Category Archives: Plants and Plant Communities

Bird Lives! Three Birds Orchid Still in Michigan

Last August (2011), I wrote a post mentioning that late summer is the flowering time of a rare plant of beech-maple forest, the three birds orchid, Triphora trianthophora. It’s rare nearly everywhere and seemingly was gone from most or all of the few known Michigan stations. I invited Michigan field naturalists to go out and find a place where the plant still lived.

Later that fall (2011), I received an email from Michigan botanist Charles Peirce with the following information:

1. There’s a photographer, Aaron Strouse, in Clare, Michigan who has superior photographs taken this summer. He has displayed them on flickr.

2. There is supposed to be a colony of Three Birds Orchid in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore [Leelanau County]. However, [the] location information covers a large amount of habitat and turns out to be of little use.

And now (2012), Indiana botanist Scott Namestnik has posted a comment to my 2011 essay:

I am happy to report that as of yesterday [3 September], Triphora trianthophora is alive and well in Michigan! (At least at one location). I was at a site in Berrien County yesterday botanizing with a friend when by complete luck I caught a quick glimpse of a tiny white flower on the mesic forest floor. After a double take, I realized that I was looking at Triphora trianthophora! We first saw a couple of plants, then a couple more, and then I realized that the popuation was much more extensive than we orignally suspected. In all, it covered an area ~30′ x 40′, and we estimated 100 plants, though there are probably more. From what I can tell, this is a different site from where it was previously known in Berrien County. I’ve notified a friend at MNFI [Michigan Natural Features Inventory], and we collected notes on the population that I’ve passed to my friend at MNFI.

The MNFI account for three birds orchid available on the web lists 12 stations in 10 counties. They run from Berrien and Cass in the southwest corner of Michigan to Leelanau County  three-quarters of the way up the Lake Michigan coast. However, the MNFI  web account includes only historic records, between 1880 amd 1981. None of the records is farther east than Ionia County; most are in counties directly adjacent to Lake Michigan.

From the information provided by  Charles Peirce and Scott Namestnik, we know that three birds still exists in Michigan, but it remains a rare plant.  It also is an inconspicuous plant–inconspicuous in ways that most plants never thought of.  It blooms at a time–late July to September–when few biologists, or anybody else, has much reason to be in its habitat. Under the dense canopy, the beech-maple forest is dark and buggy, with mosquitos and deer flies.  Mesic forest is outstandingly a site for spring ephemerals, though some other plants bloom through late spring and early summer. But by August almost no other plant species is in flower, except for a few late blossoms on thigh-high plants of horse nettle, Laportea canadensis.

Not much else is happening in these woods either. A few plants  have fruits ripening–bottle-brush grass and dolls eyes, for example. and there are a few fresh fungi such as large white puff balls and coral fungi; however, most of the prime mushrooms appear in spring, early summer, or a bit later in the fall.

So rare though it may be, three birds is also easily missed.

Here’s a little more information about the species reprinted from my earlier post:

Three birds is a short plant, 6 inches or thereabouts. There is much yet to learn about its habitat and life history.  Within its mesophytic forest home, it’s said to favor sites where there’s a build-up of leaf litter and humus.  Probably this means small depressions.  Leaves accumulate other places, such as between two large fallen trunks, but I’m not sure if that microhabitat would be long-lived enough to allow time for the orchid to invade.  But maybe it would. From observations of the Michigan botanist Fred Case in his Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region (Cranbrook Institute of Science, 1987), I suspect that most dispersal is through underground tuberoids that are dug up, carried off, and stored in the duff and litter by red squirrels, or perhaps chipmunks.

Late in the summer, fleshy stems sprout rapidly from the underground tuberoids.  Each plant bears only a few leaves which are oval, alternate, and clasp the stem.  Usually there will be a few stems in a clump. Not long after the plants appear, one or occasionally more of the buds open.  Flowering is possibly triggered by a couple of chilly nights in a row.  It is reported that most of the plants in a given area produce their first blooms at the same time.  After a day or so, the first set of blossoms shrivel, and in a few days, a second round of flowering may occur, and perhaps a third.

The flowers (often three per plant) are recognizably orchids but small, perhaps about an inch wide and an inch tall and are mostly whitish or pinkish with a greenish bearded stripe on the lip.  The fruits last for a couple of weeks before slits develop that allow the release of the spore-like seeds in the following days.  Although the plants are not at their showiest when they’re in fruit, this is probably the longest period of their above-ground life.

If three birds is still in Berrien County and Leelanau , why shouldn’t it be in suitable habitat in the dozen or so counties in between?  Now may be the prime time to look.

Good hunting!


Acknowledgments:  My thanks to Charles Peirce and Scott Namestnik.  Both have interesting blogs. Peirce’s Michigan Wildflowers, has photos of many of the vascular plants of Michigan, arranged alphabetically (separate indexes for common and scientific names),  The website  makes an excellent aid for identifying or verifying Michigan plants.  His photos of Triphora trianthophora are dated 2012, indicating that he has been fortunate enough to visit a Michigan site for the species recently.

One of Namestnik’s blogs, Through Handlens and Binoculars, is devoted to natural history observations by him and his wife, particularly in the highly ecotonal region where they live in the northwest corner of Indiana (lapping over into far southwest  Michigan.





Trail Threat to Calhoun County’s Harvey Ott Preserve is Back

It appears that the more-or-less satisfactory resolution (as of about this time last year) to the proposed wide trail through the Ott Preserve has fallen through.  The issue is again before the Calhoun County Board of  Commissioners.
Last year, the Board listened carefully to all sides and rejected the poorly conceived plan brought to it by the Calhoun County Trailways Alliance. In effect, the Board affirmed a compromise in which a route minimizing mileage and potential damage was to be sought.
I would have wished as part of the action at that time that a definite route had been chosen and agreed on or, if not, that the principles to be used in selecting a route be settled–no penetration near biologically sensitive areas, minimal alteration of ground contours, etc. None of this was done, but I–and I think most people–were left believing that the route would pretty much follow the Consumers Energy right-of way, an already disturbed section along the west side of the Preserve.
It now appears that choosing the route was left to the Trailways Alliance Board.  Furthermore, negotiations seem to have been left to the Alliance, so that when the Alliance decided that the trail ought to cut across some private property, it was the Alliance negotiating easements with the owners.
It does not seem surprising that the negotiations failed.
Neither is it surprising that the Trailways Alliance is now back, wanting a long route through relatively undisturbed areas of Ott.
Evidently some new alternative has been suggested. Possibly it has merits.  But I doubt that it should be accepted in the next week or month.  The Board’s stewardship of the Ott Preserve should include a real effort to let the public know exactly what is planned as to route, methods (construction, stewardship}, effects on vegetation and animals, hydrology, topography, and funding for all likely costs including ongoing remediation of damage produced by the trail traffic.
Essential to a final decision is a thorough ecological survey of the Preserve.  That such a survey should be done has been clear since such a trail project was proposed. Up-to-date information is needed on what features most need protection and where they are.  Baseline data is needed, so that the damage such a trail will do can be unambiguously detected.
Who would suppose that a large-scale project such as this could be started without such a survey?  The survey should have been done a few years ago.  It could have been done during the past year. Perhaps the Trail Alliance would prefer that no such survey ever be done.
This renewed attempt to run a trail through Ott has come up quickly.  It should not be acted on quickly.  People need well-advertised opportunities to question proponents–and opponents.  People need to be able to walk any proposed route and judge for themselves.  They need to be able to answer for themselves–Is this the route we want?  Do we want a 14-foot-wide swath cut through the Ott Preserve at all?
The foregoing is a slightly modified version of a letter I emailed to all of the Calhoun County Commissioners having email addresses this morning.  The Commission is scheduled to take up and perhaps vote on the new proposed route tomorrow night ( 3 May 2012) at their regular meeting. Information about the Preserve features, history including the 2011 attack and another still earlier incident are given here and in several other posts on my website around the same time.
Following is a list of the current county commissioners, most of whom were also on the board  in 2011:

Kathy Sue Dunn (Board appointed replacement for former Commissioner Behnke)

458 Country Club Drive Battle Creek, MI 49015 (269) 968-9758

Email form:


Terris Todd

135 Irving Park Drive Battle Creek, MI 49017 (269) 660-8717

Email form:


Jim Haadsma

146 South Lincoln Blvd.

Battle Creek, MI 49015

(269) 964-3472

Email form:


Steve Frisbie

148 Pheasantwood Trail Battle Creek, MI 49017 (269) 964-1693

Email form:


Julie Camp Seifke

8934 5 Mile Road East Leroy, MI 49051 (269) 967-0759

Email form:


Art Kale

PO Box 672 Albion, MI 49224 (517) 629-4774

Email form:


Blaine VanSickle

16828 21 Mile Road Marshall, MI 49068 (269) 781-4400

No email


Field Trip To Beech-Sugar Maple Forest 7 April 2012, In A High CO2 World

Big trees in Mildred Harris Sanctuary. Photo 6 March 2011 by Richard Brewer

I’m leading a field trip to a beech-sugar maple forest this spring.  We’ll look at the spring flowers and as we stroll around also talk about what mesophytic forests are like, why they are where they are, what the interactions among the organisms are, and other such natural history and ecology topics.

The specific site where we’ll gather is the Mildred Harris Sanctuary north of Kalamazoo.  It’s owned by the Michigan Audubon Society and has been stewarded for many years by the Audubon Society of Kalamazoo.

The trip is sponsored by the Southwest Chapter of the Michigan Botanical Club as part of its 2012 project concentrating on natural features and conservation in Oshstemo Township (known to some as the Occupy Oshtemo movement.

I’ve led a trip along these lines several springs in past years, to one or another of the remaining examples of mesophytic forest in southwest Michigan.  But there’s a difference this year.

Most such trips for spring ephemerals led by me or others have been held in mid or late April or even early May.  This year the president, Tyler Bassett, of the Southwest Chapter of the  Botanical Club and I had agreed on Saturday April 21 as the date. Then the second week of March arrived.  The beginning of March had temperatures fairly close to the historical averages–30s as highs and 20s as lows.  March 6 started a run in which day after day had highs at least in the 60s and often the 70s.  March 19 to 22, had a run of highs in the 80s. The last freezing temperatures came far back in February.

Looking at what was happening to the flora, Tyler and I decided to move the date of spring wild flower trip up by two weeks, to Saturday March 7.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer, but seventeen days with temperatures between 60 and 85 in the middle of March may make it necessary for Michigan nature organizations to revise their field trip calendars.

Here’s an idea, a sampling, of what’s been happening this spring:  As mentioned in my last post, I heard wood frogs in Oshtemo Township 12 March and by the next night, they were joined by a few spring peepers.

By the night of 15 March, both these species as well as chorus frogs were in full voice. On the 15th, the high temperature was 79 and the low 55, compared with historical averages of 45 and 27 degrees.

As to the plants, on a visit 14 March to Newton Woods at Russ Forest, two friends and I found spring beauty up, a broad-leaved sedge with flowering stalks, and harbinger of spring close to full bloom.

Spice bush in flower. Photograph 18 March 2012 Oshtemo Township by Richard Brewer

In Oshtemo Township, spice bush was in full bloom by 18 March, a golden haze over the edges of the kettles where the frogs had gathered.  Bloodroot was in bloom 19 March.

On 22 March, I visited a rich beech-maple forest in Pavilion Township.  All of the following (in the order I came across them) were in bloom:

Spring beauty, Dutchman’s breeches, Yellow violet, harbinger of spring (nearly done), blue violet, Carex plantaginifolia (nearly done), toothwort, purple spring cress, wood anemone, and skunk cabbage.

Several other species were up and some had obvious flower buds.

So we’ll gather this year April 7 at the Harris Sanctuary which is in the southwest corner of F Avenue and 8th Street.  It’s about 3 miles north of the trail-head of the Kal-Haven Trail (which is on 9th Street).  F Avenue is a gravel road–a Natural Beauty road, in fact.  Attendees should park on the north side of the road.  Be there by 10 AM.

Harris is on the Kalamazoo moraine, so there will some mild hill climbing. We’ll finish about noon.  Bring a sandwich and have lunch sitting on a log if you wish.

The technically minded may notice that the Harris Sanctuary is not in Oshtemo Township.  But it’s pretty close.

Three-quarters of a mile north.


Notes On A High CO2 Spring, March 2012

North Pond. Photo 12 March 2012 Oshtemo Township by Richard Brewer

With temperatures in the 50s and 60s the last few days–and predicted as mid-70s today–spring is advancing fast.  Wood frogs were calling in the larger pond Monday, March 12.  By yesterday, they were in full chorus in both ponds and by last night, a few spring peepers had joined in.

Among the bird arrivals I’ve noticed (since we’ve been back), Red-winged Blackbirds were numerous Monday morning, and I saw two American Robins along our road, where none had been all winter.

Black-capped Chickadees were giving their spring, “fee-bee” song Tuesday morning.

But there has been little in the way of wild flower action, at least in the oak woods.  Honey bees were visiting the non-native winter aconite, which is in full bloom.

L. A. Kenoyer on Saving Newton Woods

Leslie A. Kenoyer in the greenhouse at West Hall, WMU East campus. Photo courtesy Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collection

The essay that follows is a radio address by Leslie Alva Kenoyer, who served from 1922 to 1953 as Professor and Chairman of the Biology Department at Western Michigan University –at that time Western State Teachers College .  The piece is dated April 16, 1935.  It was written for Western’s Radio Hour, which was evidently a continuing feature on station WKZO.


Leslie Kenoyer 

“Woodman, spare that tree, Touch not a single bough.”

 The sentiment that inspired this poem has not been firmly enough established in the minds of southern Michigan people to save from destruction any more than the most scattered remnants of our once beautiful and glorious forest lands. Some fifty thousand years ago the great continental glacier receded from what is now Michigan leaving a raw and barren glacial clay, streaked here and there with sand and gravel. Such soil, in the cool climate then found here, could support only a meager arctic vegetation, consisting of such low, spreading plants as we find today in our cold bogs. The rain and sun gradually brought about favorable chemical changes in the soil and the plants gradually decayed to form humus, hence, in the course of a few centuries, the scant arctic vegetation was replaced by larger shrubs. Centuries later trees occupied the ground, starting with the poplars and developing from stage to stage to dense shady forests of beech and sugar maple. such as covered much of southern Michigan 110 years ago when the government divided our land into townships and sections.

It was inevitable that the trees should succumb to the lumberman’s axe, when the land was cleared for farm homesteads, but it is particularly unfortunate that their removal should have been so complete. Indeed we have here and there a small woodlot to serve as a rather meager sample of the forests that were. but larger tracts are now exceedingly scarce. One of the finest and most extensive remaining areas is Newton Woods in Cass County, adjoining the road from Decatur to Cassopolis, and not far from the village of Volinia. Here are several hundred acres of practically virgin timber, including large blocks of both the beech-maple and oak-hickory types of timber. The trees of this forest were large long before southern Michigan was surveyed and opened to the settler. Among them is an elm which now lifts its head to the majestic height of 150 feet and has a circumference. three feet above ground of 24 feet [91-92 inches in diameter]. Some believe it to be the largest tree now standing in Michigan. There is also a magnificent group of giant tulip or whitewood, the largest of which is 145 feet high, 90 feet to the first branch and 30 feet in circumference [114-115 inches in diameter]. It takes three to five centuries to grow such trees as these.

Ten years ago we could see from our college campus, at a distance of eight or nine miles, a stately elm, towering far above the other trees. Suddenly this tree ceased to be seen, and we learned that it had been sold for $100 for the manufacture of barrel staves. On visiting the stump and counting the rings of growth, I found that the tree was considerably over 400 years old. It was a sapling when Columbus crossed the Atlantic in his puny sailing vessels. Probably the barrels have worn out and the $100 has been long since spent and forgotten, but it will take 400 years to grow another such tree.

When a forest is cut, it is not only the trees that go. The shrubs and the herbs, the orchids and other rare plants, the mosses and lichens that form the turf, will not live when deprived of the shade of the trees. The disappearance of this ground cover permits the erosion of the soil, which represents the accumulation of many thousands of years. The insects, the birds, and the beasts are dislodged from their accustomed haunts, many of them to perish. Hence the restoration of a denuded area cannot be accomplished by the mere planting of trees, nor does a planted forest ever prove a satisfactory substitute for a destroyed native forest.  The old conditions will not and cannot be restored, once the forest is gone.  How, then, will the next generation know anything of the beauties and glories of the forest with its wonderful variety of plant and animal forms  This is a question which our generation must answer.

A part of the Newton Woods is now in the hands of a lumber company and some cutting has already been done, but there is a chance that it may yet be rescued if the public will take sufficient interest in its preservation. The lumber firm is kindly witholding operations in view of an aggressive campaign that is now being sponsored by the Michigan Academy [of Science, Arts, and Letters], the Michigan Forestry Association, and other organizations and individuals who feel that the value to the people of such reserves for the continuation of our wild life is one that cannot be measured in mere dollars. The present leader of this movement is Shirley W. Allen, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Professor Allen would like to hear from all who are interested in finding some means to save the tract.  It is well to bear in mind that our present state parks are mostly in northern Michigan remote from centers of population. Here is a real wilderness with immense trees, a small stream, a profusion of wild flowers, birds, and other natural beauties easy of access to a million people.  We cannot blame property owners for wishing to realize from their investments, but we deplore the fact that the people are not awake to the desirability of keeping the few remaining bits of out landscape as nature gave them to us, free from the artificial modifications imposed  by farm and city development.  With an awakened public, our officials and our public-spirited citizens of means would put forth the necessary efforts to save from the general destruction these remnants of wild nature for the instruction and enjoyment of generations yet to come.

Kenoyer’s comments on post-glacial vegetation change hold up well enough as a broad pattern.  However, the quoted estimate of 50,000 years ago since the last ice sheet melted from southern Michigan is too high. Something on the order of 15,000 years would be closer to the interval based on current evidence.

I like Kenoyer’s plea for protecting natural areas “for the enjoyment and instruction” of later generations.  If I were to revise it I might write “enjoyment, instruction, and health of our own and later generations.” But Kenoyer’s plea for land conservation was accurate and eloquent exactly as he wrote it and, in 1935 on a radio broadcast, far ahead of its time.

The script of this and a few other of Kenoyer’s radio addresses, preserved by Biology Prof. Frank Hindshave been deposited in the WMU Archives and Regional History Collection

Kenoyer received his Ph.D. in 1916, evidently done in some sort of joint arrangement between the University of Chicago and Iowa State University.  He is credited with receiving the first Ph.D. granted by  what was then The Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.  Kenoyer’s thesis research dealt with environmental influences on nectar secretion.  This and his research interests as shown in later life seem clearly in line with the work being done at Chicago by Henry Chandler Cowles and the other faculty and graduate students.

Kenoyer was born in 1883 in Dover, a small community in north-central Illinois. After completing his Ph.D., he taught botany in India for six years, then spent a year at Michigan State before coming to Kalamazoo.  He became head of the Biology Department soon after arriving, when LeRoy H. Harvey died.

Newton Woods was saved by a donation of  land (580 acres) and an endowment by Fred Russ in 1939 .  The story is complicated (and deserves a thorough treatment by someone), but there is a rough correspondence between the “Newton Woods” of the 1930s and Fred Russ Forest managed by Michigan State University.  MSU applies the name “Newton Woods” to 40 acres of old-growth hardwood, the only part of the forest that is protected from timber cutting.  E. Lucy Braun in her monumental study Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America (1950. Blakiston, Philadelphia) sampled two distinct areas at Russ Forest, probably in the early 1940s (pp 318-320).  One was beech-sugar maple with American elm, black walnut, tulip tree, and several other species well represented. The other was dominated by white oak with sugar maple second and red oak and black walnut tied for third.  Evidently, the oak-maple stand is what MSU terms “Newton Woods.”  

Whether Kenoyer and some of the other individuals and groups who worked to preserve Newton Woods 75 years ago would  be wholly be satisfied with the outcome is not certain.


Ozone, Obama, and the Deregulation Doo Dah Parade

[This post appeared in briefer form as a Letter to the Editor of the Kalamazoo Gazette 12 September 2011.]

Automobiles are a less serious contributor to ozone production since catalytic converters have been required. Photo in downtown Milwaukee, WI by Richard Brewer

President Obama made two serious mistakes early this fall. First, he told the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw new, stronger, standards for ozone levels in the lower atmosphere that were intended to replace the standards held over from the Bush administration. Ozone (O3) is an atmospheric pollutant dangerous to human health because it’s highly reactive in lung tissues. It’s involved in various respiratory diseases but evidently also in other sorts of human pathology; for example, it’s believed to contribute to the development of atherosclerosis. But ozone in the lower atmosphere also has many bad effects besides just our own health and life span.  It damages plants, lowering photosynthesis and growth and is implicated in die-offs of forest trees.

Ozone is produced in the lower atmosphere by reactions between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight. The nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds come mostly from power plants, various sorts of factories, automobiles, gasoline vapor, and chemical solvents.

There are interactions between ozone production and temperature and ozone effects and temperature, such that we get more ozone produced and stronger effects when temperatures are high. These are one of many kinds of interactions that may make global warming an even greater calamity than most of the early predictions claimed.

President Obama’s second mistake was his reason for turning down the new, science-based ozone recommendations. He said he wanted to reduce regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty. But tough regulations strictly enforced are what can make capitalism work. The last few years have shown us repeatedly how things go astray when politicians manage to weaken and thwart regulations.  Weakened regulations together with the unwillingness of federal agencies to enforce existing regulations were the main causes of the financial fiasco of 2007-2009 and the recession that came with it.

Michigan has been on the deregulation bandwagon right along.  In the DooDah parade of deregulation, it may even have been ahead of the bandwagon.  We had a governor a few years ago whose slogan was “Less enforcement, more compliance.”  Such a proposition if it were sincere would be fatuous, but considering everything, just calling it preposterous or ludicrous will probably have to serve.

President Obama seems to have accepted the argument of the extreme political right that there is a conflict between “the environment” and “the economy.”  For most Americans, the right wing lost on that issue 30 or 40 years ago. Some corporations tell us if the nation doesn’t give them lax environmental rules they’ll take their jobs overseas.  Since such corporations show little national loyalty, some have.

But the balance sheet we need to look at is the overall gain to our nation in terms of clean air and water, healthy citizens, healthy communities, and healthy ecosystems  compared with the cost of meeting any given environmental standard. Time after time we’ve seen that the costs of meeting new standards turns out lower than the company’s forecast, that new jobs are created connected with the improved technology needed, and that the overall national cost/benefit ratio is heavily in favor of the tougher standards.

Anyone who’s been paying attention anytime these past 40 years knows that.  Why doesn’t the President?

President Obama has another environmental decision coming up soon.  This is to accept or reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry a form of crude oil processed from Canadian tar sands from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast.  I hope to write more about this a little later.

Find the three birds orchid in Michigan beech-maple forest, please

Today is a good time to take a walk in the forest, but then any time is.  It’s a really good time for a walk in the beech-maple forest, because a very rare orchid blooms this time of year.

In beech-maple forest, the canopy is continuous and dense except where a tree has recently been lost. Photo 29 August 2011 Pavilion Township by Richard Brewer

The orchid is three birds orchid (Triphora trianthophora).  It’s known from Kalamazoo County and in fact from much of the eastern U.S., but in most places it has become rare. It is now considered threatened, endangered, or extirpated in most states. The last record in Michigan was evidently in 1981, from Berrien County.

It’s possible that three birds is gone from Kalamazoo County and Michigan. Perhaps the observations in the 20th century just caught the tail of a population dwindling toward extinction–in this region; three birds seems a little more numerous in the South.  However, there are some reasons why not many people are out looking in the beech-maple forests when it’s visible, and also some reasons why, even if you’re there, three birds isn’t necessarily easy to spot.

First, almost nothing else is in flower in the mesophytic forests at this time of year, so there’s not much to look at.  The many species of spring ephemerals that covered the ground in April and May are gone.  A few species that flower in summer are now in fruit, and it’s pleasant to be able to see the doll’s-eyes and blue cohosh.  But, in general, the beech-maple forests of late summer are dark, and the ground is obscured in many places with seedlings and saplings,

Doll's-eyes (Actaea pachypoda) in fruit in beech-maple forest. Photo Oshtemo Township 17 August 2009 by Richard Brewer

mostly sugar maple, or with thick foliage of ferns, wood nettle (Laportea), wild ginger, and a few other herbs.

Three birds is a short plant, 6 inches or thereabouts, so I imagine in the shade and under the foliage, it’s not easy to see. Nevertheless, considering how important rediscovering the species would be, if you can get to a beech-maple forest in the next few days, you ought to give it a try.

There is much yet to learn about the habitat and life history of three birds.  Within its mesophytic forest home, it’s said to favor sites where there’s a build-up of leaf litter and humus.  Probably this means small depressions.  Leaves accumulate other places, such as between two large fallen trunks, but I’m not sure if that microhabitat would be long-lived enough to allow time for the orchid to invade.  But maybe it would. From observations of the Michigan botanist Fred Case in his Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region (Cranbrook Institute of Science, 1987), I suspect that most dispersal is through underground tuberoids that are dug up, carried off, and stored in the duff and litter by red squirrels, or perhaps chipmunks.

Late in the summer, fleshy stems sprout rapidly from the underground tuberoids.  Each plant bears only a few leaves which are oval, alternate, and clasp the stem.  Usually there will be a few stems in a clump. Not long after the plants appear, one or occasionally more of the buds open.  Flowering is possibly triggered by a couple of chilly nights in a row.  It is reported that most of the plants in a given area produce their first blooms at the same time.  After a day or so, the first set of blossoms shrivel, and in a few days, a second round of flowering may occur, and perhaps a third.

The flowers (often three per plant) are recognizably orchids but small, perhaps about an inch wide and an inch tall and are mostly whitish or pinkish with a greenish bearded stripe on the lip.  The fruits last for a couple of weeks before slits develop that allow the release of the spore-like seedsin the following days.  Although the plants are not at their showiest when they’re in fruit, this is the probably the longest period of their above-ground life.  You can see how the plant looks with fruit at this Connecticut Botanical Society site with photos by Eleanor Saulys.   The same site shows some plants in flower. Many more photos of flowering plants by Jim Fowler are shown at the North Carolina site  linked to earlier.

So, have a look at the photos and head for the nearest beech-maple forest.  If you find three birds orchids, please tell us about it in the comments section.  But don’t mention exactly where you found them. (If you do give information that might allow someone to locate them, I’ll edit your comment to remove those details.)  Rare plants, especially such things as orchids, have been known to disappear from sites that become known.  However, you should let the Michigan Natural Features Inventory know.  They’ll be tickled that three birds is not extinct in Michigan.–as will we all.

What will happen to the sand dunes at Saugatuck?

Dunelands near Saugatuck, Michigan. Photo 6 August 2007 by Richard Brewer

At a time in southwest Michigan when protecting all our remaining natural lands and waters would make sense for human health and economic viability, threats continue.

This morning I received the message copied in boldface below from the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance.  It is their updated look at the controversy involving the Lake Michigan sand dunes and beaches north of the mouth of the Kalamazoo River at Saugatuck, Allegan County, Michigan.  Background information is available at the Alliance’s website .  A December 2010 Wall Street Journal article, A Billionaire’s Dune Duel, is also informative. Some history, including the hope to have protected public lands from the Oval Beach north through Saugatuck State Park, is given at the website of the Concerned Citizens for Saugatuck State Park.

We want to take a moment to alert you to what is currently happening to defend local zoning in the Saugatuck area.

  • On July 22nd the Saugatuck Township Board appeared to ignore four hours of testimony by many well-informed township residents asking them to consider all other possible solutions to the proposed settlement between Aubrey McClendon and Saugatuck Township to the on-going federal lawsuit. The Township Board unanimously passed the settlement.
  • On July 29th three local groups – Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, Laketown Alliance for Neighborly Development and the Kalamazoo River Protection Association – file  a request for Judge Maloney to hold a fairness hearing. A fairness hearing, which is common in many different types of cases that affect communities or large numbers of third-parties, is used to ensure consent decrees are fair, reasonable and legal, and in the public interest.  Our belief is that the proposed consent decree does not meet these standards and should, therefore, be rejected by the court.
  • On July 29th the National Trust for Historic Preservation also file a request for a fairness hearing. The National Trust is represented by Kalamazoo-based law firm Miller Canfield.
  • On August 1st several Township residents who live close to the McClendon property also file papers requesting a fairness hearing. The neighbors are represented by Grand Rapids-based law firm Varnum.
  • On Monday, August 8th additional neighbors, one of whom is completely surrounded by McClendon’s land, sign onto the request for a fairness hearing filed by Varnum.

We have taken this step (filing for a fairness hearing on July 29th) as we believe that this proposed consent decree is illegal because it circumvents local zoning laws, violates the State-mandated rezoning process, and blocks the Saugatuck Township Board’s oversight of the development.

To put it simply, the fundamental problem with the proposed settlement is that it includes provisions that neither Mr. McClendon nor the Township Board has the legal authority to do on their own. That is, they have overridden local zoning regulations without a proper process and they have approved a commercial development that is not permitted under current zoning and would also have not been permitted under the property’s previous zoning.

Under Michigan law, zoning ordinances should be based on the applicable master plan. The proposed consent decree, however, permits commercial-type uses that are clearly prohibited by the Township’s zoning ordinance and the Tri-Community Comprehensive Master Plan. It does this without any proper process or prior consultation with the Cities of Saugatuck and  Douglas, the two other jurisdictions that participated in the development of this Master Plan. Additionally, under this settlement, the Township has contracted away its legislative powers now and in the future in violation of Michigan law.

Furthermore, the Township Board reached the decision to accept the settlement under duress. This proposed settlement is not a “compromise” as touted by the McClendon team. It is, in fact, a “take it or leave it” offer, made after the Township was forced to incur hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal expenses, and then threatened with never ending legal expenses in the future. Only then did the Township capitulate to Mr. McClendon’s demands.

We appreciate the pressure the Township Board has been under and the difficult decision they were faced with. But this settlement sets a dangerous precedent because it suggests that there is one set of rules for investors with deep pockets who are willing to threaten the Township with bankruptcy and another set of rules for everyone else.

With the various requests for a fairness hearing, the community is stating publicly and before the Court that this proposed consent decree is unfair and illegal and should be set aside by the court.

We understand that many in the community are concerned about the costs of further litigation and the unfortunate divisions that this development proposal has caused in our community. As a practical matter, we agree that a fair settlement should be negotiated. That is why we are also calling on the township to propose to Mr. McClendon a mediation process, such as proposed by former Senator Birkholz, in order to reach a fair and legal settlement. We understand that Mr. McClendon owns the property and has a right to develop it. We only ask that it be developed in a manner that is consistent local zoning laws.

Many of you are asking how you can help. Thank you!  One important thing everyone can easily do is send this update out widely, post on facebook, and remind people that this issue is far from over.

Also, please keep repeating these three points:

1. The Coastal Allliance supports all property owners’ rights to develop their land legally and appropriately.

2. The Coastal Alliance supports locally determined zoning.

3. Aubrey McClendon sued Saugatuck Township to rewrite zoning laws. It’s worth noting that the Master Plan, from which these zoning laws originated, was unanimously approved by Saugatuck Township, Saugatuck City, and Douglas.

Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance   P.O. Box 1013 , Saugatuck, MI 49453, (269) 857-1842,

Quote 3, John Eastman on Wetlands as Wilderness

And the fount of biodiversity is wilderness.  Today, American forest wilderness exists, when at all, in patches, “museum cases” of public lands, which give only pallid ideas of the large biodiversity our ancestors blithely relinquished.

Button found 14 April 2011 and reused

Wetland wilderness, however has not fallen quite so far…. Although many surviving wetlands have indeed suffered irreversible changes… it is remarkable how many of them remain relatively pristine. Most American wetlands have existed as such since the retreat of Pleistocene glaciers.  Some of their plant populations may, in many cases, be directly descended from the original wetland species of their locales.  The pleasure and adventure of experiencing a bog or marsh of native vegetation may bring us as close to experiencing true American wilderness as most of us may ever come.

–John Eastman

John Andrew Eastman was an American naturalist and writer and a Kalamazoo resident.  Of many publications, probably his most influential were three books, The Book of Forest and Thicket, The Book of Swamp and Bog, and  The Book of Field and Roadside.  They are field guides of a special, ecological sort.  Arranged by species of plant, they deal with the interactions of each species with its associates–consumers, parasites, competitors, mutualists–and with the physical features of its habitat.

The quotation is from the Introduction to the Swamp and Bog book and makes a point about many existing wetlands of North America that no one else has stated as directly:  Unlike most upland sites, wetland sites, if not destroyed, often preserve conditions and ecosystems with direct genetic connections to the landscapes encountered by the earliest European settlers–and, of course, by American Indians before them.

Many wetlands have another conservation connection: Pollen and other remains of plants and animals preserved in their sediments are the main evidence for reconstructing the vegetational and climatic history of the region surrounding the wetland basin.  Not mentioned in the Introduction, this important role is alluded to in the book’s entry on Mosses, Sphagnum (p.130).

Hazelnut, Fire, Oak Openings, Nostalgia

Hazelnut catkins in Oshtemo Township, Michigan. Photo 10 April 2011 by Richard Brewer

Early this April, I saw a tall skinny shrub without leaves but with catkins.  It reminded me that early last fall I had come across a clump of similar skinny trunks that bore pointed, toothed leaves.  The leaves were more or less like leaves of several groups of woody plants–birches, elms, hornbeams, and conceivably a few others.  I had been puzzled by the plant and hadn’t identified it for sure but had narrowed it down to a handful of possibilities.  One of the possibilities had been American hazelnut (Corylus americanus).  The books I was using commented that catkins are produced in the fall but don’t open to produce pollen until the following spring.  These catkins weren’t quite open yet, but seeing them there tilted me toward thinking that the plants must be hazelnuts.

The plant was in a handy place to observe, so I was able to keep track of it over the next couple of weeks as the catkins lengthened and then opened, shedding pollen.

Hazelnut catkins, Oshtemo Township, Michigan. Photo 11 April 2011 by Richard Brewer

The pistillate flowers of hazelnut are tiny buds, but recognizable by the thin red styles–ready for pollen–poking out the end. The styles are easily seen with a lens. The hazelnuts when they ripen in the fall look like the European filbert of commerce, but smaller. They’re also similar in taste.

The first time I saw hazelnuts I was probably six or seven years old.  My parents took me along when they went hazelnut picking one day in the fall.  The spot wasn’t far from where we lived east of Murphysboro, Illinois, probably a quarter of a mile down the county road toward Route 13.  I enjoyed eating the nuts at the time but never became a big filbert fan.

I’ve seen hazelnut fruits in the wild in Michigan a few times, but never in these woods.  Two possibilities occur to me.  The first is that the woods are too shady, especially with the increasing abundance of red maple, for the shrubs to accumulate enough energy to produce fruits.  The second is that the nuts are so attractive to the squirrels, woodpeckers, and jays that they have always been eaten (or stored)  before I chance to wander by in the fall.

Hazelnut in oak woods--former oak openings--in Oshtemo Township. Photo 21 June 2011 by Richard Brewer

Now that I’m attuned to the look of hazel even without catkins or hazelnuts, I’ve seen several clumps  in both drier and wetter parts of the oak woods. Most of the clumps are between knee high and waist high, only a few head high or taller.

Since I’ve been in Michigan, I’ve associated hazelnut with the edges of prairies, and I think that’s apt.  But now I’ve begun to understand (1) its remarkably wide ecological amplitude and (2) how widespread it must have been in almost every permutation of prairie and savanna that existed in pre-settlement southwest Michigan.

One indication of hazelnut’s wide habitat occurrence can be drawn from John T. Curtis’s The Vegetation of Wisconsin. This excellent book has a species list in the back (after the Literature Cited and before the index), that gives the plant community where the species most frequently occurs and also given  the number of plant communities in which Curtis found the species in his studies. The community in which the species was found most often–the modal community–is presumably the most characteristic community; the number of communities from which the species is recorded is a measure of ecological amplitude of the species.

The book recognizes 34 plant communities. American hazelnut was reported most frequently from dry forest, but it occurred in 20 other communities, or  62 per cent in all.

I didn’t go through the species list line by line, but I did check on some species that I think of as occurring in a wide variety of situations. There were a few species in the 15-18 community range and at least one species that occurred in the same number of communities as hazelnut–21.  This was Cornus racemosa, gray dogwood.  Vitis riparia, river-bank grape, had a 22. There were only two species clearly ahead of  the hazelnut, dogwood, and grape.  These were Va. creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, 1n 25 communities and poison ivy, Rhus radicans, in 26 (76%).  It may not be accidental that all five of these species are woody and have animal-dispersed seeds.

Hazelnut’s broad distribution more or less centered on dry forest fits well with the conception of oak openings that Kim Chapman and I expressed in an article (“Prairie and Savanna in Southern Lower Michigan: History, Classification, Ecology”) in the January 2008 Michigan Botanist.  We see oak openings in the pre-settlement landscape as a diverse community, the composition of which varied in space–different in low and high spots, north slopes and southwest slopes, sandy sites and gravelly sites. But it also varied in time at any given point based on the  latest disturbance (fire, tornado, insect infestation) and how recent it was, but also on the historic frequency of disturbance.  A north-facing slope running down to a pond in a small kettle might have included a set of plants much like mesic forest.  A gentle loamy slope after a few years of near-annual fires might have been covered with dry-mesic prairie.

This is oak openings in the sense of Michigan pioneer botanist Ruth Hoppin’s description (quoted on pages 7-8 of Chapman and Brewer). In this view, most of the prairie and savanna types are just different faces of one big community type.  Mesic prairie and bur oak plain, I would say, are different and so, of course, is mesic forest.

Hazelnut seems to have the life history traits to be a near-perfect fit to the oak openings habitat as it was.  Hazelnut can get around readily by the nuts being carried, and often buried, by mammals and birds. Over short distances, it spreads readily by rhizomes. It tolerates a wide range of light intensities though it tends to decline in deep shade.  It tolerates fire, but only up to a point. Most of its rhizomes and roots are in the upper six inches of soil.  Light fires kill the above-ground parts of the plant but stimulate vigorous sprouting from the rhizomes.  Fires hot enough to consume the litter often kill the underground parts.  Hence, hazelnut might be at least temporarily eliminated by fire from certain habitats where hot, litter-consuming fires occurred.

I suspect most of the hazelnut plants I’ve been finding in the Oshtemo oak woods are just hanging on, waiting for the fires the openings used to have, the fires that would stimulate sprouting and open the canopy to enough sunlight to yield a good crop of nuts. One more reason why few of the hazel bushes grow tall may be the high populations of deer these days.  Hazel is a favored browse plant of deer, so high populations may keep it pretty well clipped.