Forget “Needle in a Haystack,” Try Finding Littorella in a Lake

by Sydney Widell 
If you’ve never heard of Littorella, you are definitely not alone. Incredibly rare, this grassy aquatic plant only graces the beds of a few select lakes in Northern Wisconsin. 
Today, Susan Knight, expert botanist and Trout Lake Station’s director, is on a mission to track some down. We’re headed to Little John Junior Lake, which Susan says is one of the few places she knows of where Littorella grows.
“It’s always fun to check out a place and make sure that the plants are still there,” Susan says during the short drive between station and the Little John Junior boat landing.
A week from now (June 26th and 27th, to be exact), Susan will be leading an aquatic plant identification workshop at Kemp Station, UW-Madison’s forestry field base, 20 miles south of Trout Lake. To prepare, she has spent the last week collecting samples of each of the 80 plants her guests will see in their field guides — even if those plants are as rare as Littorella.
“If you see it you’re going to be amazed, because it looks like every other plant,” she said. “It looks like it could be anything else.”
Nobody knows exactly why this plant is so rare, but Susan thinks its scarcity has to do with how infrequently it reproduces, combined with a lack of habitat.  
“It just shows up, who knows where or why,” she said.
Susan first stumbled upon Littorella in Little John Junior during the mid 1990s. She was working for the Wisconsin DNR at that point, conducting a survey of rare and endangered aquatic plants in the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest. It was one of the best jobs she said she’s ever had.
Susan has found Littorella in Little John Junior every year since, and she said she’s feeling optimistic about today as well.

Little John Junior Lake. Photo: Sydney Widell

When we get to Little John Junior Lake, frog calls echo from the shore and the sun is straining through hazy rain clouds . We maneuver our boat out of the truck and down a long, curving trail to the water’s edge.
Normally, Susan does this alone, which astounds me. Even with two people, the boat is heavy and awkward on the uneven, sloping ground.
On the shore, Susan rummages in a bucket full of equipment until she finds what she is looking for – a snorkel and goggle mask. She’s not planning on going for a swim, but she does like to be prepared to stick her head in the water and scour the lake bottom for plants.
“When I come back from the field, I am wet from here down ” — she gestures to her knees — “and from here up,” she says, motioning to her shoulders.
After a weekend of torrential rain (don’t believe me? Check this out!), the water’s edge is at least 20 feet beyond the normal shoreline. Susan paddles us out, navigating around trees that ordinarily stand on dry land. In all of the years Susan has been coming to this lake, this is the highest she said she’s ever seen it.
Guided by 15 years of memory and copious field records, Susan steers the boat a little ways off from the shore. Then she trades her paddle for a long rake. Leaning over the side of the boat, she scrapes her rake over the lake bottom and carefully inspects the plants caught in its teeth. Susan shakes her head and tosses them back.
No Littorella yet, and the high water isn’t helping.
“Because the water is so high, I’m having a hard time seeing anything down there,” Susan says, peering down through parted watershield. “This is becoming more of a fishing expedition than usual.”
But Susan, who has practiced botany for over 30 years, said she doesn’t like to be skunked in the field, even by something as elusive as Littorella.
At last, she finds the plant she’s been searching for. It’s no more than five inches long, with delicate white roots and round green blades. She was right — it looks a lot like grass. Susan gently seals the Littorella in a ziploc bag full of water and begins to paddle back to shore.
“People never see this plant, and they’re never going to,” she laughs. “The likelihood of them finding it and then needing to identify it is utterly remote. I’m doing this for the sake of being complete.”
Because that’s just what Susan does.
Success! The extremely rare and remarkably unremarkable Littorella. Photo: Sydney Widell