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GLIN==> Guide to Great Lakes Coastal Plants -- article

Title: Guide to Great Lakes Coastal Plants -- article

You've got to be tough to be a Great Lakes shore plant

by Marianne Rzepka
Ann Arbor News
August 14, 2006

If you think of a beach as just a good place to build a sand castle and get a tan, think again.

For a number of plants, it's home, an ecosystem that lasts at least until the next towering wave, high water or severe winter wipes it off the landscape.

Ellen Elliott Weatherbee's new book, "Great Lake Coastal Plants'' will tell you a lsot about the thistle, rush and wormwood that gain a "roothold'' along the edges of lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario.

The soft-cover book includes a photo of the plant and of its flower, along with a botanical drawing that shows the specific characteristics of each part of each specimen.

A map shows where the plant can be found along the Great Lakes coasts, and there's a written description of the stems, leaves and flowers. The book also includes an explanation of the Latin names, along with uses and similar plants.

"I hoped to make the book botanically correct, but usable for everyone,'' says Weatherbee, who's taught botany at the University of Michigan for 33 years and set up the adult education program at the U-M Matthaei Botanical Gardens. She also does consulting and wrote the book "Edible Wild Plants: A Guide to Collecting and Cooking'' with co-author James Bruce.

The new book is the first in a planned series about the Great Lakes coasts, a project backed by the University of Michigan Press and Michigan Sea Grant.

The plant descriptions in the book are straightforward and scientific, but Weatherbee says she wanted to do more than give people a botanical sketch of the coastal flora. In the introductory pages, she explains beach topography and plant characteristics.

"I wanted to write about the dynamics of what makes beach plants special,'' Weatherbee says.

If you ask what's so special about these plants, she'll tell you: They have to survive many different conditions. The plants have to hang on despite pounding waves, cold weather and lake levels that vary annually and can leave the coastline flooded or high and dry.

For example, says Weatherbee, this is a year with low lake levels, so seedlings from nearby woods might sprout along the shore. But the wimpy ones won't last long, she says. They'll get knocked out by high waves or crushing winter ice.

"There are not too many weedy plants that last for many years on those beaches,'' says Weatherbee. "They can't handle those conditions.''

Plants that survive have adapted to the conditions. For example, Weatherbee explains, woody plants send down huge root systems, holding the soil in place so other plants can get a foothold.

Once people recognize the plants and understand the ecological system, they might think twice about clearing all shrubs, reeds and other flora from the beaches, says Weatherbee.

"I understand that people want to boat, and they want to sunbathe,'' she says. "So I say cut a path 25 or 30 feet wide (along the shore) and leave the rest of it, because (the plants) are really pretty and they keep the sand from eroding.''

Weatherbee's favorite coastal plant is probably the low calamint (Calamintha arkansana). "You can smell them before you see them in flower,'' she says.

Even with the pages of coastal plants, Weatherbee still can think of a few plants that didn't make it into the book.

"I've thought of a couple different plants to add,'' says Weatherbee. "We're thinking of doing a follow-up volume.''


Contact Michigan Sea Grant Communications, at msgpubs@umich.edu, for information about obtaining a copy of the Guide to Great Lake Coastal Plants.

Michigan Sea Grant promotes knowledge of the Great Lakes through education, research and outreach and is part of NOAA-National Sea Grant.

Elizabeth LaPorte, (734) 647-0767
Communications Director & Education Co-Leader
Email: elzblap@umich.edu  |  Web: www.miseagrant.umich.edu

Michigan Sea Grant College Program
Samuel T. Dana Building
440 Church Street, Suite 4044
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-1041