Our previous visit to Gallagher Fen was a targeted outing – in pursuit of Skunk Cabbage, the first wildflower to bloom in the region. It was in mid February of this year and was successful, allowing us to see Skunk Cabbage flowering for our first time. But my research then told me that a late summer visit was a must to see the “wet prairie” at peak flowering. This late August visit exceeded my expectations.
I think that this description on the Illinois Department of Natural Resources website describes the habitat perfectly. “A fen is a type of wet prairie formed where water bubbles through limestone and is deposited at the earth’s surface as a water source, such as a spring or seep. Calcium and magnesium are in abundance in the soil at a fen resulting in an alkaline pH and giving rise to a variety of unique plants adapted to surviving these conditions.” Those conditions are seen in the title photo.
The recognized value of this property is reflected in the quality of the information kiosk at the trailhead. It does a great job explaining the geology and ecology of the fen habitat.
The first half mile of trail meanders through a mature deciduous wood.
The wood is home to some very large trees, especially hickories and several species of oaks.
But the understory and forest floor were characterized by a surprising abundance of sunlight and unfortunately invasive nonnatives like bush honeysuckle and euonymus . The photographer and I pondered why there were gaps in the canopy allowing for the flood of sunlight – but then it became clear. The hieroglyphic signs of Emerald Ash Borer on an exposed trunk.
Clearly this had been a mixed Ash, Oak, and Hickory wood, and the loss of the mature ashes allowed sunlight to the forest floor with a secondary bloom of the invasive species. The ecologic tragedy of my lifetime.
But the wood is still full of stately trees, especially White Oaks and Shellbark Hickories. Shellbarks are similar to Shagbark Hickories but their compound leaves have 7 to 9 leaflets, as compared to 5 for Shagbark, and they have the largest of the hickory nuts. Their size has led to their other name that is used in some regions, King Nut Hickory.
As we walked through the wood we consistently heard the nuts falling to the forest floor – perhaps from a height of 80 feet – it was a bit of a hard hat area.
Eventually the path arrives to the loop part of the trail, best represented as a bow tie.
The woodland trail actually ends in a historic cemetery. The headstones generally are from the mid 1800s.
My recommended route would be to exit the cemetery at the 5 o’clock position, onto the blue loop on the above map. The mowed trail weaves through a dry upland prairie that hosts some oaks.
As expected the dry prairie featured many of the classic woodland prairie plants: White Snakeroot, Nodding Onion, Yellow Wingstem, and White Boneset.
Below us, in a basin, is a fen – with a small spring fed stream at its center.
From a distance we can see some of the beautiful flowering plants that thrive in the wetland. In this photo there is a mix of Obedient Plant, Joe-pye Weed, and Goldenrod, as well as the large leaves of Prairie Dock which is perhaps done flowering in this location.
The path weaves through the edge of the woodland.
This fen is appropriately protected and no trail leads down to the basin. A large portion of the preserve is not open to the public.
This loop of the bow tie winds back to the cemetery, which we cross and head toward the West Fen Loop, which is yellow on the earlier map. To get there you hike into a mild ravine and then climb a slight slope, and are greeted by this view of the larger fen. The gravel in the basin is characteristic of a fen.
We head right, hiking along a ridge overlooking the fen to our left. But we are walking through a dry prairie that hosts beautiful specimens of its own (Purple Coneflower, Burdock, Goldenrod).
But the exciting finding in this stretch of the trail was this – Stiff-leaved Goldenrod. The flowers are much bigger than the common Goldenrods, and the leaves are not the typical lance shape. They are also thicker. It is considered an uncommon plant.
We enter an open wood that is on a ridge above the big fen. It hosts beautiful hickory, walnut, and oak specimens with prairie plants in the understory.
I enjoyed the enticing views from the trail down to the fen and was full of anticipation.
And then we were invited down with these stairs that lead to the boardwalk that takes you around the perimeter of the fen.
The photographer and I had a laugh as we looked at the surface of the stairs. Above us we could hear squirrels feasting on the walnuts and hickories of the trees on the hillside, and we noted the detritus hitting the stairs and forest floor around us.
It was here that we entered the boardwalk and were welcomed by the kaleidoscope of colors of the fen’s wet prairie.
First was a paring of Orange Touch-me-not with Yellow Wingstem which we found just at the base of the stair. Both of these plants thrive in the shade on the edges of woods, exactly where we found them here.
Next to be seen were several outstanding Thistles.
Nearby was a thriving colony of Boneset that was attracting pollinators as seen here. This is a Potter Wasp, named because they build jug shaped nests out of mud. The adults actually are vegetarian, feeding on flower nectar. They do not sting.
The name Boneset arises from the fact that herb doctors once used it for splinting fractured bones. Reportedly the way the leaves attach to the stem and appear to provide support to the plant made them think that the leaves would help bones heal more quickly. For that reason they would place them inside a splint dressing. I could find no scientific evidence documenting an efficacy in that role. A tea made from the plant however reportedly does help control fever and flu-like symptoms and there are many sites willing to sell it to you on the internet. I think that I will stick with Tylenol.
As we continued on the boardwalk I was intrigued by this view as we stood with the small spring fed creek passing beneath our feet. I bent over and felt the water – still quite cold, as ground water will be, on this day in the mid 80’s.
This broader view from the same point gives a sense of the lushness of the understory,
and stands in sharp contrast of the bareness that I recalled from the same view 6 months earlier during our mid February visit. Notice that the trees are indeed the same.
The boardwalk continued to arc around to the left on the edge of the basin. Occasionally a small pier would head out into the wetland for a distance of 10 yards or so. The first of these gave us this image and the one in the title photo.
Once again it is interesting to compare it to the photo from the same location in February.
The boardwalk wove on a little further with flowering plants to our left and our right. We then reached a section that was largely pink from four different species of pink flowering plants including Joe-Pye Weed, Ironweed, Obedient Plant, and Fall Phlox.
One interesting plant that was found in this area was a much lighter form of Joe-Pye Weed.
Along the route we found marriages of different species that offered interesting color contrasts:
Orange Coneflower with Giant Lobelia
Orange Coneflower with Fall Phlox
Thistle with Yellow Wingstem
The next pier that headed out into the fen offered encounters with four species that were new to us:
Purple Gerardia – it is considered uncommon.
American Burnet – in much of its native range, which stretches from Canada down to Georgia, and from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi River, it is considered rare to extremely rare. It is a member of the rose family and its compound leaf resembles those of a rose.
Kalm’s Lobelia – this plant is rare in this region and is more commonly found in Canada. I suspect that it is one of those plants that emigrated down with the glaciers that shaped this region, and in fact were critical to the development of the fen habitat.
Appalachian Lady’s Tresses – is one of Ohio’s native orchids. The stalk was about 12 inches tall.
Here we also saw Shrubby Cinquefoil. It typically grows in cooler climates and probably relishes the cool water of the fen. It is very tolerant of challenging environmental conditions.
The end of the pier also provided a great view into the center of the fen with its exposed gravel and sparsity of plants.
The large leaved plant running across the center of the photo is Prairie Dock, which we have seen in most of the prairies that we have visited, but the sight lines across the basin and the angle of the sunlight gave the photographer her best opportunity for capturing their beauty.
Odds and Ends:
The boardwalk brings hikers up close to the plants of the wet prairie which allowed for these excellent photos of a Bumblebee visiting a Thistle.
It is interesting to note the pollen that it carries as it moves from plant to plant.
The yellow structure on the hind legs is the pollen basket which is only found in females. She compacts pollen into the cavity and takes it back to the hive or nest to provide food for the colony.
The beauty of this Pipevine Swallowtail on Thistle just needed to be shared.
And finally, its been a while since we did a Seek and Find. This photo was taken from the end of the second pier as we looked across a narrow part of the fen at the hillside that led up to the dry prairie above.
Did you see them? A fawn and and an older deer trying to sneak away. Interestingly the adult was antlered when we blew up the image. I did not think that bucks played a nurturing role but the literature says young males may stay with the herd.
In summary, Gallagher Fen is an outstanding preserve that offers 3 unique habitats: mature deciduous wood, dry upland prairie, and the wetland prairie of a fen. On this visit it was the wetland prairie that stole the show. In total we identified six species of wildflowers that we had not seen before. It was fun to contrast the images of this visit with those from our February hike and see the botanical productivity of the landscape. The fen habitat once totaled over 9000 acres in Ohio, but now only a few isolated pockets remain. There is still time in this late summer and fall to enjoy the beauty of this preserve.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Location – 4461 Old Columbus Road, Springfield, Ohio, 91 miles from downtown Cincinnati.
Parking – gravel lot for 10 cars.
Facilities – none.
Trail Conditions – bare dirt through the wood, mowed grass through the dry upland prairies, and boardwalk around the fen. Total trail length is approximately 2 miles.
Print Map Link – None. Take photo at trailhead.
Benches – none.
Picnic Tables – none.
Kids – kids 6 and over should do well.
Dogs – prohibited.
Suggested Paired Hikes – Cedar Bog Nature Preserve, which is another fen habitat, is 13 miles away and is outstanding. It offers different terrain and plant species.