Michigan Nature Monday: Celebrating the Holidays with Conservation in Mind

Oh, what fun it is to decorate for the holidays in December! From decking the halls to trimming the tree and hanging mistletoe, it’s a wonderful time of the year! But wait, what’s really lurking in those decorations? It could be invasive species.

Oriental bittersweet

Those red berries in your wreath may look merry and bright, but are they from invasive oriental bittersweet or multiflora rose? Decorating with plants around the holidays can bring cheer to your home, but be sure to check that the plants you are using to decorate are not invasive! Invasive plants are commonly used to make wreaths and other holiday decorations because they are bright and readily available. However, that can be harmful to the environment since berries and seeds fall off the decorations or are eaten and spread by birds and other animals. Those lost bits result in more invasive species when the seeds sprout! For a more environmentally-friendly choice, try decorating with native plants like white pine, Michigan holly, white spruce, white cedar, and more!

a row of trees at a christmas tree farm

But what about that age-old holiday tradition of getting a live Christmas tree? Be wary of Scots (also known as Scotch) pine, a beloved Christmas tree species that is invasive in Michigan. It spreads quickly and outcompetes our native tree species. Never fear because there are lots of native trees that make great Christmas trees. For a Michigan-native Christmas tree, try balsam fir, white pine, or white spruce. Still, some folks prefer the familiar non-native Christmas trees. Douglas fir, blue spruce, Norway spruce, and Fraser fir are better choices than Scotch pine because they are not considered invasive in Michigan. Whichever species you go with, consider choosing a tree grown locally. 

One great place to get a live Christmas tree is from a local Christmas tree farm. It’s an excellent way to support local small businesses, and it can also reduce the spread of invasive species. When trees are brought in from other areas, it is hard to know what else they might carry with them. Insects like the invasive spotted lanternfly or balsam woody adelgid can lay eggs or hide on Christmas trees before transport. Those are two species that are not currently in Barry County. However, one infestation of balsam wooly adelgid was identified in Kent County and spotted lanternfly has been found in Oakland County. Both of these species are more established in other states, however. These insects can then be accidentally transported to un-infested areas by buying trees sourced from other states or counties. The best way to reduce the spread of these and other invasive insects is to purchase trees and firewood locally. Lucky for us, this is easy here in Michigan since we are the nation’s third-largest producer of Christmas trees. 

So, the next time you’re buying your holiday decorations, ask where any live plants were sourced, and check that the plants you’re buying aren’t invasive here in Michigan


This message was redistributed with permission from the Barry Conservation District. Zach Whitacre is the BCK CISMA Coordinator, providing invasive species outreach and assistance to landowners in Barry, Calhoun, and Kalamazoo Counties. If you have questions or want more information on invasive species, you can reach him through the Barry Conservation District at (269) 908-4136 or zach.whitacre@macd.org 

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Michigan Nature Monday: Poweshiek skipperling

One of the rarest butterflies, the Poweshiek skipperling, is truly on the brink of extinction. Once abundant in the tall prairie grasslands and the prairie fens of several states and provinces in the upper Midwest, the tiny butterfly is now found only in a handful of sites in Manitoba and northern Oakland County, including an MNA nature sanctuary. Loss of habitat and other factors contributed to a decades-long—and now a relatively recent and rapid—population decline that has scientists scratching their heads and worried about what their disappearance may mean for other pollinators.

The globally endangered Poweshiek is now so rare that only 100 individual butterflies were counted in a 2021 census. Recovery plans—aided by an international partnership that includes MNA—call for captive breeding efforts to headstart individuals and increase survival to adulthood in order to build a reserve population that can be reintroduced to the wild. The Minnesota Zoo, John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan State University’s Haddad Lab, and the Michigan Nature Association are specifically collaborating within the Poweshiek Skipperling International Partnership to annually produce more individuals for wild releases in 2022 and beyond in what is known as ex situ or “offsite” conservation.

Poweshiek skipperling photo by Cale Nordmeyer, Minnesota Zoo

MNA is proud to protect habitat critical for the Poweshiek skipperling’s survival, and to be part of the important partnership that is working to save this species from extinction. We look forward to continuing participation in this partnership effort to increase the Poweshiek skipperling population in the wild in the coming years.

Learn more about our conservation work and how you can contribute at michigannature.org.

Michigan Nature Monday: Vernal Pools

This week’s Michigan Nature Monday features the amazing natural habitat of vernal pools. The Michigan Nature Association has been a lead partner in the Michigan Vernal Pools Partnership for several years, and we are proud to have added to that commitment this year with a dedicated staff member – our Michigan Vernal Pools Partnership Coordinator–and the production of the Ephemeral video, produced in partnership with the award-winning videography team of Fauna Creative.

ephemeral video thumbnail with play button

If you have spent time exploring Michigan’s forests in the spring, you may have come across small, shallow pools of water scattered throughout the landscape. These small wetlands are called vernal pools because they are typically filled with water in the spring (“vernal” means spring) but they usually dry up and “disappear” during the summer. Vernal pools are special types of wetlands– because they regularly dry up and are usually isolated from other wetlands and waterbodies, vernal pools cannot support permanent fish populations. Due to the lack of fish predators, vernal pools provide critical habitat for certain animal species that rely on these fishless habitats for their survival and/or reproduction. These include a number of invertebrate and amphibian species, such as fairy shrimp, wood frogs, spotted salamanders, and blue-spotted salamanders. Vernal pools also provide habitat for many other animal and plant species, including rare, threatened, and endangered species. 

Vernal pools play an important role in maintaining healthy forest ecosystems. Because they provide habitat for diverse and unique animal species and provide other important ecological functions, some have referred to vernal pools as the “coral reefs of Northeastern forests.” However, these vernal pools are vulnerable to a number of threats and are not well-protected under current wetland laws and regulations.

If you are interested in learning more about vernal pools and efforts to protect them, visit mivernalpools.com

Michigan’s Winter Wonders: Green Frog

Winter weather has arrived in most parts of Michigan by now, bringing dread for some, and excitement for others. But have you ever wondered what’s happening under the snow? Many of Michigan’s reptiles and amphibians search for tunnels or other underground cavities to wait out the cold winter temperatures. Still others might remain underwater, remarkably surviving the long winter months with little to no oxygen!

Such is the case with the Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans), one of Michigan’s most abundant frog species. These semi-aquatic amphibians spend their winters hibernating at the bottom of permanent pools and rivers, “breathing” in oxygen through their skin, occasionally nestled among piles of leaf litter that give off some amount of heat as they decompose, and sometimes can be seen swimming before the water has frozen over, or through clear ice. *A common misconception of hibernating animals is that they spend the entire time ‘sleeping’, when in fact hibernation is rather a period of reduced activity.

a green frog sits on a rock in the water
A green frog rests on a rock at MNA’s Joan Rodman Memorial Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Jodi Louth.

So, why spend the winter underwater rather than on land? Other frogs in Michigan like the wood frog, spring peeper, as well as toads, hibernate in tunnels and under leaf piles. These frogs are able to survive the freezing temperatures because they produce excess glucose which helps prevent freezing of the cells in their bodies, acting as a sort of antifreeze. Green frogs on the other hand, are not able to function in this way, and so they must stay in above-freezing temperatures through the winter.

Adequate winter habitat for these species is a critical part of ensuring their survival to the next season, and threats to that habitat exist – even as the snow flies! For many of us, fall is a time for “cleaning up”, for raking up all the leaves that have fallen (and jumping in the pile), then bagging them up and shipping them off to a community dump site. But this practice robs our yards and natural areas of needed habitat, not only for the insects that overwinter in leaf piles like caterpillars and firefly larvae, but also for the many reptiles and amphibians that call our state home. The leaves provide a “blanket” between the ground and the snow, they provide heat as they decompose in place which also returns essential nutrients to the soil.

There are so many benefits for Michigan nature from leaving the leaves, so skip the fall “cleanup” and enjoy reap the rewards come springtime. Learn more about Michigan’s many reptiles and amphibians, and their conservation needs, with Herpetological Resource & Management at herprman.com, and learn more about the benefits of leaving leaves, visit healthyyards.org or leaveleavesalone.org