02 October 2011

Highlights From A Trip To The Kankakee Sands Region

It is hard to believe that October is already upon us.  After one of the busiest summers I've ever experienced, I began to look back through some of my 2011 photographs and noticed that I had not posted about a fantastic Sunday botanizing outing in the Kankakee Sands region of Indiana and Illinois in late July.  Stephanie Frischie of The Nature Conservancy of Indiana (Kankakee Sands Project) was my guide as we visited several preserves in the Hoosier and Prairie states.

Pembroke Savanna
We spent our time primarily in two plant communities, sand savanna and wet sand prairie, with a bit of time spent in sand flatwoods.  I was very impressed by the open aspect of Pembroke Savanna Nature Preserve on the Illinois side of the state line.  Many of the "savannas" in northwest Indiana would be more acurately categoriezed as woodlands, as there is less of a prairie and grass component with more forbs and shade tolerant species present, and as there are more trees per acre than in a classic savanna.  However, the plant community at Pembroke Savanna, as seen above, was quite open and fit my concept of a true savanna.

Platanthera ciliaris inflorescence
Many rare plants can be found in these sandy, acidic communities.  One of our targets for the day was Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris), a species known from many states and provinces in the eastern half of North America, but listed as endangered or threatened in 10 of them, including Indiana and Illinois.  It is much more common southeast of here, in the moist pine savannas of the coastal plain.  We saw a large population of this species in a moist to wet sand prairie/savanna in an Illinois preserve.

Platanthera ciliaris flower
As you can see, the flowers of this orchid are a striking yellow to orange color that is unmatched in the plant world.  Yellow Fringed Orchid grows in bogs, meadows, seepage areas, and moist to wet sand.  Although it seems to prefer open areas in nearly full sun, it can survive in small amounts of shade, and I have seen one location where one plant survived and flowered under dense shade of an oak woodland that was historically more open.  Without some form of disturbance (fire, seasonal water fluctations, selective clearing of woody vegetation, etc.), extant populations of Yellow Fringed Orchid will cease to exist.

Polygala cruciata var. aquilonia
The flora of the moist to wet sand flats in the Kankakee Sands region is similar in many respects to the flora of the Atlantic coastal plain, and another of the species with coastal plain affinities that we were searching for and found was Drumheads (Polygala cruciata var. aquilonia).  In the broad sense, Cross Milkwort (as it is also konwn for its leaves that are generally in whorls of four) has a very similar geographical range to that of Yellow Fringed Orchid.  The plants that we see in northern Indiana and Illinois, as well as in the northern half of the species' range, are var. aquilonia; var. cruciata is found throughout the southern half of the species' range.

Polygala cruciata var. aquilonia inflorescence
Drumheads is a species of conservation concern in nine states.  It can be found in moist to wet soils, often in sand but sometimes in peat. It seems to do will with some form of disturbance, such as scraping the soil.  We found this species in sand flatwoods at Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana.

Polygonum careyi
Yet another species more at home on the coastal plain that we saw in openings within sand flatwoods at Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area was Carey's Smartweed (Polygonum careyi).  This species is most common in the New England states along the Atlantic Coast, but is also found in disjunct populations throughout the Great Lakes states and at a few locations in the Appalachians; it is also known from one county in Florida.  Carey's Smartweed is listed as endangered, threatened, or extirpated in six states, including Indiana and Illinois.  I have only seen this rare smartweed at one other site in Indiana.  Like the previous species, it needs some form of disturbance for its populations to be maintained, and it responds well to fire.

Polygonum careyi inflorescence
Carey's Smartweed could potentially be confused with the much more common Pinkweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum), as both have stalked glands on the stem below the inflorescence.  However, Carey's Smartweed has distinctly fringed ocrea, whereas Pinkweed has unfringed ocrea.  Carey's Smartweed grows in swamps, bogs, clearings, and on shorelines. 

Aureolaria pedicularia var. ambigens
Although not as rare, I was excited to see Fernleaf Yellow False Foxglove (Aureolaria pedicularia var. ambigens) growing in dry sand in a scrubby oak flatwoods at Carl Becker Nature Preserve in Illinois.  In the broad sense, this species (including all of its varieties) is known from much of the eastern United States.  Three varieties (var. ambigens, var. intercedens, and var. pedicularia) are known from Indiana; a fourth variety (var. austromontana) grows in the southeastern United States.  The plant in the photograph above fits var. ambigens because of the densely glandular-pubescent upper stems and branches.  Aureolaria pedicularia is a species of conservation concern in five states.  This oak parasite grows in dry sandy soils in savannas, forests, and thickets, as well as on stabilized dunes.

Rhexia virginica
We ended our outing with a quick stop at Hopkins Park Cemetery to see, among other things, the strongly contrasting yellow stamens and pink petals of Handsome Harry (Rhexia virginica).  Listed as threatened in two states,Virginia Meadow Beauty, as it is also known, is documented from most of eastern North America where it grows in wet sandy soils in swamps, thickets, prairies, seeps, swales, marshes, and in sandstone depressions in upland forests.  Within the Chicago Region, there is nothing that can be confused with this species, even vegetatively, as it has a sharply quadrangular (to somewhat winged) stem and opposite, ovate, toothed leaves with three distinct impressed veins and stiff hairs that stand perpendicular to the leaf blades.

Thanks to Stephanie for showing me around this very botanically interesting region of the country.

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