It should have been a typical walk-and-talk plant identification program when a group of like-minded plant enthusiasts gathered a few hours before dusk at Metea County Park to learn more about ferns and mosses. Turns out, nature was in no mood for our plans.

The Northeast Indiana Wildflower and Plant Society (NEINPAWS) organizers were thrilled when more than 60 people showed up for the late-July event. But even before the group settled in, storms in the west threatened the hike. Outside, the sky darkened and thunder rumbled. Inside, Bob Dispenza, park and education manager for Metea, whipped through his slide presentation, quickly explaining the fundamentals of fern, lichen, and moss reproduction. Less than ten minutes later, the large group scurried outside and into the forest.

On any other day, the 120-acre Meno-aki State Nature Preserve, located inside Metea County Park, is a dark forest. In the half-light of twilight storms, the forest radiated with mysterious charm. It may not have been Dispenza’s intention to bring a dramatic flair to the event, but the primordial origin story of ferns and mosses was enhanced by the shadowy and humid forest. Thunder boomed closer and closer. Rain started falling, but only light drops were felt under the canopy. Dispenza managed the group with the energy of a new father trying to herd an unwieldy group of fledglings. An off-path sighting of sensitive (Onoclea sensibilis) and Christmas (Polystichum acrostichoides) ferns caused Dispenza to crash through vegetation, inviting the group to join in the trailblazing. The sense of a shared adventure was enhanced by grapevine-style echoing of, “No poison ivy here!”

According to Dispenza, many mosses don’t have common names. “The details of mosses are so microscopic that no one really pays attention to them,” Dispenza says. Children, having lost interest in looking at plants, ran along the path, climbed on fallen trees, and let their imaginations turn to a search for imaginary creatures. Micro groups stopped to debate the difference between Virginia wildrye (Elymus virginicus) and Canadian wildrye (E. canadensis). The group contrasted reproducing and non-fertile scouringrush horsetail fern (Equisetum hyemale). Ghostly Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) was found, and made spookier by blue-white camera flashes.

On the southern edge of Cedar Creek, a spinulose wood fern (Dryopteris carthusiana)—a single plant of its kind within Meno-aki—was tucked into the base of a streamside tree. While not rare, Dispenza explained that wood ferns need a mature forest to thrive. The whole of Metea County Park was reclaimed farmland, so the emergence of this lone fern, quietly thriving, was good news. The group of plant enthusiasts was impressed not only by the fern, but also by Dispenza’s needle-in-a-haystack find.

Storm-purple darkness shrouded the forest as heavier rain broke through the trees. Thunder clapped loud enough to overwhelm conversation. “Time to stop having adventure,” Dispenza exclaimed. Participants ran along the woods’ edge in the downpour to reach their vehicles. For this hike, nature had the final say.

Learn more about NEINPAWS at www.facebook.com/NortheastINPAWS or www.inpaws.org.