Specialist Grant Vander Laan came to my aid, freeing my muck boots from the ground’s intense grip! Thanks to his help, and after crawling under blueberry bushes, I was able to step foot in a bog for the very first time. The privilege of experiencing a bog ignited enthusiasm in my soul!

Please enjoy don’t walk out into the Fox Nature Preserve bog. We are near the range limit of bogs in southern Michigan, and many of the unique plants are already struggling to hang on. The sphagnum moss blanket is very fragile, and it can be dangerous walking.

What are Bogs?

Bogs are unique freshwater wetlands that are acidic, nutrient-poor peatlands. Sphagnum moss and “ericaceous” shrubs, like the leatherleaf in the photo above, are important plants in bogs. Bogs are mainly found in northern, cool climates, since that is were precipitation is often greater than evaporation. Bogs mostly obtain their water from precipitation. Due to the harsh, acidic conditions, a limited, set of extraordinary plants and animals live in bogs.

Standing in Fox Nature Preserve’s bog, with the tentative support of sphagnum moss!

The Blanket of Peat Moss

As I regained my footing after loosing my boots and crawling through blueberries, I was blown away by the bog’s peculiar appearance. The ground was a blanket of sphagnum moss, spongy but durable. I could feel the water beneath me, swaying by the command of my foot’s movement. Unique plants were found nestled in the moss blanket; tamarack and black spruce trees dotted the bog.

As mentioned previously, bogs are covered in sphagnum moss, a plant that makes the bog ecosystem possible. According to Milne Library, sphagnum moss heavily influences an ecosystem as it makes areas acidic, nutrient-poor and filled with water. Sphagnum moss and carnivorous plants such as sundews and pitcher plants thrive in these conditions because competitors find these conditions unfavorable.

A close up of the sphagnum moss at Fox Nature Preserve

Pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) are a symbol of survival in low-nutrient conditions. These plants eat insects to compensate for the lack of nutrients from bogs. According to the Irish Peatland Conservation Council, the insects on the pitcher plants’ menu include spiders, flies, midges, and beetles. Pitcher plants lure them to the pitchers with their meat-like patterns and their nectar’s aroma. Once in the pitcher the insect is trapped by the sticky nectar and unique hairs that keep them from crawling out. Digestive enzymes allow the pitcher plant to break down the insect as a satisfactory meal.

Pitcher plant flower found at Fox Nature Preserve. The pitchers are below the flower stalk, nestled in the moss

Trees can also be found in bogs! The bog at Fox Nature Preserve includes tamarack trees, black spruce, and white pine. Tamarack trees are a common tree found in bogs since they can tolerate the acidic soils. Tamaracks are a unique member of the conifer family because they are deciduous, meaning they are one of the few to lose their needles in the fall! Look for the beautiful golden hues of tamarack in wetlands this fall.

Fall bog, with golden tamarack and rich green black spruce

Bogs can appear to be an uneventful ecosystem, but they are important habitat for many animals. According to National Geographic, amphibians thrive in insect-rich bogs. And according to Michigan Natural Features Inventory, swamp sparrows and song sparrows can be found in bogs. These sparrows typically nest throughout Michigan, then most move a bit south during the winter to find food and better habitat during the cold months.

The Life Lesson from Bogs

Life can be full of seemingly unfavorable conditions, just like a bog. Your car might break down, you might be tired studying for classes, you and a friend might be fighting, or you might feel unfulfilled in life. In some cases, enduring unfavorable conditions can lead to great reward. Like a patient pitcher plant patiently bubbling up a fly stew to get scarce nutrients, your sleepless nights of studying can reward you with an excellent exam score. However, some unfavorable conditions make it necessary to change something in life. Maybe there comes a point where you need to uproot your life and relocate, like a swamp sparrow traveling for food. Sometimes in life we must be a pitcher plant, and sometimes we have to be a swamp sparrow. There is nothing wrong with being either to navigate the unfavorable conditions life may send our way. Life can be like a bog sometimes, and considering how amazing bogs are, sometimes that’s not so bad.

A Fragile, Wet Prairie Full of Encouraging Discoveries

A patch of familiar native plants near the southwest end of the Wet Prairie – Bee Balm, Black-eyed Susan and Butterfly Weed

Ah, the excitement of meeting interesting and beautiful strangers, eh? After all, it’s the premise of so many stories from childhood on – that moment when you’re surprised and delighted by a face you’ve never seen before. Novelists and script writers have thrived on it for centuries, it seems.

As many of you know, I’m new to the presence of native wildflowers in the landscape. Since I started volunteering with Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, he’s introduced me to a bevy of native blooms emerging beneath my feet that I was completely unaware of, despite years of being an outdoor enthusiast. So when Ben kindly alerted me to some unusual wildflowers that he’d spotted at the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail this July, I set out to find these inhabitants of the township that I’d never met before.

[Please note: As you’ll see below, the Wet Prairie is a very special and fragile place, so you’ll find it has no trails. It is technically best described as a wet-mesic prairie, according to the classification from Michigan Natural Features Inventory. Ben and his crew go there to perform important restoration work. I’m allowed to go there periodically with permission from Ben in order to bring some of the beauty of this unusual habitat to our residents in a way that doesn’t injure this special natural area. So please observe it only from the trail.]

Why Our Wet Prairie is Wet, Unlike Your Stereotypical Prairie

The original bed of Paint Creek north of the Wet Prairie before it was moved to its current position to accommodate the coming of a railroad. It fills with rain and snow melt each spring.

I don’t know about you, but in the past, I’d always envisioned prairies being like the ones in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books or western movies – big flat, dry, sunny places out west somewhere. But early on in one of Ben’s workshops, I learned that our area of Michigan was covered with oak savanna and prairie before European colonization. In that era, Paint Creek meandered in a curving flow through what is now woods and fields that surround the Wet Prairie. Periodic fires – both natural ones and ones set by indigenous people – kept the Wet Prairie free of shrubs and trees, making it a moist but sunny spot. Perhaps some of my new floral acquaintances this July first settled in then.

Loading gravel onto rail cars from a location along the Paint Creek Trail, c. 1920 (Photo courtesy of the Oakland Township Historical Society)

In the late 19th century, a railroad company moved Paint Creek east to its current position along the trail. Sparks from the trains continued to cause repeated wildfires along the track near the Wet Prairie which not only knocked back large vegetation but also favored native plants that had adapted to fire over the centuries. Shortly after the railroad arrived, an ambitious local resident began mining gravel from the current site of the Wet Prairie and loading it on train cars to sell in Detroit. Though the creek wasn’t feeding the prairie any longer, the land removal meant that the water table, with its rich collection of minerals, was left very near the surface. As a result, native wildflowers that require mineral-rich moisture could find a comfortable home there, and must have been abundant enough to establish in the newly exposed area.

Ben felling a few trees that shaded out rare plants on the Wet Prairie

In recent years, Ben and his stewardship crews have removed many invasive shrubs and trees that encroached on the prairie when the railroad was abandoned and eventually replaced by the Paint Creek Trail. Many of the special plants here have also benefited from the crew’s periodic prescribed burns over several years which eliminate a layer of dead thatch and allow open areas for native seedlings adapted to fire to take root. As a result of that stewardship work and perhaps the abundantly rainy spring this year followed by weeks of sunlight, some wildflowers that I hadn’t met before appeared in the Wet Prairie. I was delighted to meet them. Hope you will be, too.

The Beautiful Strangers that I First Met This Summer

The first two plants below have a special designation at the University of Michigan’s Michigan Flora website. About 45 years ago, botanists and ecologists created a system for rating the faithfulness of individual native species to high-quality natural communities that retain some of the native flora found in early surveys done circa 1800. Native plants are given a score between 1 and 10, 10 being the best for indicating a habitat that is very special. Non-native plants have no score. Native plants adapted to human or natural disturbance and found just about everywhere, like boxelder, score a zero on what’s called the “Coefficient of Conservatism,” or C value. Species that are found almost always in high-quality natural communities have a high C value (greater than 7).

False Asphodel and Prairie Loosestrife in the Wet Prairie are scored a perfect 10. The presence of these native wildflowers, and others with high C values indicates that the Wet Prairie is a rare remnant high-quality natural area. This natural area hosts some of the plants that likely bloomed more widely throughout southeast Michigan before agriculture, industry, logging, and mining arrived in the early 19th century. Nature fostered a rich diversity of plants then which included these wildflowers. So the Wet Prairie producing two flowers that are rated at 10 on the scale this year is impressive! And as you’ll see below, three others are scored at 8 as well. Their appearance is a strong indicator that restoration is working in Oakland Township.

If Ben and I had seen False Asphodel (Triantha glutinosa) earlier in the season, it might have appeared to have reddish tips like the photo on left by Nate Martineau at inaturalist.org. When we saw it, however, a hot July had changed them to brown. Now in August, the sepals have folded up over the developing fruit capsule which turns red as the tiny seeds inside mature. This little wildflower feeds a wide variety of bees, wasps and butterflies. It grows largely in high quality areas all over the country and can form colonies; I hope it forms one in the Wet Prairie!

I originally identified the nodding yellow flowers in the photo below as native Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata), which I’d seen at the Wet Prairie before. But the centers of the Wet Prairie blossoms weren’t red like the ones with which I was familiar. (I didn’t notice until later that the leaves were radically different as well!) Ben later explained that the new ones were native Prairie Loosestrife (Lysimachia quadriflora) which prefers moist prairies and fens rich with chalky, calcium-rich soils, making it an ideal native resident in our Wet Prairie. This wildflower also scores a 10 in the Conservatism scale for being an indicator of ancient habitat here. The restoration work of the stewardship team over the last several years seems to have been rewarded this year!

Ben helped me locate native Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) at the Wet Prairie. I’d only seen the nursery version (cultivar) which popped up once in the woods at my home. This delicate native beauty likes full sunlight. It may have bloomed at the Wet Prairie this year after shade trees at the prairie edge were thinned in recent years. Lots of native and non-native bees draw nectar from Harebells.

When Ben took this photo, the Harebells still looked lovely despite beginning to fade. What a graceful shape and soft lavender hue. Photo by Ben VanderWeide

Here and there I spotted stalks of Pale Spiked Lobelia (Lobelia spicata). This lovely, but short-lived wildflower requires full sun, but needed those days of spring rain we had in May to keep its seedlings alive. According to a website I find useful, illinoiswildflowers.info, this lobelia attracts a whole host of native bees, including miner bees, little carpenter bees, mason bees, leaf-cutting bees, plus butterflies and other pollinators. What a contribution this plant is making!

Pale Spiked Lobelia attracts many native bees in its short life. They come for its nectar rather than its pollen.

Northern Bedstraw (Galium boreale) likes the partial shade at the edge of the prairie. It spreads by rhizomes, underground stems beneath the soil. According to the website of Friends of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Minnesota, indigenous peoples used the roots to create red and yellow dyes and later, settlers used its fragrant, dried foliage to stuff pillows and mattresses.

Northern Bedstraw can grow to over 3 feet in partial shade. Photo by Ben VanderWeide.

Ben spotted a tiny flower that I was unable to find during my visit, native Whorled Milkwort (Polygala verticillata). Its central spike is only about 3/4 inches tall and it’s surrounded by tiny flowers that never fully open but have pink stamens protruding from the blossoms. I’m so glad Ben got a photo; I’ll look for it again next summer.

I like the spiky leaves and pink-tipped blossoms on the very small Whorled Milkwort. Photo by Ben VanderWeide

Glamorous Acquaintances That I Catch a Glimpse of Now and Then

Each year the Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense) produces more of its dramatic, nodding blooms in various restored areas of the township. Please don’t confuse it with any other orange lily! It is distinguished by its downward facing blossom consisting of 6 six spotted petals/tepals curving dramatically upward, and a cascade of 6 stamens with dark anthers (the male flower parts) and a long pistil (the female part). Michigan Lily has whorled leaves, while the non-native tiger lily used in landscaping has alternate leaves that often have purple-brown bulblets where leaves meet the stem. Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), Great Spangled Fritillaries (Speyeria cybele) and even Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies sip nectar from our dramatic Michigan lilies!

Five stunning blooms on one stem of Michigan Lily at the Wet Prairie! Photo by Ben VanderWeide

Showy Tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense) emerges in mid-summer and lasts about 3 weeks. Its shapely pink-lavender blossoms don’t provide nectar, but the pollen is sought after by many pollinators and the leaves provide food for the caterpillars of two lovely, small butterflies – the Eastern Tailed Blue (Everes comyntas)and Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) – among others.

Beware! Showy Tick-trefoil produces hairy seeds pods that are distributed by sticking tenaciously to passing animals and human clothing!

Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), a member of Rose family, may not initially look as elegant as some of the other native flowers in the prairie, but it boasts a Conservatism Coefficient of 8, which means that it’s another strong indicator that that Wet Prairie is a high-quality natural area. Like false asphodel and prairie loosestrife, shrubby cinquefoil prefers to grow in areas with calcium and magnesium-rich groundwater or soil.

Elegant and Important Old Friends that Arrive in Late Summer and Fall

I look for these wildflowers each year on the Wet Prairie and last shared them in detail in a Wet Prairie blog from October of 2020. Look at the link for more information about these very special plants. Two of them, Grass of Parnassus and Fringed Gentian score an 8 on the Conservatism Coefficient scale, like the Shrubby Cinquefoil – more evidence of a high quality area with wildflowers that thrived in this area for centuries.

More Old Friends and Some of their Insect Partners and Visitors

Here’s a slideshow of native plants I’ve loved in the Wet Prairie over the years and some of the insects partners that frequent them.

The Delights of Discovery

A native Bumblebee departs a fading Bee Balm blossom at the Wet Prairie

I’m always beset with a marvelous sense of discovery the first time I’m introduced to an unusual plant like False Asphodel or a fascinating specimen like the Great Golden Digger Wasp. And once I see them, I want to learn what a new friend of mine referred to as their “stories,” e.g., their contributions to sustaining life in a particular habitat, their mating rituals, their migration patterns or overwintering sites, and on and on.

Of course, like most of you kind readers, I can’t possibly remember every detail shared here. But it’s satisfying to have recorded and shared that they live here with us. I want to be ever more aware of how we humans are just one species embedded in nature’s huge, intricate design that sustains us.

I’m glad you’re here to share these experiences with me. Together we can keep working to restore what humans have – often unwittingly – disrupted, damaged or even destroyed on this little blue planet. Perhaps our growing curiosity, sense of wonder and respect for nature’s brilliance will inspire us and our descendants to live a bit more modestly among our wild brethren. We can always hope, right?

Prairie Fen Series – Meet our Dynamic Peatland!

Take some time to learn about Southern Michigan’s most underrated ecosystem, the prairie fen! In this three-part series, we will go over what a prairie fen is, how to identify this community by its plant species, and what threats they face. This first post offers a reflection on these globally rare, but locally abundant, biological treasures by comparing them to their more well-known cousin, the bog. We will start the series by looking at the geological events that formed these unique wetlands using photos and stories from Michigan’s largest prairie fen. Stay tuned for two more posts all about our Township’s own prairie fen plant species and its history of being overlooked.

Peatlands: Bogs and Fens

Wetlands have received a lot of hype recently due to their capacity for preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change. According to the International Peatland Society, the majority of our world’s freshwater wetlands are composed of peatlands. Most peatlands are classified as either fens or bogs. The saturated, anaerobic (no oxygen) soils of these special wetlands do not allow rapid decomposition of plant matter, allowing net accumulation of peat over time. As a result, peatlands are the largest terrestrial storage for carbon, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Although both peatlands are adept at producing incredible biodiversity and carbon storage, they do not receive equal attention. I’ve noticed that even among my science-driven peers, fens are not as well-known as bogs. In undergrad, I was taught more about bogs than fens. Perhaps because bogs are more widely distributed and occur more frequently in Michigan. Or possibly because the highly acidic conditions (low pH) of bogs make them a more singular group, while the fens have several different subtypes. In college, I remember briefly learning that fen wetlands were fed by alkaline (higher pH) calcium and magnesium-rich groundwater, and bogs by rainwater.

Expanding my knowledge of the wondrous prairie fen

In Michigan, the fen group is made up of five natural communities, including prairie fen (check out coastal fen, northern fen, poor fen, and patterned fen if you’d like to learn about the other fens). Prairie fen is appropriately named since it shares many plants found in nearby tallgrass prairies. Prairie fen is found only in the Midwest, thanks to our mighty glaciers.

Map of lower Michigan’s glacier lobes in the most recent glaciation. The Wisconsin glaciation ended around 11,000 years ago. Image is taken from 2015 geomorphic study of the southern Lower Peninsula.

In Michigan, prairie fens primarily occur in the two interlobate regions of the southern Lower Peninsula. We have one interlobate region on the west side of the Lower Peninsula, and other interlobate region called the Jackson Interlobate here in the southeast region. These regions have a complex array of hills and valleys caused by the consolidation and withdrawal of glacier lobes during the Wisconsin glaciation. As noted earlier, all fens are fed by spring water. In the hilly landforms of the Jackson Interlobate, gravity pulls water down through the glacial deposits rich in calcium and magnesium. The alkaline water eventually flows down to the bases of slopes, showing up as spring-fed fens.

A figure displaying fen hydrology from Exploring the Prairie Fen Wetlands of Michigan by MNFI/Michigan State University Extension.

The calcium-rich, alkaline groundwater can be a tough environment for plants. A special set of plants that we call fen “indicator species” tolerate these harsh conditions better than general wetland plants. When we find these plants we know to look closer to see if the surrounding wetland is indeed a prairie fen. Tune into the next blog post in this series to learn more!

Map showing the distribution of prairie fens in Michigan. Circled in red is a cluster of fens that includes those in our township. The northwestern part of Oakland County is where Michigan’s largest prairie fen resides in Springfield Township. Figure from the 2009 Mitchell’s Satyr Habitat Conservation Plan.

My First Fen Visit

No amount of diagrams and reading can prepare someone for what a natural community is like until you are standing in one. I finally had the chance to experience a Michigan fen during the Eastern Massassauga Survey our crew helped with earlier this summer. The survey took place in Michigan’s largest remaining prairie fen in Springfield Township! On the drive there, my unconscious bias predicted the habitat to look similarly isolated and alien as an acidic bog.

I could not have been more naïve. In stark contrast, the landscape was alive and coherent. As I stood unstably on sedge mounds, I could hear what sounded like the thirsty noise of draining a bath. Only in the plants parted could I see where the peculiar sounds were coming from. Calcareous spring water, cold from being locked in the dark earth, ran in rivulets beneath us as we walked. There were also areas where streams flowed on top and through the vegetation. Water and earth weaved in and out of each other; I quickly realized that fens are interlaced with the rest of our sculpted landscape.

This picture depicts the seamless progression from prairie fen to oak forest.

Unlike bogs, which similarly occur in depressions caused by melted glacier ice, prairie fens are not isolated pockets of water. These fens are often part of larger wetland complexes, often occurring on the edges of lakes or along streams. Prairie fen’s plant communities often also morph into surrounding environments like oak barrens and openings, even sharing the same historical need for fire disturbance.

Leaving Springfield’s fen, I rejoiced in the never-ending surprises that come with being a student of the natural world. I had no idea a peatland could feel so energetic. I had been under the impression that all peatlands were as dead as their layers of preserved organic matter.

The next post in this series will dive deeper into the dynamic life that these fens sustain using flora and fauna snapshots from our prairie fen along the paint creek trail. In the meantime, you can check out a previous blog about the Unique Wetland Communities Along the Paint Creek Trail to get some background on the work we do there.