03 April 2013

Late Summer on Bear Lake Prairie

I finally made it to an Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society - North Chapter field trip on 8 September 2012. As the Treasurer and one of the founding members of this new chapter of an established statewide environmental organization, I had hoped to make it to more of the field trips during our inaugural year, but my schedule simply didn't allow.  However, I made it a priority to be at this field trip due to the quality of the site.  On this late summer day, Bill Minter, the land manager at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center, led our group on a hike through Bear Lake Prairie, discussing management activities and challenges at the property.  I'd visited Bear Lake Prairie a couple of times in the past, but it's always great to get back to such a unique natural area.
Bill Minter leads the INPAWS group through Bear Lake Prairie.
Bear Lake Prairie is a result of historic artificial drainage that left the marl bottom of Bear Lake exposed for colonization by native prairie species.  The result is a calcareous marl beach wet prairie full of conservative species that you could find in both tallgrass prairie and calcareous fen communities.

Gentiana andrewsii, always a crowd pleaser.
Closed Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) is one of the calciphiles that calls Bear Lake Prairie home.  It is known from the northeastern quarter of the United States and north into much of the eastern half of Canada; it also has been recorded from a couple of counties in Colorado.  Bottle Gentian habitat includes mesic prairies, thickets, openings in wooded areas, fens, and swampy areas.  Looking at the photograph above, you can see why not many insects are able to feed on nectar from Closed Bottle Gentian.  Bumblebees, however, possess the strength to force their way into the "closed" flowers to drink nectar and in the process pollinate the flowers.

Liatris scariosa var. nieuwlandii lights up the prairie.
One of the most stunning blazing stars, in my opinion, and also one of the least abundant in the Midwest, is Nieuwland's Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa var. nieuwlandii).  This variety of Liatris scariosa was named in honor of chemist and botanist Father Julius Aloysius (Arthur) Nieuwland, who attended the University of Notre Dame as an undergrad and returned there to serve as a professor from 1904 to 1936. Savanna Blazing Star, as this species is also aptly known, can be found in prairies, glades, savannas, and open woodlands.  Its distribution includes scattered clusters of counties in the Great Lakes states, Missouri, and Arkansas, but it achieves its greatest distribution in northwest Indiana and Michigan.

Dasiphora fruticosa ssp. floribunda is characteristic of saturated calcareous open areas.
Even if you aren't a botanist, it's possible that you may recognize the bright yellow flowers on the shrub above from your average parking lot, as cultivars of this species are common in the landscaping trade.  In nature, Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa ssp. floribunda) grows in wet calcareous areas including fens, pannes, and other wet areas near the Great Lakes, and also in dry calcareous habitats including hill prairies, alvars, and limestone barrens. It appears to be distributed in three distinct geographical zones (the western United States, the Great Lakes states, and the New England states) with separation between these areas.  It is also known from much of Canada and Alaska, and from a single county in North Carolina.  Subspecies floribunda is the new world taxa, whereas subspecies fruticosa is of Eurasian origin.  You may know this plant by the Latin name Potentilla fruticosa.

An interesting diverse tapestry makes up the flora of Bear Lake Prairie.
Thanks to Bill Minter for leading an excellent field trip and for managing Bear Lake Prairie to preserve some outstanding biodiversity.