UIX: The oldest native plants in West Michigan still play an important role

Nearly the entirety of the Grand Rapids area is either developed with housing, commercial, industrial, infrastructure, or was cleared in the early-mid 1800s for crops and pasture, but the plants that remain and surround our city tell a different story.

You don't need an advanced degree in botany or biological science to understand how quickly Grand Rapids is growing, but it helps.


The five wards of our city were drawn up in 1850, demarcated by Wealthy and Eastern avenues to the south and east, and Leonard street, Alpine, and Straight avenues to the north and west. Less than 3,000 villagers were chartered under the motto, “Motu Viget,” meaning strength in activity, a literal call to action that has since seen the boundaries of Grand Rapids expand outward and upward.


According to an account transcribed by Ronnie Aungst, from the History of the City of Grand Rapids, facilitated by the University of Michigan, a man named Simeon L. Baldwin shot and killed a 324-pound bear not more than six years after the founding of our city at the corner of Monroe Avenue and Fulton Street. That same year, the bank of the Grand River was wharfed from Pearl to Leonard.


Nature has since abided, for better or worse, the command of those West Michiganders with a taste for expansion and development. There are no bears to be found at Fulton and Monroe today. There is hardly a square foot of green space not supplanted by concrete.


But what of the winding Grand and the flora and fauna displaced by such expansion? These silent, and often unwilling witnesses of the human progress in West Michigan were here long before anyone named Campau, Lyon, or Fulton even arrived, and the story of their evolution lends contrast to the very definition of "progress."


Foreign Introduction


There are many more species present in the Grand Valley region today than there were in the 1800s, says Bradford Slaughter, botanist at Orbis Environmental Consulting. Whether introduced deliberately, for food, cover, or ornamentation; or accidentally by settlers, more than a fifth of the plant population of modern day West Michigan is comprised of species originating from Europe and Asia.


Michigan Flora Online currently lists 1,483 individual classifications of plant species, collected in Kent County.


"That's approximately 50 percent of the species that have been documented statewide," Slaughter says. "However, 340 of those species (22 percent) are considered non-native. The number of non-native taxa exceeds the number of native taxa that no longer occur in the area, so overall species richness is higher."

Slaughter documenting plant species.


This approach assumes that the whole of our local landscape consisted of native plants before settlers arrived, as there is little documentation on the role Native Americans played in transplantation. It is evident they did contribute to introducing new plants to the area, however, as vital food crops like wild rice were often carried a great distance by the earliest residents.


Michigan has provided fertile land for these crops, too. As Emma J. Cole noted in her book, "Grand Rapids Flora: A Catalogue of the Flowering Plants and Ferns Growing Without Cultivation in the Vicinity of Grand Rapids, Michigan" published in 1901, pulverized limestone from gypsum fragments, deposited by glacial retreat many years prior, has alkalized and enriched the loamy soil. Cole lists beech and maple trees as the predominant deciduous species in the southern and western parts of Grand Rapids, and oaks to the east, with "low lands wooded with red maple, hackberry, elm, black ash, burr oak, swamp oak, sycamore, black willow, butternut, walnut, viburnums, dogwoods, etc."


The hard wood forests of Grand Rapids were still dotted with insurgents of white pine at the beginning of the 20th century, but as swamps were being drained for cultivation, and "forests being deprived of their valuable timber," Cole wrote, farmland began to increase its claim on the region's resources.


"Bio-diverse, native natural communities have included human activity for thousands of years," says Kristin Tindall, naturalist for the Blandford Nature Center. "Anishinabe people have utilized the natural resources sustainably, while also having influence on them. European colonial land use has not only had a major impact on the diversity of native species, but has also had a major impact on native people's sovereignty and ability to sustain themselves through traditional methods."

Kristin Tindall


Extrapolated on a timeline of over two centuries, the march of such progress has undeniably uprooted a significant portion of pre-settlement plants. Today, nearly the entirety of the Grand Rapids area is either developed with housing, commercial, industrial, infrastructure, or was cleared in the early-mid 1800s for crops and pasture, Slaughter says.


"The abundance of most native species has been sharply reduced, and their distributions fragmented by land conversion," according to the former lead botanist for the Michigan Natural Features Inventory. "And a large majority of people in the Grand Rapids metropolitan area are isolated from significant remnants of native vegetation."

Children learn about native vegetation at Blandford Nature Center.

The native species that have managed to hang around are most often found in wooded or residential lots, helped along by the wind and songbirds who yet propagate the seeds of these weedy shrubs and trees.


"It is only in our remnant 'natural areas' that a resident can get an idea of what the landscape looked like in the early 1800s," Slaughter says. But, even those are impacted by changes in species composition and abundance."


Manipulation of surface and groundwater hydrology, along with the introduction of non-native species and winnowing of predator populations, has further fragmented these small patches of greenery. Where once a robust and functional food chain, seasonal patterns not affected by climate change, and even the occasional wildfire, worked as a compliment to local plant populations, our modern biome is much more reliant on man-made input.


Invasive Species


In some cases, the plants brought in from foreign lands have helped humans flourish in West Michigan, but there is no lack of evidence that such practices have had a negative impact on the area, as well.


Tindall maintains that areas disturbed by development and fragmentation are generally recognized by the overall lower diversity of plants, and in turn other wildlife, as well as dominant stands of non-native and potentially invasive species. Among the most prolific of those species: Garlic Mustard, Purple Loosestrife, and Plantain.

  • Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) - Discovered in New York and first introduced to West Michigan in the mid 1800s.

  • Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) - An ornamental plant introduced to West Michigan in the early 1800s, transplanted by the soil found in shipping vessels that made harbor throughout through the Great Lakes.

  • Plantain (Plantago major) - A crop so closely linked to European cultivation that Native Americans named it "White Man's Foot," Tindall says. Neolithic scholars have used the plantain as an indicator of human settlement in Eurasia.


It's been well over 200 years since these species first reached the fertile lands along the Grand River, but their impact on the environment was immediate, at least on a small scale, Slaughter says


"Plants are little chemical factories, taking up and releasing all sorts of chemicals from and into the environment," he says. "Many of our most pernicious non-native species, in addition to 'crowding out' native vegetation, alter soil chemistry which has detrimental impacts on native species and in turn facilitates the continued spread of non-native species."


The native forest understory plants in West Michigan work in symbiosis with with fungal species, forming root associations that help both absorb nutrients more efficiently. But invasive plants like garlic mustard work against this symbiotic relationship, Slaughter says, secreting phytochemicals that are toxic to the fungi, ultimately altering their prevalence in the rhizosphere, and reducing the suitability of the habitat for the native forest species.


"There are many, many examples of these types of interactions," he says. "In addition to crowding and chemical warfare, non-native species may interfere with pollination of native species by attracting/diverting pollinators. Non-native plants also alter large-scale ecosystem processes such as the frequency and intensity of wildfire."


Woody vegetation, when introduced to grass-dominated systems, reduces the available fuel for naturally-occurring wildfires, lessening both their frequency and intensity. The grasslands of Kalamazoo were overrun by shrubs and trees shortly after European settlers made the area home, and non-native Phragmites (reedy grasses that thrive in brackish water) have altered the landscape of wetlands along the Great Lakes coastline, Slaughter says


"Attempting to walk through a stand of Phragmites is a pretty good way to experience the profound alteration to marsh ecology associated with its spread," he says, referencing a recent incident from Monroe County, where a woman was found in a tangle of phragmites after a 24-hour search.


As illustrated in LaSalle Township on June 16, invasive species can threaten the health of humans, as well native plants. Proliferation of the Japanese barberry has been linked to a similar increase in the black-legged tick, which carries Lyme disease. Likewise, growing numbers of wild parsnip and poison-hemlock, as well as giant hogweed to a lesser extent, have been associated with contact dermatitis, poisoning, and even death.


Hope in Growth


The threats of invasive species aside, there are and have been practical benefits to the conversion of native vegetation to other uses, Slaughter maintains. Early settlers on the wet grasslands of the Midwestern US were once plagued with malaria-like illnesses that ravaged families and communities. Meanwhile, settlers in places like central Ohio and Illinois noted that these epidemics of "ague" became much less frequent or even disappeared following the drainage and conversion of these grasslands to drier cropland.


"Prior to the advent of antibiotics and modern science-based medicine, reducing the number of pathogens and vectors was of vital importance to survival and successful colonization," Slaughter says. "In modern times, we see human-centric benefits to changes such as conversion of extremely fire-prone ecosystems to more fire-resilient systems, translating to lower risks of losing lives and property. And, more generally, any ecological change is bound to result in winners and losers. Generally, however, plant ecologists find that these changes tend to reduce the number and abundance of native species we are fighting to protect, so they are mostly considered unwelcome."


The encroachment of non-native plants, welcome or unwelcome, isn't completely irreversible. Residents of Michigan are fortunate in that many of the natural areas are still representative of native ecosystems, albeit in a much more fragmented form since European settlement, Tindall says. And, the Michigan Natural Features Inventory provides a reliable resource for understanding the distribution of historic vegetation types and the flora and fauna species that are indicative of a particular natural community, Tindall says. Using MNFI, along with other local groups like the River City Wild Ones, citizens can have a very positive impact creating pockets of natural habitat in their home and work environment. All it takes is a little bit of curiosity, and attention to the natural world around us.


"I am an avid lifelong student of the natural world and it has taught me to be patient, observant, and always amazed at the power of connection in the living and non-living," she says.


Plotting Out The Future


Were our species threatened by a paucity of non-native plants, leaving a group of ecologially-concerned citizens our last living hope, the future of humanity may be left in question, as attempting to establish and shape the attributes of and "open" ecosystems has not historically been a substantially demonstrated skill.


"That said, a quick glance at the landscape on a 15-minute drive makes it apparent that native plants are in trouble," Slaughter says. "I advocate a conservative approach to introducing native species. The limited areas that represent more-or-less intact, 'native' conditions should be approached and managed with significant caution, as they are our only reservoirs of biodiversity shaped primarily by non-anthropocentric forces. In addition to their value to the organisms that rely on them, they are the only places we can study as reference sites for ecological restoration projects on other lands."


Natural processes like wildfires and proliferation by native fauna, as opposed to "gardening" by seeding or planting, have a much more sustainable impact on the environment. Reintroducing native plants to degraded systems is still of great importance, however, especially in areas that have been tilled or altered for other uses, where there is no hope of recovery to native species via succession alone.


"Plantings of native grassland species have resulted in the appearance of declining pollinators, bird species, and other wildlife," Slaughter says. "Grassland species are also proficient at replenishing carbon to depleted soils."


The loss and degradation of native forests is another issue. The challenges in restoring or recreating a native forest are daunting, especially considering the amount of time required for the development of canopy and substructure and the fickle nature of understory species that often require soil mycorrhizae, and a reliance on local animals and weather event to spread seeds.


"The idea of beginning centuries-long forest restoration projects doesn't seem to excite people. But, we continue to see existing woodlots punched up with subdivisions, logged, and otherwise damaged and destroyed," Slaughter says. "Similar challenges exist for several of our wetland types that develop on very specific substrates under very sensitive conditions."


Work on the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie aptly illustrates the time and effort needed to effectively restore an ecosystem. After European settlement and subsequent land use led to the destruction of over 99 percent of the vegetation in the northern midwest United states, restoration on the prairie began in the mid 60s, and continued for nearly 40 years before a sustainable success could be claimed.


There are likely as many factors involved in plant community restoration as there are in building a city. The expertise, devotion, and time required to make something out even a 100-acre site like the Schulenberg Prairie impressive, and represents only the most dedicated of such efforts.


Does West Michigan have the same dedication to ecological integrity? Perhaps that's a question best answered by incremental changes starting today, rather than centuries later.


Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].

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