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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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 andRiddell’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 alnifolia – Alder-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.
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 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.
Cypripedium candidum – White Lady’s Slipper
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.
As part of our invasive plant monitoring this summer, the stewardship crew visited the bog of Fox Nature Preserve. To reach the center of the bog we traversed a challenging, muddy route through towering nonnative cattails. As I followed my fellow crew members into the bog of beauty, I suddenly found myself in a pickle as my muck boots sank into the fragile ground in the outer shallow “moat” of the bog. In my miserable attempt to escape its mucky grasp, I heard a loud swoosh as my boots began to fill with water!
I managed to climb my way out to more “stable” ground, stepping on nonnative cattails. Unfortunately, my boots weren’t so lucky. But Stewardship Specialist Grant Vander Laan came to my aid, freeing my muck boots from the ground’s intense grip! Thanks to his help, and after crawling under blueberry bushes, I was able to step foot in a bog for the very first time. The privilege of experiencing a bog ignited enthusiasm in my soul!
Please enjoy don’t walk out into the Fox Nature Preserve bog. We are near the range limit of bogs in southern Michigan, and many of the unique plants are already struggling to hang on. The sphagnum moss blanket is very fragile, and it can be dangerous walking.
What are Bogs?
Bogs are unique freshwater wetlands that are acidic, nutrient-poor peatlands. Sphagnum moss and “ericaceous” shrubs, like the leatherleaf in the photo above, are important plants in bogs. Bogs are mainly found in northern, cool climates, since that is were precipitation is often greater than evaporation. Bogs mostly obtain their water from precipitation. Due to the harsh, acidic conditions, a limited, set of extraordinary plants and animals live in bogs.
The Blanket of Peat Moss
As I regained my footing after loosing my boots and crawling through blueberries, I was blown away by the bog’s peculiar appearance. The ground was a blanket of sphagnum moss, spongy but durable. I could feel the water beneath me, swaying by the command of my foot’s movement. Unique plants were found nestled in the moss blanket; tamarack and black spruce trees dotted the bog.
As mentioned previously, bogs are covered in sphagnum moss, a plant that makes the bog ecosystem possible. According to Milne Library, sphagnum moss heavily influences an ecosystem as it makes areas acidic, nutrient-poor and filled with water. Sphagnum moss and carnivorous plants such as sundews and pitcher plants thrive in these conditions because competitors find these conditions unfavorable.
Pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) are a symbol of survival in low-nutrient conditions. These plants eat insects to compensate for the lack of nutrients from bogs. According to the Irish Peatland Conservation Council, the insects on the pitcher plants’ menu include spiders, flies, midges, and beetles. Pitcher plants lure them to the pitchers with their meat-like patterns and their nectar’s aroma. Once in the pitcher the insect is trapped by the sticky nectar and unique hairs that keep them from crawling out. Digestive enzymes allow the pitcher plant to break down the insect as a satisfactory meal.
Trees can also be found in bogs! The bog at Fox Nature Preserve includes tamarack trees, black spruce, and white pine. Tamarack trees are a common tree found in bogs since they can tolerate the acidic soils. Tamaracks are a unique member of the conifer family because they are deciduous, meaning they are one of the few to lose their needles in the fall! Look for the beautiful golden hues of tamarack in wetlands this fall.
Bogs can appear to be an uneventful ecosystem, but they are important habitat for many animals. According to National Geographic, amphibians thrive in insect-rich bogs. And according to Michigan Natural Features Inventory, swamp sparrows and song sparrows can be found in bogs. These sparrows typically nest throughout Michigan, then most move a bit south during the winter to find food and better habitat during the cold months.
The Life Lesson from Bogs
Life can be full of seemingly unfavorable conditions, just like a bog. Your car might break down, you might be tired studying for classes, you and a friend might be fighting, or you might feel unfulfilled in life. In some cases, enduring unfavorable conditions can lead to great reward. Like a patient pitcher plant patiently bubbling up a fly stew to get scarce nutrients, your sleepless nights of studying can reward you with an excellent exam score. However, some unfavorable conditions make it necessary to change something in life. Maybe there comes a point where you need to uproot your life and relocate, like a swamp sparrow traveling for food. Sometimes in life we must be a pitcher plant, and sometimes we have to be a swamp sparrow. There is nothing wrong with being either to navigate the unfavorable conditions life may send our way. Life can be like a bog sometimes, and considering how amazing bogs are, sometimes that’s not so bad.
We aren’t called Oakland Township in Oakland County for no reason. For thousands of years, oaks have been a keystone tree sustaining our local habitat and the people who live here. When Europeans arrived in the early 1800’s, they marveled at rolling grasslands filled with wildflowers and large oaks scattered here and there or standing in groves. An article in the Michigan Botanist journal quotes C.F. Hoffman from 1835:
Clumps of the noblest oaks, with not a twig of underwood, extending over a gently undulating grassy surface as far as the eye can reach: here clustered together in a grove of tall stems supporting one broad canopy of interlacing branches, and there rearing their gigantic trunks in solitary grandeur from the plain . . . .
C.F. Hoffman 1835
What a vision, eh? If you want a taste of that landscape, visit the restored prairies at Charles Ilsley Park this spring or summer!
I decided I’d better get to know this giant among local plants. I came away impressed! My hope is that what I found will encourage you to take special care of the oaks on your own property – and if you’re without any oaks (heaven forbid!), find a corner for one this year!
What Makes Oaks So Special?
Well, of course, most of the oaks near us are big – which means that they extract huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their bark, branches and roots for years. How many years? White Oaks (Quercus alba), the elders of the plant family here, can keep that carbon stored for 900 years! Doug Tallamy, Professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware and author of TheNature of Oaks, explains that given the right conditions, oaks have a life cycle of 300 years growing, 300 years in stasis (just living!) and 300 years of decline.
During their long lifetimes, they stabilize the soil around them with huge root systems, producing ten times more biomass underground than they produce above ground! They need those roots to support them for all those long years. Their large canopies and ridged bark prevent erosion by controlling runoff in heavy rains, maintaining nearby watersheds for centuries. Their shade cools the air. Many native trees provide these services of course, but the oaks do it all on a grander scale. And that’s only the beginning of the services they provide to their surroundings.
Oaks Generously Feed the World Around Them
Throughout the centuries, and even after death, oaks literally make life possible for hundreds of species, untold thousands of individual creatures. I’m imagining that what comes first to your mind is acorns. And you’re right, but there’s more to the story.
Acorns and the Creatures that Love ’em
A single oak tree can provide three million acorns in a lifetime which feed a wide range of mammals, bird and insects. Tallamy cites squirrels, deer, mice, possums, rabbits, raccoons and foxes among our local mammals, plus many birds, including turkeys, woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice, towhees, flickers, even wood ducks! Acorns provide them with protein and fat before and during the cold winter months – just when food is scarce and hungry creatures need to bulk up to cope with frigid temperatures.
Blue Jays and Oaks: A Match Made in Heaven
Oaks have a special friend in the crow family (Corvidae), the jays, including of course, our noisy neighbor, the Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata). All over the world wherever oaks shade the ground, some species of jays are planting their acorns far and wide. Our Blue Jays cache them for winter by tapping them into open soil one by one. According to Professor Tallamy, one Blue Jay can bury up to 4,500 acorns a year! Luckily, they only remember the location of about 25% of their acorns. The rest are free to grow into trees, if they germinate or aren’t eaten by other creatures. Jays can carry acorns up to a mile away which means that oaks move out into the landscape faster and farther than other trees. What a great tradeoff – food for the jays, dispersal for the oaks. (Scientists call this “mutualism”)
Oak Strategies for Outfoxing the Fox Squirrels (and other nibblers)
“Mast Years” – Overdoing It With a Purpose
Oaks have evolved a strategy for preventing those plentiful acorn-eaters from gobbling up every acorn. At random intervals, all the oaks in a given location cooperate in producing a giant crop of acorns – more than all those local munchers, like squirrels and deer, could possible eat in a season. It’s called a “mast year.” That way, chances improve for some acorns growing into oak saplings.
The population of acorn consumers increases as well-fed animals produce more young. Ah, but the next year and for several years after, the oaks somehow coordinate again in producing very few acorns, reducing the population of acorn consumers. By doing this together, but unpredictably, the oaks make it impossible for acorn lovers to plan for a mast year. They never know when a good acorn year is coming. And neither do the researchers who have yet to discover how oaks coordinate with other oaks to create a mast year! A mystery, yet to be solved! I love a good mystery…
Fending Off Bud Nibblers – A Yucky Mouthful
You may have noticed that oaks, young oaks especially, keep their dead leaves on their lower limbs until spring. It’s called “marcescence.” One hypothesis is that since oaks evolved with huge, browsing mammals, like mastodons and other megafauna, they needed to protect their tasty, nutritious buds for next year’s growth. That might explain why oak leaves as far as 18 feet up don’t drop in the autumn; that’s about as far as a mastodon could reach! Today’s browsers, like deer and moose, may be put off by a mouthful of distasteful, nutrition-poor dead leaves, just as the mastodons may have been. Or it could be that the dry leaves protect the buds from cold, maintain moisture by holding snow longer or create nutritious leaf litter in spring when most tree growth occurs. Or it may be a combination of all those factors. No one’s quite sure but it’s a distinctive feature of oaks, beeches, hornbeams and a few willows.
But Oaks Sustain Life with an Even More Plentiful Food Source than Acorns!
Oaks provide another much more impactful way of feeding a park, a forest or my yard (which is surrounded by Black Oaks.) It all centers around the creatures that the famous entomologist E.O. Wilson once called “the little things that run the world” – insects! Insects are a basic food group for countless creatures. Stop a second and think of all the creatures around us that eat insects: fish, reptiles, amphibians, spiders, and especially birds!
Some mammals also include insects in their diet, like possums, raccoons, bears, bats, and moles to name a few. Plants eat insects, too. Here are three local species: Sundew (Drosera anglica), Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) and Common Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris).
Even insects eat other insects! My list includes dragonflies, praying mantises, ladybugs, and crickets, but no doubt there are many more.
Insects also pollinate about 80 to 90 percent of all plants on the earth. What a huge service for life! Without pollinated plants, we’d all go hungry since even human meat-eaters dine on plant-eating creatures. Insects also act as essential decomposers of dead plants and animals.
But what’s just as crucial about insects is their young – those squiggly caterpillars. As the largest class of animals on earth, they feed countless creatures. The massive number of caterpillars in any given area feed a greater number and wider variety of creatures than any other animal that eats plants – more than deer or even elephants!
E.O. Wilson once observed, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” See what he meant when he said they “run the world”?
And What Makes Oaks So Special When It Comes to Insects?
Well, wherever oaks grace the landscape, they are the undisputed champions at housing and feeding caterpillars. They support over 900 species in North America. Here’s just a tiny selection among the more than 500 species that oaks support around here in Michigan. Aren’t they amazing?
We don’t even know most of these small caterpillars exist (at least, I didn’t!), because most of them are so small and live high in the trees. Caterpillars largely eat at night in order to avoid birds and other daytime predators. Many adult moths, which make up a huge percentage of the more than 500 species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) in our oaks, pollinate at night as well. No wonder we don’t see them! Their presence generally presents no problem for oaks and the leaf damage is not really noticeable to us from the ground. So even if we don’t see them, they’re up there, along with the young of other insects like katydids, beetles, and praying mantises among many others.
According to Jim McCormac, former field botanist at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, only a tiny percentage of insect eggs, caterpillars and pupae survive to produce the next generation. The vast majority become food for other creatures. Doug Tallamy uses our friendly Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) to demonstrate the gigantic quantity of insect offspring needed each year.
To feed a clutch of their young, two Chickadee adults must catch 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars each season to feed their young just while they’re in the nest! Then they feed their fledglings outside the nest for another 21 days. And those numbers don’t include the frozen insect eggs and caterpillars that Chickadees rely on to survive the winter.
Migrating birds flock here each spring because our native trees and plants produce such a flush of nutritious caterpillars. Imagine the numbers of caterpillars required to just feed the birds in your yard. Then imagine the number required in one of our parks, or in a national forest – in every season, all over the country and the world! Insect numbers are in drastic decline worldwide due to insecticides and habitat loss. But we can help by planting and preserving oaks, the trees that host the largest number of caterpillars in their leaves, their bark and their roots – even in their leaf litter!
Most caterpillars native to North America can’t eat the leaves of non-native plants, or if they do, they can’t reach maturity by eating those leaves. They didn’t evolve with plants from far away, so they can’t properly digest the leaves. That’s why native flowers, shrubs and plants are so crucial to preserving life everywhere. Pollinator gardens are wonderful at feeding adult insects, but unless they also have a significant percentage of native plants, even they can be a desert for butterfly offspring.
Would You Consider Planting One? Hmmm?
Now I know what you’re thinking, or at least I think I do. See if I’m right and if I can give you a somewhat acceptable answer.
You believe that they grow too slowly? They don’t really. The first few years they develop slowly above ground because they’re developing the root system that has to support and feed them for hundreds of years. In one of his presentations (cited below), Tallamy shows yearly photos of a White Oak that he planted from an acorn that grew to 45 feet tall in 20 years with a canopy spread of 30 feet! That’s a lot of cooling shade! Of course, that amount of growth assumes: a) the oak is planted where its roots can grow deep, i.e. no interference from sewer lines, foundations, compacted soil; b) that it’s not fertilized. North American trees grow best on the nutrient poor soils left by glaciation. Weird, eh?
Looking for a somewhat smaller oak? Yes, we have some! Dwarf Chinkapin Oaks and Pin Oaks might work in your yard here in the township. Across the state and the country, there are other smaller varieties. Ask a native nursery or landscaper.
You’re worried that they’re expensive? Get the smallest oak sapling you can find. Small oaks won’t have such heavily pruned root systems. Large nursery saplings need to spend many years re-growing their previously cut roots, but a small sapling can establish and start growing right away. Or simply pick up an acorn right after they fall. There’s a section at the back of Tallamy’s book, The Nature of Oaks, called “How to Plant an Oak.”
Too many leaves? It’s best if you can find a spot where the leaf litter can just be left below the oak tree – no raking or mowing. Leaf litter keeps the soil moist, slowly returns nutrients to the soil and nurtures many moth caterpillars. Some moth caterpillars stick their cocoons to the bark of a branch or trunk. But others drop to the ground, burrow into the soil and pupate there – or spin a cocoon in the fallen leaves to overwinter there. But if leaving fallen oak leaves is impossible in your yard, consider planting ferns, sedges and/or wildflowers beneath your tree. They’ll make for a soft, safe landing for little caterpillars.
Too many acorns? Remember that mast years occur periodically but not every year. And you can handle the acorns from one or two trees. Oaks in the Red Oak group have mast years less often than White Oaks do. Maybe consider sharing some acorns with neighbors along with planting instructions?
You’re afraid a tree might fall on your house? If you have room, plant a grove of oaks, or a mix of oaks and other species, so that their roots interconnect and support each other. And by the way, oaks don’t lift sidewalks or driveways because they grow deep enough not to bother hardscape on the surface. The pavers near our black oaks do just fine. Also, don’t panic about old, hollow oaks. Like a pipe, all the strength of any tree is in its outer ring; the interior is softer, dead material. So unless it poses a danger to structures or you often walk beneath it, don’t cut it down. It’ll survive for a long time and continue feeding the habitat around you.
How’d I do? Are you persuaded? If you still have other concerns about planting an oak in your location, consider leaving me a question in the comments and I will try to find an answer.
Protect Your Oaks!
It’s important that you don’t prune your oaks or damage their bark in any way from mid-March to November. Wait until late fall or winter to trim your oak trees, and avoid attaching signs, bird houses, or anything else to your trees. In warmer weather, a deadly, non-native fungus called Oak Wilt can be carried by native beetles that adore the smell of broken oak bark. They can arrive at your damaged tree within 20 minutes! Keep a can of clear shellac around; if damage happens, quickly spray it on the wound. Currently there’s no reliable cure for oak wilt. Trees in the Red Oak group can spread the disease to other oaks through their interconnected roots. We don’t have much oak wilt in our area yet. Let’s keep it that way!
Also be aware that occasional infestations of non-native Spongy/Gypsy Moths (Lymantria dispar) can severely defoliate oaks and other trees. The trees usually survive and re-sprout, even if defoliated for repeated years. But if you’re concerned, here’s Michigan State University’s web page on identifying and dealing with them. Please don’t confuse them with the native silk web caterpillars, Eastern Tent Caterpillars or Fall Web Worms, which cause only minimal damage. Remember, spraying an oak can kill over 500 species!
A Brief Guide to Oak Identification
I’ve only included leaf shapes here. I’m trying to learn bark patterns for winter ID’s but have a long way to go before I master it. Consult a tree ID app or guide book for more complete information. Lots of acorns look very much alike, but I love the distinctive fringed, stocking-cap-look of Bur Oak acorns that make identifying them so easy!
Our oaks fall into two groups, White Oaks and Red Oaks. Here’s a quick look at leaves of the most common species in our area.
The leaves of the White Oak group have rounded lobes. This group includes species such as White Oak, Swamp White Oak, Chinkapin Oak, and Bur Oak. The leaves of Swamp White Oaks and Chinkapin Oaks are slight more pointed but don’t have bristles at the tips like the Red Oak family.
Each lobe on the leaves of the Red Oak group has a sharply pointed tip ending in a bristle. The Red Oak group in our area includes species such as Northern Red Oak, Pin Oak, Red Oak, and Black Oak.
So, What Do You Think? Can You Host an Oak in Your Yard?
I know not everyone can plant an oak, but I’m hoping many of you can. More than any other native tree, the mighty oaks provide life support for the whole, intricate web of life that surrounds each of us. All of our native trees host some native caterpillars; our insects evolved with them after all. But if we want to make a big difference with just one tree, the oak’s our best bet. And just think, it will be standing right where you planted it for hundreds of years after you and I are gone. Such a great legacy to leave for the future!
Michigan Botanist, 2008, Vol 47 “PRAIRIE AND SAVANNA IN SOUTHERN LOWER MICHIGAN: HISTORY, CLASSIFICATION, ECOLOGY” by Kim Alan Chapman and Richard Brewer. Quote from Hoffman, C.F. (1835). A winter in the west. Michigan History Magazine 9:221–228; 9:413–437 (1925)
Bringing Nature Home and The Nature of Oaks by Professor Doug Tallamy
Blog post by Heather Herndon, Natural Areas Stewardship Technician
The nutrient-poor conditions of bogs and fens present a challenging environment for plant growth, so some plants have evolved mechanisms to obtain extra nutrients in interesting ways. The three special plants found in these habitats in Michigan are pitcher plants, bladderworts, and sundews. Carnivorous plants have always been a favorite of mine because of their ability to live in extreme environments and thrive by eating insects! It is also really fun to watch slow motion videos of flies being captured by the infamous Venus flytrap!
Pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) can be found in bogs or fens all over the great state of Michigan, including the bog at Cranberry Lake Park. The highly modified leaves are curved into a pitcher-like shape, thus giving the unique carnivorous plant its name!
The Pitcher Plant has quite a unique flower!
Pitcher plants in particular attract insects with their brightly colored, highly modified “pitcher” leaves that mimic flowers. Insects crawl down into the leaf and get trapped! Downward pointing hairs and a waxy coating on the inside of leaf prevent the insect from escaping, and enzymes produced by bacteria in the liquid at the bottom on the leaf digest the insect. A “pitcher” perfect ending for the plant, but not so much for the insect!
Can you see the fine white hairs on the inside of the leaves?
Have you found a carnivorous plant while walking through a fen or bog in your area? If you have, comment below! We would love to see your photos and hear about your experiences with cool carnivorous plants!
Plant information was gathered from Michigan DNR and NOHLC websites.