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.