Bob Downing

DOWAGIAC, MICH.: Dowagiac Woods in southwest Michigan is one of the best places Up North to enjoy the sights and sounds of spring in April and May.

The preserve, owned and operated by the Michigan Nature Association, is considered the association’s crown jewel among its 170 sanctuaries around the state.

The 384-acre sanctuary about four miles west of Dowagiac is known for its spectacular spring wildflowers. You will also hear peepers and other frogs, plus bird song from returning migrants.

Dowagiac Woods is widely hailed as the best wildflower extravaganza in the state of Michigan. That is because the woodland was never plowed, planted, clear-cut or grazed. It has been minimally disturbed since a government patent was issued in 1836.

It offers a look at how Michigan forests looked prior to settlement, the association says.

The tract in Cass County in southwest Michigan is at its colorful best for about six weeks with up to 50 species of flowers in bloom in widespread patches through the woodland.

The blooms start in April with hepatica and bloodroot and continue into May with the rare blue-eyed Mary, trilliums and Dutchman’s breeches.

The blue-eyed Mary may be the biggest wildflower attraction. The preserve features more than 150 beds that can be seen from the trail, each perhaps 10 feet by 20 feet. They blossom starting in early April; lower petals are blue and upper petals are white.

One of the best descriptions of Dowagiac Woods’ wildflowers came from Bertha Daubendiek, a founder of the association.

She wrote: “At first a green fuzz appeared everywhere on the ground. Somewhere else, this would have turned into grass, but it soon became apparent that at Dowagiac Woods every tuft of green was topped by a wildflower bud. The progression was slow but steady, until everywhere there were flowers, all jammed together. Some other woods have two peaks of bloom, in April and in the middle of May. But not at Dowagiac. No matter what day you go in that six weeks’ period, blooms are everywhere.”

In 1981, she visited Dowagiac Woods every weekend for six weeks, “an exciting and uplifting experience I have never forgotten,” she said.

There is a well-marked loop trail that stretches 1.5 miles through Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary. A small loop to Square Pond runs off the main trail.

Access the loop from a small trailhead off Frost Street, via state Route 62 and Sink Street. There is a small parking lot, a trail kiosk and a stone marker honoring Daubendiek and her work. The trail runs next to the Dowagiac River and crosses Hunter’s Creek.

The preserve features floodplain forest, southern hardwood forests and swamps and mesic southern forest. Wildflowers found in the floodplain include jewelweed, skunk cabbage, marsh marigold and golden ragwort.

The hiking is easy, although the wildflowers were minimal on my August visit. Waist-high vegetation had blanketed the dirt trail and the wooden boardwalks that stretch through swampy areas of the tract.

The river, one of the largest cold-water streams in southwest Michigan, flows along the eastern edge of the preserve.

It was channelized in 1907 to drain the land for farming, creating isolated oxbows and meanders. Some of those spots like Crescent Pond have become backwater ponds within the sanctuary.

The channelization is also evident by the earthen berms that separate the sanctuary from the river. There have been initial efforts to restore natural meanders to the stream.

The Michigan Nature Association acquired the initial 220 acres in 1983 from the Joseph Jerue family.

Jerue did some selective lumbering of the woods, using a team of horses to pull the logs to a sawmill that once stood near the trailhead where pines have since been planted. That occurred from the early 1940s to 1961.

Isaac Hunter, a local farmer, a naturalist and a Michigan Nature Association member, was familiar with Dowagiac Woods. He led the push to acquire the property.

In 1981, the association appealed for the public’s help to raise $110,000 and more than 550 donors stepped forward. A 166-acre tract was added later, and the association has begun aggressively reforesting that tract. It would like to create a major woodland that would provide nesting for neo-tropical migrant songbirds.

The sanctuary is home to 49 species of nesting birds and about 50 species of trees including the Ohio buckeye. The tulip tree is found in its greatest numbers in the center of the sanctuary. The buckeye and the tulip blossom in the spring.

The name Dowagiac (pronounced doe-WAH-jack) comes from a Potawatomi Indian word meaning a place where one could obtain all needed food, clothing and shelter.

The sanctuary is open to non-destructive uses such as hiking, photography, bird-watching and educational activities. Motorized vehicles and mountain bikes are prohibited, as are hunting, fishing, trapping, camping, campfires, pets, and collecting plants or seeds.

It is about 4½ hours from Akron.

The 2,000-member association was founded in 1952 as a bird-study group. Its holdings include the 508-acre Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary near Copper Harbor on the Upper Peninsula’s Keweenaw Peninsula. It is an impressive place with old-growth white pines, as I know from a previous visit. Some are 125 feet tall, 4 feet in diameter and 500 years old.

The association also owns another wildflower gem in southwest Michigan: Trillium Ravine. The 15-acre tract off Riverside Road in Berrien County’s Niles Township features the rare prairie and toadshade trilliums.

For information, contact the Michigan Nature Association at 866-223-2231 or michigannature@michigannature.org. You can also go to www.michigannature.org.

Eight miles east of Dowagiac in Cass County is the Fred Russ Forest Park. The 13-acre county park near Decatur lies within Michigan State University’s 580-acre research forest. There are trails, wildflowers, big trees and trout-filled streams. For information, call 269-445-4456 or go to www.casscountymi.org/CountyParks/FredRussForestPark.aspx.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.