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A Shy Smile
Habitat Management Strategies at Portman Nature Preserve
Habitat management can be a bit like coaxing a smile from a shy kid.
You can set the right conditions, say and do all the right stuff – but you’re still not sure how well it’s being received until that grin peeks out. Exactly four weeks after a prescribed burn, the oak/pine woods at Portman Nature Preserve responded with its own slow smile of fresh new growth that let us know we’re on the right track.
Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy stewardship staff felt pretty confident that fire was what the hillside woodland on the north shore of Mud Lake needed. Historic aerial photos, soil type, and scattered sun-loving plants indicated that it had once been an oak/pine savanna that modern forestry and farming practices had allowed to become overgrown. Our aim was to set a slow controlled blaze that would damage the plants that aren’t part of this fire-adapted habitat enough to give the native plants a chance.
One month after the burn, the blackened forest floor popped with young green plants!
Sprouts of cinquefoil, white vervain, rattlesnake fern, sweet cicely, white rattlesnake-root, and trout lily dotted the scorched forest. Birdfoot violets, both lavender and white, grew from a spiky bed of singed moss. Tiny Canada mayflower leaves and fresh little bear corn sprouts poked up among the charred sticks and pinecones. Delicate ferns and lacy columbine leaves quivered in the light breeze. Small white trilliums bloomed among the ashes. Patches of mayapple rose like groves of miniature palm trees.
But the biggest smile of all was expressed by the American columbos (Frasera caroliniensis). Dozens of these uncommon plants had grown into stout, green starts in just one month’s time. Their large size was amazing, especially considering that it will take years for them to reach their full 7-foot height, after which they will flower just once.
Some of these baby plants had never been seen in this location by SWMLC staff. Their seeds must have been in the soil, waiting for the right combination of soil temperature, chemistry, light, and moisture to break dormancy, release energy from their food stores, and trigger a growth response. The fire seemed to have somehow set the woodland free, as if it had been waiting for it.