Discovering a New Passion in The Great Marsh

Bags of collected native plant seeds
Bags of collected native plant seeds

By Dale Nichols

Given the right growing conditions, the budding seed of curiosity can sometimes blossom into a wonderful new passion.  My name is Dale Nichols, and this is a story about a three-and-a-half-month journey of discovery involving my own curiosity with, well, seeds—more specifically the seeds of native plants growing in the Shirley Heinze Great Marsh project area in Beverly Shores.

The story begins in early July, when I was contacted by Christine Maloney (Volunteer Coordinator) and Eric Bird (Stewardship Director) about a volunteer work-day opportunity gathering seeds in the Great Marsh.  My wife, Nancy, and I are recently retired Beverly Shores residents who have been active in the Shirley Heinze organization for many years.  I have enjoyed doing other field work with the organization, so, when this opportunity arose, just steps from our Beverly Shores home, I was eager to participate.  Together with two other area resident volunteers, Terry Bonace and Emily Bretl, we worked alongside stewardship staff members Cody Banks and Allison Visnyak, who introduced us to several of the early blooming plant species growing here and there along a mile-long stretch of Shirley Heinze property in the Great Marsh.

It was a fun and educational morning.  Cody and Allison guided us through the collection process, pointed out other surrounding native and invasive species, and explained how what we were doing fit into a larger, multi-year restoration effort to eradicate invasive plants and reintroduce native wetland plants to the Shirley Heinze Great Marsh project area.

At the end of the workday, I said that I had the interest and the time (thanks to my extended “COVID staycation”) to do more and asked if I might continue gathering seeds on my own.  The answer from Eric was a qualified “yes”—on the conditions that I collect only on Shirley Heinze property (the “no poaching!” rule), that I be confident of the field identification of any seeds I collected, asking when in doubt, and that I label each collected specie by its botanical name.

Eric cautioned that this was a somewhat unusual dispensation in that many Shirley Heinze properties must be walked with great care to protect the rare and/or fragile plant species found there.  Fortunately, he said, the Great Marsh habitat is pretty forgiving, which I took as a polite way of saying there was little risk of me mucking things up too badly.  Christine added that I should be sure to keep track of my volunteer hours, as they are used by the organization for a number of purposes, including as a metric for grant applications.

With that blessing, I started looking and learning.  With guidance from staff, I found a number of helpful websites, including:  https://plants.sc.egov.usda.gov/http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/, https://michiganflora.net/, and https://www.minnesotawildflowers.info/; and plant identification phone apps, including a terrific “Dune Plants” app created by my Beverly Shores friends/neighbors Howard Marvel and Terry Bonace.  I learned that native wetland plants are specially adapted to tolerate the low soil oxygen and harsh conditions of fluctuating water levels and that a number of classification systems, including the National Wetland Category and Coefficient of Wetness, have been developed to describe the likelihood that particular species will be found in wetland habitats.  The stewardship staff told me that the plant species they might have an interest in propagating as part of their marsh restoration efforts all had National Wetland Categories of OBL or FACW (or corresponding Coefficients of Wetness of -5 or -3).

The early blooming marsh plants are primarily sedges.  Beginning in late July, my friend Jay Fahn and I began a series of weekly seed gathering excursions, with my friend and fellow Shirley Heinze board member Margaret Williford joining on occasion.  Among the early seeds we collected were bottlebrush sedge (Carex comosa), porcupine sedge (Carex hystericina), broom sedge (Carex scoparia), brown fox sedge (Carex vulpinoidea), common rush (Juncus effusus), green bulrush (Scirpus atrovirens), and woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus).  I also made almost daily visits to the marsh to scope out new candidate plant species for collection, often running into stewardship staff work crews led by Doug Botka and Rich Dorton (Stewardship Assistants) who were actively eradicating cattails and other marsh invasives throughout the summer and into the fall.  Doug, in particular, went out of his way to educate us on what to collect (and not to collect), on how to identify and differentiate various plant species, and on when the seeds were ready.

As summer progressed into fall, our focus turned from sedges to forbs (broadleaf plants that are not grasslike) and shrubs.  Many of these are members of the aster family, such as swamp thistle (Cirsium muticum), common boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), flat-topped white aster (Doellingeria umbellata), white-panicle aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) and purplestem aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum).  Others are in the rose family, such as white meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) and swamp rose (Rosa palustris); the water-plantain family, such as broadleaf arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia); the bellflower family, including cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica); the buckwheat family, including great water dock (Rumex orbiculatus) ; the figwort family, including Allegheny monkeyflower (Mimulus ringens); and the verbena family, including blue vervain (Verbena hastata).  All in all, over the course of the collection season we gathered seeds from a total of 38 different native plants that will be replanted throughout the marsh in the coming months.

For me, a novice starting out with practically no knowledge of native marsh plants, this was an extremely rewarding exercise yielding many memorable experiences and tidbits of botanical trivia.  Here are just a few that stand out:

  • The late season discovery of wild cucumber vines (Echinocystis lobata).
  • Jay’s discovery of a large patch of seed box (Ludwigia alternifolia) plants—if you’re not familiar with the seed box plant, you need to look it up!
  • How the seeds of some plants are so slow to ripen—Jay’s special nemesis was a patch of hop sedge plants (Carex lupulina), to which I affectionately bestowed the Heinze Ketchup Award (for keeping us waiting).
  • How a tiny, white worm-like insect infests the seed stalks of greater water dock (Rumex orbiculatus) and is almost impossible to get off.
  • How the seeds of different plants can be so different in so many ways. In their size:  from the huge—e.g, common bur-reed (Sparganium eurycarpum), weighing in at 100 seeds per oz., to the tiny—e.g, Allegheny monkeyflower, at 2,300,000 seeds per oz.  In the ways they spread, including:  by gravity—e.g., seedbox ; by wind dispersal—e.g., milkweeds (Asclepias species) and thistles (Cirsium species); by forceful seed ejection—e.g., wild senna (Senna hebecarpa, a garden escapee we found growing in the marsh);  and by animal distribution—e.g, beggarticks (Bidens species), that stick to animal fur, etc., etc.
  • How unique and other-worldly some plants can be—Jay nicknamed the common burr-reed the “coronavirus plant” because of the similarity the seed heads bear to the well-known depiction of the virus.

With that, I come to the end of my story—at least until next year.  I hope that in the telling I have been successful in imparting some sense of the adventure, fascination and joy that communing with nature can bring.  While each person’s experience is unique, I believe there is a story waiting to be told by each of us, and that Shirley Heinze Land Trust affords many diverse opportunities for personal discovery and fulfillment.  Please consider becoming a Shirley Heinze volunteer and discover your own passion!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *