Grassland Wildflower Walk

Seven folks joined Gary and me for a grassland flower walk this morning.  It was a beautiful August morning – warm and humid in the fields, cool in the woods, with the occasional breath of wind to cool the sweat that collected on our shirts.

We started off at the native flower beds around the visitor center.  Many of the flowers are in full bloom and it is a great place to learn your plant ID since all the plants are labeled!

Right now, cardinal flowers are at their peak.  Nothing says red quite like a cardinal flower.  This brilliant plant is pollinated by hummingbirds.  The vertical part of each flower, with the whitish tip, contains the pollen.  When a hummer comes in to feed at the nectar within the bloom, its head is whapped by the pollen-bearing structure and the pollen sticks to the bird’s head.  As the bird moves from flower to flower, pollen is transported and deposited.


Nearby you will find great lobelia in bloom.  You may think it looks a lot like the cardinal flower, and you’d be right – both are lobelias.  The large purple blossoms are highly attractive to bees, so this is a terrific flower to have to attract native pollinators.

DSC_0371 great lobelia

Two kinds of false dragonhead are in our gardens:  white and


purple.  Both are frequented by bees, especially bumblebees, who squeeze their chubby little bodies into each blossom in search of nectar and pollen.

DSC_0379 false dragonhead purple

Wild quinine has very interesting little flowers on it.  This native has a long history of use as a medicinal plant for both people and animals.  You probably won’t see a lot of this plant growing in the wilds of Michigan, but once it was more common.


Western sunflowers are quite attractive.  Their slightly curved petals had some visual appeal to a garden.

DSC_0383 helianthus

Another yellow flower you will find is thin-leaved coneflower.   There are so many flowers with yellow ray petals out there at this time of year that they can be very difficult to tell apart.  This is why our labeled gardens are useful.


But we weren’t about to spend our whole morning just looking at the plants in the gardens.  Our goal was the grasslands, and to get there we first had to pass through the woods, which, in places, are full of poke weed.  It’s hard to miss the brightly colored flower stalks that will soon be turning into clusters of berries.


The pokeweed flowers, however, are a bit more subtle.


Soon we were in the Bug Field, an open grassland that has just recently been freed from invasive trees and shrubs.  It looks like it will be an exceptionally good year for goldenrods.


Queen Anne’s lace is about at its peak right now.  This is the perfect time to enjoy it.  Check each flower head to see if you can find one that has a single dark red flower in the center.


One of my favorite vines is wild cucumber, but I rarely get to see it in bloom.  We found one small vine in the Bug Field that has a few thready blossoms on it.

DSC_0399 wild cucumber

And then we were back in the woods.  Mostly the woodland flowers have come and gone, having done their thing in the spring before the trees’ leaves blocked most of the sunlight.  Still, there are things to look for, and right now Indian pipes are top of the list.  These saprophytic plants get all their nourishment from other plants, via their roots.  The white color tells you that they cannot make their own food.


Another plant that is blooming rather abundantly in the woods right now is the naked-flowered tick trefoil.  As a matter of fact, tick trefoils are in bloom in several places – we saw three species this morning (keep reading).

DSC_0402 naked-flowered tick trefoil

This lovely female twelve-spotted skimmer sat very nicely for me and I was able to sneak up quite closely to get her photo.

DSC_0414 female 12-spotted skimmerAlong a wooded edge, we found these tiny purple flowers; I believe they are panicled tick trefoil.

DSC_0417 panicaled tick trefoilBut we got all excited over this find; it’s short green milkweed!  We’ve not seen this here before, and I think for everyone in the group it was a life list flower.  I bought three this spring and planted them in my gardens, but that doesn’t count, and I’m not sure they have survived.

DSC_0418 green milkweed

This milkweed is listed for only seven counties in Michigan, and Jackson is one of them.  That doesn’t mean it’s all over the place, though.  What an amazing find!  We are hopeful it develops good pods this fall and that we can collect some seeds to try and start next spring.


Flowering spurge is at its peak now, too.  Surprisingly, this is a native flower.

DSC_0424 flowering spurgeThis rather strange-looking thing, which reminds me of a medieval weapon, is the fruit of the prickly gooseberry!  This was another new find for me.  This shrub can reach two to four feet in height and it provides important food for a variety of wildlife, from insects to birds and mammals.

DSC_0428 goosberry

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen groundnut, but doesn’t it have a beautiful and interesting flower? We only saw a handful of the blossoms, but they are fascinating.

DSC_0434 By now we were well and proper in the grassland.  The grassland flowers are mostly just getting going.  Some, like the bee balm and mountain mint, are mostly past their prime, and others, like the blazing star, are only starting to open.  We saw a good mix today.


Narrow-leaved mountain mint has seen better days.  Still, the sinus-opening scent is strong and several members of our group got to enjoy it for the first time.

DSC_0441 Showy cinquefoil is always a delightful shrub to encounter when in bloom.  It reminds me of some of those really fancy chickens – the ones with the puff of feathers on their heads.

DSC_0443 showy cinquefoil

A handful of purple milkworts were also in bloom along the edge of the mowed path.  For several in our group, this was also a life list flower.  It is one of my favorites.

DSC_0446 purple milkwort

We encountered our third species of tick trefoil out in the grassland:  showy tick trefoil.  The large (and showy) flowers are hard to miss.

DSC_0448 showy tick trefoil

Green-headed coneflowers are in perfect bloom right now.  The little black dots on top are wee little beetles, not part of the flower.

DSC_0452 Ironweed is also just getting started.  I’ve never seen a plant with such richly purple flowers as ironweed – the color is so saturated you can almost taste it.

DSC_0458 ironweed

Nearby, the rough blazing star is just starting to open.  We saw many with tightly closed buds, and some with buds only barely opening, and we only saw a couple that were fully opened.


The other coneflower of note on the grassland is the grey-headed coneflower.  The back-swept petals look very similar to those of sneezweed, but the petals are longer.

DSC_0462 grey-headed coneflower

An often overlooked flower is that of one of our native grasses: big bluestem.  In fact, most of our grasses are ignored when it comes to flowers, but so many of them are stunning in color as well as form.  Right now the big bluestem, also known as turkey foot, is starting to bloom.  It is worth going out to the grasslands just to see this grass.

DSC_0464 big bluestem We have a number of coreopsis species out on the grassland, and without sitting down with a field guide to key them out, they can be difficult to tell apart.   I did not do that with this one…I just wanted to preserve its glory with the camera.


On our way back from the grassland we swung past the Reflection Pond and were treated to the sight of a very large Blanding’s turtle sunning itself on a log along the far shore.  Blanding’s turtles are a species of special concern here in Michigan – their popoulation status is unknown but potentially low.  What a treat to see one of such dimension – it had to easily be ten inches long, if not more.

DSC_0470 blanding's turtle cropped

And any place there is moisture this year, the Joe Pye weed is going great guns.  We saw some today that was nearly seven feet tall.  Like many purple flowers, it is a favorite of bees and other pollinating insects.

DSC_0472Joe pyeweed A single water smartweed poked up along the wetland.  Its stunning pink color is difficult to miss.


Jewelweed is another plant that grows where its feet can get wet.  Right now it is just starting to bloom.   One member of our group thought she had gotten into some nettles, so we gave her a stalk of jewelweed to rub on the stinging area – the mucilaginous juice in the jewelweed’s stem is an old folk remedy for stinging nettles, poison ivy and some insect bites.

DSC_0476 jewelweed

The final flower of our walk, although passed by by most of the group, was agrimony.  Soon these little yellow flowers will turn into green balls with hooks at one end and will cling to the socks and pants of anyone who passes by.

DSC_0478 agrimonyAll in all, it was a great morning looking for flowers.  We had a new plant for our property list, and several members of our group encountered species they’d never seen before.

If you come out to enjoy our wildflowers, please remember to take only photographs.  No collecting is allowed on Dahlem’s property, but you can photograph to your heart’s delight.  And if you see something new or unusual, please stop in and tell us about it!


About Dahlem Center

The Dahlem Center is a non-profit nature center/environmental education center located on almost 300 acres just south of the city of Jackson, Michigan. The Center is one arm of the Dahlem Conservancy, which includes land conservancy and stewardship in its mission.
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