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Aquatic and Wetland Vascular Plants of the Northern Great Plains


Vegetation is usually the most conspicuous aspect of natural habitats and in the case of wetlands this is certainly true. The vascular plants growing in wetlands are crucial to the overall functioning of wetland and adjacent terrestrial ecosystems. Wetland vegetation provides food (directly or indirectly), cover, and shelter needed by wildlife and waterfowl populations. Some wetland plants are excellent forages for livestock while others are undesirable weeds. Marsh plants stabilize fine-textured, erodible substrates of basins and waterways with their extensive root and rhizome systems, while they also absorb and recycle some of the overly abundant nutrients contained in agricultural and municipal runoff. Wetland plants also add organic matter to the sediments that gradually accumulate in wetland basins. Some hydrophytes are reliable indicators of surface water quality and permanence, and for this reason, plant species are used as indicators in defining and classifying wetlands (Stewart and Kantrud 1971,1972; Cowardin et al. 1979).

From whatever standpoint wetland ecosystems are studied or managed, the botanical component must be taken into account. Some wetland plants are more valuable than others in fulfilling various ecological roles. Management techniques such as mowing, prescribed burning, periodic flooding and drainage, or controlled grazing can be used to alter the composition of wetland vegetation. Species desirable for wildlife or livestock can thus be favored or diminished depending upon the influence of management practices. Before instituting management procedures, however, the habitat manager must know the identities of the plant species comprising the vegetation. Once a species is identified, information on the plant's reproductive ecology, habitat preferences, and relative value to wildlife and grazing animals is needed so that management procedures can be implemented to achieve desired results.

For many parts of North America, aquatic plant manuals have been produced to provide biologists and wetland managers with a means of identifying the plants encountered in wetland habitats. Noteworthy examples are the manuals by Muenscher (1944) and Fassett (1957) treating the aquatic plants for the predominantly wooded region of eastern North America, Correll and Correll (1975) covering the wetland flora of the southwestern U.S., and Godfrey and Wooten (1979, 1981) providing a treatment for the southeastern U.S. Manuals such as these are valuable tools for wetland managers and researchers, as well as botanists, for they acquaint these people with the botanical resources of regional wetlands.

Given the vastness and ecological importance of the wetland resource in the northern Great Plains (see the figure below outlining the region being described), there is much justification for a manual treating the regional wetland flora. Manuals produced for other parts of North America have limited application in the so-called Prairie Pothole Region and the Nebraska Sand Hills because the assemblages of plant species inhabiting these wetlands are a unique combination of eastern, western, and boreal North American elements, as well as some more cosmopolitan and introduced species. Since no existing manuals handle the combination of species encountered in northern prairie wetlands, their utility in this region is limited.

Northern Great Plains
*Editor's Note: The species range maps on the following pages do not show this boundary

Another shortcoming of using existing manuals in the northern Great Plains is that important species found in marginal habitats (such as wet meadows and drawdown zones) are typically excluded. Outside of the northern Great Plains, many of these species characteristically occupy more upland habitats. Wet meadows, drawdown zones, and the plants that inhabit them are integral parts of prairie wetland ecosystems; so to be of greatest utility to wetland researchers and managers working in this region, a manual should include these wetland species as well as the strictly aquatic species.

The aim of this publication is to provide a complete manual of the vascular plants growing in wetland habitats of the northern plains and thereby to assist students and professionals in the identification of aquatic and wetland plants that occur here. The taxonomic keys, plant descriptions, distribution maps, and statements of range and habitat preferences are offered to fulfill this primary objective.

A few secondary objectives are also met in providing a treatment of the regional wetland flora at this time. Considerable new information on the vascular flora has been generated by recent investigations, and one purpose of this publication is to incorporate new discoveries derived from floristic exploration of regional wetlands. Another purpose is to provide updated nomenclature for groups affected by name changes. Most of the recent name changes have been adopted in the Flora of the Great Plains (The Great Plains Flora Association 1986), and for the sake of uniformity, the names used herein are those employed in the latter publication with only a few exceptions as noted within the appropriate treatments.

Some of the taxa covered by this treatment pose difficult taxonomic problems deserving of further study. Defining problematic groups and suggesting areas of taxonomic research is another objective of this study. The references cited in the body of this treatment were consulted for information pertaining to the taxonomy of specific groups, but they are also provided to acquaint the user of this manual with relevant taxonomic literature. These references may be studied to gain further insight into the groups treated.

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