On a mission to locate it, John Mowry captured this photo of a single flower of the bottle gentian. Bottle gentian is one of the last prairie flowers to bloom. The second week of October, John found this plant showing off its autumnal beauty in a wet prairie near a tamarack tree in northeast Steuben County. Also called closed gentian (Gentiana andrewsii), this flower never opens. The flower is only pollinated by bumble bees that are strong enough to force the closed petals open. Completely disappearing inside, the bee gathers nectar, accidentally covers itself in pollen while turning around, forces open the petals, then exits to fly away to another.
On our way to South Haven to enjoy the beaches and waters of Lake Michigan one fine late August day, we stopped at the rest area on Interstate 94 near Kalamazoo. Near the parking lot, an historical marker with the words “Oak Openings” caught my attention. I read about the natural history of the region around Kalamazoo and the term coined by mid-nineteenth century author James Fenimor Cooper (think Last of the Mohicans) in his book by the same title.
Oak openings as a landscape type were once found in our region. In fact, oak openings are described as the settlement place of choice in the History of Steuben County: 1885. Oak openings, as the name suggests, are open areas in an otherwise closed-canopy forest. The openings, historically were hundreds and thousands of acres in size. Bur oaks were the predominant tree of the openings and typically were scattered within the openings with the floor of the openings composed of prairie grasses and wildflowers. The oak openings existed on a landscape continuum between forest and prairie.
So I bought the book, Oak Openings, and finally finished it this month. In the tale Cooper writes of the adventures of a professional bee-hunter and his interactions with the Potawatomi tribe at the beginning of the War of 1812. The setting for the adventure was the Kalamazoo River and the oak openings of the present day Kalamazoo-Portage-Schoolcraft area in Kalamazoo County.
In this and the coming issues of Rustling Grass, I will share excerpts from Cooper’s book. Following is the description of the tale’s setting. Go back in time with me and imagine a wilderness that was the happy hunting grounds of a people who lived here before us and took care of the land a bit differently than we do.
The precise period of our legend was in the year 1812, and the season of the year the pleasant month of July, which had now drawn near to its close. The sun was already approaching the western limits of a wooded view, when the actors in its opening scene must appear on a stage that is worthy of a more particular description.
The region was, in one sense, wild, though it offered a picture that was not without some of the strongest and most pleasing features of civilization. The country was what is termed “rolling,” from some fancied resemblance to the surface of the ocean, when it is just undulating with a long “ground-swell.”
Although wooded, it was not, as the American forest is wont to grow, with tail straight trees towering toward the light, but with intervals between the low oaks that were scattered profusely over the view, and with much of that air of negligence that one is apt to see in grounds where art is made to assume the character of nature. The trees, with very few exceptions, were what is called the “burr-oak,” a small variety of a very extensive genus; and the spaces between them, always irregular, and often of singular beauty, have obtained the name of “openings”; the two terms combined giving their appellation to this particular species of native forest, under the name of “Oak Openings.”
These woods, so peculiar to certain districts of country, are not altogether without some variety, though possessing a general character of sameness. The trees were of very uniform size, being little taller than pear-trees, which they resemble a good deal in form; and having trunks that rarely attain two feet in diameter. The variety is produced by their distribution. In places they stand with a regularity resembling that of an orchard; then, again, they are more scattered and less formal, while wide breadths of the land are occasionally seen in which they stand in copses, with vacant spaces, that bear no small affinity to artificial lawns, being covered with verdure. The grasses are supposed to be owing to the fires lighted periodically by the Indians in order to clear their hunting-grounds.
I grew up in a family with a very large garden. We picked, shelled, gathered what we could from other places, hunted, fished, dried, canned, and stored what we could. As a kid, not much came from the grocery store. As a result, and probably for other reasons too, I am tied to the seasons.
Community and friends seem to have seasons too. In the spring, once the ice melts, everyone is out and about talking, making impromptu plans, continuing conversations and projects that had been dormant over the winter. Once it gets warm, and we are in the midst of the carefree days of summer, community events and friend gatherings are at their height. In spring, and in summer, people are wont to be adventurous and gather without reserve, or particular reason other than the appreciated warm weather. In the fall, especially once the temperatures cool off and we feel that change, gatherings seem to get more prescribed. We make it a point to spend time with people we won’t spend as much time with over the winter for one reason or another. Finally, in the winter when it is cold, and snowy, it feels like meetings with friends are the most intentional, and infrequent of all.
Fall is the season I look most forward to. I love the way the cool air feels on my face, while I am warm under cozy layers of sweaters and wooly socks, a warm cup of tea in my hands whilst my nose is still cold from the outdoors and tucking my toes under the dog to warm them. I love the way the air smells, the beautiful colors, apples, and the fall rain. Most of all, I look forward to collecting seed.
When I started volunteering, I was a dutiful collector, going off and coming back with the best haul I could at each stop. As I grew to know the Blue Heron Community, it became just as important to me to collect seeds of wisdom and understanding, seeds of patience and perspective, seeds of observation, seeds of truth, from the community I was collecting with. This year I realized, I do not collect as much native plant seed as when I started, taking time too now for fellowship and collecting other kinds of seed.
Fall is the season where I find myself in the midst of two communities where I feel more at peace than anywhere else. The first community being the native plants around me as we collect, the second the community of volunteers who collect seed, aka Blue Herons. This combination of two of my very favorite communities is more joyful than I could ever find words for. It is treasured time with old friends and new, plants and people alike.
I heard from my brother this morning, from outside Chicago, they got 2 to 3 inches of wet, slushy snow!
“What! Snow already?!”
I guess it is that time, as we wrap up October and flip the calendar to November. We have already had some October mornings of frost on the pumpkins and vehicle windshields. At Blue Heron Ministries, these natural events also signal that we are reaching the end of seed gathering activities.
We like to think of work at BHM as a series of events, all leading to one objective, restore and maintain natural areas to their original, high quality of native plants and a healthy, functioning system to keep them high quality. Some of the year is spent removing
unwanted, non-native, invasive plants. At some areas we manage, we introduce fire to the landscape at certain times, as once occurred naturally to the landscape, including set by Native American people. Parts of the year are spent planting species to restore the land, plugs in the spring and summer, seeds in the fall, winter, and very early spring; again, depending on the species of plants and the areas being managed.
The summer and fall fruiting seasons often find us out collecting the seeds of those plants. The goal is to collect as many as possible in the most efficient fashion, dry them, and store them. A winter project is to then clean those seeds, which are then planted at our various project sites. This is a tremendous savings over purchasing seeds from vendors that provide such, plus we get the very local genotypes from natural areas right here and the repopulation of these plants is the purist it can be.
BHM employees always comment this is one of the favorite tasks of our year and one of the best times of years. For one thing we are not out just killing plants, as is needed to remove invasives from our worksites. We are reaping the fruits of our efforts, literally, by collecting seeds of desirable plants and making them available in that area we are working, or at new areas being restored.
The work is good, quiet, and clean, no noisy equipment and no chemicals. Just work with a five gallon bucket belted to your waist… pulling, maybe cutting, and dropping seeds into a bucket. All the while we are in some of the most beautiful areas in Northeast Indiana. Though for some seeds, grass seeds mainly, we do have a combine like apparatus that can be pulled behind a tractor that greatly increases our efficiency.
We don’t keep the fun to ourselves either; we invite volunteers to join our efforts! Every Saturday in October, we offer volunteer days where anyone can come out and join us in these wonderful natural areas, share in the work, and enjoy the camaraderie of being with kindred spirits in the out-of-doors. To all who have joined us in the past, thank you! To others who would like to be a part of this fun and valuable work, please contact our BHM office. Though October is ending, there are still some target species that can be collected. We can arrange for you to join us still, or with a little training and direction, send you to an area to collect and bring back a target species. Please call Director Nate Simons if interested.
While the process remains the same, some big changes were in place this year. Our barn we used to dry and store seed in the past was at the country home of Nate and Aimee Simons. They have relocated, and we no longer had access to that barn. While it was valuable and served our purpose in our early years, we have moved operations to our own barn near our Chapel of the Lakes office. This is a welcomed addition to have work and storage space right near our headquarters. We quickly established new drying racks and storage shelves this fall. On very busy days, we even stretched the BHM mega-tarp on the shop lawn and took advantage of solar drying.
Plans are underway to add to our current garage/barn. That work will happen this fall. Stay tuned and watch for these future changes at Blue Heron Ministries. If you’d like to be a part of the process, part of some very rewarding experiences, please raise your hand or call!
One of the most aggressive plant invaders in a sedge meadow or prairie fen ecosystem is the ubiquitous reed canary grass. Long planted (and abundantly escaped) as a pasture grass for soggy soils, reed canary grass is adventive from Europe. The rhizomatous grass spreads by underground, horizontal roots to quickly form a dense sod that outcompetes and displaces almost all native wetland plant species…often times forming complete monocultures.
Restoration of sedge meadows and prairie fens infected with this exotic, invasive grass is difficult and time consuming. A complete cover of this grass in a restoration project usually requires complete chemical eradication of the sod. If, however, the reed canary grass has not yet formed a complete sod and native sedges and wildflowers still remain, another process may be employed to recover and promote the native vegetation.
Given that reed canary grass possesses two sets of buds on their rhizomatous roots (buds that produce leaf shoots in the spring and a different set of summer-dormant buds that produce leaf shoots in the fall), control of the grass is tricky. The use of a grass-specific herbicide (clethodim is the herbicide of choice and is labeled for non-cropland areas) allows the restorationist to suppress the growth of the grass without harming the sedges and wildflowers. If conditions are right (no standing water…many fens and sedge meadows have saturated soils with no standing water), the herbicide can and should be applied two times a year.
The process looks like this:
- Burn the sedge meadow in the early spring.
- Apply grass-specific herbicide when the reed canary grass reaches ankle-to-shin high (April). The herbicide must be mixed with a crop oil or methylated seed oil to penetrate the waxy coating that the leaves naturally possess. This application suppresses the early leaf growth that emerges from the first set of buds.
- Mow the sedge meadow in late August (yes, a small tracked skid-steer loader can rumble across the quaking, soggy soil as long as enough native sod forms an interwoven mattress of roots) . The late, dormant buds then produce new leaf shoots.
- Apply grass-specific herbicide and seed oil solution when the grass again reaches ankle-to-shin height (late September and early October.
This process must be repeated for a number of consecutive years until the strength of the rhizomes is completely diminished and the native sedges and wildflowers moves into the resulting soil space. Skipping a season almost assuredly means starting the process over. The process often takes more than five years. However, with repeated semi-annual applications of grass-specific herbicide in conjunction with late summer mowing, the result can be an abundance of and diversity of native sedges and wildflowers. Upon a soggy walk through the late summer prairie, ones senses will be thrilled with the sights, sounds, fragrances, and beauty of a gloriously-rich and uncommon ecosystem. And the native pollinators and other fen-dependent animal species will thank you profusely when they re-discover home.
The fringed gentians, Riddell’s goldenrod, grass-of-Parnassus, and nodding ladies’ tresses orchids are in full bloom in September prairie fens. And the water falls gurgle their hypnotic melody. Really?! Yes, really! The falls of autumnal fens continue to babble almost eternally…partially shaded and shrouded by the overhanging sedges and wildflowers in an Edenic or new-heavens-and-new-earth kind of way.
Because fens are wetlands situated on a slope and charged hydrologically by a constant flow of cool groundwater, the little waterfalls that are associated with the spring runs flow all year ‘round. Transported subterrainally and emerging as a spring located somewhere in the fen garden, the mineral rich waters deposit their calcium carbonate and magnesium bicarbonate load in the form of marl. This poor-excuse-for-a-soil-but-would-make-better-cement can and does grow wetland plants that can withstand those harsh soil conditions. Over a long period of time, as the plants’ roots slowly decompose under the anaerobic conditions, a layer of peat builds. Still seeking a downhill path and propelled by gravity, the water cuts through the peat dome. Occasional layers of sand or undecomposed peat resists the downward erosion and a water fall forms. The waterfall may only descend a few inches or a foot, but is enough to provide music to the ears of the harken-er.
At the top of the watershed the fall fen waterfalls pool and their waters continue their flow. Water is added to water as the soaked peat releases its groundwater into the spring run. The spring run gains momentum, volume and width and combines with other rivulets. The Pigeon River receives the flow of several fens as it too gains depth and volume and momentum…and life depends upon that flow.
In my vision, the man brought me back to the entrance of the Temple. There I saw a stream flowing east from beneath the door of the Temple and passing to the right of the altar on its south side. The man brought me outside the wall through the north gateway and led me around to the eastern entrance. There I could see the water flowing out through the south side of the east gateway.
Measuring as he went, he took me along the stream for 1,750 feet and then led me across. The water was up to my ankles. He measured off another 1,750 feet and led me across again. This time the water was up to my knees. After another 1,750 feet, it was up to my waist. Then he measured another 1,750 feet, and the river was too deep to walk across. It was deep enough to swim in, but too deep to walk through.
He asked me, “Have you been watching, son of man?” Then he led me back along the riverbank. When I returned, I was surprised by the sight of many trees growing on both sides of the river. Then he said to me, “This river flows east through the desert into the valley of the Dead Sea. The waters of this stream will make the salty waters of the Dead Sea fresh and pure. There will be swarms of living things wherever the water of this river flows. Fish will abound in the Dead Sea, for its waters will become fresh. Life will flourish wherever this water flows. Fishermen will stand along the shores of the Dead Sea. All the way from En-gedi to En-eglaim, the shores will be covered with nets drying in the sun. Fish of every kind will fill the Dead Sea, just as they fill the Mediterranean. But the marshes and swamps will not be purified; they will still be salty. Fruit trees of all kinds will grow along both sides of the river. The leaves of these trees will never turn brown and fall, and there will always be fruit on their branches. There will be a new crop every month, for they are watered by the river flowing from the Temple. The fruit will be for food and the leaves for healing.” (Ezekial 47:1-12, NLT)
Fall seed collection has begun. On a warm Saturday afternoon two days before the autumnal equinox, twelve friends of Blue Heron Ministries gathered to gingerly strip seeds from prairie plants in preparation for a restorative scattering of the same later in the fall. Yellow coneflower, wild bergamot, showy tick trefoil (yes, the seeds literally covered Denille), prairie dock, whorled rosinweed, black-eyed Susan, prairie dropseed, and side-oats grama were ready for harvest in a couple of restored prairies in northeast Steuben County. Thank you to Lynn Simons, Bette and Jim Thomson, Pam Horton, Jeannine Walker, Denille, Olivia, and Alexis Conklin, Mary Durrand, Peg Zeis, Don Luepke, and Nate Simons for the worthy effort of picking those seeds!