Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Bruce Peninsula Part V: Rare Ferns and an Elusive Orchid

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

The magical run continues as your blogger is back again for yet another post on the majestic spring time wonder of Ontario's Bruce peninsula! I hope no one is getting too burned out on the topic as we've gone past the halfway point with this fifth of seven posts. To be frank, I'm not sure how anyone could get bored or apathetic about the Bruce. I know the posts have been marathons but there's just an overwhelming amount to share and most everything is honestly too memorable, aesthetic, and/or interesting to not make the cut. So if you're still here and excited for more then I know just how to help out.

With that being said, I'd like to dedicate this next post to a couple sites on the southern end of the Bruce and the intriguing botanical rarities that occupy them. Not to mention the lovely landscapes and geology of them, too!

Inglis Falls outside the town of Owen Sound on the southern end of the Bruce peninsula

Inglis Falls. The scene above should be more enough to grab your attention and renew your interest in this incredible region of the Great Lakes if it was beginning to wane! Inglis Falls is the peninsula's largest, most attractive, and thus most visited waterfall. It's formed by the Sydenham River as it flows north and tumbles 60 feet over the limestone edge of the Niagara Escarpment. The falls will often slow to a trickle during the summer and fall months but the spring rains had it roaring and audible from the parking lot.

Northern White Cedars (Thuja occidentalis) around the rim of Inglis Falls

With the falls flowing over the natural rim of the Niagara Escarpment, much of its surrounding area is dry, rocky woodland and bluffs. Interestingly, all around the falls was a near monoculture of northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) growing in the thin soils and often on/over the limestone rocks and boulders. Some were quite large and make you ponder just how old they are to have attained their dimensions in such a harsh habitat.

Looking north from the fall's rim towards the Georgian Bay

The Sydenham River continues its course north through an impressive labyrinth of riffles and limestone blocks below the falls. It's not much further before it empties into the Georgian Bay at the Owen Sound harbor.

Northern white cedar growing out from a limestone slump rock

Making your way down from the bluffs and rim of the Niagara Escarpment takes you past some interesting works of geological and botanical art. I found this eroded block of limestone to be especially worth a photo. Standing here in the present day it's hard to believe these fractured layers of dolomite were laid down 400+ million years ago at the bottom of a warm, shallow tropical sea. Almost equally hard to believe is the tenacity of the white cedars to grow literally out of the rock and form into twisted, gnarled specimens.

Northern Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis)

As pretty as Inglis Falls is, and it most certainly is that, I wasn't there to see the falls itself as much as what grows below it. More specifically the rare ferns that grow below it. One of those pteridophytes on my radar was the northern holly fern (Polystichum lonchitis). Related to the ubiquitous Christmas fern (P. acrostichoides), the northern holly fern is much more erect in growth but similar with its truly evergreen fronds. The veins of the pinnae conspicuously end in a sharp, bristly point and give the structure a rather holly-like appearance, hence its common name.

Northern Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis)
Northern Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis)

It's much more widespread and frequent out in the Mountain West and Pacific Northwest states but curiously persists in a very limited and local fashion here on the Bruce and nearby Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Other than that you're very hard pressed to see this fern east of the Rockies. It's exclusive to exposed dolomitic limestone in the region and Inglis Falls, not coincidentally abounds with it. A healthy percentage of Ontario's occurrences of this western disjunct occur within the Bruce and its adjacent islands, making it a phenomenal spot to mark this plant of one's life list.

Another portrait of the beauty of Inglis Falls

As I soaked in the beauty and views of Inglis Falls, I couldn't help feel a strange sense of tropical-ness to it. There was just something about the way it looked with its moss-covered boulders surrounding/within the falls and vegetation clinging to every nook, cranny and crevice all around its rim and cliff faces that suggested a location much closer to the equator. Perhaps I'm alone in that thought but regardless of your disagreement it's a phenomenal waterfall to take in!

Below and just downstream of Inglis Falls

Moving further down the eroded gorge below the falls, the habitat and landscape quickly changes from the dry, sparsely-vegetated upper rim and bluffs. Below, the woods becomes much cooler, shaded, humid and rich with an explosion of plant life created by the site's microhabitat. Once again, I was hot on the trail of a fern, but this one much more rare and enticing.

Clumps of the very rare Hart's tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium var. americanum)

Before my first foray onto the Bruce back in 2011, I'd heard the curious story of one of North America's more rare pteridophytes in the Hart's tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium var. americanum). I searched and searched for it but never had any luck and swore the next time I wouldn't fail. Had I just known about Inglis Falls, I'd have been guaranteed some fantastic face time with this most excellent of spore producers!

Hart's Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium var. americanum)

What makes Hart's tongue fern such an exciting find and plant for many botanists, naturalists etc. is its very odd distribution and localities in North America. While much more common across the pond in Europe, it is only known to occur in very sporadic, very local places in Ontario and the eastern United States. In fact, other than the Bruce, Hart's tongue fern can only be found in the Straits of Mackinac region of Michigan, central New York, and a few counties in eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama. From what I can gather it sounds like the Bruce and central New York are the best of those locations.

Hart's Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium var. americanum)
Hart's Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium var. americanum)

Much like the aforementioned northern holly fern, Hart's tongue is restricted to moist, shaded dolomite limestone; often times associated with waterfalls and deep stream ravines. It looks unlike any other fern you'll run into with thick, leathery, sword-like fronds and linear sori on the undersides. Due to such scarcity in North America it's listed as a federally threatened species in the United States, and an 'at risk' species of concern in Canada. For readers who enjoy the more taxonomic side of botany, the North American Hart's tongue plants are considered a separate variety (var. americanum) to Europe's. The physical differences between the two are minute and split based on polyploidy: North America's being a tetraploid (four sets of chromosomes) to Europe's diploid (two sets). When it comes to ferns polyploidy can really make a difference.

A northern holly fern and Hart's tongue fern growing together

With both the Hart's tongue and northern holly ferns calling Inglis Falls home, it was little surprise to find the two growing literally side-by-side on a few occasions and made for a fun photo opportunity. Not everyday not just one but two major life fern species can be captured in the same frame!

After enjoying the pteridophyte bliss of Inglis Falls and already being on the southern end of the peninsula, the decision was made to swing over to a section of woodland outside Sauble Beach for a most elusive orchid. At least it was elusive to me! Luckily, I had my Ontario friend and excellent naturalist, Bob Curry with me to help out. I had originally met Bob in the spring of 2015 when he and his wife came all the way down to Adams County, Ohio for an orchid hike I was leading. When I told him I'd be on the Bruce a month later, he said it was a must that he return the favor and take me out for some orchids! It should be noted that Bob was the one to share Inglis Falls and the ferns with me as well. Needless to say Bob is a swell guy and one of my favorites.

Bob with the rare Hooker's orchid (Platanthera hookeri).

Looking at the photo featured above and following the stare of Bob's camera it can still be quite hard to make out just what the heck he's taking a photo of. With sharp eyes you can just make out the pair of round, prostate leaves on the ground and green raceme of green flowers directly above. Green is the name of the game with the rare Hooker's orchid (Platanthera hookeri) and it puts the 'pro' in professional at blending in. Fortunately, the wooded stabilized dune just off Lake Huron had plenty of the orchid to share and find them we did.

Hooker's Orchid (Platanthera hookeri)

It's a given that your blogger is an orchid freak and it should also be well-known that they don't have to be the showy, pretty kind to get my heart racing. As previously stated, the Hooker's orchid isn't much to get excited about for the lay man but the sugar maple/beech/paper birch forest it resided in at Sauble Beech was most hallowed ground to this botanist. I had previously only seen this orchid once before out in the Adirondack's of New York back in 2013. I had made the 12 hour journey almost solely for it and was rewarded with a single plant just barely starting to flower. Even so, it was a very special and memorable trip but I'd be lying if the dozens of Hooker's orchid in perfect flower on the Bruce didn't just make my heart melt.

Hooker's Orchid (Platanthera hookeri)
Hooker's Orchid (Platanthera hookeri)

Hooker's orchid gets the elusive tag from me by the fact it's long been extirpated from Ohio's borders and not seen/collected since the 1890's. In fact, it's been disappearing at a fast rate throughout the entirety of the southern half of its distribution. Acid rain, warming soil temperatures, and other effects of climate change and habitat alteration are not doing this orchid any favors. I certainly hope this prime population I visited here can withstand the pressures and continue to persist.

Hooker's Orchid (Platanthera hookeri)
Hooker's Orchid (Platanthera hookeri)

Even being one of the 'blander' all-green Platanthera orchids, Hooker's orchid has some exquisite details to be had from its architecture. The curvature of its labellum and long nectar spur are often colored a more yellowish-green than the rest of the plant and can really stand out in extra spectacular specimens. I think the photo above with an orchid contrasted nicely against my hat really shows off that color difference. Seeing a lot of large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) mixed in with the orchids was extra nice, even if the trillium were mostly all well-past peak stage. If it wasn't for the storms and heavy rain quickly closing in on us, I could have hung out in this woods and its Hooker's orchids all day.

With that I think I'll call it quits on this fifth of seven installments on my botanical foray onto the Bruce peninsula in June 2015. If you're still enjoying what you're seeing and reading, I encourage you to come back soon as I wrap things up with two more posts! I've definitely saved some of the best for last and hope to have your readership at the conclusion of it all. Thanks as always for tuning in!

- ALG -


  1. OasFabulous! Inglis Falls is just about my favourite spot. I stop in there several times a year, and That was the first place I found Hart's Tongue Fern on my own. Now I volunteer for the Bruce Trail, and there are lots of places to see both Northern Holly and Hartms Tongue for a long distance along the Niagara Escarpment!

  2. Not sure why you'd think we'd be getting tired of the Bruce Peninusla- personally, I can't wait to see more!