Thursday, June 26, 2014

Prairie Surprise, Ohio Style

It may not come as a surprise to some people that "prairies" were once fairly common across the landscape of Ohio. Even the most casual visitor has likely seen hundreds of acres of Zea mays Prairie (a.k.a "corn fields") in the state.                                                                                                        
More diligent observers recognize scraps and pieces (actually jewels) that escaped the plow and conversion to agriculture. The Ohio Prairie Association produced the map above showing the approximate historic locations of some of the largest prairies in the state (  

Earlier this June, I ventured to central Ohio with plans to search out one of these, Daughmer Savanna, maybe 30 miles from my childhood home.  However, too much time in the car over the last week made me hesitant to drive the extra miles it was going to take to get there. If it wasn't for the persistence of my mother I never would have made it...

Although I had been searching for prairie remnants off and on for several days in NW Ohio and SE Michigan, this one knocked my socks off!  But I must admit it was the trees that really captured my interest; I barely noticed the ground flora.  The trees were amazing. None of my pictures from that brief afternoon visit do them justice. They were astounding huge, gnarly, twisted old hulks several feet in diameter. Some appeared as wide as they were tall, and some had branches draping almost to the ground (reminiscent of ancient live oaks in the south).

There seemed to be something approaching 4 hulks/acre, but they were not evenly distributed, giving the impression of a natural pattern or, perhaps, intelligent design?.  Many had broken tops and lightning scars. Who knows what travails these oaks have experienced in their obviously long lives?  

No midstory trees were trees were present giving the site much of its open structured appearance. However, a large number of saplings were establishing in the understory (the sitee is now protected from no grazing other than from an obviously abundant deer population).  I had never really been around much Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) before - what awesome trees!                                                                                                                                                                             After "oohing and ahhing' for quite some time I was able to notice a few other plants. Yep, there were prairie grasses.  Also glimpsed the uniquely midwestern Sullivant's Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii). Large ants were swarming all over the flowers. Does anyone know what they may have been doing?  

Winged Lythrum (Lythrum alatum)
didn't expect it in the open, wet prairie
I was surprised to see a patch of Winged Lythrum (Lythrum alatum) in a low, wet swale. Unfortunately, there was also a large patch of Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense) near the road frontage, but few natural areas, especially small remnants like this one, are free of such invasives.

Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense)
apparently introduced to America hundreds of years ago
Daughmer Savanna is located in Prairie Region #5 on the map above, also known as the "Sandusky Plains". I have read estimates of nearly 200,000 acres of prairie & savannas historically occurred in this region. To say a handful still remain may be an overstatement.  The Daughmer Savanna is one of a meager few remnants, and barely exceeds 30 acres. On the aerial image below (from 2010) I have highlighted the tract in black, giving some idea of the current landscape. The individual Bur Oaks in the savanna stand out in dark green, even at this scale.

                                                                                                                   I am impressed & heartened by Ohio's Department of Natural Resources decision to purchase this tract a few years ago.  Let's hope they and other states continue to make such excellent decisions!

As a volunteer working at the site said, "pilgimages to Daughmer offer hope and renewal".  I couldn't agree more....  

THANKS MOM, for making me go!!

Avalon Evans, age 82, on a trek through Daughmer Savanna in June
she braved ticks galore and never complained
Back in 5th grade she encouraged my interest in the outdoors and natural history and has always supported me in this path
I can't express enough gratitude.....

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Ascending the Slippery Slope of Restoration

For several years now, I and the NC Plant Conservation Program have been working with the Eno River Association to restore their oldest Nature Preserve, the Blue Indigo Slopes.  The site is important, in part, due to the rare plants present as well as frontage on the Eno River . In addition, we view it as an important stepping stone in a landscape-level pollinator pathway in northern Durham (perhaps I will explain what that is in a future post).

During a routine visit this year, late in June, I noted general ecological conditions of the site and recorded mental notes on additional ecological restoration needs. A few observations follow:

Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata)
widespread in eastern U.S.
often found in open sites or prairies

a few stems flowering here and there on the Slopes in esp. open areas
Piedmont Barbara's Buttons (Marshallia obovata)
locally abundant in some of our open, burned sites; this specimen
was flowering much later than typical for the species in our area

a small colony is present on the site

Post Oak (Quercus stellata) and Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica) sprouts and seedlings were apparent around the open edges of the site (see below). I think of these two oaks as likely historically important in many Piedmont open woodlands and savannas; both tolerate fire well. However, Blackjack is especially intolerant of shade and may be easily overwhelmed by faster growing, shade tolerant species - a major reason it is rarely seen today in the region.

Top: Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica) sapling amidst prairie flora
Bottom: Post Oak (Quercus stellata) sapling near clumps of Eastern Gamma Grass

Like many other rare plant sites in the Piedmont, this site was historically more open & prairie-like. A common attribute of these sites is the tendency to become heavily overgrown by dense trees and shrubs, presumably due to the absence of fire or grazing. One result of this change is the decline of  many understory species that are now of conservation concern and require special efforts to restore their populations.

We have begun an ecological restoration program supported by the Eno River Association Board, staff, and volunteers. Part of the restoration has involved slowly removing trees (mostly Loblolly Pine) and other invading brush from the site. As part of the broader effort we also conducted two consecutive spring-time prescribed burns on the Preserve. 

Results are becoming apparent!

The images above show a portion of the site before and after preliminary ecological restoration 
(November 2007 & February 2013); 
Note the large, limby eastern red cedar on the right side of both images
The green "clump" in the middle of the 2013 image is a shortleaf pine sprouting after fire
images complements of Kurt Schlimme of the Eno River Association.

The site's namesake, Wild Blue Indigo (Baptisia australis var. aberrans), suffered for years under the growing canopy. A decent number of individuals are still present but most are relatively small and still show diminished flowering. Consequently, very few of the individuals actually produce fruit. The individual shown below has only a single pod this season and appears to be affected by powdery mildew or some other pathogen. Although I don't know the identity of the white substance illustrated below we did document powdery mildew on these plants several years and a pathologist suggested heavy shade and associated moist conditions were contributing factors. We have purposely "gone slow" on the canopy re-opening, but the continued relatively poor vigor and possible mildew problems on the Wild Blue Indigo suggest we need to renew and expand our efforts. 
Newly developing Prairie Wild Blue Indigo Pod (Baptisia australis var. aberrans)
Typical "healthy" plants produce numerous pods, this is the lone pod on this individual

The site supports a scattered population of Starry Rosinweed (Silphium astericus) (left below) just coming into flower, as well as numerous Glade Wild Quinine (Parthenium auriculatum) (right below). As with the Blue Indigo, relatively few of the Glade Wild Quinine appear likely to flower this year.

An open prairie-like portion of the Eno River Association's Indigo Slopes Preserve (above). A Post Oak sapling can be seen near the back of the opening near the large pines, a Prairie Wild Blue Indigo individual occurs on the right, and scattered rosettes of Glade Wild Quinine (Parthenium auriculatum) can be seen throughout. The extent of the opening is less than 1/4 acre and surrounded by dense woods on at least 3 sides. We hope to significantly expand this opening, both up and downslope, in the near future.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bogged Down in the Thumb

I recently had the chance to visit eastern Michigan and see an excellent example of northern peat bog, just a few miles from the shores of Lake Huron.  Also called an "Ombotrophic peatland" or "raised bog" this site in Sanilac county is apparently one of the most southerly examples of this community type.

Sporadic clumps of Tussock Cottongrass (Eriophorum vaginatum) were found scattered about. Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) was flowering abundantly, and appeared dominant in places. Here and there were flowering stems of Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum). I was able to find a single Sundew (Drosera sp.)

Tussock Cottongrass (Eriophorum vaginatum)
Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia)
Labrador Tea
 (Ledum groenlandicum)

The lone carnivorous plant observed in Minden Bog

Most of the vegetation was low growing, dense, clumpy shrubs not more than 2' in height. An occasional tree sapling emerged over the tussocks. Standing no more than 3-4 ' tall were stems of Bog Birch (Betula pumila). It is a naturally diminutive species, unlike its relative Paper Birch (of which one or two individuals were found growing in the bog as well). Its growth form was unusual in the bog, amidst the rounded mounds of the other dominant shrubby species. In the deeper sections of the bog, tamarack became taller and more abundant.

A scene toward the interior (or at least the portion I was able to get into) of Minden Bog; Sheep Laurel in the foreground with Tamarck in the background. A single Bog Birch is emerging near the right background.
Bog Birch (Betula pumila) can be found across much of Canada and the northern U.S.

Although the remaining wetland complex is still apparently quite large (I saw at least one report
that it exceeds 5,000 acres), the site is not "pristine".  An adjacent stream has been obviously 
channelized, and parts of the surrounding area are now under cultivation. However, the core of the site escaped the fate of others in the region and has not been mined for its peat content. 

                                          I found this relic of the past in an old barn nearby                                                                                                                                                                            

I felt lucky to be able to see this great remnant of natural habitat. 
Like most of the midwest, such places are few and far between these days. Finding Minden Bog was not easy (there were no signs or trail marker anywhere that I could find) but it was well worth the visit!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Harry's Grand One! (Marshallia legrandii)

Way back in 1986 Harry LeGrand, of the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, embarked on a botanical search for "limeys" and other interesting plants in the north-central Piedmont of North Carolina. Among his notable finds was a Barbara's Button that just didn't look right.  Taller, pinker, leafier, and later to bloom than the more common Barbara's Button of the region (Marshallia obovata), it just didn't fit any of the documented and formally described species.
Eventually additional populations and specimens were found with similar characteristics. Botanists became convinced that it was, indeed, a new species rather than an aberrant population. Although it took awhile for this recognition to sink in (~ 26 years from the date of discovery to formal publication!) Harry LeGrand's grand discovery was given a scientific name by Alan Weakley & Derick Poindexter in 2012; Marshallia legrandii.

Harry LeGrand on a recent return trip
to Granville Co, the home of his grand discovery

The technical details and relationship to other Marshallia can be found here:

The world-wide range of LeGrand's Marshallia (also referred to as "Oak Barrens Barbara's Buttons" or "Tall Barbara's Buttons") includes a mere 2 counties straddling the NC-VA border (one on each side). Although only 4 sites have been documented (and two are believed to be lost), the plant has no formal listing or protection status by either state (due in part to its recent official scientific description).

The single known Carolina site is replete with botanical riches, including the world's largest Smooth Coneflower population, along with numerous significantly rare and imperiled plants. For these reasons, the site has been on the "radar" of plant conservation aficionados for years.

The Friends of Plant Conservation hosted a recent field trip to the site, with Harry LeGrand as the guest of honor.  

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Bearded Wonders - Xerophyllum asphodeloides

Turkey Beard (Xerophyllum asphodeloides) is a lily-like plant whose foliage superficially resembles a bunchgrass.  Weakley's Flora places it in the Xerophyllaceae (or Beargrass) Family.  Only 2 species occur in the family, and X. asphodeloides is the only eastern US native. In North Carolina, and elsewhere in the Southern Appalachians, Turkey Beard may be found on dry or even xeric ridges and slopes where periodic fire was an important ecological process. However, most of these areas are now fire suppressed and the Turkey Beard shows little flower production. Bourg & Gill (2000) conducted a series of experimental treatments and found that fire and canopy opening resulted in "an immense flowering response"; we produced a similar result after thinning and prescribed fire in Transylvania County, North Carolina. Like Bourg & Gill's study, the flowering results were dramatic 2 years after treatment.

Sunlight streams in after restoration & Turkey Beard responds
Over 100 flowering stalks appeared in 2014 after brush clearing in late 2011 and prescribed fire conducted in May 2012. This was especially surprising given the poor vigor of many of the vegetative tussocks prior to restoration (see below) and essentially no flowering.  

A highly suppressed tussock of Turkey Beard, prior to brush removal and prescribed fire; this individual was persisting under dense rhododendron shade. Most Turkey Beards I have seen in the region persist in similar condition

One unusual aspect of this population, is its occurrence in a wetland.  As mentioned above, the plant is usually associated with dry, rocky slopes or ridges. I haven't spoken to anyone who has seen Turkey Beard in a wetland such as seen below, although last week I observed a few plants growing on a wet flat stream bank under dense Dog Hobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana); the private landowner intends to follow our example and clear around their plants hoping for a similar flowering response.

Turkey Beard flowering amidst dense Cinnamon Ferns in a "mountain bog" habitat

A robust flowering scape of Turkey Beard growing adjacent to Purple Mountain Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia purpurea var. montana

The distribution of Turkey Beard and its western relative present an interesting puzzle for those interested in biogeography. The range maps presented below show the two Xerophyllum species and their natural ranges (from How did that happen??


Thanks to

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Blue Ridge Huckleberry (Gaylussacia orocola)

Gaylussacia orocola is narrowly endemic to North Carolina, found in only a couple western counties. Like many other rare plants of the region, it inhabits "mountain bogs" one of the rarest habitat types we have. It is a small deciduous shrub that can grow in association with other heaths like Crackleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) and Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium fuscatum). At the site of these images it grows under a fairly dense shrub layer containing the previously listed species, as well as Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Winterberry (Ilex verticellata), American Holly (Ilex opaca), and a scattering of other woody plants.

Blue Ridge Huckleberry (Gaylussacia orocola) flowering in early June (Transylvania County, NC); adjacent Crackleberries were already in fruit

Blue Ridge Huckleberry (Gaylussacia orocola) flowers and young leaves; note the "stipitate-glandular" hairs

Blue Ridge Huckleberry leaves with "mucronate" tips

Many of the uppermost (sun-exposed) leaves were red-tinged

The conservation status of Blue Ridge Huckleberry is unclear.  Ed Schwartzman told me he thought there are around 10 recorded populations in North Carolina but only 1 may be extant. It's more than a little surprising given the rarity and documented loss of mountain bogs, the extremely limited natural range, and the few known populations that this species is not considered "imperiled" in North Carolina.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Diabase Rocks!

Diabase is an igneous rock type found in isolated bands in the Piedmont of North Carolina.  Some of the largest expanses are found in Durham and Granville counties. In these areas, boulders may be common and the soil surface is often interspersed with rocks.  The soils tend to be high in nutrients such as magnesium, have clayey textures, and shrink-swell properties.

(The boulder shown to the right occurs along the edge of a diabase sill in Durham County)

Many unusual and/or North Carolina rare plants may be found on diabase. A few of these are shown below.

Eastern Prairie Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis var. aberrans): Globally rare & listed Endangered in North Carolina. Scientific nomenclature for this plant has varied through time and may continue to evolve. See Weakley's 2012 Flora for a discussion. Image from Durham County, NC
Tall Larkspur (Delphinium exaltatum): Ranked as globally vulnerable by NatureServe and listed Endangered in North Carolina. This image was taken at North Carolina's only remaining Piedmont population; the site in Durham County is now a Plant Conservation Preserve.
Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris spicata): Durham County, NC - wide-ranging & apparently globally secure, but significantly rare in North Carolina.
Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); Limited to 2 NC counties and listed as Threatened in North Carolina

Low Wild-Petunia (Ruellia humilis): Widespread in US, but confined to a few Piedmont counties in North Carolina where it is listed Endangered. At least 2 populations are now protected on Plant Conservation Preserves. Image from Granville County
Smooth Coneflower (Echinacea laevigata): Federally and state endangered, extirpated from 2 states in its former range. Smooth Coneflower has been a focal species of conservation efforts in the Durham area since 2004.