Loda Lake Wildflower Sanctuary

More than 400 species bloom in America’s only designated national preserve.
Lily Courtesy Thinkstock

In the latter months of summer long after the flush of spring has waned, Michigan forests and marshes are home to resplendent wildflower displays.

Pat Ruta McGhan knows the warm season is a great time to enjoy the colorful blooms found at Loda Lake National Wildflower Sanctuary, a unique flower preserve in the Manistee National Forest and America’s only designated national sanctuary for them.

More than 400 species flower on the 72-acre site northwest of White Cloud. The 78-year program developed by Michigan Garden Clubs draws nature lovers every year. 

“August and September is a really productive time (for wildflowers),” says McGhan, botanist for the national forest’s Baldwin/White Cloud Ranger District. “It’s feeding time for a lot of insects, a critical time for pollinators. There’s a big flush (of flowers). People don’t notice it as much as in spring, but I’d bet more happens in late summer than any other time.” 

Loda Lake’s colorful jewels are readily found along a 1.5-mile self-guided nature trail and boardwalk. It wanders through oak-maple forests, old pine plantations and along wetlands and streams where 39 numbered posts identify the flowers.

A free trail map and flower guide is available at the entrance kiosk, as well as online.

The sanctuary’s facilities were modernized in 2014. With financial help from the Fremont Foundation, national forest staffers built a picnic pavilion, a modern outhouse and expanded the parking lot. The old marsh boardwalk is to be replaced this summer. 

“We wanted to raise Loda Lake’s visibility,” notes Ken Arbogast, public information officer for the Manistee National Forest. “It provides an unusual opportunity for people to see to see a diversity of wildflowers in one place.”

The boardwalk is a perfect place to view unusual pitcher plants, swamp rose and cranberry, according to McGhan. Its reconstruction is expected to be complete in August. The sanctuary grounds are also home to a rain garden and butterfly garden. Remnants of an old homestead can also found on the property, which was set aside to protect wild orchids.  

Mildred Andrews, a White Cloud resident and member of the Newaygo Garden Club, began working to protect the area in 1939, according to Michigan Garden Club historical records. Andrews noticed that beautiful Lady Slipper flowers were being destroyed by Civilian Conservation Corps workers who were harvesting sphagnum moss from a bog. The moss was being used to wrap to red pine seedlings that were being planted. 

The United States Forest Service had acquired the site two years before. Andrews contacted forest service officials and expressed her dismay, which eventually resulted in a forest service proposal to create a wildflower sanctuary. 

“Loda Lake is unique in being only wildflower sanctuary in the forest system nationally, but it’s unique in another way,” McGhan shares. “It was proposed by a local chapter of the Michigan Garden Clubs in 1937, but because of the war (World War II) and other things, it wasn’t designated until 1949.” 

Today, the sanctuary is home to more than 500 plant species. Warm-season visitors may well see wild lily of the valley, swamp milkweed (a favorite for monarch butterflies) and bright black-eyed Susans. The yellow two-flowered Cynthia is one several colorful asters that also blooms late in season.

“In September, the silky asters are a gorgeous deep purple, and the Joe-Pye weed is a rosy pink color,” McGhan notes. “The water lilies become very pretty. And the pitcher plants found on the lakeshore turn a deep red. They’re fun to see.” 

For more information, visit michigangardenclubs.org/public/loda_lake.

Award-winning writer and BLUE “Undercurrents” columnist Howard Meyerson lives in Grand Rapids.

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