Ah, what better way to spend a beautiful Spring afternoon than to frequent one of my favorite haunts of Southeastern Ohio. Conkle's Hollow Nature Preserve is located in the Hocking Hills region of Ohio and features one of the most impressive and deep gorges found in the state. The Black Hand sandstone cliffs rise precipitously out of the cool, moist gorge of Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) to nearly 200 feet above the valley floor. For a botanist Conkle's Hollow provides the opportunity to explore two very different and unique plant communities all in one location. From the profusion of Spring wildflowers and ferns growing underneath the cathedral of conifers below to the acidic, xeric clifftops and Oak-Hickory forests above; it's all well represented here.
|Conkle's Hollow cliff faces|
When I arrived I found the parking lot pretty much empty, normally this place is hopping this time of year, especially on a day as perfect as this day. I love to see other people outside and utilizing our states reserved parks and preserves but sometimes it's just nice to have the place essentially to yourself.
I decided to hike the upper rim trail that is well-known for its beautiful cliff overhangs and stunning vista views. It's easy to forget you are in Ohio as you stand at the edge of the bluffs and gaze out across the vast rolling hills of Ohio's deciduous forest. Anytime of the year offers a unique and equally stunning view and experience; from the famous Fall foliage shows to snow-swept Winter scenes to the gradual greening of Spring and Summer. I always take a few moments to sit down and just soak in the atmosphere, savor the moment of peace and tranquility where everything in life is balanced and perfect. Almost subconsciously I laid myself back against the chilled, ancient sandstone and let the warm sun stream through the old, gnarled Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana) on to my face. The warm breeze swirled around me, the Turkey Vultures were riding the thermal updrafts with their strong wings outstretched and steady. From their perches in the Hemlocks, Black-throated Green Warblers filled the air with their song. Northern Parula and Black-and-White Warblers added their serenades to the concert as my eyes began to grow heavier and heavier...
|Conkle's Hollow upper rim view|
What started out as a few minutes of meditation and mind-clearing turned into the most peaceful, relaxing and blissful nap I've yet experienced in my life. It was one of those gifts and moments from nature that you never expect or plan and will never forget. With a good stretch I was up, fully refreshed and ready to find the two plants I knew would be blooming around the gorge rim and it didn't take long to find the first one creeping along the ground. For those with good olfactories, you may notice the pleasing aroma of Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens) before you see it.
Sometimes known as Mayflower, this gorgeous prostrate evergreen has some of the most charming blooms you can find this time of year. These five petaled lovelies can vary from a creamy white to a soft and delicate pink color and all share the same intoxicating bouquet. Trailing Arbutus is a member of the Heath (Ericaceae) family and is sometimes overlooked for its showier Rhododendron and Kalmia relatives. Like other members of its family, Trailing Arbutus has an inclination for well-drained, dry acidic soils. It's no wonder then that this plant is found exclusively in the eastern half of the state where its preference for acidic loams is in no short supply.
The other plant I wanted to catch in full bloom was another five petaled, white Spring showstopper. Downy Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is a small to medium sized tree of the Rose (Rosaceae) family native to almost every part of Ohio. A quite inconspicuous tree for most of the year, you would be hard pressed to not notice their crowns full of white blooms in early-mid April. This tree has a few interesting common names its known by for varying reasons. Pioneers and early settlers gave the name Serviceberry for its blooms signaling Spring and the thawing of the ground so funeral services could be held for those who passed over the Winter months. It's sometimes called Juneberry for it's delicious red-purple ripening during the same time which would be make into jams, jellies and preserves. You may also hear it called Shadbush for its bloom time coinciding with the running of the Shad in the rivers and streams. Whatever you want to call it, its dashing flowers certainly help signal in the coming of warmer days.
After completing my task of observing and photographing the Trailing Arbutus and Serviceberry I decided to take a quick stroll down through the valley floor to see what was in bloom and budding. Just starting to pop was one of my favorite minute wildflowers, Mitrewort (Mitella diphylla). Each erect raceme has tiny, protruding flowers that are unmistakable in appearance. What other diminutive flower looks so much like a delicate and fairy-like snowflake? As I snapped some pictures of the years first Mitrewort I heard the cordial warble of a Spring newcomer in the trees above my head. leaping from twig to branch in the trees above was a male Louisiana Waterthrush vocalizing his desire for a mate. With a little bit of luck and a quick trigger finger I was pleased to capture the above image of him.
Carpeting the forest floor of the hollow were the familiar faces of Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica). A very common wildflower found just about anywhere and known by everyone, it still seems to impress me every year no matter how many times I see it. It's white, fleshy, pink-lined petals and distinct pink anthers all add up to to a very handsome and charming plant.
|Southern Two-lined Salamander|
Exploring the crystal clear and cool stream running through the hollow lead to the discovery of one of Ohio's more common amphibian residents; the Southern Two-lined Salamander. With patience and some turnovers of some logs and rocks along any forested stream or ravine you'll most likely come one of these guys. Take a look at the end of his tail. Apparently something tried to make a meal out of him but only got a tiny tail section appetizer. No worries, it will grow back in due time. A curious observer and careful watcher of my movements through the valley was an Eastern Chipmunk whose squeaks and chirps made sure I knew he was well aware of my presence. They can be annoying little rascals in an urban setting but when at home in the woods you can't help but adore their cute little faces.