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?

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.