Michigan’s Natural Wonders

Nature Walk - Palmer Memorial SanctuaryOn July 10, a group of People’s people spent an afternoon exploring an extraordinary prairie fen ecosystem—and getting a bit muddy. Prairie fens like the Palmer Memorial Nature Sanctuary are particularly valuable areas for conservation because they comprise 0.01% of the land in Michigan, yet 26% of the state’s endangered, threatened, or special concern plants and 24% of the state’s rare animal species live in or near fens. The richness of the plant community provides habitat for an equally diverse community of animals and insects.

Numbers are one way to quantify value; wonder is another. Visiting the Palmer Sanctuary, one enters a landscape that combines prairie with wetland. Like a prairie, it is open to the sky and the plants are fairly uniform in height but the “ground” is a mat of organic matter some of which is actually floating on water. Out in the middle of the fen, you occasionally feel the ground bouncing and realize that the footfalls of your fellow visitors are vibrating through the interwoven surface of soil and plants. As your guide points out the features of the ecosystem, your eyes and ears become attuned so you begin to see and hear things that were previously invisible. You notice black mounds of ant hills, more than a foot in circumference, hidden under the sedges; see evidence of woodpeckers foraging in dead trees that mark an area previously flooded by a beaver pond; and hear the plop of a green frog escaping into one of the many rivulets. Our guide also introduced us to plants like swamp milkweed (pink flowers), boneset (white), and the white death camas, a lovely (though toxic) lily with green-spotted white petals.

With helping hands for balance, we crossed a tree-trunk “bridge” over the stream that divides the fen. There, native plants are reclaiming territory recently cleared of invasive buckthorn. The Michigan Nature Association plans to burn the area soon to strengthen the fire-adapted native plants while inhibiting non-natives. Next year, we can return to marvel at new discoveries that will emerge after the fire.

–Submitted by Cybelle Shattuck

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