Our Wildflower: Protecting the Rare Habitat of the Dwarf Lake Iris

This is the fourth story in a series examining rare, threatened and endangered species that have found their homes in the unique habitats of Northeast Michigan. 

The official wildflower of the Great Lakes State is right at home anywhere it can get its feet wet along the rocky coast of Northern Lake Huron, but those places are getting harder to come by.

This pint-sized perennial is known for its deep blue flowers that emerge mere inches above the ground for a fleeting few weeks in May and June—individual blossoms last just days. The rest of the time, its yellow-green leaves cling close to the ground, hiding in plain sight until springtime comes around again.

Three dwarf lake iris blossoms photographed next to binoculars this spring in Presque Isle County. Photo courtesy Tom Cook

It’s a bit of a miracle this fragile flower exists at all: They grow in the thin, nutrient-poor soil that overlays limestone gravel and bedrock. The Northeast Michigan coast, rich with sand dunes and limestone deposits, creates the perfect habitat for the iris, found nowhere else outside the northern Great Lakes.

Along with a limited range that’s shrinking due to lakeshore development, the plant has been sought out by collectors who replant or sell it elsewhere. For these reasons, the dwarf lake iris was added in 1988 to the list of federally threatened species.

“Every native species has an innate special quality.”

Samantha Nellis, Huron Pines Watershed Planner

Because it’s so rare, seeing the flower in bloom is a treat for those who witness it. Such was the case for Tom Cook, who had his first sighting in May at his seasonal property in Presque Isle County.

“It’s amazing to see,” he said. “It grows along the side of the road, along my neighbors’ driveways and along our driveway. It makes you cherish the place you live because it makes you realize this region is special and unique and how its geology, plants and water are all tied together.”

Samantha Nellis is Watershed Planner for Huron Pines. She too stumbled across a patch of dwarf lake iris in full bloom along a well-worn walkway during a visit to Cheboygan State Park this spring.

“That was exciting and really surprising,” she said. “I was walking along a gravel road in a campground, in an area completely flattened out and mowed, and suddenly here’s this strip of beautiful irises. That’s how a lot of people seem to find them—they like those edges and gravel substrate.”

Photo by Tom Cook

Nellis helped craft a Huron Pines Dwarf Lake Iris Best Practice Guide, a reference for those who carry out restoration- or construction-related work in nine northern counties where dwarf lake iris is present. The four-page guide offers ways to identify the plant and its likely habitat and recommends strategies for protecting and restoring the habitat through the course of a construction project such as road work related to a river restoration.

To help in another way, Huron Pines assisted Little Traverse Conservancy with acquiring Duncan Bay Nature Preserve, a 145-acre tract on the Cheboygan coast where the plant has been found. Huron Pines is also working with other groups to monitor habitats along northern Lake Huron and remove shoreline invasive species which drive the dwarf lake iris and other important native species from their habitats.

These efforts, Nellis said, reach far beyond protecting a single species from extinction.

“When you work to bring back one species you’re also protecting an entire system for wildlife and improving the resiliency of the ecosystem,” she said. “It helps with clean air and water which is good for local economies. It’s multifaceted work and not just about one species—every native species has an innate special quality.”

There are a few things you can do to identify and help protect the dwarf lake iris and its habitat:

  • Stay on marked trails and roadways, especially in areas near the Lake Huron coast.
  • Use a smartphone app like iNaturalist, Seek or PlantSnap to help identify plants and flowers using your phone’s camera. (These apps are fun and useful for identifying all kinds of interesting plants, fungi and insects.)
  • Take pictures, not plants.
  • Avoid using chemical lawn fertilizers or salting driveways near areas where the iris is established.
  • Support land protection efforts with a donation to Huron Pines at huronpines.org/donate.
  • Contact us at info@huronpines.org to participate in 2021 volunteer events.

3 thoughts on “Our Wildflower: Protecting the Rare Habitat of the Dwarf Lake Iris

  1. If you go to Thompson Harbor, the north entrance off US 23, and start walking the gravel road to Lake Huron, the dwarf irises carpet the road side in areas. They remind me of Bluebonnets in Texas.

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