Tag Archives: Sky Blue Aster

A Short Walk: Through the Blue at the Wet Prairie

I thought I’d experiment with periodic pieces that feature all the great natural features and creatures to be seen on a short walk in our township parks and natural areas. I expect that some of you feel too busy for a longer stroll (though I highly recommend trying to find the time when you can).

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

So now and then, I’ll share what I’ve found in just a 20 – 30 minute hike, with the hope that you’ll be inspired to take some brief excursions into nature to renew yourself in the midst of life’s everyday hubbub.

A sign on the west side of the Paint Creek Trail, just north of Silverbell Road, marks the location of the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie

The Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail is located a short distance north of Silverbell Road, just west of Orion Road. It’s a delicate habitat without trails into it, so I thought I’d take you on a short virtual walk through its spatters of blue flowers on a sunny autumn afternoon.

The prairie here is called “wet” because the water table is near the surface, keeping the ground fairly wet for a good part of the year. In some areas the unique soils won’t let water penetrate deep into the soil. So in the spring, water pools on the surface, but later in the summer summer it’s very dry. Like many prairie plants, the beautiful wildflowers here evolved to cope with those changes. They also thrive after fires, since both lightning and the trains that  ran along the trail years ago caused plenty of them. If given relief from non-native plants, these  hardy, adaptable native blooms flourish and spread. Many of the plants at the wet prairie are specialists to soils rich in calcium, or calciphiles.

An area full of blue Fringed Gentians on the Wet Prairie

At the moment, the Wet Prairie is dappled in blue. Fringed Gentians (Gentianopsis crinita) grow enthusiastically across this grassy area. As each blossom unfolds, you can see the delicate fringe that lines the deep azure petals. Look for them on a sunny day, because they don’t open when it’s cloudy.

A Fringed Gentian just opening its fringed petals.

When I first began coming to the prairie about 5 years ago, Fringed Gentians were scarce – a few here, a few there. But thanks to the prescribed burns, systematic removal of competing non-native plants by our Stewardship crew, and probably some luck from the weather, their numbers seem to be very good this year. What a sight now to see groups of them blooming among the native grasses!

One of several groups of Fringed Gentians that have emerged after dedicated stewardship efforts from the Parks Commission.

Another azure beauty blooms among large rocks on the southwest side of the prairie. Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) has an unusual, closed blossom that never opens.  Instead, the sturdy Bumblebees need to push their way inside, taking pollen with them when they pop back out and head for the next flower. It’s a clever strategy for enticing a highly effective pollinator like the bumblebee, but excluding the small insects that might take nectar, but not do much serious pollinating!

Bottle Gentian blossoms are pollinated primarily by bumblebees, a great pollinator big enough to get inside the blossom which never opens.

Like most prairies right now, the Wet Prairie also hosts other blue beauties, like the Smooth Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) and Sky Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense). The flowers of these two asters have very similar color, so you have to check the leaves to tell them apart. Smooth blue aster has smooth leaves with leaf bases that wrap around the stem, while Sky Blue Aster (also known as Prairie Heart-leaf Aster) has rough leaves with bases that don’t wrap around the stem. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, a fount of useful information on Midwestern flowers, these little asters feed a huge number of native bees, as well as providing seeds for one of my favorite winter visitors from the far North, the Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea).

Sky Blue Asters provide their lavender blue to the scene as well as pollen and nectar for bees and seeds for birds and other creatures.

Along the Paint Creek Trail near the park, and in the fenced exclosure at the back of the prairie, the hardy, vivid New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) glow in the sunlight – and migrating Monarch butterflies (Danaus pleixippus) feed avidly on them.

New England Asters seem to be a favorite plant with Monarch butterflies during the fall migration.

Some very unusual, white wildflowers sit close to the ground in many spots around the Wet Prairie right now. The delicate, dark green-striped Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) blooms are almost at the end of their season, but they’re still shining up from the grass in many places. I’ve never seen this wildflower in our other parks so I’m always happy to learn it’s blooming here in late summer/early fall. I think that in the photo below, the small orange and green satellite next to the flower is a very cool Grass-of-Parnassus seed head!

Grass of Parnassus is close to the ground – an unusual wildflower!  Next to the blossom is one that has gone to seed.

We have our own little orchids blooming in the Wet Prairie too.  Small, spiraling stalks of native Ladies’ Tresses (genus Spiranthes) bloom here and there on the north end of the prairie. Actually, according in U-M’s Michigan Flora website, seven Spiranthes orchids and many other orchids bloom in various areas of Michigan  – a surprise to me! Many of these orchids are in decline because of illegal harvesting and high deer densities, so please just look when you see an orchid.

A small spiraling stalk of Ladies Tresses’ orchid is right at home on the Wet Prairie in the autumn.

A Few Extra Treats

The big butterflies are almost gone here, but I was lucky enough to see a beautiful small one that I’d not come across anywhere for about 3 years. The Common Buckeyes (Juonian coenia) love yellow flowers for some reason and that’s right where I saw one, poised at the tip of Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis). Buckeyes migrate to Florida and other southern destinations for the winter, so this one may have just been passing through. I’m glad I happened to cross its path!

A Common Buckeye probably on its way south for the winter.

The Common Buckeye isn’t common for me, but the Clouded Sulphur actually is, especially at this time of year! I enjoy these small yellow butterflies because they have a lovely flutter in the grass at the end of the year, when so many other flying beauties have disappeared. I just learned this year that these tiny butterflies also migrate south. They’re actually found all over North and South America at various times of the year!

Clouded Sulphurs fly south for the winter after breeding in our area.

Near the edge of the trail right across from the Wet Prairie, a large, dense patch of acorns lay underneath a small White Oak (Quercus Alba) and what I think was a mature Black Oak (Quercus veluntina). I assumed initially that these two trees had dropped the acorns directly below them. But later my husband suggested that perhaps  this big dense patch of acorns was an attempt by a Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) to begin its cache for the winter. Maybe? Red squirrels do make piles of nuts at the foot of the trees in which they nest and then defend them from other creatures. I’m just not sure that a cache is likely so close to the trail –  but who knows? A nice autumnal sight in any case.

Could this be the winter cache of an American Red Squirrel, or just the result of acorns dropping from the nearby oaks?

Maybe Take a Nature Break?

So as you can see, a short walk can reap some nice rewards. A 20-30 minute walk in our parks in any season will offer up delightful surprises deep in the grass, hovering in mid-air, climbing up a shrub or perched high in a tree while you take a refreshing break from your daily routines. And crisp autumn days with cool cheeks, white sunlight and less biting insects are a real tonic after hours inside. So consider treating yourself to even a small dose of nature this week. I’m betting it will do you good. It always does for me.