read the words on the Cook-Albert Fuller Nature Center blackboard. Is there a better kind?
Jane Whitney, citizen-scientist, makes every tiny detail on our meander come alive.
Consummate guide, she leads an ungainly gaggle down a boardwalk at The Ridges preserve in Door County to goggle at things both tiny and large. Not the wilderness of a John Muir, but accessible to those with mobility issues. And that is important.
It’s an orchid-y place, she says. Citizen-scientists have been conducting an inventory with GPS and found 29 kinds here. None blooming now, unfortunately. Otherwise we would see the blossoms of the ram’s head lady slipper, about as big as your little finger. Orchids, it turns out, will not germinate without a fungal partner in the soil. Something she says that I distractedly miss about a baby and a lunchbox. Sounds amazing but my tummy still hurts from all the chocolate-covered almonds I ingested at the bonfire last night. Each orchid contains a fairy dust of 10,000 dust-like seeds. Just DNA on the wing.
Now you’ve got my attention. You know, of course, that Latin names exist for all these plants. Those are for smart alecks, not for us. Did you take Latin in school? It was all I could do to master AP English.
Cat-tails. Where we live, back east, these have all been replaced by phragmites, noxious invasives.
The hardest part of being a citizen-scientist is getting down and getting up again, she says, especially when you’re in your eighth decade.
Ridges and swales, the geographic features of this biome. Turns out this discrete spot in Door County thinks it’s much farther north, and thus earns the title of boreal forest, hosting a northern community of plants and 17 species of warbler that nest here because they think it’s north. Silly warblers. Bailey’s Harbor offers a straight shot down to Chicago. A paleolythic boreal forest, and we’re in it. That must be the magic I sensed. Even the soil beneath our feet is special.
Jane shows us Joe Pye weed, a wonderful plant for your garden – a monarch magnet, and swamp candle a native kind of loosestrife, and therefore okay, not like the purple loosestrife that haunts the byways of America. Joe Pye, named after a New England man who used the plant medicinally for helping people with typhus fever.
Boneset, its close cousin. Self-deprecatingly, our guide points out little short plants on the ground – where else would they be, Jane? Dwarf lake iris, with a purple-yellow bloom in May, this was shoreline once.
Cedars are manifold. The bark, people once knew, could cure scurvy.
Now it is only picturesque.
And makes a trail like this give off an aroma better than the finest chi-chi spa.
Even Mimi, a teensy bit anxious to get us here on time. is becalmed.
Goldenrod gets blamed for allergies but ragweed is the culprit when pollen gets up your snoot. Spatter dock. Narrow-leafed loosestrife. Water parsnip. The poetry of wild plants, now forgotten by all but a few. Kalm’s Saint John’s Wort used to be used medicinally by ancient people, the smart people. Kalm traveled to North America from Sweden in 1747 and wrote the first scientific papers on Niagara Falls and on the 17-year cicada, among other marvels. He identified 60 new plant species.
We see tufty things. Standing beside the harebell, my pen runs out of ink, and Jane kindly lends me an extra from Door County Eye Associates. I am reminded of the tours I give at Ellis when she heads us into the shade. You need to be comfortable when learning about the doodlebug, or ant lion, one of nature’s premier engineers, which always goes backwards into an ant hill and knows perfectly the angle of repose. Funny, I thought I had the skinny on that.
A sedge meadow is a good place for mating dragonflies. Or mating anything, if there’s no room at the inn.
Spurred gentian doesn’t get any prettier than this – it’s just a blush, non-spectacular. Yes, gotcha, we all have those days.
In case you worried (I did), the only reason the lower branches of the cedars look dead is because the tree in shade finds it’s too much effort to maintain needles for photosynthesis.
But there are particular signs of continued life for this conifer forest. A recent wind-throw caused a canopy opening that was a gift to the forest floor, making a place for baby balsams to grow. Nurse logs coated in moss sprout seedlings, so if you have a wood lot, leave your wind-throw down. I hear wives rib their husbands: I don’t think you’re going to do that anytime soon. The usual guy-who-knows-everything points out berries that even Jane didn’t see. Mansplaining as popular a pastime in the Midwest as anyplace else.
The black-eyed susans are having a great time. Happy plants. Did you know that lilies of the valley are that modern curse word, invasive, also daisies, brought by European settlers?
I want to take a hot second and talk about… the tour is almost done, time to think about heading to the local brewery. This is Wisconsin, after all.
First, though, the old-old lighthouse with its amazingly small lens.
Its history of being powered by lard, its nationally recognized outhouse.
It’s not all about the wildflowers, you know. But they’re the best. Especially with common names.