I’m always cautious when I write about the wildflowers at the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail between Gallagher and Silver Bell Roads. Many of the wildflowers here are very fragile and quite unusual, so this natural area needs to be treated very carefully.
Because I’d like to help residents understand just how special the Wet Prairie is, I’m occasionally allowed to take a very careful and slow walk with my camera. Here’s the beauty – and the fascinating strangeness – I came across on two short trips there last month.
Restoration of a Special Place Yields Special Flowers
Restoration of this 10-acre natural area by Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his Parks and Recreation stewardship crew has worked wonders over the years. Years ago when I first saw the little flower with the exotic name, Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca), one blossom stood alone on the prairie. I loved it the moment it caught my eye. This year the prairie was covered with these striped beauties, the most I’ve ever seen!
According to the Illinois wildflower site (a favorite of mine), Grass-of-Parnassus loves moisture and chalky (calcareous) soil, but doesn’t like a lot of competition from other plants. A high water table keeps this prairie wet for a good portion of the year. In some places, the unusual soil prevents water from draining away, pooling in the spring and drying out in summer sun. Occasional use of prescribed fire suits many of the plants that grow here. They’re fire-adapted after growing for millennia in landscapes that burned frequently, not to mention fires in the last few hundred years started by lightning or by the trains that passed on the nearby railroad. Ben and his crew have consistently removed invasive shrubs and encroaching trees to keep the area open and sunny. Grass-of-Parnassus, no doubt a long-time denizen of the Wet Prairie, celebrated all of these unusual conditions and the restoration work this summer with an abundant bloom!
The prairie also hosts another airy fall wildflower that prefers little competition. Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) grows along the drier areas near the trail. A wide variety of native bees and butterflies find their way to its bright white showy bracts, which are modified leaves like the red bracts of poinsettias. The white bracts of flowering spurge highlight the yellow flowers at the center. I love their simplicity; they remind of the flowers I drew as a child. Their leaves are safe from deer browsing because they contain a toxic white latex.
Flowering Spurge is monoecious, which means separate male and female flowers are produced on the same plant. Once pollinators do their work, the fertile female flowers are replaced by a capsule with a seed in each of its three chambers which appear right at the center of the female flowers! Below is a closeup look at their bulbous seed pods which will eventually eject the seeds when they’re mature.
Tucked down among the grasses, Cylindrical Blazing-star (Liatris cylindracea) makes itself known through the whirling effect of its purple blossoms. Each flower head is crowded with 15-20 individual tube-shaped flowers. A two-part curving “style,” emerges from each one. The style is the slender stalk that connects the stigma, the surface on which the pollen lands, to the ovary below in the blossom. These lovely wildflowers last about a month in late summer/early fall and tend to appear singly like many of the flowers on the Wet Prairie, preferring little competition. The name Blazing Star seems particularly appropriate in this wildflower, since the styles spin out from each flower like the stars in a Van Gogh painting.
Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) thrives in the moist, chalky soil of the Wet Prairie. A small, woody bush, only 1.5 to 3 feet tall, it attracts native bees, honeybees and a variety of other flying insects to its bright yellow flowers during the summer and early fall. It also benefits from being of little interest to deer.
On the early September walk, I explored the wetter areas at the back of the prairie and came across an elegant stem of Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) with a haze of dusty lavender Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) dancing in the distance. The turtlehead’s two-lipped flower performs two functions: the top lip forms a protective hood for the flower’s stamen and pistils and the the lower serves as a landing pad for foraging insects. Like many of our native plants, it protects itself from deer – in this case by having bitter leaves.
On the far back slopes of the prairie, a Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) made a swirling explosion of seeds, each attached to its silky white parachute. What a delicate abstract design with its central slender pod shape!
Early in September, I spotted a yellow wildflower growing on the steep bank above Paint Creek across the trail from the Wet Prairie. It turned out to be a wildflower I rarely see, Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), a very tall (3-8 feet) plant that often finds a home on river banks or near wetlands. Their sunbursts of raggedy yellow flowers contain a rim of “ray florets” that look like petals but are each a separate fertile flower and a disc floret filled with individual tubular flowers that together create a pin-cushion effect at the center. (Petals, as opposed to “ray florets,” are actually non-fertile modified leaf-like structures.)
Two stalks of a modest wildflower that I’d never seen before stood alone above the creek. Ben identified it as White Lettuce (Prenanthes alba). The drooping blossoms are cross-pollinated by those masterful native pollinators, the bumblebees (genus Bombus) seeking nectar with their long tongues. I watched as two of them foraged busily, the one on the left probing for nectar vertically within the blossom, just the lower tip of its body showing, and the one on the right with a yellow “pollen basket” on its back leg.
Nearby a non-native Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica) explored the abundance of the tiny disk florets that make up a Snakeroot flowerhead (Ageratina altissima). These wildflowers thrive in disturbed soil, especially at the edges or openings of woodlands. They spread quickly both by rhizomes (underground stems) and by achenes lofted to new locations by small tufts of white hair called pappus. I look forward to them, because they are often the last wildflower to bloom in the fall.
When I arrived later in September, the Grass-of-Parnassus was fading. But the Wet Prairie was dotted with Smooth Blue Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) – small, erect sprays of lavender sprinkled generously across the landscape. According to the Illinois Wildflowers site, this seemingly delicate wildflower is a major food source for pollinators, including at least six species of native bees, honeybees and as you’ll soon see below, butterflies. Tree Sparrows, Wild Turkeys, Ruffed Grouse and White-footed mice enjoy the seeds and the caterpillars of several moths browse on their leaves. A small plant with a big benefit to wildlife!
Within the exclusion fence at the back of the prairie, New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) tossed and nodded their purple flowers in the autumn breeze. New England Asters rely on non-native honeybees, native bumblebees and other long-tongued bees to pollinate them. The short-tongued bees and hover/syrphid flies visit to collect pollen, but are generally too smooth-bodied to be effective pollinators. This aster also hosts the caterpillars of many species of moths, which feed on the leaves. Those caterpillars can provide important nutrition for adult birds and their nestlings. For those reasons and their sheer beauty, I was happy to see these purple wildflowers with their golden centers dipping and rising in the late afternoon sunlight.
As September progressed, I counted on finding two favorite wildflowers on the Wet Prairie and was not disappointed. Where water seeps to the surface on the south side of the prairie, Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) produce their strange indigo blossoms that never open. These large bud-like flowers wait instead for the big, bustling bumblebees to force their way inside looking for nectar and pollen. Once within, the bees produce a high-pitched buzz with their flight muscles, using their legs and mouth parts to direct the vibration toward the pollen-laden anthers inside. The pollen explodes into the air within the enclosed Bottle Gentian, clinging to the bumblebee’s fuzzy bodies. Have a look and listen to this short video of a bumblebee” buzz pollinating” some poppies. What a clever way for the bumblebee to collect pollen and for the Bottle Gentian to be pollinated!
Another deep blue Gentian is unfurling the artfully fringed and overlapping lobes of its blossom in the short grass of the prairie. The Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita), like the Grass-of-Parnassus, thrives in the chalky (calcareous), generally moist soil of the Wet Prairie. Several species of bumblebees frequent these gentians and once fertilized, it forms pods filled with tiny seeds that are carried away by either wind or water. Can you believe that blue?
Beautiful Autumn Blossoms Get Plenty of Visitors
In general terms, a host plant is one that provides food and shelter for other species – in the case of wildflowers, either nectar or pollen for adult insects, or leaves and stems for their caterpillar young. Native plants are particularly effective hosts. In the autumn, the special flowers of the Wet Prairie are providing a last minute meal for bees, beetles, wasps, butterflies and other insects by day and moths by night, including one rare one! So it’s not surprising that on my two short visits, I saw a variety of “guests” drop in for a visit.
The Butterfly Guests and the Young of a Very Unusual Moth
As I mentioned earlier, butterflies seem to find plenty of nectar on the Wet Prairie’s Smooth Blue Asters. I saw a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) restlessly flitting about the field on both visits, but luckily, on the second visit, one settled down for a sip on a Smooth Blue Aster. These small flowers must pack a lot of sugary punch on a cool day! Here’s a close look at this fritillary’s strange spotted eyes and its long proboscis probing the flower for nectar.
On my second visit, an Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) also rose and sank repeatedly as it flitted above the greenery. At one point, it headed straight for a Smooth Blue Aster, its proboscis curled in flight.
Once it landed, the proboscis extended and acted as a straw to extract the sugary nectar from the disc floret at the center of the aster. The field mark for the Orange Sulphur is that orange blush on the upper (dorsal) surface of the wing, though the female’s is a bit paler. The male has a wide brown band at the wing edge whereas the female’s brown band is punctuated by white spots. Glad this one finally stopping scurrying around the prairie and settled in for a late afternoon drink.
The male Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) looks like a small chip of blue sky bobbing along in short flights over the grass in the Wet Prairie. (The female’s wings are brown on the upper side.) The Eastern Tailed Blue normally closes its wings when stopping to feed or rest, showing only the gray undersides of its wings, featuring two orange spots and a tiny “tail” on each hindwing. Fortunately, it occasionally stops with its wings slightly open to bask in warm sunlight, like the one below. That sunlight felt soothing to both of us on a cool fall afternoon.
Out in the wet areas where the Bottle Gentian blooms, my husband spotted a male Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) far back in the greenery. When I reached him, his immobility surprised me; I was able to get remarkably close. I noticed he was periodically pulsing his wings which looked fresh and flawless. My guess is that this fellow was one of the “super generation” of Monarchs that had just emerged from his chrysalis. Once his wings were fully functional, he would fly off to feed before beginning his long journey to Mexico. Isn’t he a beauty? I wished him well.
A nearby Joe Pye blossom hosted the ubiquitous Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus). Its long tongue allows it to feed on many different wildflowers. Notice the hooked antennae, a field mark for all skippers. I come upon these sturdy little Silver-spotted butterflies quite often on my walks. Maybe you do, too?
I’m always attracted by the bright orange blossoms of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and noticed a strange quivering on the leaves of one at the edge of the trail. The cause turned out to be the avid chewing of the chubby orange and black caterpillar of the Unexpected Tiger Moth (Cycnia inopinatus). An intriguing name, eh? It certainly was unexpected for me! The Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group identified it for me, and I confirmed their information with the huge caterpillar compendium, Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner.
After a couple hours of research, I finally found a comprehensive article on the website of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, Eastern Region. This moth is described as “uncommon to rare and local throughout its range” due largely to habitat loss. Our caterpillar hatched in the right area, since the adult moth seeks out high quality barrens or grasslands full of butterfly or whorled milkweed.
Adult Unexpected Tiger Moths (see the iNaturalist photo below) hatch, mate and lay eggs in 2-3 weeks, never bothering to eat during their brief lifetimes. The ones that emerge in the spring produce the August brood, which probably explains the presence of the caterpillar I saw. It will eat and then transform into a pupa whose loose cocoon will fall into the leaf litter to overwinter until spring. So we’ll just have to hope that the orange and black caterpillar above ate enough to mature and survive the winter, so that next spring a rare moth emerges and finds a mate along the trail. [Photo below by Chrissy McClarren and Andy Reago at iNaturalist.org]
Other Insect Visitors, including a Cannibal!
I came across a trio of insects that had landed on a Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida), a wonderful plant with its upright posture and filigree of fuzzy, soft green leaves hugging the stem. On the left, a jazzily striped Locust Borer Beetle (Megacyllene robiniae) fed on the goldenrod’s pollen. If it’s a mated female, she will later scurry along the bark of non-native Black Locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia) looking for a wound in which to lay her eggs. On the right side of the plant, two Soldier Beetles (family Cantharidae) found one cluster of yellow blossoms to be the perfect spot for quiet mating. Nice to know that one of my favorite goldenrods is such a generous host!
Out in the shorter grasses of the prairie, however, lurked a predator with cannibal instincts. Fortunately, it was only about 2.5 to 3.5 inches long! We spotted a non-native European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) who was busily eating what appeared to another of its kind. (There are no native praying mantises in Michigan.) If you look carefully in the photo below, you can see a long, angled brown and green leg very much like its own bending up from the green abdomen that the mantis holds between its spiked, raptor-like legs. I know, the photo’s a bit grim, but there’s no malice here. It’s just dinnertime on the prairie for a hungry insect trying to survive in its habitat. I think it’s important to keep reminding myself of that – and you too maybe?
I can’t confidently determine the gender of this mantis, but females are usually larger than males with bigger eyes, so my guess is that this is a male. Now, you may know that female praying mantises are notorious for consuming their partners after mating. Actually, about 70% of the males are crafty enough to avoid becoming a quick, nourishing meal for their mates. But it turns out that mantises prey on each other even in the nymph stages, scuttling away from each other after hatching in order to survive! No doubt that’s one reason that I’ve always seen only one Praying Mantis at a time!
Filling the “Swamp” or Valuing Water and Wetlands
One afternoon, standing knee deep in grass and flowers, I remembered that I grew up in a time when wetlands were scorned as nasty “swamps”, damp places “infested” with bugs, places that should be dried out in order to become “more productive.” Hence the common metaphor these days, “drain the swamp.”
Unproductive? Ugly? There I was standing in the Wet Prairie among a colorful panoply of native wildflowers and grasses, all beautiful, some very special, even rare – and each of them serving their unusual habitat in so many complex ways. All day and all night from spring to fall, butterflies, beetles, bees, moths and other insects find their way to the wildflowers and grasses of the Wet Prairie to find sustenance and shelter for themselves and their young. Animals seek the wetland nearby and spring pools on the prairie for drinking and bathing. And below the surface, the roots of wetland plants are cleaning the water which permeates the water table to later quench the thirst of humans who don’t always appreciate the services wetlands provide.
“Swamp” is actually a botanical term that technically means a wetland dominated by trees and shrubs. But for some these days, it’s still a pejorative for those “nasty” wetlands of my youth. I protest! And I celebrate the restoration work that will keep the Wet Prairie blooming, beautiful, and yes, “productive” for its insect guests and for future hikers of the Paint Creek Trail.