Friday, July 10, 2009

City of the Century

I'm guessing that whoever nicknamed Gary, Indiana the "City of the Century" didn't do so for its botanical wonders, but they really should have. No joke. If you've never botanized in Gary, you are really missing out. Sure, alongside the steel mills, strip clubs, and highways, there are plenty of weeds. Phragmites australis dominates the areas you see as you drive through "The Region." But when you are finally able to fight through the smog and the crowd of people around Michael Jackson's house, you're in for a botanical treat.

This is just one example of what can be found in Gary, a wet sand flat community that was created by sand mining. This is such an interesting plant community, even though it is somewhat artificial. I often wonder how long the seed bank really remains viable when I see communities like this, where seeds are covered by years and years of sand and organic matter accumulation, only to readily germinate once that accumulation is removed and they are exposed by some form of disturbance.

In the photo above, the dominant plant is Cladium mariscoides, shown below. A relative of the sawgrass characteristic of the everglades, this species, known as Smooth Sawgrass and Twig Rush, is neither a grass nor a rush. Instead, it is a sedge. Cladium mariscoides is rare throughout much of its range. It is often found in calcareous or marly soils, but can also grow in acidic soils.

Another sedge that is scattered throughout this community is Schoenoplectus acutus. This species is often confused with Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani, but has darker green culms and longer, often lead-colored spikelets. Hard-stemmed Bulrush, as it is known, was used by Native Americans in a variety of ways, including to make baskets, boats, and even houses.

Splashes of yellow in the wet sand flat are provided in part by the two species below. The first is Lysimachia quadriflora. This member of the Primulaceae is most often found in moist prairies and calcareous fens, but can also be found along streambanks. It is always interesting to hear a botanist pronounce the specific epithet of this species, as nearly everyone I know hesitates and thinks it out when they get to the "flora" portion... this is because there is another Lysimachia that has the specific epithet "quadrifolia." According to Gray's Manual of Botany, Lysimachia was named "in honor of King Lysimachus of Thrace, or from lysis, a release from, and mache, strife; tradition telling of Lysimachus, chased by a maddened bull, in desperation seizing a plant of Loosestrife and pacifying the bull by waving the plant before him." If ever I find myself in the field being chased by a maddened bull, I will surely try this tactic.

Hypericum kalmianum, a small shrub in the family Clusiaceae, also has wonderful yellow blooms. Kalm's St. John's Wort is known from Quebec and most of the Great Lakes states and provinces, and is found in sandy or rocky soil, often in open, moist areas.

A rare plant in this community is Clinopodium arkansanum. The fragrance of this mint much exceeds its diminutive leaves and flowers. Limestone Calamint is found in a variety of calcareous habitats, including fens, wet sand, seeps, gravel bars, and on glades. According to Missouri Plants, "chewing on the plant gives you fresh breath that will last for hours."

One of my all-time favorite sedges is Carex viridula. Little Green Sedge can be found in marly and wet sandy soil, calcareous fens, interdunal swales, and moist gravel prairies. Two similar sedges are C. cryptolepis and C. flava, both of which have perigynia greater than 3mm long, some of which are reflexed.

Finally, Carex crawei. I received some assistance in identifying this sedge from Dr. Paul Rothrock at Taylor University. While this plant has strikingly orange perigynia characteristic of Carex aurea, the achenes were trigonous and each flower had three stigmas.

These few species just scratch the surface of the wet sand flats of northwest Indiana. If you're ever vacationing or sightseeing in Gary, I recommend stopping by some of the preserves to get a glimpse of what Gary used to look like.

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