Friday, August 8, 2014

One Very Special Farm Field in the Pickaway Plains

On the trailing end of the till plains around Circleville in south-central Ohio lies the historical Pickaway Plains.  The region's wide rolling hills and fertile soil once displayed a patchwork of prairie grasslands and intermittent wetlands prior to European settlement.  Unfortunately, today finds that landscape all but gone and converted to monocultures of corn and soybeans with hardly a tangible trace of the diversity that once occurred.

However, one special farm in Pickaway county contains a hidden secret that has fascinated Ohio botanists for decades on end for its ephemeral nature and the rare plants within.  In millennia and centuries past, the field was home to a relic of the last glacial epoch in a seasonal wetland known as a prairie pothole.  The shallow depression would hold standing water during the winter and spring months before drying out as summer warmed and waned into autumn.  It was an integral habitat for the area's migratory/wetland birds, amphibian life, and unique flora that inhabited its margins.

A venerable chinkapin oak overlooks a rare glacial relic prairie pothole full of very rare plants

The landscape above might not look like much to most people but that patch of vibrant green vegetation in a sea of soybeans is a prime example of one of Ohio's most critically imperiled of habitats in the aforementioned prairie pothole.  Due to its rarity and eminence, the Appalachia Ohio Alliance (AOA) along with the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves has teamed up to purchase this priceless piece of Ohio natural history and set it aside for permanent preservation and management.

Standing within the shallow depression full of mudflat flora

The farm was originally settled back in the 1830's by the Hitler family with its accompanying wet depression photographed above known locally as Hitler Pond.  For well over a century, the pond has been plowed and planted to crops with nothing but the seed bank as any evidence for what lay beneath.  During exceptionally wet years when the standing water made farming impossible, the specialized mudflat flora of the site would spring back to life and get a fleeting moment of fresh air before returning to its subterranean holding pattern.  It's incredible to think of the resiliency exhibited by these plants to lie dormant for decades at a time in the annually disturbed soils of a farm field, only to come back to life like they didn't miss a beat.

Upright Burhead (Echinodorus berteroi)
Upright Burhead (Echinodorus berteroi)

My early August visit coincided with many of the prairie pothole's characteristic flora either in flower or fruit, including the last vestiges of the state-threatened upright burhead (Echinodorus berteroi) in bloom.  This species' annual habit and preference for muddy shorelines and shallow water makes it a perfect fit for such a fluctuating habitat.  Its leaves and flowers look strikingly like those of the aquatic arrowheads (Sagittaria spp.) but the spiky brown fruit clusters easily set it apart.

Lowland Tooth-cup (Rotala ramosior)

Another innate species of the mudflat flora at Hitler Pond was an unusual member of the loosestrife family (Lythraceae) in the lowland tooth-cup (Rotala ramosior).  Its small white flowers occur singly in the leaf axils and are accented nicely by the plant's fleshy squared stems that can turn an attractive scarlet red in full sun conditions.

Scarlet Tooth-cup (Ammannia coccinea)
Scarlet Tooth-cup (Ammannia coccinea)

One of the most dominate plants of the wet depression was the lowland tooth-cup's close relative, the scarlet tooth-cup (Ammannia coccinea).  Scarlet tooth-cup's flowers may be modest but what they lack in size they more than make up for in color.  Their deciduous pinkish-red petals are quick to drop in the heat of the afternoon and pepper the ground below like blushed snow.

Clammy Hedge-hyssop (Gratiola neglecta)
False Pimpernel (Lindernia dubia)

Other species such as clammy hedge-hyssop (Gratiola neglecta) and false pimpernel (Lindernia dubia) were common associates of the drying pond and much like all the previously mentioned plants use their annual habit to efficiently replenish their seed bank stores.  If you're driving past this site and happen to glance out into it, you're unlikely to give it a passing thought with so many inconspicuous wildflower denizens.  It definitely takes walking out into it to get a grasp on what's really there.

Rocky Mountain Bulrush (Schoenoplectiella saximontana)

Of all the plants to call Hitler Pond home none are as important or famous as the presence of Rocky Mountain bulrush (Schoenoplectiella saximontana).  Only true grami-nerds (thanks for the word, Jackie!) and/or appreciators of the rare and unusual like your narrator would find something as mundane as this sedge to be a real eye-opener.  The Rocky Mountain bulrush put this very spot on the map decades ago when famous 20th century Ohio botanist Floyd Bartley first discovered it back in 1936.  It was the first location this plant was ever found in our state and going on a century later it remains the sole site.  After Bartley's initial discovery, the bulrush was collected off and on from Hitler Pond until 1979 when it disappeared altogether.  Despite attempts to relocate it, it evaded botanists for decades before being rediscovered in 2008 by accomplished 21st century Ohio botanist Dan Boone during a wet spring/summer in 2008.

North America distribution of Schoenoplectiella saximontana (courtesy BONAP)

What makes the Rocky Mountain bulrush's presence at Hitler Pond even more substantial than being Ohio's only known site is the additional fact it's the only site known for the species east of the Mississippi River!  Inspecting the range map presented above you can get a spatial grasp for just how disjunct and removed it is from its more western plains distribution.  The current accepted hypothesis is it was brought to the buckeye state long ago on the muddied legs of a migrating waterfowl that must have found this ephemeral wetland a good place to splash down in long before European settlement.  The thousands upon thousands of bulrushes that come up in force points to the species having been at the site for a long time and become quite established.  Some have argued it may have come in as a waif in grain or hay but the combination of its distribution-wide rarity, location in such a specific/typical habitat type and the unlikelihood any local farmers would utilize such distant grain sources makes myself, experts on the species/genus and the Ohio powers that be fully recognize and count it as an indigenous species to our state.

State-endangered Engelmann's spike rush (Eleocharis engelmannii)

Another plant that scratches this sedge-head right where he itches is the state-endangered Engelmann's spike rush (Eleocharis engelmannii).  This great state rarity is known from very few other places and much like the bulrush occurs in phenomenal numbers throughout the pothole.  It looks nearly identical to the dirt common blunt spike rush (E. obtusa) but differs in having achenes lacking (or with severely reduced) perianth bristles and a depressed/flattened tubercle; the elongated nature of the spikelets is a helpful characteristic as well.

Marsh Yellow Cress (Rorippa palustris)
False Daisy (Eclipta prostrata)

From the exceedingly rare to the commonplace, Hitler Pond has quite a bit to share with those who take the time to explore it.  Even native wildflowers that some might call weedy are welcome here like marsh yellow cress (Rorippa palustris) and false daisy (Eclipta prostrata).

Obe-Wan-Conobea (Leucospora multifida)

If you're a fellow Star Wars nerd like me, then you'll probably be as much a fan of this inconspicuous wildflower as I am.  Obe-Wan-Conobea (Leucospora multifida) is the clever common name given to this plant that made a lot more sense when it was still placed in the genus Conobea.  Regardless of the switch, I will always refer to this member of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae) as the Jedi master it's named after.

American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

The preserve is also home to a plethora of toads like this American toad.  Fowler's toads are recorded from the site as well and this could very well be one but from what I can tell, the one-two warts per dark spot on its back says American to me.  Feel free for anyone more familiar and comfortable with toad ID to chime in!

Ancient Adena culture burial mound on the preserve

The Hitler farm wasn't only known for the botanical treasures on its land but for its priceless natural history as well in the presence of an Adena culture burial mound circa two thousand years ago.  The Circleville region is known for its ancient earthworks and seems to have been a hot bed of Adena culture activity.  It's definitely been a win-win situation for our state in preserving both a critical habitat and a precious gem tying us to our past.

Standing in the middle of the glacial relic prairie pothole known as Hitler Pond

The 95 acres of farmland purchased by the AOA and Division of Natural Areas and Preserves will come to be known as the Bartley Preserve in honor of Floyd Bartley, who brought the true full worth and importance of this site to light and will be open in the coming year or so for visitation and exploration.  The surrounding buffer zone around Hitler Pond and another smaller nearby wet depression will be returned to its pre-settlement prairie state in the coming years and with some luck and a lot of care and management will begin to look a lot like it did before the white man's plow and crops supplanted them.  All in all, the Bartley Preserve is already a real gem for the Pickaway Plains and a true natural treasure for our wonderful and diverse state.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Botanizing the Florida Panhandle: Blackwater River State Forest

*Part I* *Part II* *Part III* *Part IV*

It's hard to believe it has been nearly a month since I returned from the Florida panhandle.  It might be even harder to believe I've been able to get all four posts on the trip published in a week's time!  Your narrator will be the first to admit it can take longer than preferred to get things online.  This fourth and final topic will deal with my short visit to nearby Blackwater River State Forest in the western panhandle. 

Longleaf pine forest after a recent forest fire (more than likely prescribed and purposely set)

The day started out a bit later than planned and was then spent dodging thunderstorms and the smoldering aftermath of numerous forest fires within the state forest.  Blackwater River is known for its contiguous stands of longleaf pine and accompanying wetlands that represent what much of the region looked like pre-settlement. These ecosystems evolved to have an intimate relationship with naturally-occurring and/or man-made wildfires and relied on them to remain healthy and intact.  So it was no surprise to see so much fire management at work and turned out to be a unique opportunity to see the forests in their immediate post-fire charred condition.  Fire doesn't benefit just the flora but the fauna as well in fire-dependent species such as the gopher tortoise, Bachman's sparrow and northern bobwhite.

Pineland Milkweed (Asclepias obovata)

While traversing the sandy roads of Blackwater, I noticed some type of oddly-colored milkweed beginning to bloom among the pines and open sand.  It turned out to be the aptly-named pineland milkweed (Asclepias obovata), a species restricted to the sandy pine forests of the western panhandle.

American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

Another easily noticed plant along the roadsides was the flowering shrub American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) with its pink tufts of axillary flowers.  Similar to the Venus fly traps or pitcher plants from the first couple posts, the beautyberry is a plant more distinguished and well-known for its non-flowering state; specifically its stunning bright purple-pink fruit clusters.

Gopherweed (Baptisia lanceolata)

Learning the distinguishing characteristics of a particular plant family/genera is a helpful accessory to have in your botanical tool belt no matter where your travels take you.  Despite never seeing it before, the three-parted leaves and unique seed pods of the pineland false indigo or gopherweed (Baptisia lanceolata) stood out as something from the Baptisia genus and allowed for a quick sort through Florida's respective species.

Tall Ironweed (Vernonia angustifolia)
Tall Ironweed (Vernonia angustifolia)

The soaring purple-topped stalks of tall ironweed (Vernonia angustifolia) were just beginning to break bud during my foray and was another plant genera easily recognized by its similarity to its Ohio brethren.  The ironweeds are some of my favorite late summer wildflowers and this particular taxon was one I'd only ever seen as mounted specimens in a handful of different herbaria.  The flowers look nearly identical to our tall or common ironweed (V. gigantea) but the southern tall ironweed's narrow, needle-like leaves definitively set it apart.

Spurred Butterfly Pea (Centrosema virginianum)

Much like my experiences in Apalachicola National Forest, the spurred butterfly pea (Centrosema virginianum) was a common associate to the pineland's understory and speckled the landscape in soft purple splotches when found in exceptionally nice tangles.

Water tupelo swamp and emergent vegetation

Throughout Blackwater River state forest were pockets of shallow wetlands dominated by water tupelo swamps and the occasional bog.  Much of the emergent vegetation I didn't recognize but numerous beak-sedges (Rhynchospora spp.), nut-sedges (Cyperus spp.), umbrella-sedges (Fuirena spp.), rushes (Juncus spp.), yellow-eyed grass (Xyris spp.), fragrant water lilies (Nymphaea odorata) and watershield (Brasenia schreberi) were intermixed at the swamp's margins.

Ten-angled Pipewort (Eriocaulon decangulare

In select spots of one particular tupelo swamp was the unmistakable flowering stems and blooms of the ten-angled pipewort (Eriocaulon decangulare), also known as bog buttons.  They seem almost alien to me and unlike anything else in the plant world, whether in Ohio or Florida.

Ten-angled Pipewort (Eriocaulon decangulare
Whitehead Bogbuttons (Lachnocaulon anceps)

I'd seen the much smaller common pipewort (E. aquaticum) in upstate New York a couple years before and had no idea other members of the genus got so big.  Growing intermixed with the true pipeworts was the very similar and tiny whitehead bogbuttons (Lachnocaulon anceps); which only managed to cause for more confusion while in the field.  Ohio can only claim one species of Eriocaulon (the aforementioned E. aquaticum) while Florida has a handful of species from both Eriocaulon and Lachnocaulon.

Carolina Redroot (Lachnanthes carolina)

As mentioned many times before in this series, it's fascinating to explore an environment and region so utterly different and separated from your own that plants growing like weeds are something you've never encountered before.  A fuzzy and very eccentric looking wildflower that would come to be known as Carolina redroot (Lachnanthes carolina) was one of those plants and turned some stretches of roadside white with their flowers.  It hails from the predominately southern hemisphere bloodwort family (Haemodoraceae) and was hands down one of the strangest plants I encountered.

Banana Spider or Golden Silk Orb-Weaver (Nephila clavipes)

Speaking of the strange, while exploring the margins of the tupelo swamp from earlier in the post, I about walked face first into the single largest spider I've ever laid eyes on.  Literally.  The banana spider or golden silk orb-weaver (Nephila clavipes) is a frequent species of the Southeast and on into the Caribbean and tropics.  This particular specimen was a female, which is much larger than its male counterpart.  Their "bark" is a lot worse than their bite which is said to hurt less than a bee sting.  I don't think I'll be putting that to the test anytime soon.

Banana Spider or Golden Silk Orb-Weaver (Nephila clavipes)

The spider's markings of brown/yellow/orange/black were quite engrossing and I couldn't help but move in as close as I dared to get a good photo.  I've had my fair share of spiderwebs and their residents end up on my face or clothing and deal with them just fine but this mighty specimen would definitely send me for a loop and screaming in a much higher voice than normal!  This female was every bit of four to four and a half inches long from top to bottom in the photo(s) above.

Thus ends what I have to share on my time on the endlessly charming Florida panhandle.  I barely scratched the surface of the few places I managed to visit but that shallow scrape did enough to thoroughly entice me to return for more.  There are so many other places on my list such as Wakulla Springs, Tate's Hell state forest, Tarkiln Bayou etc. to name but a few.  I hope you enjoyed this look in and found exploring its contents as unfamiliar and captivating as I did writing it!

*Part I* *Part II* *Part III* *Part IV*

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Botanizing the Florida Panhandle: Apalachicola National Forest Part 2

*Part I* *Part II* *Part III* *Part IV*

Let's move on into part two of my time spent exploring the longleaf pine savannas and sandhills of Apalachicola National Forest.  Hopefully you enjoyed part one, which you can read right here and will find this second half just as engaging!

Longleaf Pine stand set against a beautiful blue Florida sky

Not to reiterate what was already said in the previous post but there was something truly magical about the longleaf pines of the coastal plain.  Their cinnamon brown trunks come out of the lush green ground straight as an arrow and are topped with crowns of green tufts of the longest needles of any North American pine.  They were easily one of the most, if not the most handsome pine I've ever seen.

Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) out on the savanna

If longleaf pine was the quintessential species of the canopy, then its counterpart on the savanna floor was the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens).  Its tropical look was right at home on the panhandle and provided an aesthetic touch to the landscape unlike anything your blogger had seen before.  The white wildflowers scattered around the palmettos belong to the thistle-leaved aster (Eurybia eryngiifolia), a species featured back in the first installment.

Impressive clump of yellow pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava)

Patches of yellow pitcher plants (Sarracenia flava) seemed to greet the eye at every turn and their highlighter-yellow glow never wore on this botanist.  During the growing season yellow pitcher plants put out their characteristic carnivorous pitcher leaves but come fall begin to produce non-carnivorous phyllodia, which are essentially flat, "regular" leaves.  Lower light levels and a scarcity of active insects makes the effort and energy of creating more pitchers seem futile during the winter months it would seem.

Sand Bog Death Camas (Zigadenus glaberrimus)
Sand Bog Death Camas (Zigadenus glaberrimus)

If any plant really put my car's breaks to the test, it was the tall wands of the sand bog death camas (Zigadenus glaberrimus) beginning to bloom along the roadside.  Despite having never seen the plant before, its large succulent flowers had the same look and feel of Ohio's white wand lily (Anticlea elegans) only on steroids, so it wasn't too hard to put a name to their face.  The genus Zigadenus formerly had well over a dozen species in it but recent taxonomic work has placed all but the sand bog death camas in different genera.

Slender Bog Club Moss (Pseudolycopodiella caroliniana

From the stately and showy to the tiny and hidden, there wasn't a nook or cranny of the savanna that didn't have something to share.  Even the lilliputian world of open sand under the grasses and sedges was colonized by fascinating plants such as the delicate evergreen stems of slender bog clubmoss (Pseudolycopodiella caroliniana) and nearly microscopic basal leaves of the dwarf sundew (Drosera brevifolia).

Dwarf Sundew (Drosera brevifolia) and the largest dime you've ever seen

Plants can be given some pretty bizarre and/or unfitting common names but I think dwarf sundew (D. brevifolia) hits the nail on the head.  On second thought, dwarf seems a bit too conservative for these puny sundews.  There's no trickery in the photograph above, those are fully grown mature specimens and not the world's largest dime. Admittedly this photo was taken last year in southern Kentucky and not Florida but the species remains the same.

Longleaf Pine saplings in the understory 

It must truly be a love affair if we're back to the longleaf pines.  Trees were my first botanical love and I can remember reading about the famed pine lands of the coastal plains when I was first learning my species/eco-regions and how magical they sounded.  The longleaf saplings seemed like small fireworks exploding in a frozen frame of emerald needles; which one can get a much better grasp and understanding of while at eye level.

Slim-leaved Pawpaw (Asimina angustifolia)
Slim-leaved Pawpaw (Asimina angustifolia)

When someone says they've found a pawpaw here in Ohio, there's not much guesswork to be done on what specific species it is.  For us buckeyes and most of the eastern U.S., the only species we have is the common pawpaw (Asimina triloba).  But traveling down into Florida sees one potential species turn into nine different possibilities; including two state endemics.  I happened to catch this slim-leaved pawpaw (A. angustifolia) still in bloom while ambling under the pines and was immediately smitten with its long-petaled flowers.

Narrow-leaved Phoebanthus (Phoebanthus tenuifolius

Without the repeated and cataclysmic interruptions of the North's glacial events, the South has fortuned in having its flora around and evolving for a very long period of time which has spawned some pretty interesting specialties and endemics.  One of those species flew right under my radar while in the field in this DYC (damn yellow composite) I would come to identify as the pineland false sunflower (Phoebanthus tenuifolius).  It was dirt common in many of the areas of Apalachicola I explored and figured it wasn't anything special until I learned it occurred in only five counties in the central panhandle and that was it worldwide.  Glad I thought to at least snap an iPhone photo to help with the future ID!

Rhynchospora corniculata
Fuirena breviseta

Everything is bigger down south, including their beak-sedges (Rhynchospora spp.).  I was quite taken aback by the size of the diffuse inflorescence of the short-bristled horned beak-sedge (R. corniculata) swaying in the warm savanna breeze.  That's one I wouldn't mind calling Ohio home.  Another exciting Cyperaceae find was the presence of another umbrella-sedge in Fuirena breviseta.  That one, or any Fuirena honestly, I really wish would call Ohio home!

Savanna Meadow-beauty (Rhexia alifanus)

One of the first wildflowers I noticed blooming along the roads was the towering pink blossoms of the savanna meadow-beauty (Rhexia alifanus).  I feel like a broken record talking about how much more diverse a particular genus is down south when compared to Ohio and the meadow-beauties were no exception.

White Maryland Meadow-beauty
Rhexia mariana var. exalbida

Another stunning meadow-beauty blooming on the savanna was the white Maryland meadow-beauty (Rhexia mariana var. exalbida).  They apparently have no shame in flaunting their private parts for all the world to see in their generously-sized golden stamens.  It certainly catches the eye and is a hard aspect to ignore!

American Bluehearts (Buchnera americana)

Familiar faces were hard to come by so far south but a few did occur throughout Apalachicola, including the unmistakable purple-blue blooms of the American bluehearts (Buchnera americana).  A state-threatened rarity in Ohio that only occurs in a handful of extreme southern counties, bluehearts can be found just about anywhere in Florida.

Cross-leaved Milkwort (Polygala cruciata)
Coastal False Asphodel (Triantha racemosa)

Another Ohio rarity that was unequivocally more common in Apalachicola was the bubblegum pink cross-leaved milkwort (Polygala cruciata).  The actual flowers to this species are tiny and inconspicuously placed between the pink bract-like wings that get all the attention.  Only a few flowers bloom at a time at the apex of the stem and leave behind their bracts, making the flower look like it's a lot more "busy" than it really is.  Coastal false asphodel (Triantha racemosa) was like a weed throughout the savanna with many specimens in perfect shape as well.  If you'll remember, this is the same species that occurred in the bog with the Venus fly trap and white pitcher plants.

Wonderful longleaf pine stand

It pained me to see the sun start to wane in the afternoon sky and know my time in Apalachicola National Forest had come to a close.  I could have easily spent all week in its depths continuing to explore and see what I could find.  The three hour drive back to where we stayed went by fast as visions of longleaf pine, lilies, and pitcher plants danced in my head.  I'm incredibly fortunate to be as well-traveled as I am and have experienced so many unforgettable places, so it's hard to sufficiently rank them but it should be said that Apalachicola instantly inserted itself near the top.  I sincerely hope to revisit this place at least a few more times in my life, even if to only gaze upon those longleaf pines again.

That wraps up my posts on Apalachicola!  I have one more topic to share on my time in Blackwater River State Forest to complete this Florida panhandle saga and hope you'll tune back in soon to check it out!

*Part I* *Part II* *Part III* *Part IV*