Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Botanical Eden

Sorry for the paucity of posts of late. It's been a rather insane travelogue of late, with visits to - at least passes through - eight different states in the past couple of weeks. Could have added Kentucky with a ten minute detour at one point, but what would have been the point? In any event, many of the places that I've been either haven't had Internet access, or the blogger lacked time to get on the airwaves and post.

That's not to say I haven't seen some cool things recently, because I have. The shutter of my camera has also been busy capturing subjects. My most recent safari was to Indiana's Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area, where I spent a day and a half. Took some 750 photos. Sounds impressive, but it isn't. I use the Gatling Gun method of photography; that is I just spray the subject with numerous clicks of the shutter, hoping one of the shots connects. So, of the 750 attempts, I might have kept 1/3rd or so.
The upcoming week appears to be a more sedentary one, so I will endeavor to share a bit more. For now, it's off to digital Indiana, which is much more then auto racing, basketball, corn, bean, and wheat.
Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area in northwestern Indiana. For all you non-Hoosiers, it's Pull-ask-eye! Not Pull-ask-ee! Practioners of the local dialect are firm on this point. At least we got the Jass-per right. This place is legendary for the masses of migrant Sandhill Cranes that collect late each fall, creating an avian spectacle that is one of the midwest's must-see avian events. I finally made the pilgrimage last year, and like the others, was dumbstruck by the sight and sounds of thousands of cranes. But I was also intrigued by the scrappy shards of dead botanical matter that were evidence of an outstanding prairie ecosystem. And J-P certainly is that.

Wanting to come back during the growing season and see the sights, I contacted Indiana botanist extraordinaire Mike Homoya, and made arrangements for this visit. And it was well worth the trip.

Here's our crew, and a distinguished group (not claiming myself) it is. Mike and I hatched plans last year, so he had plenty of time to get others involved, and many of those that you see here are the very best field botanists and ecologists in the Great Lakes region. Their involvement made for a heck of a trip, and I saw many "life" plants, some of them the rarest of the rare in the lower Great Lakes. From left to right (back row): Tom Post, Mike Homoya, Daniel Boone, Roger Hedge, Janet Creamer. Front row: Jim McCormac, Lee Casebere, Ben Eddy. Photo by John Ervin.

J-P is an incredible place of global significance. Within its 8,000 acres are outstanding examples of dry sand prairie, and prairie wetlands filled with regionally mega-rare coastal plain disjunct plants. Like so many of our greatest protected natural resources, J-P was purchased with money from hunters and anglers, a fact that should be recognized by users of these sites no matter what their interest in visiting. The time has long since come when we need to draw more people that are interested in the environment into helping to pay for its protection. But that's a subject for some other time...

In our relatively brief visit, we found nearly too many rare plants to list here. Even though J-P is not very far from Ohio, a number of the rare plants that we found do not make it that far east. Of those that do, they are often even rarer in the Buckeye State than in Indiana. In going over my notes, I see probably a dozen species that are endangered in Ohio, along with nearly as many that are threatened, and over a half-dozen that have never been found in Ohio. All of this made for an extraordinary botanical expedition.

The photo above shows one of many wetlands on the area that are filled with rare plants. Good thing I had the hip waders along, because I spent a good chunk of Friday over my knees in water.

I knew it was a good omen when one of the first plants that I spotted as our trip began was the above. Sure, you may not get overly excited about a smartweed, but I sure did with this one. It is Carey's Smartweed, Persicaria careyi, and this is NOT the similar, weedy Dock-leaved Smartweed, Persicaria lapathifolia, that one sees everywhere. This plant hasn't been seen in Ohio since Edwin Moseley collected a specimen in 1920 in Erie County. It was a lifer for me, and the much-traveled Daniel Boone.

Floating Bladderwort, Utricularia radiata. This aquatic oddity was high on our target list, and we found a number. Bladderworts are the largest group of carnivorous plants with about 250 species worldwide, and all of them are interesting. This one is fascinating. It is free-floating, with roots that are inflated like pontoons. Thus, it is quite bouyant. The tiny bladders are born on rootlets at the tip of the primary root branches, and it is within these little sacs where death occurs. Small organisms are attracted to the bladders by chemicals secreted by the plant, and touch guard hairs that operate the bladder. The sensitive hairs trigger the bladder door, just like a mouse trap, and it opens inward with such force that the prey is sucked in. The door snaps shut and the bladderwort has a meal.

Floating Bladderwort distribution. This plant is one of the very rare disjuncts that Jasper-Pulaski is noted for. It is primarily coastal plain in distribution, with rare and local isolated populations in northwest Indiana and southwest Michigan. There is more than one theory as to how these plants came to be here. The best, in my view, is the "sidewalk" theory. Basically, these species migrated from east to west along the face of the retreating Wisconsin glacier, when its wake was wet and mucky.

You can see why Indiana botanists and even those from further afield get excited by seeing Floating Bladderwort. It's range in Michigan only encompasses two counties. If you don't come here, you are in for a long drive to see this species along the coast.

A true showy jewel of the J-P wetlands, Virginia Meadow-beauty, Rhexia virginica. It is quite common, although Rhexia is in general quite the rarity in our region. The calyces, sans flowers, look just like tiny water pitchers, as can be seen in the lower left. The family Melastomataceae, to which this species belongs, becomes far more prolific in tropical regions.

Another of the exciting mega-rarities that we found, Creeping St. John's-wort, Hypericum adpressum. Unfortunately for photographic purposes, it was beyond flower, but nonetheless the plants have a pleasing aspect to them. This is another that doesn't occur in Ohio and has a sparse midwestern distribution.

Not just any old wetland. Two of the dominant plants in this photo are also extremely rare south of the Great Lakes. The big sedge with the brown spikes in the foreground is Horned Beaksedge, Rhynchospora macrostachya, another of the coastal plain refugees. It is very rare in the midwest, but quite common in J-P wetlands. The grassy plant, often forming floating mats, is another great rarity, Robbins's Spikerush, Eleocharis robbinsii.

These two species may be rare, but they are far more than mere curiosities. While traipsing through these wetlands, I noticed a number of animals using the beaksedge for shelter. The most interesting was a small jumping spider that constructed web nests within the bristly spikelets. I have no idea what species it is. One tenet of ecology is that rare plants often beget rare animals: find the former, and you've a good chance of discovering the latter. Apparently J-P has not been well-studied in regards to most insect groups, or arachnids. I suspect much remains to be found.

The spikerush seems to be very important in these wetland communities, It forms large floating mats that certainly support all manner of animal life. I can also report that it becomes tiring to walk through.

Major thanks to Mike Homoya, Roger Hedge, Lee Casebere, and everyone else for organizing this trip. It was one of the coolest botanical forays that I've had in many moons, and I look forward to a return visit. Thanks to the Indiana Division of Fish & Wildlife for maintaining such a globally significant site, and for partnering with the Indiana Division of Nature Preserves and the Indiana chapter of The Nature Conservancy to ensure that Jasper-Pulaski's incredible diversity remains intact.


Lisa at Greenbow said...

What a fun trip. It would be a privilege to go out with such a knowledgeable group. I have been birding with Roger and Lee but never planting. Is Planting a verb?? What do you call a plant seeking foray?

Jim McCormac said...

Hi Lisa,

No, we can't call our expedition "planting". That would be more along the lines of sticking tomatoes in the garden, or perhaps sowing snapdragons in the flowerbed. No, what we were doing was "botanizing". That would be the offical term for seeking flora in the wild - the botanical version of birding.