The plants of the lower Wisconsin River valley have stories to tell us. Are the soils sandy, fertile or wet? Are they rare or endangered? Is the plant edible or possess special properties?
Michael Nee, a retired botanist from Richland Center, wants to tell these stories by cataloguing the flora of the lower Wisconsin Riverway. His goal is to identify and record the plants at 28 properties, most of which are state natural areas. He’s been working on the project for several years and hopes to have it completed soon. The result will be a published book.
” I need to spend several weeks at the herbarium at the UW-botany department to do research to really get this done,” he said.
Nee has been studying the plants of the riverway for decades. As a graduate student in late 1960s and early 1970s, he studied plants at the Blue River Sand Barrens and Avoca Prairie, prior to their designation as state natural areas. His work, in part, helped secure those designations. After graduating in 1979 from UW-Madison with a Ph.D. in plant taxonomy he spent the bulk of his 34-year career working as a curator at the New York Botanical Gardens, before retiring to his family farm in Richland Center.
“I needed a project to do in retirement, and this is it,” he said.
Nee said that in the lower Wisconsin Riverway there are many species which are nearly or quite confined to the bottomlands. Each has its own history and ecology.
Here are some examples:
- Wild rice, Zizania Poaceae, grows in huge populations in shallow water of the lower Wisconsin Riverway downriver from Boscobel to the Mississippi River, but much smaller patches upstream. Wild rice is common in northern Wisconsin, but in the driftless area is confined to the Wisconsin and Mississippi River valleys. Wild rice has been an important part of the economy in northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota for thousands of years. It is now produced in commercial quantities in “rice paddies” in Minnesota and California.
- Rose mallow, Hibiscus laevis, is at the very northern edge of its range, and grows along the Mississippi River in Grant and Crawford Counties, and up the Wisconsin River as far as the Wauzeka area, but has not been found further upstream. It is a very conspicuous and beautiful plant with large flowers, so it would have been noticed if found further upstream. Seeds of Hibiscus laevis are commercially available, but other spectacularly large and colorful species of Hibiscus are more commonly grown.
- American lotus, Nelumbo lutea, grows in shallow water, and there are populations along lakes and rivers in many areas of Wisconsin, some probably planted populations. In the driftless area it is essentially confined to the Mississippi and Wisconsin River valleys. Along the Mississippi River there are some huge populations, but in the lower Wisconsin Riverway it is very local. It can be found at the Smith Slough and Sand Prairie State Natural Area, obviously in the slough, not the sand prairie!
- Swamp white oak, Quercus bicolor, is found in much of Wisconsin, but in the driftless area it is confined to the major rivers. In the lower Wisconsin Riverway, it is one of the dominant trees in all the floodplain forests.
Nee is also working on a prairie restoration project at Button Bluff, a 60 acre parcel of land located between Lone Rock and Gotham on County JJ, some of which is in the riverway viewshed.
The Button cemetery sits at the base of the bluff and is the resting place of his mother’s family members so preserving the bluff is important. He has recently restored a small prairie adjacent to the cemetery.
The 28 properties in Nee’s plant survey include: Clifton Road, Mazomanie Oak Barrens State Natural Area, Loddes Mill Bluff State Natural Area, Ferry Bluff State Natural Area, Mazomanie Bottoms State Natural Area, Arena Pines and Sand Barrens State Natural Area, Tower Hill Bottoms State Natural Area, Tower Hill State Park, Spring Green Preserve State Natural Area, Bakken’s Pond State Natural Area, Smith Slough and Sand Prairie State Natural Area, Gotham Jack Pines State Natural Area, Button Bluff, Avoca Prairie State Natural Area, Frank’s Hill, Blue River Sand Barrens State Natural Area, Blue River Bluffs State Natural Area, Richwood Bottoms State Natural Area, Boscobel Bluffs, Woodman Sand Prairie State Natural Area, Woodman Lake Sand Prairie and Dead Lake State Natural Area, Wauzeka Bottoms State Natural Area, Adiantum Woods State Natural Area, Millville Oaks Woodland State Natural Area, La Riviere Park, Wyalusing Hardwoods State Natural Area, Wyalusing Walnut State Natural Area and Wyalusing State Park.