Frozen Water

Michigan has many natural wonders worthy of the effort to view and experience them. One such wonder of nature that would be on my bucket list if I had one, is the ice formations around Munising. Many of us travel there in the summer and fall to view the many beautiful water falls in and around the Picture Rocks National Lakeshore. But to see an almost unbelievable form and beauty of these falls and seeps where the water flows off the sandstone cliffs, one needs to visit in late January through February. Plan to spend a few days and take in as many as you can. I had one day to get to most of the ones in that I visited, not enough time. If you do go, be sure to have good ice cleats as you will need them. The climb from the roads or trails is treacherous, but it is well worth the effort.

Although 2021 has been a milder winter, the columns aren’t what they could be. With that in mind, I can hardly imagine what they would be like in a cold year. You will find large columns and enormous ice icicles hanging from the sandstone cliffs and frozen water falls. Some are white and some are blue, with varying intensities of blue. As best I can find, there are three factors or processes that contribute to the blue color. One is that water absorbs other colors of the spectrum, the second is the lack of the presence of air bubbles in the ice itself and third is the thickness and density of the ice. All three of these are factors in the phenomenon of “blue ice”. The clarity of the water is also a factor, that is why the area around the Straits of Mackinaw is also known for blue ice to occasionally form on the lake.

The two spots that I am highlighting with photos are the Eben Ice Caves and the Curtains. The blue ice is from the Curtains. Be sure to click on the title of this piece to see the full gallery of images that I have selected from my recent trip.

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Michigan Orchids in December, are you crazy?

While most folks think that the onset of winter after the tree leaves have fallen means and end to botanizing in Michigan until spring, that is not necessarily so. While I have shared on identifying plants by the brown remains or trees by their bark and buds in winter, there are some that are actively growing at this time of year. Even though some have late stray blooms such as Witch Hazel, False-rue Anemone, Black-eyed Susan, Dandelion and others, there are two orchids in Michigan that send up leaves in the fall and photosynthesize, producing food in winter.

Michigan Orchids in December? People think I’m crazy when I tell them I’m headed north in December looking for native orchids in Michigan. Well, I might be crazy but I found green orchid leaves in December in norther and southern Michigan.

Tipularia discolor, Cranefly Orchid is only known from Berrien county in Michigan according to the Michigan Flora. I am told it is found on Trible lands and not accessible by the public.

Aplectrum hyemale, Putty-root or Adam-and-Eve Orchid is found in rich forest in the southern half and northern counties of the lower peninsula of Michigan. Colonies are usually not massive, therefore making it a bit difficult to find. Once you know where to look it can be pretty easy to spot the unique leaves above the brown tree leaves on the ground. After receiving some advice from my orchid enthusiast friend Steve, I recently headed north in search of this lifer for me. The gps coordinates led me right to a nice area with several small patches of leaves in Cheboygan county. A couple days later, I headed south to Cass county, within 25 to 30 miles from the Indiana boarder in search of this orchid closer to home. There I found several patches ranging from one to a dozen or more leaves.

Aplectrum leaves are unique and easily distinguishable with the prominent white parallel veins. These white veins are slightly raised from the darker green background of the leaf. The leaves come up in the fall to take advantage o the leafless tree canopy above, allowing them to absorb all of the available sunlight. They are also very efficient at photosynthesizing in temperatures down to around 35 degrees Fahrenheit. With the weather that we have had this year being generally warmer and no snow, I wonder if there will be more flowers next spring? I am curious since only a couple of individual plants in a given area bloom each spring, most do not. The leaves will wither in spring and sometime around Memorial Day a few will bloom. Since the flowers are not easily seen when blooming, it is easier to find the leaves in the fall and then you will know where to look for flowers in the spring time. Last season’s seed pods are also visible now but they can blend into the brown of the dead leaves behind them.

So, while many spring ephemerals come up early and take advantage of the leafless canopy in spring, these two orchids do the same in reverse by leafing out in the fall after the leaves have dropped. Hopefully in the spring I can share pictures of the flowers of Putty-root with you.

This is just another reminder that there is much to find and enjoy in Michigan all year if you are willing to get out and explore.

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Fall Clean Up

Should you cut down and clean up your native plant garden in the fall? Well, that depends on a few factors that you should consider. First, does your community have an ordinance that says that you need to have thins cut back? Along with that thought, is it in an area of the property that needs to be kept clean and have a manicured look? In my yard, most of the native plants are in the back yard. The ones in the front of the house are not tall and are quickly covered with snow once it starts, so they do not pose any appearance issues. Whether the appearance is unsightly or not is often a matter of perspective. Yours and your neighbors may not be the same. So, if it isn’t an ordinance or sight that would garner complaints from neighbors, there are some other reasons for not cutting back or cleaning up the garden of this season’s growth other than weed removal.

The are several wildlife benefits from leaving your native plants as they are for the winter. With the decrease in native insect populations that are directly affecting and causing the decline in many of our bird species, leaving them in the garden for the winter can be beneficial.

Native plants being left in the garden after the growing season benefit birds in various ways. They offer shelter from the weather, places to perch and sources of food. Some birds such as Finches will continue to forage for seeds throughout the winter months. Seeds and berries of native plants are great sources of high value food for birds. Those that consume insects during could winter will also benefit from the over wintering insects in or on the plants and in the leaf litter when it is accessible. Woodpeckers will find larvae in stems and galls. Chickadees and other with also find insects in various stages of development in or on plants and under bark scales or ridges on trees.

Cecropia Moth Cocoon

Insects, including pollinators overwinter in various stages of development; form egg, larvae or nymph, cocoon or chrysalis to adults. Some bees are passing the cold months as larvae or pupa inside of hollow stems of plants Adult queens of non-social bees like Bumble bees are tucked away in leaf litter or under loose bark of logs. Even insects spending the winter in the ground can benefit from a layer of leaves to lessen the effects of cold and freezing soil. Butterflies will attach their chrysalis to standing plants as do some giant silk moths. Some moths will pupa in the leaf litter as well. So, removing the plant material and leaf litter, will remove the insects you have managed to attract.

Pinecone Willow Gall

Leaving some forms of fruit clusters and galls is also beneficial. For instance, the fruiting cluster of the Staghorn Sumac harbors many insects in varying stages. Birds, especially woodpeckers will consume these insects. Several song and game birds will also eat the seeds. Galls are formed by insects, some of which overwinter in the gall and are removed and consumed by woodpeckers and chickadees. The Pinecone Willow Gall may also harbor as many as 100 insects besides its creator over the winter.

Many native plants also add winter color and dimension to the landscape. This may be colorful berries, tall stiff stems or grasses that wave in the breeze. One last benefit of leaving your native plants and not removing them from the garden is the nutrients and organic matter that the return to the soil.

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Beach Trash

Have you ever noticed all the small miscellaneous items on the beach? This afternoon while on a beach, I noticed many plastic items being exposed in the eroding beach dune. All the items in the accompanying phots are items I found still in or on the exposed vertical edge of a small beach dune at Olive Shores Park on Lake Michigan. Notice that most of the items are plastic. You can obviously see that plastics, Styrofoam, foam ear plugs and cigarette butts do not break done. The say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll let the images do the talking.

Don’t forget to click on the title of this post to see all the images.

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Michigan Milkweeds

Michigan has 11 species of milkweeds that are native to the state. How many have you seen? I would guess most people are familiar with at least three of the common species like Common, Swamp and Butterfly or Orange milkweed, but some of the rarest are the most beautiful to see. Last week I traveled about 1300 miles round trips to find the last three species to complete my list of our native Asclepias species. Was it worth it? You bet!

Dwarf Milkweed

On Tuesday I visited Menominee to find the endangered Dwarf or Oval leaf milkweed. I could see Wisconsin across the river form near where these little gems grow. Asclepias ovalifolia is a western species and is only known from one county in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan. They are found in a savanna which also has a small stand of Porcupine grass, June grass and some Frost weed. Common milkweed was also in the savanna and Marsh milkweed was on the river bank nearby. Dwarf milkweed is a cute little plant with creamy white flowers with a tinge of dark pink on the lower petal tips.

Sullivants Milkweed

For several years I have spent the day on July 4th visiting the great American landscape, prairies. This year was no exception. On Saturday I traveled to Algonac State Park near Port Huron for the last two species of Asclepias that I was searching for. As you drive along the front of the park, you can see Canada across the river. A short distance into the prairie that is in the park, the threatened Asclepias sullivantii was right on the edge of the path. What gorgeous flowers and an interesting leaf with its prominent mid vein. The flowers somewhat resemble those of Common milkweed but the petals are a bit longer, the flowers are larger and a nice pink color. The top of the flower is also more closed than Common milkweed. A. sullivantii is only know from five counties in Michigan. It is a much taller and showier plant than I expected.

Purple Milkweed

In the same prairie as A. sullivanti was a milkweed that I have been searching for, for many years. After finding the threatened Asclepias purpurascens and comparing pictures from five years ago, I realized I had indeed seen this beauty before. But now I am sure and have much better photos of it. Purple milkweed is a beautiful showy species that on average is a smaller plant than I had imagined. The intensity of the purple flowers makes it easy to see form a distance if it is sticking up above the other vegetation. While A. purpurascens can be found in the same moist prairies as A. sullivanti, it can also be found in dry savannas. The intensity of the purple can vary but the outward curling of the pointed lower petals makes this quit a showy flower.

Other species of milkweeds found in dry sandy prairies in Michigan include Clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis), Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillate) and Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora). Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is found in a variety of conditions and is common in old fields and roadsides. The threatened Prairie or Tall Green milkweed (Asclepias hirtella ) is found in both moist and dry open situations. Lastly, Poke milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) is our only true forest understory Asclepias. It is easily recognized with its loose clusters of white flowers along forest openings where it can get a bit of sun light.

Milkweeds are the only host plant for Monarch butterfly larvae, with Common and Swamp being the most favored for egg laying. While Monarchs will use any milkweed species, these two are the ones most often used in Michigan with the orange Butterflyweed being third on the list according to my nearly 50 years of observations. Many species of butterflies also nectar on the flowers of milkweeds. On a good year, Butterflyweed is alive with an abundance of feeding butterflies when in bloom in early to mid-July.

Michigan History Museum Display

There are also uses for the fibers from this plant, which is considered by many to be just a weed. Research has been done on using the plant for paper, textiles, lubricant, fuel and rubber. Currently the most used part or by product of the plant is the silky white floss attached to the seeds. The purpose for this floss is to carry the seeds away to a new location by “floating” on the wind. This floss is hollow and six times more buoyant than cork. This light weight floss has been used to stuff pillows, mattresses and quilts and as tinder to start fires. During World War II, it was collected and used to stuff life vest for Navy aviators.

Next time you see a milkweed, take time to look it over and study the details. If you find a patch of Common milkweed, enjoy the beautiful fragrance which can often be detected before you even see the milkweeds.

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Galls Aplenty

Wool Sower gall on Oak

Even though galls can be caused by bacteria, insect galls are much more numerous and common. In this very brief look at galls, we will focus on a few galls caused by insects. First, we need to know what a gall is. An insect gall is a growth that forms on different parts of a plant as a reaction to the feeding stimulus by insects or mites. They range from simple enlargements or swellings of the leaves or stems to highly complex novelties of plant anatomy, but are always specific to the gall former. Galls can be on the leaf, stem, flower, fruit or root and take many different forms. With around 1500 gall forming insects and mites in the United States, the diversity of galls is as diverse as the gall former itself. Oaks alone, are host to 800 different galls. Each gall is unique to the former and the plant it is found on. Knowing the plant species is the first step in identifying the insect that formed the gall. Galls are formed by midges, flies, gall wasps, mites, aphids, sawflies, moths and beetles. Gall forming insects overwinter in different stages, depending on the species. Some overwinter in the gall itself while others may spend the winter as an egg on a particular part of the host plant.

Pine Cone Willow Gall

The most common galls that you may be familiar with or see, are the round and elliptical galls on the stems of Goldenrods. They are especially easy to spot in winter and the larvae inside have been used as ice fishing bait. Another common gall is the Pine Cone Willow gall that resembles a pine cone and usually sticks up at the tip of a branch of shrub willows. It has layered scales like a pine cone and not only does it provide a place for the forming insect to develop and complete its life cycle, but can also harbor other insects in various stages through the winter.

Maple leaf Eyespost gall

You may have notice bumps, raised protrusions or bull’s eye spots on leaves in your yard, these are galls, but don’t worry they won’t harm your trees. Before you think they are unsightly on your trees, do a little research and get to know them. Understanding what is really going on may help to actually be interested in them and realize they are a normal part of nature. I find it interesting how many there are and have fun looking to see how many I can find.

Petial Gall with Aphids inside

Some galls like the Poplar Petiole gall have an opening to allow the adult aphid to escape. Others like the stem galls on Goldenrod do not have an opening, therefore the larvae or adult must bore its way out. Here is a very short video of the aphids in the Petiole gall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKmU6cPX-4c.

Cherry Flower Gall

I had posted the photo above on my Facebook page as a mutated Choke Cherry flower. Someone commented that they thought is might be a gall. With a little research, it seems they are correct. I will be revisiting this tree to see how the gall develops over the summer. This gall appears to be a relatively little know gall, so there is an opportunity to learn here.

Mite Galls on Poison Ivy

Galls are found on a wide range of plant species, even on Poison ivy!

Start watching when you are out your yard or natural areas and before long you will be amazed at home many and the diversity of galls you will see.

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Wildflower Videos on YouTube

For the past couple of years, I have been wanting to do some interpretive videos. Well, with the stay at home order canceling some of my Spring Wildflower walks at the Hudsonville Nature Center, this is a good time to start these. Since we are able to go out and hike alone or with those that live with us, I can still get out to explore, photograph and shoot some video footage. The videos I am producing are a combination of video and still images to show the plants and some features as best I can. Video is a bit different than shooting stills, with one of the biggest challenges being that of unwanted sounds. Between wind, noisy vehicles and people running through the woods making lots of noise, am having to learn to do some voice over. This requires recording the video imagery in the woods and coming back and recording voice separately and then combining them. As much as I would like to have the same feel of actually being in a group and talking about the plants as we do on Sunday afternoons, it is different.

So, enough rambling. I invite you to visit my YouTube channel check out what is there and watch for more coming in the next couple of weeks. The most recent video is on Skunk cabbage and Harbinger -of-spring. To find my channel simply go to: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC38Z_2K0Jk5gLFRjSqlQlEQ/videos. Or search for Craig Elston and find me. Hint, I’m not the body builder.

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Covid 19 Stay at Home Order


With Michigan having a stay at home order from the governor, I decided to take the camera out in the yard today. It was warm in the mid 50’s and sunny. A great day to get out and explore while getting some fresh air before seeding garden seeds indoors. This post will mostly be pictures of some of the things I found either in my yard or within a hundred feet it. If you are bored, take time to look for lichens and mosses on the trees or lay on the sidewalk with a magnifier and look for black lichens there.

Hoary Bittercress

Many of the early spring wildflowers are starting to show growth above ground. The crocuses are blooming and so is the winter annual, Hoary Bittercress.

Garter Snake

Snakes are starting to come out on these warm sunny days, so watch where you step. I almost stepped on this Garter snake.

Take time to look at trees and shrubs for colorful, swelling buds and for early flowers on them. Silver maples have been blooming for at least a week here.

Ground Bees

In an area of the edge of my yard and more in the next-door neighbors were many ground bees emerging and flying low while the sun was out and warming this area. This particular spot of maybe 100 square feet or less, seems to be a favorite area for these bees to lay eggs underground.

So, while we are locked with the coronavirus, take a walk around your property or nearby park look for some early signs of spring. This is also a good time to practice with your camera. I played around with an extension tube and reversing a lens. Try and learn new techniques you can use later.

Stay healthy and safe.

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Small Winter Finds

With the mild winter we have had thus far, with very litter snow, it is a good year to get out and try finding the smaller things we so often overlook. I am talking about the world of lichens and mosses with some fungi thrown in as well. Lichens are interesting and complex organisms which are a symbiotic partnership of two separate organisms, a fungus and an alga. The fungus is the dominant partner, giving the lichen the majority of its characteristics. The alga in lichens are green, blue-green or many times both are types. Lichens come in many, many shapes, colors and growth forms. To really appreciate them you need to look very closely. A good hand lens or loop are helpful. I like to shoot them with a macro lens and then enlarge the image to 100 percent on the screen to look at the detail. Lichens do not have vascular structures like plants to move water. They absorb all their water and food from the surrounding environment from the air and rain. When you find lichens start looking closely to see how many different ones you can find. On the trip when these photos were taken, I found at least five different ones on one split rail fence rail.

Wild Leek Seed

Another thing to watch for in winter are plants in their winter state. Many plants remain upright and identifiable in winter. One woodland flower that can be found all winter, if it is above the snow is the Wild Leek. Its shiny black seeds will be where each flower was in the rounded umbel from the July flowers. Identifying plants in winter can be fun, challenging and rewarding. So, get out and see what you can find.

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Cold Weather Insects

Bruce Spanworm

On a couple of occasions in early and mid-November I found the female Bruce Spanworm Moth, also know as Winter Moth. There were a few of them on the trunk of a Box Elder tree. The females have under developed wings to the point that you would think they have no wings. These moths hatch after the first freeze in the fall. The females wait for flying males to find them to mate and then the crawl up the tree to lay eggs on branches where they hatch in the spring. There is one brood per year and the adults may be found in October and November and possibly December. Leaves of Sugar Maple, American Beech, and Trembling Aspen, are the preferred food, but they will also feed on willow and various other deciduous trees.

On the same outing in the middle of November I also found the Green Stink Bug pictured below.

Even when it is cold out, you never know what type of life and activity you will find. Some insects overwinter in Michigan as adults in leaf litter, under tree bark and other sheltered places, so keep an eye out to see what interesting creatures you can find when everyone else thinks there is nothing worth looking for in the woods.

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