Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Brown's Lake Bog State Nature Preserve

"There are few habitats I love to explore and delve into more than the peaty goodness that is a sphagnum bog". Those words were written down a mere two weeks ago to open a post on a spectacular bog in southeastern Michigan and your narrator meant every word.  So while up in northern Ohio this past weekend with botanical companions Daniel Boone and Tanner Morris to see the previously shared round-leaved orchids at Clear Fork Gorge state nature preserve, it was an easy decision to make the most of our time in the area by making a short additional drive to do some boggin'.

Sphagnum vegetation mat at Brown's Lake Bog state nature preserve

Brown's Lake Bog state nature preserve is located in Wayne county and one of the best remaining sphagnum bogs in the entire state.  Its millennia-old floating vegetation mat on the margins of the open kettle pond is home to a slew of typical bog associates and acidophiles, many of which are quite rare and state-listed species found in few other places.  The bog itself has been on conservationists radars for decades and has been under the protection and stewardship of the Ohio chapter of the Nature Conservancy for almost 50 years and is a designated National Natural Landmark.

Surrounding swamp forest at Brown's Lake Bog

The bog and open kettle pond are surrounded by a lush swamp forest that is the result of previous bog habitat reaching its climax community.  The open nature of the floating sphagnum mat is only a temporary chapter in the life of any bog and gradually fills in with peat and woody vegetation as the forces of natural succession chug along. Given enough time and no intervention, the kettle pond at Brown's Lake Bog will eventually look identical to the photo above and give little evidence it ever existed in its current form.

Red maple, silver maple, and ash make up the majority of the swamp's canopy at Brown's Lake with spicebush (Lindera benzoin), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), smooth alder (Alnus serrulata), cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum), crested wood fern (Dryopteris cristata), sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), and bluejoint grass (Calamagrostis canadensis) occurring throughout its lush understory.

Water Pennywort (Hydrocotyle americana)
Water Pennywort (Hydrocotyle americana)

One of the more interesting and certainly inconspicuous wildflowers to thrive in the mucky, acidic soils of the swamp woods is the American water pennywort (Hydrocotyle americana).  Its creeping habit can form dense colonies in suitable conditions, where you're much more likely to notice its round, scalloped leaves and completely overlook the tiny flower clusters located in the leaf axils.

Open water of the kettle pond behind a stand of swamp loosestrife

Breaking out of the perimeter swamp forest finds the ever-shrinking 7-acre kettle pond and its surrounding bog mat.  Succession has done a good job of crowding out most open areas of the mat with woody plants like poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) and highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) along with dense clumps of cinnamon fern but some small, yet significant areas remain free enough to support a diversity of plant life that requires the space and sunlight.

Sphagnum moss is ready for its closeup

Sphagnum moss is the backbone of any bog and a large reason why they exist in the first place.  This genus of moss has the amazing ability to hold exponentially more water weight than the dry weight of the moss itself; in some cases as much as 26 times its dry weight.  Due to the presence of phenolic compounds in the moss's cell walls and the natural anaerobic conditions of a bog, decay and decomposition hardly takes place and instead the moss accumulates on itself as it grows and dies and creates "peat".  As the dead organic matter builds up, further acidification takes places as the peat takes up cations from the environment (such as calcium and magnesium) and releases hydrogen in the process.  This all adds up to create the very specialized habitat conditions required for many bog species to occur and persist.

Scattering of Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides) orchid

One of those species is the spectacular bubblegum pink rose pogonia orchid (Pogonia ophioglossoides).  A dense display of these orchids can be seen on the bog mat at Brown's Lake each mid-June and is well worth the trip.

Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossides)

Also known as the snake-mouth orchid, rose pogonia is a threatened species in Ohio that only occurs in a handful of sites where its habitat requirement of an acidic substrate and constant water supply can be met.  It's no wonder then that this species does so well on the bog mat at Brown's Lake.

Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossides)

The orchids only occur on the most open and wet parts of the vegetation mat where competition from other plants is the lowest.  They are easily displaced as shade and cramped conditions increase and are at the mercy of any management team responsible for keeping their habitat cleared and open.

Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossides)
Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossides)

Not many of our wild orchids seem to bother with being fragrant but the rose pogonia apparently missed the memo on that point.  They emit a refreshing and pleasantly sweet aroma that is reminiscent of raspberries, making them a worthwhile discovery for not only your eyes but your nose as well.

Northern Pitcher Plants
Pitcher with its meal

No bog is complete without the presence of the quintessential pitcher plant among the orchids, sedges, and sphagnum.  Brown's Lake is home to not only the carnivorous northern pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) but another bug-eater in the round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) as well.

Large Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

Another acidophile no bog should be without is the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon).  This trailing woody vine is adorned with tiny white flowers come summer which are then replaced by tart cranberries a few months later. They are edible but be forewarned: they are quick to make you pucker even when ripe.

Pod Grass (Scheuchzeria palustris)

Of all the vascular plants to call the bog mat at Brown's Lake home, this next taxon has to be the weirdest and most rare of them all.  Scattered among the rose pogonias and pitcher plants is something called pod grass or simply Scheuchzeria (Scheuchzeria palustris), a monocot that is the only member of its genus and family (Scheuchzeriaceae).  It occurs throughout the northern hemisphere in cold, boggy habitats and is currently listed as an endangered species in Ohio with Brown's Lake being one of the very last places it occurs.  Most would hardly take the time or opportunity to notice it and I suppose I can't blame them but I find its unique and strange nature too quirky to ignore.

Prickly Bog Sedge (Carex atlantica var. atlantica)

It wouldn't be a proper bog blog post without some recognition of the Cyperaceae members present within the sphagnum paradise, now would it?  Sedges are largely shunned and ignored by most for their inherent difficulty to identify to species and dizzying diversity but I'm helplessly fascinated and interested in them.  The one pictured above is the nicely named prickly bog sedge (Carex atlantica var. atlantica).

Woolly Fruit Sedge (Carex lasiocarpa)
Mud Sedge (Carex limosa)

The woolly fruit sedge (C. lasiocarpa) is a potentially-threatened sedge species that can be found in both fen and bog habitats despite their respective pH differences and is one rarely seen in fruit for one reason or another.  In fact, this visit was the first time I've ever seen it with intact perigynia.  The mud sedge (C. limosa) should look familiar as it was featured on the Michigan bog post as well but being an endangered species in Ohio and this site being one of its last, it was worth another mention.

Arrow Arum (Peltandra virginica)

Like the aforementioned American water pennywort and its much more conspicuous leaves, the arrow arum's (Peltandra virginica) flowers can be easily ignored or overlooked.  Most botanically-savvy people should recognize this species as belonging to the arum family (Araceae) for the presence of a spadix and spathe, much like its related jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) brethren.

Arrow Arum (Peltandra virginica)

This is about as open and "showy" as the arrow arum flowers get with their spadices almost fully enclosed within the protective spathe.  Despite containing calcium oxalate crystals like many other members of the arum family, the Native Americans used to utilize its rhizomes for food but only after many hours of cooking and repeated water changes to leach out the crystals.

I wish Brown's Lake bog wasn't so far away from where I live, as I would love to explore this site at different points in the year and experience the changing seasons and plants as the months roll by.  June is the only time your narrator has ever visited to specifically coincide with the peak bloom of the rose pogonias but fingers crossed a late summer or fall trip can be arranged to catch this wondrous place in a whole new light.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Quirky Orchid Under Old-Growth Pine and Hemlock

If you're a first time reader and/or visitor to this page, I thank you for dropping in and hope you enjoy your stay. For everyone else, whether it be my long-time readers or recent followers you should probably know by now of my obsession with our wild orchids.  It's a passion that only increases as the weeks and months go by after all.  I hope to feature or share each and every one of Ohio's 47 indigenous taxa on here at least once as time goes on.  The one that happens to be featured in this post also happens to be one of my favorites.  I know, every other orchid species is "one of my favorites" but this one is definitely on the top ten list.

Dan deep in thought under the old-growth white pines and hemlocks

The hike to the site for our upcoming quirky orchid is one of my favorites in Ohio, as it takes you into one of the rarest habitats our state has left to offer.  Along a north facing bluff overlooking the deep sandstone gorge of the Clear Fork of the Mohican is a very small but very significant old-growth white pine and hemlock forest full of ancient and towering specimens.  Above my good friend and botanical companion for the day, Daniel Boone pauses under a particularly profound white pine to ponder the beauty of the forest.

Soaring white pine
Stout hemlocks

Stout and straight with hardly a taper is the rule in this grove and that makes it truly a sight to behold.  Even on the clearest and sunniest of days the forest floor remains cool and dark with its lofty canopy keeping the sun at bay overhead.  The melodic notes of the veery, hermit thrush, and black-throated green warbler are never far from your ear during this time of year and add another layer to your sensory overload.

Round-leaved orchid under the pines and hemlocks

Due to the aforementioned low-light conditions, the forest floor is sparsely vegetated with a large ratio of the ground merely a bed of fallen pine needles and oak leaves among a scattering of intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia).  Hardly anything seems able to live, let alone thrive in such conditions but the round-leaved orchid (Platanthera orbiculata) has managed to find a way. 

Round-leaved Orchid (Platanthera orbiculata)

Its large, round basal leaves are hard to miss among the detritus when purely vegetative but there's really no overlooking the plant when in full glorious flower.  It's ghostly cream-green glow beckons any willing soul toward its wand of bizarre looking flowers arranged in perfect fashion along a scape.

Close up of the raceme of round-leaved orchid

In my opinion, no other Ohio orchid's individual flower structure is more out-of-this-world than the round-leaved orchid's.  In something out of a drug-induced vision of the late Hunter S. Thompson, the flowers look like scurrying demonic, bat-headed beings on four legs with a tail, all ascending back up into their alien mothership.  Anyone care to share what they see in the flowers?

Such weird looking flowers
Aerial view of the round-leaved orchid

Orchids have the reputation for being some of the more fickle and finicky wildflowers out there and that stereotype definitely holds true with this species, at least in your narrator's experience.  I've visited this site annually for the past four years and it's certainly had its boom and bust years.  In 2011 the population had a mass bloom with dozens of plants bearing flowering stalks of varying size and vigor.  Subsequent visits in 2012 and 2013 produced essentially no flowering individuals with the most recent trip in 2014 bearing a good amount in flower but not approaching that of 2011.  

A spectacular specimen of the round-leaved orchid

Living in such a low-light environment, it's no surprise this species would come to evolve and bear such over-sized leaves and have a staggered bloom cycle from year to year.  Only a tiny fraction of the total available sunlight beaming down at the canopy penetrates through and reaches this particularly bleak forest floor, so any plants below are going to need all the help they can to keep their glucose factories humming along.  Sending up a flower stalk is an enormous allocation of energy for each individual plant so it makes perfect sense that a round-leaved orchid would take several years off between reproduction events to accumulate and replenish its energy stores before repeating the process.  

Round-leaved orchid portrait

The round-leaved orchid is predominately a species of the coniferous hardwood and mixed forests of the Great Lakes region, the Northeast, and all across northern Canada.  It does occur at higher elevations in the Appalachians as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina as well as in limited parts of the northern Rockies.  Here in Ohio, it occurs throughout the northeastern quarter of the state in a variety of mesic-dry conifer and mixed forests.  At Clear Fork Gorge it seems to prefer the oldest areas of the white pine/hemlock/chestnut oak forest accompanied by a thick duff of conifer needles where little else occurs.

Round-leaved orchid from 2011.
Round-leaved orchid from 2011.

As impossible as it is to see every orchid, every year going forward, I do my best to revisit each species because I'm just that nuts I guess?  Probably, but also because few things are more fun and get me more excited than the prospect of seeing an old friend again and these orchids were long overdue for a sit down.

Tanner getting acquainted with the round-leaved orchids

Along with Dan on this foray was my friend and exceptional field botanist in his own right, Tanner Morris who has a soft spot for our wild orchids as well.  He had never had the chance to see and photograph this species before so I was extra pleased this population finally came back to life this season.  Not to speak for Tanner himself but I think it's safe to assume he couldn't have enjoyed the experience more.  Hopefully there will be some around next year to see as barely even 12 hours removed, I'm already anticipating the next time.

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.