31
August

Giant Red Pines

On the final day of a recent trip to the Upper Peninsula, rain was in the forecast for much of the day. Not wanting to get our cameras too wet, I found a place just east of Roscommon that looked interesting to check out on the way back south. As we neared the Roscommon Red Pine Natural Area Preserve, the rains subsided and as long as you didn’t bump a tree, you stayed dry.

The 160 acre preserve is a National Natural Landmark which includes a 34-acre grove of virgin Red pine. There are also some sizeable White pines in the grove as well, the largest White pine that we measured was 44.8 inches in diameter. The grove once hosted a national champion Red pine which is said to have been about 15 feet in circumference, twice the size of the largest tree remaining today. The largest red pine that we measured near the trail was 29 inches in diameter or 7.5 feet in circumference. That is still a very large Red pine as most that we see or are harvested for timber today are only a fraction of the size. There are large Red pine trees that show the scars of past fires from 1798, 1888 or 1928. As fire has not been in the grove for almost 100 years, you will notice that Red maples and oaks beginning to come in as part of the natural succession towards a climax forest. In the openings where trees have fallen you will notice thick patches of young White pines which can germinate and grow slowly, waiting for sunlight to reach the forest floor. When the canopy opens and light is available, they grow fast, reaching for the light and out competing other trees.

As we entered the 34 acre grove area on the loop of the 1.4 mile trail, a sense of calm, peace and serenity were evident that I had never sensed in any natural area before. The closest was when I visited the Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary area near Copper Harbor, which also has never been cut. There was a feeling of awe and wonderment at the old, large trees standing out in the open lower reaches of the forest. These old growth and virgin forest have an open lower forest layer as the thick canopy limits the amount of sunlight that reaches the forest floor, restricting what grows there. Even in these restricted growing conditions, I noted over 30 species of trees and other plants growing there.

If you are traveling in the vicinity of Roscommon, this is definitely a worth while place to stop, walk and spend some time in awe of these giant beauties.

Bark of large Red pine
Old burn scar
White pine filling the gap

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4
July

Milkweed for Monarch Butterflies

Have you been watching a nice patch of milkweed along a public road, only to have it cut down in June by the local road commission? It happens every year near where I live. While cutting the milkweed can be beneficial for Monarchs, they always cut it at the worst possible time. Usually, this large-scale mowing happens when the first new brood of larvae for the summer are nearing their final instar, thus destroying a whole generation. On a smaller scale such as your garden, cutting of some milkweed plants can be beneficial. When you cut off the milkweed early enough in the season, it will regrow with nice tender succulent leaves that are perfect for young larvae to consume. The milkweeds in the accompanying photo were cut with the usual brush hog down to about 3 or 4 inches. It is recommended in the garden to only remove two thirds of the plant when cutting back to encourage new growth. By not cutting all the plants you have, you will be allowing some to bloom, providing nectar for many insects and especially for the Monarch butterflies. The uncut plants will also produce seed to continue propagating more plants in the coming years. Don’t cut to late in the summer, as having young tender leaves could trigger females to develop sexually and contribute to late egg laying rather than preparing to migrate. Aging milkweed is one of the triggers leading to the fall migration, other fall triggers are: length of daylight, decreasing temperatures and lessening nectar sources. Also, by allowing milkweeds to bloom late in the season, could affect the migration due to unusually late nectar sources.

With Michigan having 11 species of native milkweeds, which ones should you plant? First of all, plant only those native to your area. Planting non-natives such as Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) can cause problems for Monarchs. There are reports of Monarchs continuing to lay eggs through the winter and not migrating where Tropical milkweed can be grown year around in the south. It is also good to source your seed or plants as close to where you will be growing them. While any milkweed species is a possible larval host, some seem to be more widely used than outers. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) seem to be favorites here in Michigan with the orange Butterfly-weed (Asclepias tuberosa) coming in third in my many years of observations. I have only seen larvae on other species a few times over the years. Keep in mind that Common milkweed moves and may come up anywhere near where you planted it. I have two stands in my yard that I didn’t plant. Most importantly, make sure it is native and of a local source.

With all the push for planting milkweed for the Monarchs, let’s not overlook the need for other native plants as nectar sources. Monarchs use many other plants besides milkweed to feed on the nectar. Provide native plants that bloom throughout the season with different plants blooming at different times from late May into later September. Liatris, milkweeds, Goldenrods, Mountain mints, many composites including Rudbeckias, asters, and Silphiums work really well to attract many species of butterflies including Monarchs. The last generation of Monarchs in the fall need these plants to build fat to fuel the coming migration and those migrating need to re-fuel along the way.

Feed the larvae and adult butterflies and enjoy watching them in your garden!

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27
April

Benefits of Graminoids

Northern Eyed Brown

I am sure that most of us are aware that grasses and sedges or graminoids are a natural part of native plant communities. But, do we stop to consider why they may be important and even useful to restorations or our native plant gardens. I have told people for years to make wildflower or native gardens as natural as possible. This includes adding grasses and sedges to the pallet of plants. Besides the added beauty, there are many useful benefits of incorporating this group of plants to the landscape.

Graminoids have many benefits for the environment and even our quality of life. Many of our native grasses are deep rooted with two thirds of the plant’s biomass below the soil as roots. These deep, thick roots help hold loose soil in place, thus working to prevent soil erosion. Over the years of growing, dying and the decomposition of each year’s growth, these grasses improve the quality and richness of the soils. By absorbing and filtering water, they improve water quality and lessen water runoff. I have seen this at work in my own yard with heavy rain events. While my vegetable garden had standing water, the immediately adjacent prairie planting had zero standing water. When allowed to grow in thick densities as they would in natural areas, they can shade and out compete many weeds. Also, the older the planting, there should be less disturbance which is needed for many weeds to grow as many annual weeds need disturbance to germinate and thrive. Several of our native prairie grasses are also drought tolerant and thrive in dry conditions. This ability to grow in course droughty soils also means less water is needed and once established you should never need to supplement with artificial watering.

Native grasses sequester and store vast amounts of carbon rather than releasing it into the atmosphere. Larrabee and Altman noted in their book on prairies that “the simple act of plowing the grass under in such large quantities created the first appreciable increase in carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. This historic increase seems to have begun at about the same time the prairies began disappearing around 1850.”

Grasses and sedges are also important to insects including some pollinators and predatory insects. There are 42 species of butterflies and skippers which the larvae feed on grasses in Michigan. This number does not include the many moths and other insects that also seek food, shelter and protection in the tall thick grasses. Years ago, I had thought that Satyrs and Wood Nymphs were butterflies of woodland edges as this is where I normally saw them. The truth is, that is where the grasses were along the edges of fields. When open areas are allowed to go back to grasses or are planted with native grasses, these butterflies move out into the open areas. They are laying eggs in the grasses and hiding from predators there as well. It only takes a few passes through these grassy areas with an insect net to see the high diversity of insects using and living on these plants.

If you are interested in adding native grasses to your property or garden, Little bluestem is a great species to start with. While many species of grasses and sedges are used by these insects, Little bluestem seems to be very popular with many species. Oh, don’t forget to add flowering forbes as nectar sources for the adults. By adding native grasses, sedges and flowering plants to the landscape, you may be amazed at the diversity of life you will be providing for.

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15
July

Two New Posters

After traveling many miles, the past few years and taking lots of photos and retaking some to get the desired images, I have two new posters hot off the press. Asclepias – Milkweed photos were finished in 2020 and the Maples were finished in June of 2021. Both posters have joined the Michigan Winter Tree Bud and two Trillium posters in my collection of educational posters that I am developing. Posters are 12×18 inches and unframed. All five can be purchased on my Etsy store at https://www.etsy.com/shop/CDENature or for if you are local you can contact me if you are interested. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have in making them.

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13
July

Effects of Trees in Oak Savanna

During a visit to the Newaygo Prairies in early June, I noticed several native prairie species that showed significant frost/freeze damage form a May freeze. Young oak leaves were brown and shriveled as were the flower stems on Goat’s-rue (Tephrosia virginiana). Porcupine grass (Hesperostipa spartea) had deformed bloom stems and others showed similar damage. In the Karner Blue Preserve, the Lupines (Lupinus perennis) had very few seed on the plants that are out in the open, but those that were under the protection of the oaks had many seed pods and even a few blooms still going. The frost damage stopped at the tree canopy edge. The trees not only sheltered plants from the frost, but also provide micro climates in the savanna.

Savanna is thought by some to be a continuum from prairie to woodland while others put it in a camp of its own. While savanna seems to be the transition between the two environments, it is also a system by its’ self. Based on normal definitions of savanna and prairie, much of the Newaygo and Allegan prairies are more likely true savanna.

Various processes including fire keep the understory clear of woodland plants and keep the tree density low. This allows for many herbaceous forbs to thrive in the cooler shade of the oaks as opposed to the hotter openness of the open prairie. Simple observation shows a higher plant diversity in the oak savanna than the open prairie or adjacent oak woodland. When you visit some of these prairie remnants in Michigan, you will find the greater number of species under and near the trees. The oaks play a significant role in these areas. Insects, birds and other wildlife are more abundant than in the open.

Many prairie plants are well suited to thrive in both savanna or prairie conditions. Others do much better in the cooler shelter of the oaks than in the hot open prairie. Soils can also be affected as the decaying oak leaves add to the soil below them, providing a bit more organic matter. The soils in these areas tend to be courser sand and consequently not high in organic matter, nutrients or moisture. Because of the shade, moisture may also be slightly higher under the trees. Grasses, especially the taller ones however do not seem to thrive in these conditions. Comparatively, the soils of the tall grass region in southern Michigan are darker and richer and today grow much corn.

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30
June

Nine Years Later

In May of 2012 one of the largest forest fires ever in Michigan began to burn. It lasted about three weeks, burning approximately 21,000 acres between Newberry and Paradise. I visited the area as soon as the DNR opened it again. This began a photographic and observational journey that has lasted for nine years so far. The first year I visited and photographed the area a couple of times and then for every year for the next four years. Since many photos and areas seemed to look the same, I decided to do the next intense photo documenting visit at ten years from the fire which would be next year. I have however visited some of the areas every year as you might say my interest may almost be an obsession. On a recent trip to the area, I took time to visit a portion of the area that I affectionately refer to as the “burn area.”

Except for black burn marks on some of the standing pine trees, you might not know the area had burned. The ground vegetation covers the whole area nicely and trees have come back. Birches, oaks and maples have resprouted from stumps and pines, especially Jack pine has reseeded in previously forested areas. The areas that had recently been logged prior to the fire have few trees returning. Jack pine seed released as a result of the intense heat are now young trees reaching ten feet or more in height. In some cases, the Jack pines that were taller and survived the fire, now tower over the younger ones growing in their shadows. In some areas the only reminder of the fire is the blackened ghosts of dead trees still standing.

Grass-pink-Orchid

I visited Barclay Lake, where the forest had burned all the way around it. The bog edge to the lake is a beautiful floating mat of sphagnum moss, leatherleaf and other bog plants including the Grass-pink Orchid. Also, in the nearby woods the forest floor is covered with blueberries, wintergreen, and bracken ferns growing form the charred remains of pine branches.

We often here of the devastation of wild fires as the media likes to focus on what was lost but never seems to come back in five years to see the regeneration. Yes, it seems like all is lost after one of these events, but fire/death brings new vibrant life to the northern forest ecosystem. These 21,000 acres are alive and thriving as plants recover and wildlife habitat is created or enhanced.

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31
March

Delicate but Tough Spring Ephemerals

Even though skunk cabbage and harbinger-of-spring bloom in March here in west Michigan, most of the spring ephemerals bloom in April to early May. Spring ephemerals bloom early before the leaves are fully on the trees, allowing them to take advantage of the sunlight reaching the forest floor in early spring. Most spend much of the year underground, unnoticeable to those walking in the woods in the summer and fall. Growth begins in the fall and continues through the winter underground, as the “hypogeous” phase. Throughout the winter months, root growth and bud development in the bulbs and rhizomes is taking place at a time when we think that nothing is growing in these cold months. From these buds will come the delicate blooms of early spring.

The short lived above ground phase known as “epigeous,“ lasts for only a few weeks to a couple of months. This is the time when the plant blooms, sets seed, produces and stores energy in the roots or bulbs. This above ground activity happens while they can take advantage of the available light in the spring woods. With cold nights possible, these lovely native plants can tolerate freezing temperatures for a time without damage to the plant. Some trap warmth with the hairs on the stems and leaves, while others like bloodroot trap warmer air in the leaves curled around the flower stem. Many of these are pollinated by native solitary bees that emerge in synchronization with the bloom time. Some of these bees are also “specialist,” visiting only one species of flower. Some flowers, like spring beauty only bloom in the sun, closing in the shade and every evening.

Photosynthesis is best at 68° F or above, so much food production needs to done in a short time. Nutrient uptake can also be difficult in cool weather. These plants need to be efficient as energy needs to be allocated to producing and storing food as well as seed production without any wasted resources. While most of the spring ephemerals in Michigan are found in rich deciduous woods or forests, those without bulbs or thick rhizomes may more often be found in thick leaf litter. Two good examples of plants with more and smaller roots found in these less rich soil areas are dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn. Both have very small bulbs or corms near the surface, but put out many roots for nutrient intake.

Early spring is a magical time in the woods. Temperatures are comfortable, mosquitoes are minimal to non-existent and the forest floor is peppered with the delicate sprig ephemerals. Visit a woods near you in the next few weeks and enjoy these visual treats.

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3
February

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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20
December

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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10
October

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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