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.

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?

Cow parsnip: Important Native or Nemesis?

Cow parsnip is known by many names. Scientifically it is referred to as Heracleum maximum, but for centuries it has been known by indigenous people across North America as pipigwe’wanuck, okintsomo, yazobi, gistem, sol, gwas, ggis, pushki (Journal of Ethnobiology).

All across North America cow parsnip is revered by indigenous peoples for its medicinal and edible qualities. The roots are commonly ground into a powder and applied to joints to ease pain. The Quinault word for cow parsnip, wak√°, means ‘kills the pain’. From April to late June, cow parsnip is harvested and eaten. The soft pith, once removed from the inner stem, is eaten.

Humans are not the only species to feed on cow parsnip! The leaves are an important food source for cow parsnip thrips and parsnip webworm moth larvae. Dozens of bee, wasp, fly, and butterfly species also visit the flowers of cow parsnip.

Pollinators on cow parsnip along the Paint Creek Trail in 2021. Photo by Ben VanderWeide.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Cow parsnip is also often referred to as a ‘dangerous plant.’ How did this come to be, when cow parsnip has been an important aspect of cultures for centuries? It’s often a mix up between two species: cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum) and giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). To be fair, they are ‘siblings.’ They both come from the carrot family, Apiaceae, and within that family they belong to the same genus, Heracleum.

Why are are folks rightly concerned about giant hogweed? It is an invasive species hailing from western Caucasus. Like most plants within the genus Heracleum, and other members of the carrot family, it can cause photodermatitis, a condition in which skin will blister, swell, and scar when sap gets on the skin and is then exposed to sunlight. Giant hogweed is infamous for these effects, and causes extreme expression of these symptoms. You should also avoid the sap of wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) and poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), two other species in the carrot family that cause photodermatitis. Click here to view a a great card from the Oakland County CISMA comparing these four species.

The sap of our native cow parsnip is still phototoxic, but its effects are far milder. When handled carefully, cow parsnip has been safely consumed and appreciated for centuries. Giant hogweed, on the other hand, does not have the same rich culinary and medicinal history across the United States.

Unfortunately for our beloved cow parsnip, the two plants do look similar. Each year we receive reports of potential hogweed along the Paint Creek Trail, where it grows happily in its favored floodplain and wet meadow habitat. When a potential sighting is reported we check each one. So far we’ve only found cow parsnip. In fact, no giant hogweed has been found yet within Oakland County. There are several key differences between the two species.

Height

The most obvious difference is height. Giant hogweed is… giant! At maturity it can reach up to twenty feet high. Cow parsnip on the other hand, caps out at around seven feet.

Umbel

The flower head, or umbel, of cow parsnip is flat. Whereas the umbel of giant hogweed is rounded in appearance.

Stem

The stems of cow parsnip are a uniform shade of light green, whereas giant hogweed stems are splotched with wine colored markings.

Leaves

The leaves of cow parsnip are also more rounded in appearance than giant hogweed. Giant hogweed has deeply lobed leaves.

We worked with the Paint Creek Trail a few years ago to develop a helpful poster comparing the two species.

A Note on Poisonous Plants

When a plant is labelled poisonous, it is alarming. However you may be surprised at how well we coexist with the world of plant toxins (phytotoxins). Plants are (mostly) stationary forms of life. In order to protect themselves from predators, and from competition with each other, they had to adapt defenses. These defenses can take the physical form of spines on cacti, or waxy leaf cuticles that protect against plant pathogens. The less visually apparent defenses are the chemical defenses that lead to phytotoxicity.

A photo of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

The beloved milkweed is a great example of our harmony with phytotoxins. We adore milkweed. Its blooms are a fragrant addition to our plant beds, and they bring with them a host of diverse pollinators. Would you be shocked to learn that every part of milkweed is poisonous? Every part of the plant, from root to petals, contains cardiac glycosides. These compounds can cause some serious and nasty effects. In spite of this, we adore milkweed.

Another example are the twigs and pits of cherries, which are rife with a cyanide releasing compound. Foxglove, cashews, rhubarb, iris, oaks, apple and apricot seeds, kidney beans… All contain a poisonous component! When approached with care and knowledge, poisonous plants are nothing to fear. They play important roles in our ecosystems, benefitting the smallest insect to the hungriest stomach via our dinner plates.

The umbel of cow parsnip post-flower, with immature seeds beginning to grow.

So when you come across cow parsnip in the wild, take a moment to appreciate its beauty. Express caution and not fear. Admire the leaf miners munching along the large leaves, creating a mosaic of tunnels in their wake. Take notice of the huge umbel (currently setting seed) that attracted dozens of pollinators just a few short weeks ago. Recall its rich history. Fantasize about the smell of a thick stew in early spring… Bubbling with the sweet, peppery flavor of young cow parsnip shoots.

Currently Flowering: Late June

This is the second edition to a recurring series highlighting flowering species within Oakland Township’s parks. Several of the species covered in this edition can be found in the beds at Bear Creek Nature Park. Over the past several weeks the stewardship team has worked to maintain the native diversity within the beds. We highly encourage you to check them out!

Wild Four O’clock (Mirabilis nyctaginea)

This species can be seen in the beds at Paint Creek Cider Mill. The bright fuchsia flowers of this perennial are dotted by bright yellow anthers (the pollen producing plant organ). This species has two specialist feeders. Both the four o’clock moth (Heliodines nyctaginella) and the wild four-o’clock bug (Catorhintha mendica) feed on this species. The common name four-o’clock is quite fitting, as the flowers of this species cannot be admired in the early morning. Rather, its blooms open in late afternoon (hmm, say about four o’clock-ish?) and remain open through the night. By morning, these night owl blooms are closed. Wild four o’clock belongs to the family Nyctaginaceae, the four o’clock family. This species’ native range is slightly southwest of the Great Lakes. It has spread further north and has established populations in southeastern Michigan.

Common Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis)

This perennial can be immediately spotted as you pull into the parking area of Bear Creek Nature Park. Common spiderwort cheerfully stands (up to four feet high!) in the bed that divides the lot. This species has an extended blooming period of around one and a half months. This is due in part to only a few flowers blooming on an individual plant at one time. This plant is a favorite snack of rabbits and deer, and is pollinated by several bee species. Common spiderwort belongs to Commelinaceae, the dayflower or spiderwort family. Check it in the morning to see the full floral display. Spiderwort flowers often close by the end of the day.

Bear Corn (Conopholis americana)

Have you ever come across this species and thought it was a mushroom? If so, you are not alone. In fact, the nature of this species is akin to fungi in a significant way. This species does not perform one of the hallmarks of the plant kingdom- photosynthesis. Rather, this species is entirely parasitic. Like many species of fungi, bear corn penetrates the roots of host trees and thieves nutrients from them. Bear corn has specialized roots, called haustoria, that allow for this parasitism. This species specifically targets the roots of oak trees, but generally coexists well with them. This species belongs to the family Orobanchaceae. The bear corn pictured here was found at Charles Ilsley Park.

Prairie Phlox (Phlox pilosa)

These delicate flowers are beloved by a myriad of insects. You will find them to be quite busy with faunal visitors in the beds at Bear Creek Nature Park this time of year! Swallowtails, American painted ladies, and many skipper butterfly species visit prairie phlox. Prairie phlox even has a specialist feeder, the prairie phlox flower moth. Native phlox species look somewhat similar to dame’s rocket, an aggressive invasive species found in Michigan. An easy way to distinguish the two is to count the petals; dame’s rocket has four petals, whereas our native phlox species have five. Additionally, prairie phlox is quite low growing, commonly only reaching six inches to one foot high. Dame’s rocket can grow up to four feet high. Prevalence of this species is closely tied to the occurrence of fire in its preferred prairie habitat. Prairie ecosystems rely on wildfires to aid in the cycling of nutrients and limiting establishment of trees and shrubs, which increases the availability of sunlight. This species belongs to Polemoniaceae, the phlox family.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Milkweed season is upon us! A perfect place to view the unfurling blooms (and smell their lovely fragrance) are the native plant beds at Gallagher Creek Park. This species can reach up to five feet in height and has large, oblong leaves that occur in opposite pairs. As can be seen in the photos above, the flowers of this species are arranged in spherical clusters. You will often find common milkweed in large groups. This is due to vegetative reproduction- through rhizomes! Rhizomes are thick underground stems that send up shoots, creating new plants. These underground stems allow for common milkweed to form dense colonies. Common milkweed, and other milkweed species, are famed for their association with the monarch butterfly, as this species is a crucial food source for monarch caterpillars. A documented additional 450 insects are known to feed on common milkweed (can you spot the ant and boxelder bug in the photo on the left?). This plant contains organic compounds known as cardiac glycosides that can potentially make insects toxic to predators when consumed in high enough quantity. The name milkweed comes from the opaque white latex that discharges from the plant when injured. Common milkweed is in the dogbane family, Apocynaceae.

Bristly Greenbrier (Smilax tamnoides)

While this vining species may not be your friend on a hike as it is covered in sharp, needle-like prickles, it is a lovely native plant worthy of highlight. This species is dioecious, meaning that the male and female flowers occur on different plants. Photographed here are male flowers. Though tough to see clearly, there are clusters of pale stamens (the male reproductive organ) located in the center of six green tepals. The ringlets seen in the photos above are tendrils, which are modified plant organs that serve to anchor vining plants. Come late fall, female plants of this species will be dotted with small inky berries. These berries are consumed by raccoons and many bird species (namely thrushes). The flowers are visited by flies and bees, and the foliage is nibbled by the caterpillars of several species of moths (such as spotted phosphila, turbulent phosphila, and curved-lined owlet). This species is common in forest edges and floodplains. The photos above were taken at Watershed Ridge Park.