One hot fall morning, a male Red-bellied Woodpecker “kwirred” cheerfully as it hopped among drooping vines, plucking fall fruits along the Paint Creek Trail north of Silver Bell Road. Down near the ground, beneath the towering stalks of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) on the Wet Prairie, native wildflowers bloomed, often unseen. This special prairie is “wet” because the soil just below the surface doesn’t allow water to penetrate. That leads to very wet conditions in the spring, but droughty soil in the heat of summer. It’s a “prairie” because prairie plants, which are adapted to fire, thrived here despite repeated wildfires over the years caused by the railroad. As a result, an unusual mix of autumn wildflowers, in exotic shapes and vivid colors, flourishes on 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.
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.
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.
And finally, an open one! Look at the square opening made by the four leaves!
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!
And here’s Ben’s photo of a bumblebee emerging from a Bottle Gentian at Gallagher Creek Park. Quite a moment to catch, eh?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The fruits of the False Asphodel (Triantha glutinosa) add a touch of fall color to the prairie.
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.
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.
And across the trail from the prairie, we saw Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida).I love the way the soft leaves clasp the stalk.
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.
We saw another old friend, one late bloom of the gorgeous orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).
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.
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.
Creatures of the Wet Prairie
A Monarch butterfly(Danaus plexippus)rested in the shade of a tree 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.
A Green Darner (Anax junius),a large, very agile dragonfly, took a break from patrolling for insect pray and rested in the shade.
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.
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.
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.
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!
It’s not difficult to see where native Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) got its name!
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.