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Don't let those dainty white petals fool you. Pitcher's thistle is truly a hardy Northerner (though a federally endangered one). It survives the harsh coastal dune environments around Lakes Michigan, Superior and Huron—but nowhere else in the world—by sending its roots through as much as six feet of sand in its quest for water, a trick that also helps it withstand wave action. The world's two largest populations of Pitcher's thistle are found in the Sleeping Bear Dunes and Nordhouse Dunes.
The yellow, white or blue flowers peeking from their stiff reddish-colored stems resemble snapdragons, but the similarities stop there. Broom-rapes are a parasitic plant completely lacking in chlorophyll, so they depend entirely on other plants for nutrients. You'll typically find them with wormwood on the sections of beach—called back beach—just before foredunes.
Their name comes from the shape of their seedpods, which resemble two-stage rockets. At propagation time, the two stages separate. The larger upper part stays with the plant to germinate where it was produced. The lower part, which is smaller, lighter and resembles cork, is whisked out to sea, where it floats to another shore.
Look along wide, sandy stretches of Great Lakes shore for these wee birds with the single dark breast stripe. But don't get too close: piping plovers are an endangered species that often abandon their nests when disturbed. Since 1986, the population has fluctuated between 12 and 25 breeding pairs. The breeding areas—primarily in interdunal wetlands and along small streams—are largely confined to Michigan. Nordhouse Dunes, Platte Plains at Sleeping Bear Dunes and Grand Sable Dunes all host small nesting populations.
Quick to attack prey as big as itself, with venomous fangs (not harmful to humans) and startlingly big eyes, the creepy-crawly wolf spider looks dangerous, but lucky for us, it survives the heat of its sand dune habitat—which can reach 120 degrees on the surface—by burrowing deeply below and staying there until dark. Not afraid of spiders? Shine a flashlight on the sand after sunset—the greenish gemlike glints reflecting back at you are wolf spider eyes.
Like beach grass, sand cherry is among the first plants to grow on newly formed dunes. The shrub's deep roots help stabilize dunes, as well as help them to grow by acting as a windbreak that forces wind-carrying sand to drop its load. Sand cherry also helps hungry hikers; its fruit can be eaten raw.