Two (or so) Magical Acres: Our Wet Prairie

Off the western side of the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silver Bell Road, a sign indicates that you’re passing through a “wet prairie.”  Big Blue Stem grasses bend in the wind while all kinds of beautiful wildflowers flourish in the grass below.  If you ever thought “native wildflower” just meant Canada Goldenrod or Black-Eyed Susans,  you’re in for a treat.

Sign for wet prairie
The Wet Prairie is located north of Silver Bell Road on the Paint Creek Trail.

As many of you know, most native plants in this area are adapted to fire because of thousands of years of natural fires and regular burning by Native Americans for purposes of clearing and fertilizing the land.  Once the trains came through in the 19th century,   the sparks from the tracks, where the trail runs now, regularly started fires in the area.  Native prairie and savanna plants survived because they had adapted to fire; non-native plants were less likely to do so.

Once the trail replaced the train tracks, stewardship was required to preserve this very special environment.  Over the years, the Parks Commission has worked to restore this patch of wet prairie and its beautiful native plants.  Last year, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and his crew worked long hours from Silver Bell  Road to the Wet Prairie,  removing Autumn Olive and other non-native plants, trees and shrubs that lined the trail and crowded the field, shading out native plants. We thought you might enjoy seeing  a small sampling of the beauty that’s begun to flourish in this special area because of those efforts.

Native Wildflowers of the Wet Prairie

Flowers in wet prairies like this  are special – and very lovely.  Bring binoculars so you can scan the field since the area is too fragile for hiking or paths at this stage.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

I was lucky enough to be introduced, very carefully, to this magical place by Dr. Ben who let me take photos so we could share the native beauty that exists in this special area.

 

We saw deep sky blue Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) in several stages of unfurling.

Fringed Gentian bud
A Fringed Gentian bud with its fringes curled around it.
Fringed gentian opening1
Fringed Gentian buds starting to open
Fringed gentian opening 2
Fringed Gentian bud a bit further along

And finally, an open one!  Look at the square opening made by the four leaves!

Fringed Gentian3
The four leaves of the Fringed Gentian make a lovely square opening at the center of the blossom.

Another deep blue beauty, Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii), never opens its blossoms,  but Ben saw a native Bumblebee pry one open and climb inside to get at the pollen!

Bottle Gentian Wet Prairie
The flowers of Bottle Gentian never open so bumblebees just pry them open and squeeze inside!

And here’s Ben’s photo of a bumblebee emerging from a Bottle Gentian at Gallagher Creek Park.  Quite a moment to catch, eh?

Ben's photo of bumblebee bottle gentian
Dr. Ben’s photo of a bumblebee emerging from a Bottle Gentian blossom that it squeezed into.

Tiny orchids appear here and there in the Wet Prairie as well.  Who knew we had orchids?  You can see where it got its name, Prairie Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum). It looks like a spiraling french braid.

Ladies tresses orchid
A native orchid with the lovely name, Ladies Tresses

One of my favorite Wet Prairie wildflowers is Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) but until this week I’d only seen one or two blooms.  Here’s a closeup from a few years ago of one with its dark green stripes.

Grass-of-Parnassus
A green-striped Grass-of-Parnassus bloom, a native wet prairie wildflower.

Now, thanks to the stewardship efforts of the Parks and Recreation Commission, they’re sprinkled all over the prairie!  They’re a bit beyond their peak now, but they’re still lovely.

Grass-of-Parnassus
A group of Grass-of-Parnassus blooms last week, just a bit beyond peak bloom but still striking with their dark green stripes

White Snake Root  (Ageratina altissima) grows in the prairie and it’s plentiful on the east side of the trail, flowing downhill toward the creek.

White Snakeroot
White Snake Root spills down the hillside that leads to the creek across the trail from the prairie.

Cylindrical Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea), another native plant that was plentiful a couple of weeks ago on the Wet Prairie, is finishing up now, but here are a few late blooms and then its very lovely fruit in the photo just below.

Blazing Star
Cylindrical Blazing Star with a few blooms left on the stalk

The fruits of the False Asphodel (Triantha glutinosa) add a touch of fall color to the prairie.

blazing star fruit_edited-1
The fruit of False Asphodel  with very fitting fall colors

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra), with its descriptive  if not very elegant common name,  is another special plant in the Wet Prairie. It can also be found in other high quality wetlands in our area.

Turtlehead
Turtlehead is a very practical name for a rather elegant wet prairie plant.

Of course, familiar native wildflowers are present in this prairie as well, like Canada Goldenrod.  But there are other kinds of goldenrod here too, like Riddell’s Goldenrod (Solidago riddellii) which is much less common because it frequents wetlands, including wet prairies, rather than dry fields and roadsides.

Riddell's Goldenrod
Riddell’s Goldenrod is less common in our area than our old friend, Canada Goldenrod.

And across the trail from the prairie, we saw Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida).  I love the way the soft leaves clasp the stalk.

Stiff goldenrod?
Stiff Goldenrod is also less common than the familiar Canada Goldenrod we see along the roadsides and in dry open fields.

The dry Old Fields in our parks tend to have non-native Cinquefoils but the Wet Prairie hosts a native Michigan species, called Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) which is often used in landscape settings as well as being found in wild wet areas.

Shrubby cinquefoil native
Shrubby Cinquefoil is a native cinquefoil rather than the non-natives that frequently show up in abandoned fields.

We saw another old friend, one late bloom of  the gorgeous orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). 

butterfly weed3
We saw a late bloom of Butterfly Milkweed, a native wild flower found often in dry areas.

Most of the the Butterfly Milkweed plants, though, are past blooming and are producing their elegant tapered pods, the fruits that contain their seed, seen below spilling onto the ground to be carried by the wind for next year’s crop.

Butterfly Milkweed pods
These slender, tapered pods are the fruit that contains the seeds of Butterfly Milkweed
Butterfly weed seed
Butterfly Milkweed seeds with the silk that will help them disperse when the wind catches them.

Although its small white flowers are done for the year, I love the deep purple stems of Northern Bedstraw (Galium boreale), which are still standing among the flowers.

Northern Bedstaw
Northern Bedstraw’s white blossoms are gone, leaving these deep purple stems.

Creatures of the Wet Prairie

A Monarch butterfly(Danaus plexippus)rested in the shade of a tree after flitting across the Wet Prairie.

Monarch on dead leaf
A female Monarch butterfly rested briefly on a leaf after flitting across the Wet Prairie.

A curious European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa)  paused on a Little Bluestem stalk where she might have been planning to lay eggs, as these non-native insects do in September.

Praying Mantis 2 Wet Prairie
A European Praying Mantis may have been planning to lay eggs on a hole in a grass stem.

A Green Darner (Anax junius), a large, very agile dragonfly,   took a break from patrolling for insect pray and rested in the shade.

Green Darner2
A Green Darner, a large dragonfly, escapes the noonday sun.

And a tiny Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) hatchling, about the size of a 50 cent piece, tried  to make it across the trail.  We gave it a little lift to the grass in the direction it was heading.

Snapping turtle hatchling
A tiny Snapping Turtle hatchling struggles to get across the trail.

Native Grasses of the Wet Prairie

Native grasses thrive in the Wet Prairie as well.  Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii), a classic native prairie grass, towers over everything with its characteristic turkey foot.

Big Blue Stem in the wind
Big Blue Stem, a classic prairie grass, towers over the other grasses and wildflowers.

But Dr. Ben made me aware of other native prairie grasses that I’d wouldn’t have noticed without help:

Canada Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis) bobs in the breeze below the Big Blue Stem.

Canadian Wild Rye
Canadian Wild Rye bobs in the breeze below the Big Blue Stem.

According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, the scientific name of this grass, Sorghastrum nutans, means “a swaying, poor imitation of Sorghum.”   I think I prefer the common name, Indian Grass!

Indian Grass
Indian Grass is the common name for this native grass in the Wet Prairie

It’s not difficult to see where native Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) got its name!

Bottlebrush grass
A native plant aptly named Bottlebrush Grass.

Restoring and preserving the very special habitat of the Wet Prairie is a way to preserve our history for future generations and to encourage plant diversity.  But it takes a lot of effort!  Please keep an eye on the “Stewardship” tab on our home page here at the Natural Areas Notebook for volunteer opportunities.  Perhaps you can help Dr. Ben with the PRC’s ongoing effort to care for the Wet Prairie with its unusual selection of beautiful wildflowers and graceful grasses.

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

7 thoughts on “Two (or so) Magical Acres: Our Wet Prairie

    1. Thank you, Phyllis. The more I see and learn about the plants and wildlife in our parks, the more it all comes to life for me, too.

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