Plant Life of Country is Little Realized by Many -- Many and Varied Specimens to be Found.
Botanist and Physical Director of the Gary Y. M. C. A.
"The greatest flora of the United States is in the dune region of our immediate vicinity." This statement was made to the writer soon after coming to Gary. He did not believe an untruth was being told him but unconsciously classed it with the statement that "Mars is inhabited" and other abstruse and scientific facts. With all the barrenness of the sandy areas and the consequent lack of plant life, it was a very apparent mistake. The statement is true, however, and holds good not only for varieties but for number and unusual beauty as well.

In most localities one is delighted to find specimens of plant life but in this vicinity the hillsides are purple with violets and lupine. There are the beautiful fringed gentians and hundreds of orchids. The distribution over the seasons is equally remarkable but at all times from the coming of the trailing arbutus early in May until the passing of the gentian in October one's search is always rewarded with some of nature's most beautiful productions.

There is a story that Jacob Bailey, the first white settler in this region and a great friend of the Indians, is responsible for many of the plants seemingly out of their natural habitat. The story goes that because of many kindnesses the Indians coming from northern points brought unusually beautiful flowers as presents to him, and either they or other Indians coming from the opposite direction did the same. It is very interesting as a legend but can in no way account for the varieties.

There seem to be two things entering largely into the question. One is that we find many plants in this region which at this point reach their northern limit. Of these may be mentioned the tulip tree, the sassafrass, the sour gum and the paw paw. We can only account for the distribution of northern varieties by their having been carried ver slowly in the debris of the glaciers moving south, and being accommodated for a great length of time in the left-over glacial frangments of ice so that they are able to establish themselves. The last tree one finds as they reach the timberline approaching the north pole is the jack pine. And strange as it may seem we are fortunate in having this same jack pine in our vicinity.

As one proceeds still further north the very last representative of plant life to withstand the ravages of the arctic weather is the lynchen moss. Between these two extremes of the far north and the semi-tropical America, we find a splendid number of both plant and tree life in great variety.

The dwarf and the giant of several varieties are found here. We find the beautiful bunch berry, so small that it may be stepped over unnoticed, the smallest member of the dogwood family, and the flowering dogwood trees which may be 50 feet high and entirely covered with beautiful flowers as large as four inches in diameter. The aromatic sumac sometimes only a few inches high, takes its place as the smallest member of that interesting family, while the stag horn is the giant with specimens of trees eight inches in diameter and 50 feet high.

Carnivorous Plants.

Carnivorous plants are classed as unusual and almost miraculous. To one's mind they exist largely in stories or at least only in the tropics where all nature seems to have gone awry. But here in our section we are fortunate in having two plants classed as carnivorous. One is strictly so and the other one only in part. The sun dewes, of which we have two, are classed as strictly carnivorous with leaves covered with small glutinous balls of liquid which reflect the sunlight like the honey dew on leaves of other plants. The insects alight only to find that they are held fast by the sticky mass. The tiny leaf slowly enfolds the victim and it is slowly absorbed, after which the leaf opens itself again to repeat the operation.

One of the most interesting of all plants is one known as the pitcher plant. Its leaves are cylindrical and often hold as much as a half pint of water. Insects seeking water find themselves unable to crawl out of the tube because of the recurved hairs which make it very easy to get into the leaf but impossible to get out. The insects falling into the water disintegrate and the substance is absorbed by the plant.

The writer, last summer, found a small lizard about one inch in length held captive there. Although liberated he was apparently in no danger, since there was always sufficient insects for food for him and in time he would, of course, have been able to climb out and escape because of his length.


Flowers, like politics, make strange bedfellows. The onion is a lily, and its flowers perfect in shape for one of its family and quite pretty. The cucumber root, another member of the family, is very pretty and interesting. Both the white and yellow dogtooth violets are found in splendid numbers and early in the season produce the most beautiful flower one finds. The real beauty of the family is contained in two varieties, however, the wood and Turks' cap lily. The wood or red lily, the earlier of the two, grows by the thousands. The flowers of this variety stand upright and are a bright red in color and unsurpassed for beauty by any of the cultivated varieties. The Turks' cap lily with drooping heads, long and beautifully colored pistils and stamens and recurved petals, are unusual in size and often bear as many as a dozen flowers on one stalk.


There is no plant that seems more unusual or out of place than our cactus. It is found growing on the bare sand and apparently thriving. The surprise of finding the plant is no greater than that of finding large and beautiful yellow flowers on it.
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The Heath Family.
The Heath family is one of the interesting families with the Laurel perhaps the best known. Trailing arbutus is a member of this family and is classed by many as one of the most, if not the most, attractive of wild flowers. This delightful flower comes early in the season and has an unusual frangrance.

The wintergreen with its beautiful red and delightfully flavored berries is another member of this family. The bear berry of the same family is not very attractive, but is found in great profusion on many of our hills.

From this large family comes one of the finest of our wild berries, the blue berry. Here again there is a great difference, the smaller one of the family being only a few inches in height. The bush variety is so tall that one must bend over the bushes if the berries on the topmost branches are to be secured. The cranberry is also a Heath plant and still grows in this locality. The size of the berries is easily the equal of those put on the market. The contrast of the beautiful red berries and the green moss, which supports them, is the most beautiful of the wild fruit.

The night shade family is well represented in this region in the wild flowers of several different varieties. Although many types of this family are quite poisonous, our Irish potato is one of the exceptions, forming the one most staple, vegetable diet for mankind.

The rose family is well represented with many different varieties of roses as we know, and also a large number of different varieties of strawberries and blackberries which belong to the same family.

The violet family in our region is unusual both as regards varieties and numbers. More than 12 varieties ranging in size from the small white violet, which is two or three inches high, to the Canadian violet which is more than one foot in height.

The most valuable commercially and the most sought for wild flower the United States has produced is the ginseng. The powders from this plant have ranged in prices all the way from $4.00 to $28 per pound and there is always ready sale for the berries. For more than 50 years the woods in this region have been thoroughly hunted by professionals and by residents who knew the value of the same. Yet, notwithstanding, all this persecution, the writer found a large stalk of ginseng growing in this vicinity last fall. No doubt there is still a small amount left in various places. Great care should be exercised that it be allowed to grow, that it may not be entirely exterminated.

Wild ginger is another one of the unusual plants found in this vicinity.

The Wild Orchid or Showy Lady Slipper
wild orchid
--Photograph by J. M. Whitson.
Scientists know this flower as cyprideium spectabilis.  It is extremely rare, being found in only a few spots in the world.  At times it can be found in the marshes among the dunes.

The orchids are the aristocracy of plant life. This is true both of the commercial as well as the wild varieties. There seems to be a charm even about the name itself, which indicates the unusual. Ordinarily one thinks of orchids as those growing parasitic on trees and taking their nourishment from the atmosphere by means of air roots. Those which live in this way are able to exist only in the tropical climates. In one case, that of our showy orchid, we have one specimen which is parasitic on the roots of other plants.

The orchid family is highly specialized. One of the petals forms either a sack, a pouch or spur as the case may be in different varieties. The placing of the nectar at a most inaccessible point causes cross fertilization of the flowers by various insects. In the case of the lady's slipper the fertilization is done by bees. In the case of those with the spur the fertilization is done by moths and butterflies who are able to secure the nectar because of the length of their tongues. The spur of the purple fringed orchid and the yellow fringed orchid is an inch in length and the butterfly, in order to secure the nectar must have a tongue one and one-half inches long.

The writer has classified 27 different orchids in this vicinity. Of these quiet a number are small and inconspicious. The following, however, compare favorably with most of the beautiful cultivated flowers, in both form, color and in many instances, frangrance.

The showy orchid, which is a spike of beautiful flowers, is both fragrant and beautiful and is found early in the spring.

The colopologon or grass pink is found in great numbers in some places. It is a beautiful orchid, pink in color, and numbers three or four flowers on a single spike. This flower is without fragrance and is the only one of the species which is self fertilizing. The lip bears a number of stamens. As the flower matures and is moved by the breeze, the lip falls and comes in contact with the pistil which is diametrically opposed to the lip. The large purple fringed, the small, purple fringed and yellow fringed and the white fringed orchid are of the same type as those growing on the spike and develop in the midsummer. The lady slipper orchids are very rare and one would always consider himself very fortunate in finding specimens of the same, but in our locality they grow, literally, by the hundreds. All varieties found in the United States, with the exception of two, are found here.

The Indian pink is one of the rarest in our locality and has been found in only one place in this region. Because of the fact that orchids are highly specialized in regard to fertilization they must depend very largely on their roots for reproduction. For this reason great care should be taken not to in any way injure the roots if one plucks the flowers.

It is impossible to give, in a paper like this, the large number of flowers one may secure in our locality. There are two things, however, in which we are especially interested. One is that a large number of people will interest themselves in the flora of our region and the other is that they will also interest themselves in its preservation. The numbers of our plants are remarkable and in many cases may not be equalled anywhere in the world. Ruthless destruction, however, by mankind has destroyed our wild birds and our forests and it may easily do the same with the flowers which we have left. It is to be hoped that those interested and appreciative of the beauties of nature will do everything in their power to preserve for posterity a large number of the beautiful things with which nature has endowed our sand dune region and that in the years to come we may have a wonderful national park on the south shore of Lake Michigan which will contain not only the dunes and trees but a large number of our beautiful wild flowers, blooming as the white man found them early in the last century.
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Posted 29th June; last updated 9th July, 2001.

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