At MNA, our Mission is to protect special natural areas and the rare species that live there. The goals of our blog are to cover the latest environmental issues affecting these areas and provide information about the efforts of our volunteers. Our weekly “ENDANGERED!” column serves to inform you about the endangered and threatened plant and animal species found in and around these special natural areas, and how you can contribute to conservation efforts before it is too late.
Dwarf Lake Iris
By Brandon Grenier
The second species to take the spotlight in our “ENDANGERED!” column is the Dwarf lake iris (Iris lacustris), a threatened and delicate flower found only along the shores of the Great Lakes. As an example of Michigan’s natural beauty, it is no surprise the iris has become a symbol of MNA’s efforts to protect and conserve special natural areas across the state. The iris is also Michigan’s official state wildflower. Learn more about this Midwest treasure to help save it before it is too late.
The Dwarf lake iris is a small, low-growing plant with deep blue-violet flowers that are about two inches tall. The sepals are splashed with white signals surrounded by a deep blue color, making for a vibrant and showy flower. Its leaves are flattened, thin and grow up to six inches long. The leaves are also clustered, stiff and sword-like, and extend from creeping rhizomes.
The scientific name “lacustris” translates to “of lakes” and refers to where this rare species grows. Dwarf lake iris grows best along humid, semi-open shorelines in sand or thin, slightly acidic soil over limestone-rich rock. It can also be found on flat expanses behind open dunes. The plant prefers lightly shaded areas, but can also survive in full sunlight. Dwarf lake iris grows most successfully under white cedar, and patches of it can string along vast stretches of shoreline.
You can still find this rare flower at the Julius C. and Marie Moran Peter Memorial Sanctuary.
This perennial blooms in early May through July. It produces a few seeds, which are dispersed by ants. Fruiting occurs in late June through July. The best time to identify a patch of Dwarf lake iris is late May through early July.
A naturalist first discovered Dwarf lake iris in 1810 in Mackinac Island in northern Lake Michigan. Today, the species’ natural habitat is diminishing.
Classified as a threatened species in 1988, Dwarf lake iris is losing its habitat to erosion, lakeshore development and agricultural chemicals. Northern Michigan, Wisconsin and a small portion of Canada are the only remaining natural hosts to this species, and it is disappearing there, too.
Having very specific growing conditions, Dwarf lake iris is a plant with a fragile habitat. New housing projects and outdoor recreation areas can disrupt a beachside populated by this rare flower. As beautiful as it may be, picking the iris can prevent it from reproducing. When its flowers are pulled out, the plant is often uprooted and is no longer able to produce seeds.
The natural world supports us, thus, protecting this rare species could benefit us in the future. Scientists have discovered that closely related plants have similar chemical components. For example, the Yellow flag, an iris native to Europe, has been used as a source of black dye and ink.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is developing a recovery plan that identifies actions needed to help Dwarf lake iris survive. A variety of government and private conservation organizations are working to preserve the Dwarf lake iris and its natural habitat. Because many plants grow in private residential areas, voluntary protection agreements have also been made with some landowners.
How You Can Help:
If you choose to grow Dwarf lake iris, be sure to purchase it from a nursery and avoid digging up native plants from natural habitats. Removing the flower from the wild is both illegal and detrimental to its survival. Also, avoid using insecticides and chemicals on home gardens and lawns to keep water clean. If you come across a Dwarf lake iris in the wild, report it to your local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so the area can be better protected.
MNA volunteers are currently working to protect this and other endangered and threatened species, and you can help too. Join our efforts as a volunteer removing invasive plants in the special natural areas where this species lives. Or, become a steward and take responsibility for planning efforts to maintain a specific MNA sanctuary. To find out how to get involved, visit our website.