Natural Areas Have Intrinsic Value

Cladium mariscoides in a SE Wisconsin calcareous fen.

Cladium mariscoides in a SE Wisconsin calcareous fen

Much of the conservation community’s current approach to conservation planning is a commodification of nature. Lands are valued according to laundry lists of the tangible services (e.g. water quality protection, forage, carbon storage) they provide. We might not assign actual dollars to such services, but we’re certainly thinking about cash for services.

…and sometimes that’s fine. When it comes to the reconstruction of destroyed ecosystems or the restoration of severely degraded ecosystems, there is much to be gained and little to be lost ecologically, so why not sell a project using ecosystem services that appeal to people as consumers? After all, ecological reconstruction and restoration do cost real money.

However, when it comes to the protection and management of our last remnant natural areas, I protest. Any service that the lone prairie in the encroaching thicket or old-growth timber in a metropolitan corridor provides fails to even remotely approach the value the remnant natural area has by its mere continued existence. Our remaining natural areas cannot be adequately considered by deconstruction into goods and services, just as a Monet cannot broken down to paint, canvas, and frame and then sold for millions of dollars. Natural areas are our windows into the past, benchmarks for scientific understanding, and loci for contemplation of our own human existence. Quite often, they are a finite resource very near exhaustion.

In the conversation over conservation priorities, then, I am loathe to consider remnant natural areas on the same plain as other forms open space.

Much of the problem is that the public doesn’t register the differences between an old field and a prairie or an oak woods and a buckthorn thicket. They live in a world where green is green, gray is gray, and brown is brown…a world that is mostly seen out the window or through a screen. Others of us live in a degraded landscape, where through determination and effort one might still find the odd hidden treasure. More of the broader public needs to share in that experience. How that happens in contemporary society is tricky, because it is a matter of perception rather than a matter of providing directions to a location. As the first step and at the very least, we can strive to ensure that remnant natural areas continue to exist, so there remains hope.

Flint Hills, KS tallgrass prairie in May.

Baptisia australis var. minor in Flint Hills, KS tallgrass prairie

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New Addition to the Southeastern Wisconsin Flora Part I

October Lady’s-tresses

Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata Catling (Orchidaceae).

Inflorescence of October lady's tresses

Inflorescence of October lady’s tresses

October lady’s-tresses is generally a more southern species, but it may be extending its range northward, or “new” populations may have been overlooked in the past, because October lady’s tresses blooms, as its name implies, after most botanists have completed their surveys for the year.

Typical plant in habitat

Typical plant in habitat

October lady’s-tresses was first discovered in far southwestern Wisconsin in 1990. It had had not been found outside of that area in Wisconsin until this last October. While visiting Jericho Woods in Waukesha County this fall, the property owner showed me a small patch of orchids. At first I was confused by them, because they did not fit the description of any of the lady’s tresses species known from SE Wisconsin. However, when I sat down with my regional floras (Swink and Wilhelm, Gleason and Cronquist, Voss and Reznicek), it became clear very quickly that the plants were Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata, the nearest known occurences of which are actually from DuPage and Kendall Counties in Northeast Illinois–still more than 100 kilometers away.

Basal and stem leaves

Basal and stem leaves

The population consisted of approximately 30 plants growing under a closed canopy of bur oak and American elm in association with a shrub layer dominated by common buckthorn and hybrid bush honeysuckle. The population was in peak flower on October 3, 2014.

October lady’s tresses is unique among the several lady’s tresses species in southern Wisconsin and the Chicago Region in having small, wholly white flowers, peak flowering in very late September / early October, a preference for shaded habitats, and an acute labellum (lower petal).

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False Foxgloves

The time when days start to become noticeably shorter, the nights more crisp, and the colors on the landscape more rich-late August into September-is one of my favorite times of the year. Several species of false-foxgloves blooming on prairies and savannas add charm to the season. Below I briefly profile a few that I have seen thus far this year.

Small-flowered false-foxglove (Agalinis paupercula), an annual, is a common species in SE Wisconsin. It occurs, sometimes in great abundance, on stream banks, in fens, and in low prairies. It favors the conditions created after fires or in areas that otherwise have sparse vegetation.

Small-flowered false foxglove blooming in low prairie.

Small-flowered false foxglove blooming in low prairie.

The short pedicels (floral stems) of small-flowered false foxglove help distinguish it from other species.

The short pedicels (floral stems) of purple false foxglove help distinguish it from other similar species (e.g. Agalinis tenuifolia), and the short corolla tube relative to the corolla lobes and overall smaller flowers distinguish it from Agalinis purpurea.

Eared false-foxglove (Tomanthera auriculata) was long thought to be extirpated from Wisconsin. Now, two extant populations are known. At this site, which was burned this spring, there may have been a hundred thousand or more plants in a three or four acre area. I missed peak flowering, but there were a few hold-outs. This annual species is partially parasitic (hemiparasitic), and heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) is the favored host.

Eared false-foxglove has broader leaves than small-flowered and purple false-foxglove

Eared false-foxglove has broader leaves than small-flowered and purple false-foxglove

Large-flowered yellow false-foxglove (Aureolaria grandiflora) occurs in oak savannas. It is hemiparasitic and requires the presence of members of the white oak group such as bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and white oak (Quercus alba). These plants were growing in remnant savanna on a small “island” rising nearly 100 feet out of surrounding marsh.

Large-yellow false-foxglove

Large-yellow false-foxglove

Annual Yellow false-foxglove (Aureolaria pedicularia) is similar to the former species, but it requires members of the red oak group, particularly black oak (Quercus velutina) and northern pin oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis) as hosts. It is often found in sandy oak barrens.

Annual yellow false-foxglove growing beneath black oak

Annual yellow false-foxglove growing beneath black oak

Annual yellow false-foxglove up close

Annual yellow false-foxglove up close

All of the above species are pollinated primarily by bumble bees. I dropped the ball not getting any bees in the photos.

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