Searching the U.P. for Michigan’s State Wildflower

The following piece and accompanying photos are by Diana Digges, a second-year Huron Pines AmeriCorps member serving Michigan Natural Features Inventory in Lansing.

I recently got the opportunity to join one of the botanists at Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Rachel Hackett, to survey for a federally and state-threatened plant and Michigan’s state wildflower, dwarf lake iris (Iris lacustris). I have done wildlife surveys before but this was my first time doing a plant survey so, as a plant nerd, I was super excited.

We were surveying in the Upper Peninsula where I have not gotten to explore much and I was really looking forward to these surveys. I was also not certain what to expect, which is typical when starting a new field project.

Dense cedars and mossy boulders mad up part of the rugged U.P. landscape where Digges and an MNFI botanist searched for dwarf lake iris.

We were up with the sun and on our way by 7am with packs full of water, snacks and the equipment needed for a full day of surveying. Plant surveys are different from wildlife surveys because plants don’t move so you have to. We had a lot of ground to cover so we moved much faster than we do for wildlife surveys. Most areas we surveyed were remote and off trail — we were hiking over fallen trees, across boulders along the lakeshore and through swampy areas where the water sometimes was over our rain boots. It was exhausting and I lightheartedly referred to my first week as “nature’s ninja warrior.”

A patch of diminutive leaves and blossoms of the dwarf lake iris.

Though physically challenging, it was so rewarding to look up and see areas of pristine nature and to think about how few people had probably seen these places because the lack of access to them. I was also in awe of how Rachel was able to spot these tiny, grass-like green leaves sometimes hiding under tree branches without any types of flowers. Then I remembered that, as a field botanist, this is what I have trained for: to notice the details, to pay attention to their habitats so I can focus on the areas most likely to have them. Within a short period of time, I felt truly confident in my ability to find them on my own.

Diana Digges uses a square frame, called a quadrat, to take a random sampling of dwarf lake iris density in its habitat in order to estimate its distribution over a larger area.
Numbered markers next to a dwarf lake iris blossom.

It was wonderful to be able to put the skills I have gained while studying botany to use in the field. The most rewarding part of the surveys though was knowing that I was contributing to the data collection needed to help us protect this beautiful plant which in turn helps protect the habitats where it still exists and thereby protecting the biodiversity and ecosystems that help sustain our planet.

Michigan Natural Features Inventory generates and disseminates high-quality scientific information on the location and condition of Michigan’s rare species and habitats as a program of Michigan State University Extension.

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