John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve

A Snapshot in Autumn

— guest post by Rich Hawksworth

Close at hand and a world away, John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve in Portage, Indiana is a perfect place to unwind.

John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve is situated in northern Porter County, adjacent to the Indiana Dunes National Park.

A century ago, the land here was an incredible mosaic of rolling oak savanna and wetlands. Today Coulter Nature Preserve is relatively flat (find out why!), but no less fascinating. The property is one of roughly 300 nature preserves dedicated by the State of Indiana. The distinction affords it the highest level of natural area protection available in the Hoosier state.

My dear friend Barbara Plampin introduced me to Coulter some years ago. Barbara is a superbly-skilled amateur botanist—the doyenne of the Indiana Dunes, to anyone who knows her. She was among a group of dedicated volunteers who worked to ensure the Coulter site was permanently protected.

I try to visit Coulter a few times each year. The landscape is varied, the terrain easy to walk—important for those with less-than-perfect mobility—and the scenic beauty never fails to rejuvinate. The preserve is lovely in all seasons. In the spring and early summer it shouts color. As the warm season slips away, it whispers in subdued shades and textures. It truly is a special place.

Let me share what I discovered on my most recent trip.

Grasses and Sedges and Rushes Abound

The grasses and grass-like plants take center stage in September, monopolizing every vista. Their slender stems and delicate seed-heads dance on the breeze.

Canada wild rye, seedhead, at John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve
Canada wild rye is a native cool-season grass. It emerges early in the season and grows quickly during the cool weather of April and May.
beach three-awn grass, Aristida tuberculosa at John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve
Beach three-awn grass is well adapted to its dry, sandy habitat. As the stiff awns mature, they twist into loops, finally dropping to the ground where they cleverly cork-screw the seed into the ground.
purple three-awn at John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve
Purple three-awn is more finely textured than its sand-loving cousin. In the warm light of fall, its robust awns positively glow.
Indian grass in fall, at John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve
Indian grass is beautiful native grass—graceful in form and texture. The coppery-bronze seed heads invite tactile interaction.
Greene's rush at John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve
My friend Nathanael said this is probably Greene's rush. In 1819, a botanist named James Ebenezer Bicheno described the rushes as “obscure and uninviting.” Bah humbug.
Canada rush in autumn at John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve
Another handsome rush, this one needlepod rush. The great botanist Floyd Swink collected this species here on August 14, 1935.

The eye is always caught by the light, but shadows have more to say.

— Gregory Maguire

Going Out in a Blaze of Glory

These hallmarks of autumn twinkle across the Coulter landscape.

Rough blazing star at John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve
Rough blazing star emerges each year from bulb-like corms. According to one source I consulted, these were used as emergency survival food among some tribes of Amerindians.
Sky blue Aster, in bloom at John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve
Did you know astéri is the Greek word for star? This star is sky-blue Aster. It is always wispy and unassuming, never pushy.
The flowers of the false foxgloves (<em>Agalinis sp.</em>) are bilaterally symmetric. Bisecting them produces two equal halves, not four (or more) as in most plants. © Bonnie Hawksworth
The flowers of the false foxgloves are "bilaterally symmetric." Bisecting them produces two equal halves, not four (or more), as in most plants.
New England Aster, in bloom at John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve
Another Aster, this one New England Aster, prefers the moist ground at Coulter.

Seeds in the Wind

Texture is everywhere at Coulter—in the leaves, the sand, the bark of trees. Maturing seed-heads strike a pose while preparing to resume the cycle of rebirth.

John Merle Coulter: The Man and the Mine

John Merle Coulter was a distinguished botanist, founder of the Botanical Gazette, and Professor of Botany at the University of Chicago (1896 – 1925). He is credited with the rapid advancement of botany in the United States during the early 1900s. His own success set the stage for those who followed.

" ... Coulter's greatest influence was through the large number of students who came to his classes. No other botanist in America ever had so many students who won their way to the highest botanical positions."

University of Chicago

Coulter's distinguished pupils included Henry Chandler Cowles, who conducted his pioneering work in ecology and ecological succession in the Indiana Dunes, not far from the John Merle Coulter Preserve.

Coulter, John Merle | portrait
John Merle Coulter, formal portrait [apf1-01942]
Photo credit: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

By the late 19th century the southern shore of Lake Michigan had developed into a great center for sand-mining. The sand hills at present day Coulter weren't spared. In the 1930s, they were stripped to the water table.

" ... great areas have been converted into barren wastes by the steam shovels ... the dunes crumble and are transferred to the long trains of waiting cars for transportation to the great city in the northwest."   — Herman Pepoon

Remarkably, the disturbance created niche habitats for rare plants. Perhaps the first seeds arrived on the feet of visiting marsh birds—orchids, sundews, rushes, and other fine-seeded species. Many more followed. In the 1980s, sedge and grass expert, Ken Dritz, documented more than two hundred native plants species at the old sand mine. Today, Coulter boasts nearly 300. More than twenty are state listed as threatened, rare, or endangered.

Getting to John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve

John Merle Coulter Nature Preserve is located on the east side of County Line Road between US 12 and US 20 in Portage, Indiana. It is bounded on the north by the MonoSol industrial plant and on the north and east by the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Limited parking is available adjacent to the preserve entrance, on the east side of County Line Road.

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