Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Gone Fennin' in Southeast Michigan

Gone fennin'.  I think I might have made that word up just now but it fits and to be honest I kind of like it.  If you can go boggin' like myself and naturalist friends Todd Crail and Bill and Deb Marsh did a couple weekends ago, then our time spent in a couple fen complexes later in the day deserves its own designation too.  If you didn't catch part one of this trip, you can read all about it by clicking this link HERE.

As much fun as was had exploring the morning's sphagnum bog, we knew we had to press on with our day in order to see the rest of the sites on our itinerary.  We traded in one glacially influenced habitat in the acidic sphagnum bog for another in a couple alkaline fen complexes not too far away.  Fens are specialized wetlands that have mineral-rich neutral/alkaline groundwater percolate to the surface and keep its typically sedge and grass dominated meadows saturated and mucky year round.  Bogs differ in being acidic, more or less stagnant water with no in/out flow, and are very low in minerals.

Small, shrubby sedge meadow full of unseen orchids

The first fen we visited wasn't too far from the bog we had just left but what a night and day difference a little distance can make.  The small maze-like patches of sedge meadow were dotted with shrubs and trees trying to reclaim the open ground to the march of natural succession.  Despite the encroachment, the site remained diverse and intact with a spectacular display of your typical sedge associates in Carex stricta, C. sterilis, C. suberecta, C. pellita, and C. sartwellii for starters.  Sedges are always nice but it was what was hiding among them that we really had our sights set on.

Northern Small Yellow Lady's Slippers

Dozens upon dozens of northern small yellow lady's slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin) were scattered throughout the meadow like lemon gum drops in a sea of green.  A large majority were well past bloom and setting to seed but here and there was a fine specimen in spectacular flower like the trio above.

Northern Small Yellow Lady's Slipper

This species is excruciatingly rare in Ohio with only two extant populations and both sites are home to only a handful of individual plants each.  Further north they become considerably more frequent in large part due to their preferred habitat of fen meadows and white cedar swamps becoming more common.  I'd love to revisit this site next year just as these orchids hit their peak.

Andrew's Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium x andrewsii var. andrewsii

Even better than the presence of small yellow lady's slippers was an additional Cypripedium tucked back in an isolated patch of sedge meadow known as the Andrew's lady's slipper (C. x andrewsii).  As cool as it would be to claim I have some affiliation with this plant, alas I do not and the name "Andrew's" is after Edward Andrews, a botanist who first discovered the hybrid.

Close up of the Andrew's Lady's Slipper

Andrew's lady's slipper is a naturally-occurring hybrid between the small white (C. candidum) and the aforementioned small yellow (C. parviflorum var. makasin) species and is an increasingly rare occurrence throughout the range of both species.  This particular cross has left the slipper (labellum) a pearly white with magenta venation and speckling inside the lip from the small white parent, while the darkened, almost mahogany lateral and dorsal sepals come from the small yellow.

Side profile portrait

Unfortunately, the small white lady's slippers are long gone and extirpated from the site likely due to either being shaded out by the encroaching woody vegetation or perhaps a change in the site's hydrology.  The handful of hybrids are all that remain as any evidence they ever existed there.  I've seen this hybrid only once before back in Erie county, Ohio and their situation was the reciprocal with the small whites extant and the small yellows long missing.  You can get the full details on that site by following this link HERE.

Common Juniper (Juniperus communis)

Other than the lady's slippers, the fen meadow was pretty on par with what to expect from such a habitat even from an Ohio perspective except for the presence of common juniper (Juniperus communis) shrubs in a select few places.  This species is listed as endangered back home but like so many other things, a short drive north turns the rare into the expected and predictable.  The glaucous blue cones almost seem like they are the botanical world's attempt at making turquoise.

Huge expanse of fen sedge meadow in southeastern Michigan

If the first fen gives off the vibe of being a bit claustrophobic then our second stop should allow for much easier breathing and calmed nerves as it was the largest fen complex I've ever experienced.  Over 100 acres of open fen sedge meadow play home to a dizzying diversity of plant and animal life including the rare spotted turtle and eastern Massasauga rattlesnake.  While we never encountered either of those desired reptilians, our group still had an unforgettable time exploring the depths and extent of the fen.

Buxbaum's Sedge (Carex buxbaumii)
Bottle Brush Sedge (Carex hystericina)

Right off the bat it was the sedges that drew me in.  Dozens of species were present in the subtle but different habitat zones of the fen meadow including one of my very favorites in the Buxbaum's sedge (Carex buxbaumii). Its bright green perigynia go hand in hand with their corresponding dark pistillate scales to create one of the most striking sedges you'll ever see.

Virginia Iris (Iris virginica)

Exquisite patches of Virginia iris (Iris virginica) were at peak bloom and nigh on impossible to miss as their electric purple blossoms floated in the warm early summer breeze.

Fen Orchis or Loesel's Twayblade (Liparis loeselii)

The aptly-named fen orchid or Loesel's twayblade (Liparis loeselii) is one of the most common species of orchid to occur in the mucky, saturated soils of open fen meadows but their lime green color and tiny stature make finding them relative to a needle in a haystack.  The secret to discovering one seems to be this: don't look for them.  Let them come to you and hopefully your eyes will catch a glimpse.

Northern Pitcher Plant in flower

The northern pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) must have followed us from the bog as while out in the middle of the sedge meadow, we came across an area with quite a few still exhibiting their strange and unique flowers. With so many deer flies and annoying gnats buzzing around your head and face, you can't help but root for the pitcher plants and hope they get their fill of the Diptera irritations.

Swamp Valerian (Valeriana uliginosa)

Towards the end of our time in the immense fen meadow, Todd, Bill and Deb, and I came across a sizeable patch of tall flowering stems each topped with cluster of stunning white flowers.  I'd never seen the plant in person before in my life but knew right away those spectacular blooms belonged to the swamp valerian (Valeriana uliginosa), a species I'd long daydreamed of making acquaintances with.

Swamp Valerian (Valeriana uliginosa)

Swamp valerian has to be one of the most sensational wildflowers of the open fen meadows come early summer. Even each individual flower when looked at up close exhibits a beauty all its own and when combined together in a whole inflorescence, you're left with a tough task of finding a better looking plant.

Portrait of the Swamp Valerian (Valeriana uliginosa)

Swamp valerian was only recorded from Ohio a couple times at likely the same site in Stark county back in the late 1800's and has not been seen since 1899.  Never say never but it's pretty clear this species isn't coming back to our state anytime soon so finding it unexpectedly in southeast Michigan was hands down the most pleasant surprise and find of the day in your blogger's opinion.  I had no idea if and when I'd ever get to cross this one off the life list due to its relative rarity throughout its range and century-plus period of extirpation from Ohio.

Prairie Valerian (Valeriana ciliata)
Prairie Valerian (Valeriana ciliata)

As if finding one rare valerian wasn't good enough, this particular fen wasn't done yet as in close proximity to the swamp valerian was a nice scattering of prairie valerian (V. ciliata).  In Ohio, prairie valerian is only known from two west-central Ohio fens and that's it state-wide, making it one of our rarest vascular plants. It's pretty clear it doesn't hold a candle to its brethren in the looks department with its small greenish-yellow flowers.

Needless to say, southeastern Michigan treated your blogger and his companions in fantastic fashion with a bounty of botanical goodies I could not have predicted we'd come across during our foray.  I think it's safe to say another visit during a different time of the year is in order.  There's always more to see and explore, especially in places you've only scratched the surface of.


  1. This is awesome! Were you by chance at Matthaei Botanical Garden? They have large portions of fen- not open to the public, but private tours can be arranged.

    1. Thanks, Sharkbytes! This was a nature preserve owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy near Tecumseh. I'm not familiar with Matthaei Botanical Garden but after looking it up, it looks like a fabulous place and not too far away!

  2. Another fine blog entry, Andrew! I love your writing style, and it makes me feel like I'm right there with you... Keep it up. Maybe we can get together this August in the Carolina Coastal Plain.

    Jim Fowler, Greenville, South Carolina

    1. Thanks for your kind words as always, Jim! I've always wanted to make these kinds of posts feel like the reader is out in the field with me and tagging along so it's good to know it reaches out that way to at least some people :)

      I'd love nothing more to come pay you a visit! Let's stay in contact and try to nail down some dates.

  3. Fascinating habitat. We have some great fens along the Lake Huron shore of the Bruce Peninsula here. But how do you ever get to learn the sedges!?

    1. I'm what some call a "sedge-head" for the fact I love sedges! I find nearly everything about them fun and worth studying and enjoy their challenges; even if they do have me pulling at my hair many times.

      I visited the Bruce Peninsula back in June of 2014 for a week and loved every minute of it. I saw so many incredible life plants and habitats; especially the orchids! If you look on the right hand side of my blog under the "Topics" list and click on "Bruce Peninsula" you can read several posts on my experiences there if you'd like and haven't before!

  4. Though the flower may not be much to look at, I love the leaves of the prairie valerian.

  5. Oh man, I grew up in Michigan (St. Joseph Co.) and never knew what treasures existed nearby. Thanks for this marvelous tour with vivid prose and magnificent photos.

  6. Man, am I jealous. We are in w. Michigan right now visiting family but I have not had any time for exploring. Can't wait to get back to Washington either and will be escorting a native orchid aficionado from German around for three days.