Wetlands: Beautiful, Living Filters

Michigan has a lot of water. With so many lakes, rivers, and streams, not to mention the Great Lakes, we are surrounded by water! But we often forget our wetlands, or just dismiss them as wasted ground. Since Michigan was settled, nearly 75% of our wetlands have been lost. Oakland County isn’t an exception: check out this map to see the drastic changes in the area of wetlands in Oakland County since the 1800s. Our wetlands have been drained for agriculture, filled for development, or “reclaimed” for “better” uses.

Wetlands filter water, removing nutrients, sediment, and pollutants. They provide habitat for wildlife and native plant species. When wetlands disappear, water quality declines, and our streams and lakes suffer. There is a reason why only Paint Creek remains as a cold water trout stream in southeast Michigan. Many of the other rivers and streams in this region have lost the wetlands that cleaned their water, exposing them to high levels of sediment, nutrients, and pollutants. When this dirty water arrives in our Great Lakes, it fuels the blooms of algae that create “dead zones” with very low oxygen levels in our lakes.

Wetlands also have many special plants with beautiful flowers. Purple meadow-rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum) from the buttercup family has unique white flowers. It can be found in many wet areas.

Purple meadow-rue is blooming now in many wetland areas, so keep your eyes open for its unique flowers!
Purple meadow-rue is blooming now in many wetland areas, so keep your eyes open for its unique flowers! This plant was found at the Paint Creek Heritage Area Wet Prairie on July 2, 2014.

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) has become infamous as an invasive plant in wetlands, but did you know that we have many native loosestrife species? Our native species are in a different plant family, and have yellow flowers instead of purple. Fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) is one of our more common loosestrife species, growing in wet to slightly dry areas.

Fringed loosestrife is flowering right now in wet areas, including wet meadows at Paint Creek Heritage Area Wet Prairie.
Fringed loosestrife is flowering right now in wet areas, including wet meadows at Paint Creek Heritage Area Wet Prairie.

Michigan also has a lily named after it, the Michigan lily! Its Latin name, Lilium michiganense, says the same thing. This native lily can be found from Michigan to Minnesota, and south to Arkansas. We have some growing right here in Oakland Township, but with very high deer densities in our township it is very difficult to find a Michigan lily that hasn’t been browsed. The picture below is from a population I found this past weekend in western Michigan.

Michigan lily can be found it wet areas across the upper Midwest. This picture was taken in west Michigan.
Michigan lily can be found it wet to moist areas across the upper Midwest. This picture was taken in west Michigan.

Once we damage or fill wetlands, we lose many of these unique species. Wetlands that are installed to mitigate filled wetlands never truly replace the wetlands that were destroyed. Mitigated wetlands might perform many of the same wetland functions as the original wetland by removing nutrients and pollutants, but most of the native plants that only grow in intact wetlands will never be found there. We need to protect the wetlands we have!

If you find these wildflowers, take lots of pictures, but please don’t pick the flowers or try to transplant them! Leave these beauties for the wildlife that depend on them, and for other people to enjoy.

 

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About Ben VanderWeide

I am the Natural Areas Stewardship Manager for Oakland Township Parks and Recreation in southeast Michigan. I have a doctorate in biology (focused on plant ecology) and I am passionate about protecting and managing natural areas.

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