Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Bruce Peninsula Part VII: Majestic Flowerpot Island

 *Part I* *Part II* *Part III* *Part IV* *Part V* *Part VI* *Part VII*

The time has finally come to bring my whirlwind tour of the fabulous Bruce peninsula to a close. It's nearly two years in the making and long over due for completion but better late than never. I have a handful of friends heading up to the Bruce over the next few weeks and I'm green with envy of their trips. What I wouldn't do to sneak away and re-immerse myself in the spring perfection that is one of Ontario's best kept secrets. I'm of the opinion that I saved the best for last and hope you'll agree with that once you've dug into this final installment...

The large flowerpot on aptly named Flowerpot Island

Flowerpot Island. Easily one of the biggest draws for the Bruce peninsula and adjacent Fathom Five National Marine Park. It's a short ferry ride off the northern shores of the peninsula and within this rocky 500 acre crag of exposed limestone lives a plethora of incredible plants, including one very elusive orchid I'd chased for many years.

Flowerpot Island on the horizon with a smaller unnamed island in the foreground

The aqua jeweled waters of the Georgian Bay are dotted with an assortment of rocky islands of varying sizes and interests. Many are very small, uninhabited and seldom, if ever visited but still very aesthetic in their own rights. I'd love to explore these forgotten specks of bedrock and see what plants have managed to colonize and persist. Many of the island's rocks exhibit huge patches of a bright orange-yellow species of lichen that had to have taken centuries to accumulate.

Approaching Flowerpot Island through the morning mist and fog 

Our visit to Flowerpot Island coincided with a thick layering of morning fog and mist that made the island seem even more primordial and mysterious than it already is. The sheer rock cliffs and thick emerald vegetation gave me visions of Jurassic Park for one reason or another and I almost expected to hear the roar of a T-Rex from the depths of the island.

Sheer limestone cliff faces and bluffs of Flowerpot Island

Some of the white cedars (Thuja occidentalis) growing out of the limestone cliff faces on the surrounding islands have been studied and their ages taken by core samples. It's almost impossible to believe but some trees not even a foot in diameter have been determined to be over a millennia old! What tenacious and incredibly hardy organisms they are to have weathered countless bitter winters, horrendous storms, and hot, dry summers.

The famed flowerpots of Flowerpot Island

On the ferry's approach you'll pass right by the island's namesake flowerpots in all their geological glory. Here in this photo the larger of the two sits in the foreground with the smaller one nestled further back. A third flowerpot once occurred but tumbled down back in 1903. I'll dive deeper into these wonderful sea stacks further on in this post.

Bunchberry (Cornus candensis)

Once you dock on the island and exit the ferry you are immediately thrown into a botanical paradise unlike most any place you've been before. The lushness and biodiversity from the start is dizzying and you're left almost numb from a bombardment of pleasures on the senses. We spent as much time on the island as possible but even then time went by far too fast and I felt a bit rushed.

Two trails occur on the island: one is a one-way walk to a sensational wetland known as a marl bed; the other a loop trail that takes you around the eastern half of the island. Both are well worth every step and take you to some fascinating sites, both botanical and geological. However, there is one spot on the island that is ground most hallow and was an instant visit for myself once I set foot on solid ground.

Calypso Orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

In the shaded haunts of one corner of Flowerpot Island's coniferous forests lives a mystical being that I had waited many years to make acquaintances with: the calypso (Calypso bulbosa). This ever more rare denizen of the northern woods is also known as fairy slipper and at first look doesn't appear to belong anywhere else but the equatorial jungle with its countless other bizarre orchid kin. I nearly melted when I first laid eyes on this incredible wildflower and could have spent my entire time on the island staring at its ineffable beauty.

Calypso Orchid (Calypso bulbosa)
Calypso Orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

There were about a dozen calypsos in picture perfect flower with maybe another dozen in their vegetative leaf-only phase. Much like the ram's head lady's slippers (Cypripedium arietinum), I knew this wildflower would be miniscule in size but I was still caught off guard by just how damn dainty they were. The entire flower was perhaps the size of the end of your thumb.

Calypso Orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

I can't recall the last time I sat and intensely photographed a wildflower as much as I did the calypsos. I'd unsuccessfully hunted them for years and even visited this very spot during my first Bruce trip back in mid June 2011. Alas, that visit was too late and I found only leaves and brown husks that were once their otherworldly flowers. The etymology of Calypso's name, which hails from a nymph in Greek mythology, comes from the meaning "to conceal" or "to hide". This makes perfect sense considering this orchid's affinity for dark, secluded boreal forests. And despite its colorful appearance believe me when I say it's an apt hider.

Calypso Orchid (Calypso bulbosa)
Calypso Orchid (Calypso bulbosa)

After finding the calypsos in spectacular shape and finally marking such an anticipated "life" orchid off my list, I don't think my feet touched the ground the rest of the day. I merely floated about the island on wings of pure bliss and botanical joy that only something like this orchid could produce. But as memorable as the calypso is, Flowerpot Island has so many more wildflower treasures to share!

Gaywings (Polygala paucifolia

With every step down the island's trails more and more wildflowers appear from behind their emerald curtain. With no deer or other major herbivores on the island, the flora has a chance to largely grow unimpeded with some amazing results. Not only is the diversity of species eye-popping but the density at which many occur is, too. Huge swathes of gaywings (Polygala paucifolia) covered the ground in many spots, including all over the calypso site with the orchids often growing right out of the middle of it.

Dwarf Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera repens
Western Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia)

The calypso is hardly the only orchid to call this island home either. Well over a dozen species occur throughout the variable landscape and bring their own charm to the party. While not blooming until a month or so later, two species of rattlesnake plantain orchid's artistic basal rosettes could often be seen in the forest understory. The western or giant rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia) may be the blandest of North America's four Goodyera taxa but make up for it by being yet another odd example of a western disjunct that's right at home in this region of the Great Lakes. It's much more common in the Mountain West and PNW and skips the entire middle of the continent before showing up in a very local fashion here on the Bruce.

Naked Miterwort (Mitella nuda)

Delicate. That's the best word to describe the impossibly adorable flowers of the naked miterwort (Mitella nuda). Each flower appears like a snowflake with its deeply fringed sepals adorning the less impressive petals. Not far from this small colony of the naked miterwort was the two-leaved miterwort (M. diphylla), a species common in Ohio but a scarcity for my friend and botanical companion, Rob. It made me chuckle to have both species nigh on side-by-side with one miterwort common to me but rare to Rob and vice-versa.

Early Coral-root (Corallorhiza trifida)
Early Coral-root (Corallorhiza trifida)

Yet another orchid to grace us with its presence was the limey green stalks of early coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida). While a critically endangered species back home in Ohio, this early bloomer is quite common on the Bruce and occurred all over the more shaded, moist areas of Flowerpot Island. It almost has a ghostly glow to it in the damp, dark understory and makes it rather easy to pick out. 

Striped Coral-root (Corallorhiza striata)

Not to be upstaged by its orchid brethren was plenty of striped coral-root (C. striata) looking dapper in the drier, sunnier forested sections. The overnight soaking rain hadn't fully evaporated off its red and white flowers and gave it a jeweled appearance. While 'striped' is an accurate name for this particular myco-heterotroph, I much prefer the common name of peppermint stick orchid. 

Heart-leaved Twayblade (Neottia cordata)
Heart-leaved Twayblade (Neottia cordata)

The calypso can definitely take home the title for most gorgeous of orchids I saw, and despite being genuinely small it cannot also hold the belt for tiniest orchid. That honor goes to the absolutely, positively dainty heart-leaved twayblade (Neottia cordata). It's an easy one to miss if you don't get one shining in a beam of sunlight on the needle-strewn forest floor. Each flower is the size of a BB at best and requires a hand lens or a camera's macro lens to fully appreciate. I had a terrible time getting a good photo due to the deep shade calling for a slooow shutter speed combined with a slight breeze ever-so-slightly pushing the twayblade around. It was miraculously rediscovered in extreme NE Ohio a few years ago after being thought long lost and extirpated for nearly 80 years! I still need to get up to that site and get this tiny wonder on my Ohio list one of these days.

John exploring the mucky margins of the island's marl bed

Earlier in the post I mentioned a unique wetland on the island known as the marl bed. It's hard to miss when walking by as it appears as an extremely shallow, mucky pond of sorts but don't write it off too quickly! One can, and should spend plenty of time exploring its area for a wealth of quality plants. From orchids like the showy lady's slipper (Cypripedium reginae), which wouldn't bloom until later in June, to dozens of sedge species: the marl bed is a real treat.

Starry False Solomon's Seal (Maianthemum stellatum)

Along the not-as-wet margins of the marl bed was a dense colony of the ever-stunning starry false solomon's seal (Maianthemum stellatum) in full, spectacular bloom. It's by no stretch a rarity in Ohio and I see it frequently in the right spots but it's never one I'd ignore and not give some attention to with my camera.

Bird's-eye Primrose (Primula mistassinica)
Bird's-eye Primrose (Primula mistassinica)

Undoubtedly the marl bed's most exciting bloomer during our visit was scads of the bird's-eye primrose (Primula mistassinica) flowering throughout its mucky margins. It was a species I'd been too late for on my first Bruce trip and was elated to find looking so fine in its alkaline wetland home. 

The picturesque shorelines of Flowerpot Island

After spending plenty of time in the damp, dark, close quarter conditions of the island's interior it's blissful perfection to finally breakout onto the sun-drenched, boulder-strewn, limestone pavement shorelines. The water is as pristine an aqua blue as exists in the northern hemisphere and makes you think you'd found a wormhole to the Caribbean.

The unmistakable blue perfection of the Georgian Bay

Flowerpot Island is literally nothing more than a giant exposed crag of limestone bedrock and its shorelines show that splendidly. The huge bedrock pavement pieces almost immediately give way to deeper water right off the coast and make for a gorgeous transition of water colors from aqua to deep sapphire blue.

Wall-rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria)
Wall-rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria)

Don't let the scenery of the island's shorelines distract you from botanizing, though! There's plenty more to be had among the boulders and limestone cobble. Some careful searching of the larger moss and lichen covered rocks can reward the patient with patches of the very rare and disjunct wall-rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria). This fern is predominately an Appalachian species found from New England down to Alabama, but fascinatingly occurs hundreds of miles north of any other sites on the Bruce and nearby Manitoulin Island and the Straits of Mackinac area. I don't know what it is about the Bruce that makes it act like such a plant magnet for oddities like this but I freakin' love it!

The large flowerpot
As promised it's time to show off the most prominent feature of Flowerpot Island and its namesake: the flowerpots! These sea stacks were formed over the millennia by water, waves, ice and wind all hammering away at the cliffs along the island's shoreline. Softer rock layers slowly eroded and as the water levels waxed and waned post glaciation it finally left these two unique pillars that we see today. It's hard to believe that man had nothing to do with their formation and all it took was time and opportunity for nature and its power of erosion to do its thing.

Your blogger posing with the larger flowerpot
The smaller, but still awesome flowerpot

Judging just how big the larger of the two flowerpots is is a hard task without something for scale. So what better than your blogger to provide such a service! It's a lot bigger when you get up close to it and you kind of just have to stare in awe and wonder at the odds this thing beats to continue standing year and year, decade after decade. The smaller one is only a third the height but both contain some genuine bonsai white cedar trees that somehow, someway manage to survive growing out of nothing more than a crack in the limestone. I compared photos with extremely similar angles of both flowerpots from my 2011 and 2015 trips and could not notice any bit of growth from any of the cedars. They're seemingly frozen in time, at least from a human being's lifespan's viewpoint.

Slender Cliff Brake (Cryptogramma stelleri)

Another limestone-loving fern you might be lucky enough to see while on Flowerpot Island, and other select areas of the mainland peninsula is the slender cliff brake (Cryptogramma stelleri). It prefers cool, shaded, moist fissures and cracks in the bedrock and exhibits dimorphic fronds, or fronds that differ in their appearance based on whether they're fertile or sterile. The fertile fronds have a lacier, skinnier look to them, while the sterile ones have a more blunt, stubby shape.

Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
The rocky shorelines and small flowerpot

The alvar-like shorelines are full of other fascinating plant life and a diversity of wildflowers for those that can peel their eyes away from the water and flowerpots. Species like wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), upland white goldenrod (Solidago ptarmicoides), bearberry (Arctostaphylops uva-ursi), northern bog violet (Viola nephrophylla), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) and ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) are but a handful of wildflowers that grow all over the place.

Flowerpot Island sitting in the jeweled waters of the Georgian Bay as you head back for the mainland

I've really only scratched the surface of Flowerpot Island but hope it was enough to show just how amazing a place it is. It's well worth a day of your time up there to head out and explore its forested depths, limestone bluffs, and incredible shorelines.

Well, all good times must come to an end and this long look back on my unforgettable spring 2015 trip back up to the Bruce has finally come full circle. I really hope you've enjoyed this detailed look at what all this gem of a location has to offer and it has inspired you to take a trip up there one of these years. Or maybe it has rekindled your love for it and caused a deep-rooted passion to return to its beauty once more. I really want to make a return trip later in the summer sometime and re-experience it all over again with different plants. The Bruce is one of eastern North America's most incredible of botanical, geological, bird-rich, and scenic of landscapes and I wish I could do her better justice than I have. The Bruce will always be near and dear to my heart for the rest of my days no matter how many times I return. Thanks so much for following along and I hope to see you back for more botanical adventures soon.

- ALG -


  1. What a wonderful post to cap off your series. I'm glad you got to see the Calypso, and the Wall Rue, two of my favourites. The tiny Calypso is definitely one of the most beautiful of wildflowers. I was there first in1962, taken as a teenager of 14 by my naturalist mother and aunt. We saw many of those plants, and I vowed to return. I was back several times, both with family when we camped there, and alone when I could go exploring the caves. One of my favourite spots to explore anyplace in Canada. So glad you enjoyed it, and I've enjoyed your entire series. Sure has rekindled my interest.

    1. Thanks, Gnome! Glad you enjoyed my LONG overdue series and hope you get back up to the Bruce soon. If I lived closer I'd visit all the time :). We have the wall rue in Ohio, although it's rare here, too but not that rare. It was a blast to see it so far from its normal haunts up there.

  2. spectacular photos Andrew! Love that calypso. I did a Bruce tour many many years ago, it may be time to go back. Thanks again, great job documenting this.

    1. Thanks so much, Dave! Glad you enjoyed the series and followed along. It's definitely time for another Bruce visit for you! It's too amazing a place to not go back to time and time again.

  3. Awesome series... thanks for putting all this together and sharing it!

    1. My pleasure and glad you liked it so much, Ron! I have so much more to share from the last couple years and hope to try and stay active on here.