Monday, March 11, 2013

Shoreline Fens of the Bruce Peninsula

I wonder if it's perhaps time to start rethinking the name of this blog.  With the amount of out-of-state traveling and botanizing I do throughout the surrounding states and regions, I feel like it has as much to do with the natural treasures of those places as it does with home sweet Ohio.  I'm only thinking out loud and have no real intentions of tackling the matter but it does stand to reason this blog is much more than just the fine buckeye state!  Recent times have seen focus on some of those extended forays; such as upstate New York and the southern Adirondacks, as well as the cranberry glades of West Virginia.  All were quite tardy and well past due but still worth the time to produce and share.  That being said, your blogger has decided to keep with that theme and travel back in time even further to catch up on some old business!  What better way to waste away the last days of winter with some warming tales of summers past?

A couple years ago during the summer of 2011 found myself wandering the botanical and geological masterpiece that is the Bruce peninsula in Ontario, Canada.  I began to weigh in on my travels and findings a ways back but lost track and it unfortunately got lost in the shuffle.  I'd like to dive back in and finish up my tales of the Bruce before spring fully awakens and my blogging switches back to more relevant topics.

Large shoreline fen complexes the Bruce peninsula is widely known for

One of the most spectacular aspects to this limestone derived slab of the Niagara escarpment are its huge expanses of shoreline fen complexes.  Unlike the small, isolated fens that pocket west-central and northeast Ohio, these graminoid dominated ecosystems stretch on as far as the eye can see in some places and are hundreds of acres in size.  Lake Huron's adjacent nippy waters play a direct role in the hydrology of these fens and keep their soils saturated and thriving with spike rushes (Eleocharis spp.), sedges (Carex spp.), and other fascinating flora characteristic of this habitat-type.  Areas of the Bruce such as Dorcas Bay, Petrel Point, Oliphant, and Red Bay claim prime examples of these shoreline wetlands and their associating plants; some of which are exhibited below.

Northern Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea)

My mid-June visit happened to coincide with the en masse blooming of the fen's most noticeable occupant: the northern pitcher plant.  Literally thousands of its large, blood-red flowers were suspended over the stunted pitchers growing below in the nutrient-poor and mucky soil.  The wetland almost seemed to suffer from an aggressive case of the chickenpox due to the mass-flowering of pitcher plants.

N. Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea)
N. Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea)

The chilled, water saturated muck and marl soil of fens rarely hold any appreciable amount of nutrients (most specifically nitrogen) and require some plants to find ulterior methods for fulfilling their nutritional needs.  For the pitcher plants, sundews (Drosera spp.), and bladderworts (Utricularia spp.) that grow and persist in these fens, that other tactic is being insectivorous.

Linear-leaved Sundew (Drosera linearis)

Linear-leaved sundew's (Drosera linearis) glistening, enticing leaves intermingled with the pitcher plants across the swathe of fen and established an intimidating web of death for any winged insect.  Upon capture through a plant's own unique practices, the insects are broken down by the plant's natural enzymes and converted into a usuable form and ingested.  Speaking from experience itself, I don't see how these plants could ever go hungry with the unlimited number of mosquitoes, midges, and biting flies etc. that abound.

Fen orchid (Liparis loeselii)
Fen orchid (Liparis loeselii)

Naturally, my main draw to the Bruce was its famous flora and most specifically its orchid diversity.  At the conclusion of my week spent there, I found no less than 20 species of orchid at one stage of its seasonal life cycle or another.  One of the most exciting of orchid discoveries occurred while scanning the drier hummocks of Oliphant fen for anything unusual.  The appropriately named fen orchid or Loesel's twayblade (Liparis loeselii) may pale in comparison to the physique of the forthcoming orchids in this post but their intricate lime-green flowers don't fail to impress.

Large expanse of shoreline fen on the Bruce peninsula

Gazing out across the open meadows allows your mind to soak in the details and impressive size of the Bruce's shoreline fens.  Come July these wetlands come alive with a pink/purple sea of rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides) and grass pink (Calopogon tuberosus) orchids that would make even the least botanically-interested stop and take notice.

Cotton Grass (Eriophorum viridicarinatum)
Cotton Grass (Eriophorum viridicarinatum)

My visit was a few weeks too early for the orchid fireworks show and I was instead greeted with the conspicuous fruiting stalks of cotton grass (Eriophorum viridicarinatum) gently weaving in the cool breezes off Lake Huron.

Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum)
Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum)

Another strikingly white and easily discernible plant showing off its seasonal charm throughout the fens was Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum).  This was a huge get for your blogger and provided a very satisfying opportunity to photograph and mark off another predominant life species; not to mention finally experience the spicy and refreshing aroma of its crushed foliage.

Shrubby, wooded borders of the fen complexes

Surrounding the large fen complexes were cool, mossy coniferous swamp forests comprised of white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), balsam-fir (Abies balsamea), tamarack (Larix laricina), and black spruce (Picea mariana) that allowed for even more fascinating plant life to mesh at their margins.

Showy Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium reginae)

The most exciting of those plants utilizing the forested margins of the fen meadows was easily the showy lady's slippers (Cypripedium reginae).  I was lucky enough to feel the adrenaline of coming across a flowering clump of these majestic orchids twice during my stay on the Bruce.

Showy Lady's Slippers (C. reginae)
Showy Lady's Slippers (C. reginae)

I'd seen this species many times before back home in Ohio but the chance encounters here were not taken for granted and still sit high on my list of most exciting and appreciable finds.  The contrasting pink and white of their remarkable flowers is set perfectly against the vivid greens of the cedars and surrounding vegetation; it's hard to think they could ever really hide from anyone with such a loud display.

Sage-leaved Willow (Salix candida)
Shining Willow (Salix lucida)

It's not only the fen's herbaceous plant life that is endlessly diverse and intriguing but its woody plant compositions and associations as well.  While walking through a shrubbier section of the Dorcas Bay complex I came across many species of willow (Salix spp.) either already in fruit or just breaking bud.  One of the most noticeable was the accurately named sage-leaved willow (S. candida) with its silver-green foliage reminiscent of the western state's sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) plant.  Another shrubby willow in the fen's thickets and borders was the shining willow (S. lucida) just coming into flower.  The above photo on the right exhibits the shining willow's golden staminate flowers.

Wet area of the sedge meadow full of bladderwort (Utricularia spp.) flowers

In the soupier, more saturated parts of the fens grew a host of weird and unusual plants, including another of the Bruce's numerous carnivorous species.  The speckling of yellow flowers in the water-logged area above belong to the flat-leaved bladderwort (Utricularia intermedia).  The bladderwort's "roots" have a series of bladders that pull in water and its accompanying tiny invertebrates to digest and break down in a similar fashion to the aforementioned sundews and pitcher plants.

Tall White Bog Orchid (Platanthera dilatata)

Just beginning to break bud among the bladderworts was a species of orchid I had never laid eyes on before and was pleasantly surprised to find in flower.  Tall white bog orchid (Platanthera dilatata) has been found and recorded in Ohio's northern surrounding states but never Ohio itself, despite some habitat existing during pre-settlement times.

Tall White Bog Orchid (P. dilatata)
Tall White Bog Orchid (P. dilatata)

Also known as white bog candles, this orchid ranges clear across the continent in its northern boreal habitat and additionally in the higher elevations of the mountain west.  Throughout its range taxonomists have separated it into three varieties depending on the size comparisons between the inflorescence's spur and lip.  Here on the Bruce and the rest of the eastern half of the continent only the typical variety (P. dilatata var. dilatata) occurs.

Buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) in fruit
Small Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos)

Not all is fair in botany though; the success of a find is often followed by the sting of defeat.  I had hopes of seeing a major lifer, the buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) in flower but as it turned out the sole time I came across some the flowers were long gone and the fruits swelling with maturity.  I'll just have to return earlier in the season to catch their sensational flowers scattered throughout the wet meadows.  Certainly something you wouldn't have to pull my hair to get me to do!  On the opposite side of the flowering spectrum the small cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccos) were just beginning to get going and carpeted small areas of the fens with their reddish-white, nodding blossoms.

Northern Leopard Frog

My time spent on the Bruce may be approaching two years in the past but I still often times find myself reminiscing on my experiences and discoveries with aspirations of returning sooner than later.  I've been fortunate to have done quite a bit of traveling across our continent in my life thus far and while many places are worth remembering, it's spots like the Bruce peninsula that you leave a piece of year heart behind upon your return home.  There is still plenty to share on the Bruce's wonders and I hope to get to them.  No matter how delayed they may be, their song deserves to be sung for all to hear.


  1. Taking a look at where you have traveled and what you have covered, I would say that if you did truly feel the need to rename your blog and the focus of your photography, it would not be too far off from what Ohio has to offer.

    In many posts on my own blog I have argued that Ohio and Michigan are not best termed part of the true Midwest but rather part of the Great Lakes region, both culturally and naturally. We don't quite fit in with even neighboring Indiana entirely, nor are we a true part of the northeast. We have traces of the great northern boreal majesty about us, as we do a part of Appalachia (at least in Ohio), but by and large we are an amazing world of mixed-forests, savannas, bogs and fens, and at the center of it all, water.

    Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario, along with shoreline Pennsylvania and New York are part of something a little bit different from the rest of the countries they are a part of, and it looks as if you could have the making of a second blog to cover that sort of thing.

    Anyway, enough of my ranting! The Bruce is a truly nice place and I am glad you covered a part of it. I would say that if you have a thing for fens, the next time you are in Michigan, feel free to come to Ives Road Fen south of Ann Arbor. A little more southern that your posted feature here, and something of a meeting place between different botanical worlds.

    1. Yes! As a Michigan resident since the mid-70s, there's finally someone else who opines "this is *not* the "Midwest"". Why our subject region is not totally considered the "Great Lakes Region"; I'll never know. As a native Iowan, I believe you must cross the Mississippi River westbound to enter the real Midwest.

  2. Very well done! Makes me want to jump in a car and get out there.

  3. Some of these places and plants I'll never see but looking at the pictures of them makes me feel I was there with you,Great Job as always.

  4. 'Sounds like a wonderful spot!