Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Rare Plants and Northwestern Illinois Nature Preserves

     You know you have a cool job when you do the same thing on your day off as you do when working. Such is the case with many botanist photographers and I am no exception.  Recently I went over to the northwestern portion of Illinois to take a look around at the natural areas there and to photograph some rare plants in flower.  The first site for the day was Sentinel Nature Preserve in Mississippi Palisades State Park, in Carroll County.  I met my mentor and former IDNR heritage biologist for this region, Randy Nyboer, and hoped to see the display of Trilliums the park is known for.  We were a little late for the peak bloom, and that morning it got so cold it even snowed a little, so the wildflowers looked a little beat up.  Plus some large red oaks had fallen on some of the large patches so photographing the flowers was difficult, but nature is chaos and the scene was still beautiful.
Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
     This site is one of only a few in Illinois that has the Ill-scented Trillium (Trillium erectum).  Like most flowers that are maroon, this plant has a foul smelling odor that attracts pollinators like flies, ants, and beetles.
 Ill-scented Trillium (Trillium erectum)
     We continued on up the trail to find more rare plants I have not seen or photographed before.  I expected to find Jeweled Shooting Star (Dodecatheon amethystinum) in the forest near the cliff edge.  There are three species of Shooting Star (Dodecatheon spp.) in Illinois.  The common one is called Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia) and can be found throughout the state in prairies and woodlands.  There is a rare one in southern Illinois called French's Shooting Star (Dodecatheon frenchii) and the Jeweled Shooting Star in Illinois is restricted to the northwestern part of the state.
Jeweled Shooting Star (Dodecatheon amethystinum)
     Near the Jeweled Shooting Star is the prominent feature of the park and the nature preserve.  The palisade is a rock cleavage that boldly projects itself against the backdrop of the Mississippi River.  The rock is dolomite, a type of limestone, and harbors some obligate species like Purple Cliffbrake Fern (Pellaea atropurpurea) and Baby Lip Fern (Cheilanthes feei).
The Mississippi Palisade and Purple Cliffbrake Fern (Pellaea atropurpurea)
     Another area we looked at contained a hill prairie that was supposed to be of Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI) quality.  Unfortunately this area had seen too much trampling and abuse to be considered high quality, at least the vast majority of it anyway.  We did find a small patch of Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata) and Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens).  The area also provided for a wonderful panoramic view with the Mississippi River in the background.
Hill Prairie above Mississippi River
Your blogger with the Mississippi River in the background
     The last species of note for me at this site was a fern that I had not seen before.  I have observed almost all of the species of ferns in Illinois and so I am very interested in learning the few I had not yet seen.  This is why Randy gave me a weird look when I was so excited to observe Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteri).
Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteri)
     We took a brief look for any Yellow Lady Slippers (Cypripedium pubescens) but most of them near the trail had long since been poached.  We accidentally forgot all about checking on Canada Violet (Viola canadensis) and went back to our vehicles.
     Not wanting to return to the office work we were planning to do, we decided to continue on to another high quality nature preserve.  We drove a short distance to Ayers Sand Prairie Nature Preserve, also in Carroll County, where we could observe plants that are adapted to sand.
Ayers Sand Prairie Nature Preserve and Dwarf Dandelion (Krigia virginica)
     Dwarf Dandelion (Krigia virginica) is something I had not seen before and so while probably not very exciting to most botanists, it was exciting to me.  We walked around to see what species were in full glorious bloom and I noticed another sand species I had not observed before, mostly because I don't regularly botanize sand communities in the counties I wander.
     In the Scrophullariaceae, Blue Toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis) is named because the leaves of the plants resemble those in the Linum genus, which are called Wild Flax.  Toads were also believed to seek refuge beneath the branches of these plants, hence the name "toadflax."  Sounds like a stretch to me but still a neat plant to observe.
Blue Toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis)
     The most exciting observation here was seeing the mass bloom of the Bird's-foot Violet (Viola pedata).  I had seen plenty of this one before, but never in such great abundance.
Bird's-foot Violet (Viola pedata)
     If it were a nice day we could have hoped to see some Ornate Box Turtles (Terrapene ornata), but it was still cold and rainy so they were hiding.  The rain also caused us to head back to the vehicles and call it a day.  But I rarely make it over to this part of the state and I wanted to see more.  I remembered seeing a sign for Apple River Canyon State Park on my drive over so I decided to return home the way I came so that I could take the 6-mile one-way drive into the canyon.
Apple River Canyon State Park, Jo Daviess County, Illinois
     I specifically wanted to see the Bird's-eye Primrose (Primula mistassinnica) and I knew that it grew on the moist cliffs along the Apple River.  The area was easy to find and there was a parking lot directly across from it.  I looked around on the cliffs from the other side of the Apple River but I didn't see any purple flowers and the river looked deep so I wandered upstream to photograph the canyon.
     Then I remembered I had my binoculars so I returned to my car and when I scanned the cliff again, I saw clumps of little purple flowers, mostly high up on the cliff.  I looked at the deep water in front of me and thought, getting wet is not going to stop me from going over there and getting a photograph!  However, I was able to find a spot downstream that was wide and was able to wade in my knee boots to the other side without getting wet.  But all the good specimens were beyond reach with my camera!  I photographed one here and then one there, but couldn't find any to my liking.
     I returned to the spot I started at and went the other way and managed to find a suspended ledge I could scramble up on and there I found exactly what I was looking for.  Several very happy clumps of blooming plants.  I smiled in satisfaction and vowed to return later in the summer when another rare plant would be in flower on this very same cliff, a plant known as Sullivantia (Sullivantia sullivantii).
Bird's-eye Primrose (Primula mistassinnica)
     It was another great day of botanizing in the wonderful state of Illinois.