Monday, July 4, 2011

Ram's Heads on the Singing Sands (Bruce Peninsula)

My first full day of exploring the Bruce had finally arrived.  I walked out the door and into the morning sunlight where I was immediately greeted by American Redstarts and Black-throated Green warblers filling the air with their song.  A perfect way to start the day if you ask me.  I spent part of my evening the night before pouring over some maps and information on the area in an attempt to decide where I should start my dissection of this botanical wonderland.  I concluded on an area along the western shores of Lake Huron at Dorcas Boy known as the Singing Sands.  Singing Sands got its name from the sound of the sand blowing over the dunes and alvars.  This is one of the only sandy beaches on the northern end of the Bruce.  Most are dominated by huge boulders and slabs of the limestone bedrock as you will eventually see.

A huge fen complex along Lake Huron at Dorcas Bay

Singing Sands is home to many varying habitats and ecosystems within its section of Bruce Peninsula National Park.  One of the most inspirational and influential of Mother Earth's disciples and personal hero of mine, John Muir, visited the Bruce numerous times during his two year stay in Ontario in the 1860's.  Of the Bruce John said, "Are not all plants beautiful?  Would not the world be poorer for the banishment of a single weed?"  I don't think John ever met the Asian Lonicera shrubs but his point is very valid!  Upon arriving to Dorcas Bay it's hard not to notice the gargantuan fen complex stretching as far as the eye can see all around.  Hundreds and hundreds of acres of wet sedge meadow with pockets of White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis), Black Spruce (Picea mariana) and Tamarack (Larix laricina) scattered about was an unbelievable sight!  Coming from Ohio, most fens pale in comparison to Dorcas Bay's.  I was a couple weeks too early for the Dorcas Fen orchid fireworks show.  Thousands of pink specks of the Rose Pogonias (Pogonia ophioglossoides) and purple Grass Pink (Calopogon tuberosus) dot the fen in dizzying densities in late June and early July.

Sarracenia purpurea
Drosera linearis


However, there were thousands upon thousands of N. Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea) in full bloom out in the sedge meadow.  This is the same species found in the northeastern bogs and fens of Ohio but their leaves were quite a bit smaller and the flowers on shorter stalks up here.  Unlike most fens, including Ohio's that rely on ground/spring water, these shoreline fen complexes rely on close by Lake Huron for their water source.  Spring rains and higher lake levels flood the fens during the 'wet season', which was nearing an end during my time up there.  A carnivorous plant species first-timer for me was the cousin to our round-leaved Sundew, the Linear-leaved Sundew (Drosera linearis).  Essentially the same in habitat and functionality, the obvious difference is its leaves which are long and narrow versus rounded.  With the amount of mosquitoes, midges, black and biting flies I don't see how these plants, as many as there were, could go hungry.

Singing Sands beach at Dorcas Bay on Lake Huron
The biggest reason for wanting to do this hike first was in high hopes of seeing my most anticipated plant species and reason numero uno for coming up to the Bruce, the rare and elusive Ram's Head Lady's slipper (Cypripedium arietinum).  Even before I was really into botany or plants in general I had always heard of the Lady's slipper orchids and thought how cool and interesting they looked.  I guess it's only appropriate that they are one of my favorite genera of plants in our flora.  A major life goal of mine is to see all 12 Cypripedium species indigenous to North America in their native habitat.  There are three accepted varieties to C. parviflorum and a handful of naturally occurring hybrids as well.  With the addition of the Ram's Head I'm now batting .500, having seen C. acaule, C. candidum, C. kentuckiense, C. parviflorum, C. reginae and now C. arietinum.  I'll be packing my bags and exploring the northern Rocky Mountains, California and Alaska to complete the set but that's for another time and story.

Cypripedium arietinum done blooming
Already done for the season

I began walking very slowly through the mixed conifer woods a couple hundred yards in from the shore with my eyes peeled sharply to the ground, looking for a green stem with three to five leaves alternately arranged and topped with a tiny, marble-sized red and white slipper.  After nearly 30 minutes of careful scanning I finally picked out of the corner of my eye a suspicious plant.  As I moved closer it became evident this was the very plant I'd come all this way to see was all but spent.  One after another, the Ram's Heads unveiled themselves to me but all were brown and shriveled, papery excuses of their former grandeur.  My stomach slowly sank as I found plant after plant further down the trail with the same results.  It really was a punch to the gut and soul to have daydreamed the whole ride up of seeing this amazing plant only to see it just days past prime condition.  I knew I was cutting it close by coming in mid-June when the Ram's Heads peak bloom is late May to early June.  They are a very short-lasting lady's slipper, with each flower rarely lasting more than a few days in prime condition.  Maybe next time I thought as I sulked down the trail but still keeping a lookout.  Good thing I kept going because just around the bend....

Ram's Heads under the Hemlocks
Ram's Head Lady's slippers

After observing so many past bloom plants, I took note of what specific niche in the habitat they were growing in.  Throughout its range it can be found in both dry conifer forests as well as wet, swampy woods and acidic bogs.  At Singing Sands they grew as solitary plants or loose clumps just underneath or along the Hemlock and Jack Pines on raised, mossy hummocks.  It was more a matter of looking for that kind of situation first, rather than looking specifically for the plants.  The first two I happened across still in bloom were just under the lowest bough of a Hemlock and were even better than I had imagined.

Size comparison
Such delicate beauties

I'd waited a long time to see these diminutive orchids and they did not disappoint in the slightest.  The spectacular snow white labellum is marked with purplish-crimson reticulate veination and densely pubescent along the rim of the mouth.  If the size and coloration of this Cypripedium doesn't sell its identity then the downward projection of the bottom of the lip sure does.  No other lady's slipper in North America has a similarly structured labellum.  Not only is this orchid striking in color and architecture but the sheer tininess of it as well.  It's certainly the smallest of the East's lady's slippers with even the largest flowers only being as big as my thumb nail.  While nowhere near as scented and sweet-smelling as the C. parviflorum var. makasin from my previous post, they do emit a pleasing and sugary aroma.

Ram's Head in typical habitat
Ram's Head in perfect condition

This lone plant was one of the few still in perfect shape on my hike.  The shots from above feature blooms that have already been successfully pollinated.  This is a fairly easy conclusion to surmise as the dorsal sepal ('petal' above the slipper) falls down over the mouth of the lip as if saying to its insect friends, "Sorry, closed for the season".  Botanist and orchid extraordinaire, Fred Case wrote that C. arietinum had a preferred habitat of conifer uplands in sandy areas characterized by Cedar and Pine, especially with an association of limestone beach cobble.  With that accurate observation it's no wonder the Bruce is one of the best areas within the entire range of the Ram's Head to see this increasingly rare orchid.  In the United States, this orchid is only found in the northern Great Lakes states as well as in northern New England.  With global warming and higher temperatures this northern, boreal species may become more and more rare within its U.S. range until disappearing completely.

Lake shore alvars
Ontario rarity Packera obovata

After spending more than enough time with the Ram's heads, I continued down the trail until it came to the lake shore where the forest gave way to large expanses of exposed limestone bedrock.  These areas of grooved and scraped stone are a globally rare habitat known as an alvar.  Only select areas within the Great Lakes basin (including Ohio's Kelley Island), Sweden and Estonia have alvars.  Created thousands of years ago when the mighty weight of the glaciers passed over the area, you can still see grooves and markings from where they scraped over the bedrock.  The yellow flowers scattered throughout the beach belonged to the Round-leaved Ragwort (Packera obovata).  While common in Ohio and found in a variety of habitats, the round-leaved Ragwort is quite rare in Ontario, growing predominately on the rocky shores of alvars; completely different than what I normally see.

Glacial groves on the limestone alvars
Iris versicolor

Water and small pockets of dirt gradually collect within the depressions and holes of the limestone bedrock.  This allows plants such as sedges (Carex spp.), spikerushes (Eleocharis spp.) and the photographed Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor) to grow and survive in the harsh and punishing conditions of the alvars.  That reality of just how little life can cling to up here really became the reoccurring theme of the trip.  Amazing what life will do when given the chance.

Pinguicula vulgaris
Pinguicula vulgaris

For the return hike back to the car I decided to stick along the lake shore to see what different sights and species I could find.  My eyes were quickly attracted to a patch of lime green rosettes with small purple flowers dancing in the wind.  I instantly recognized them as another exciting and unusual species I had hopes of seeing!  This is the carnivorous plant known as Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris).  The lime colored and slimy rosettes attract insects which become stuck to the surface and are then digested.  The purple solitary flowers have a Penstemon or Viola-esque look to them in my opinion.  This plant is only found in a handful of northern states where it is rare in just about all of them.

Prunus pumila var. pumila
Glacial alvars along Lake Huron

As I got closer to the car I came across an area with some of the most obvious signs of glacial evidence.  The ground was one huge, flat and continuous piece of dolomite limestone bedrock.  It almost looked like nature was reclaiming an old airport runway or section of concrete highway.  This is all the Bruce is; one huge hunk of Silurian age limestone with life still fighting for survival all those millennia later.  Crossing over the sand dunes just before the parking lot I spotted a scrubby-looking shrub species still clinging to a few white blooms.  It was the waning flowers of the Great Lakes Sand Cherry (Prunus pumila var. pumila), which was collected only once in Ohio over 100 years ago and never seen again.  This uncommon shrub plays a vital role as a sand and dune stabilizer, using its roots to prevent sand from shifting and loosening.

After getting to the car I realized my stomach was growling and my taste buds were watering for an ice cold beer back at the pub.  I'd spent all day exploring this fascinating area of the Bruce and finding so much more than I could ever fit into one blog post.  I was still on a high from finding the Ram's head lady's slippers as I cruised through the back roads to get that beer but I couldn't help but already start to plan for tomorrow's adventure...


  1. What an incredible place! You sure have a nose for finding the rarest species, too. If I ever get to the Bruce, I would hope to have you for a guide. Thanks for taking us there with your splendid photos.

  2. Great blog, Andrew. Thanks for visiting and commenting on mine. If you are ever out our way, I'd be delighted to show you around, and, sicne we have relatives in Michigan, maybe sometime I can get some pointers from you.

  3. ...sounds like a wonderful adventure. Also...I love your photo of the Packera obovata. it's beautiful.

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  5. Thanks, guys! I still have a few more posts to go on the Bruce but I just can't seem to find the time or energy to sit down and do them. As I'm sure you've noticed I like to do quite a bit of writing and that takes time so please bear with me as I have SO many posts backed up to share!

  6. Good planning (and a little luck in timing!) on your part to find the Ram's head orchid.
    I saw one last year and missed it by a week this time around. So tiny.

  7. Those are some beautiful pictures! Especially the pitcher plants, wow! Hopefully I can add those to my list sometime soon.

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