Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ode to Ohio's Prairies: Bluegrass Region (Part I)

Those with a thirst for Ohio's natural history are in for quite the treat!  I've had this project on the blogger shelf for quite some time and am pleased to see it finally come to fruition.  This post is the first of four dedicated to the creation, history and biological composition of Ohio's natural prairies; probably my favorite ecosystem to explore.  To begin let's take a look at how our landscape came to support this fascinating habitat and then examine the first of four regions or types of Ohio's prairies; the Bluegrass Region of Adams county.  This will be followed by the tall-grass prairies of the Darby and Sandusky Plains then Ohio's prairie fen complexes and conclude with the Oak Openings.  I hope these will spark your interest in our state's unique and exciting prairie and fen remnants as well as our natural history!

Close your eyes and picture Ohio's wild and primeval landscape circa 1400.  Most people envision a massive and continuous forest of gargantuan trees where a squirrel could hop from tree to tree across the canopy and never touch the ground for miles and miles.  That's not an inaccurate interpretation of Ohio before settlement but rather bland and homogenous is you ask me.  There was a lot more to the scene than just big trees in a sprawling forest!   Ohio's landscape has changed more times in its eons of existence than you can imagine.  From a lifeless and charred rock to a shallow warm sea to agricultural fields and metros; there's more than enough history under our feet to keep someone like me busy studying for a lifetime.  The way the landscape and current topography looks today is only the most recent chapter of its life...but what an exciting chapter it is!

Ice cover from the Wisconsinan Glaciation (courtesy ISU G.S.)

20,000 years ago a large majority of Ohio was covered by a massive, mile thick sheet of ice known as the Wisconsin glacier.  This enormous extension of the North American Laurentide ice sheet moved south as the climate cooled and drastically changed the shape and appearance of the land as it inched along.  I can't even begin to think what it must have been like for the prehistoric Homo sapien who saw this unfathomable sight firsthand.  The climate then began to gradually warm around 10,000 years ago and slowly but surely the ice sheet shrunk back further to the north, leaving behind a flat and largely barren Ohio for nature to reclaim.  Pre-Wisconsinan glaciated Ohio looked nothing like it does today.  Lake Erie and the Ohio River were merely shadows of their current selves; a river by the name of Teays ruled the scene with countless forgotten tributaries.  Evidence of these primordial rivers are now buried under hundreds of feet of glacial till as ancient valleys, forever lost to the past.  When you stand on a piece of exposed bedrock in flat Miami county today, you could be standing on top of an ancient hill overlooking a valley since filled by the previous glaciers debris.  Those buried extinct river valleys now act as our aquifers as the glacial till comprised of pebbles, rocks and sand is saturated with ground water and naturally filtered.  In due time these forces will come back and re-shape our state once more.  After the glacier receded the immense amounts of melt water began to carve out the new landscape, creating today's rivers, valleys and kettle ponds.  A new Ohio was born.  Deciduous forests began to creep northward again from their refuge in the Appalachian Mountains.  Millennia of isolation allowed numerous plant and animal species to evolve and thrive in this still lush and warm environment.  This is a large reason why the forests and ecosystems of the Appalachians, especially the Smoky Mountains, are so world-renowned for their biodiversity. 

Teays River pre-glacial watershed (courtesy Emporia State University)

As this transition occurred, North America experienced a very warm and dry spell between 4,000 and 8,000 years ago which caused the great tall-grass prairies of the west to invade the mid-western states and stretch into western Ohio.  This xerothermic periond known as the Hypsithermal Interval allowed parts of our state to resist forest communities and instead be ruled by open plains of grass.  As time went by the climate converted back towards that of one supporting and favoring deciduous forest.  The trees moved back in, slowly fragmenting and closing in on Ohio's expansion of the Prairie Peninsula from the west.  By 1700, around the time of the earliest pioneer settlers, Ohio was covered by over 1,000 square miles of prairie, encompassing around 3-5% of the state's vegetation.  What was once a huge, sprawling expanse of unbroken prairie had by this time been split and partitioned into several hundred openings ranging from a few acres in size to several thousand acres by the ever-advancing forest.  Had the Europeans been a few thousand years earlier they would have found a much, much more open and prairie-dominated landscape!

Bur and Post oak grove in a rare patch of virgin Ohio prairie

The first pioneers and surveyors wrote of waving seas of tall grasses and an accompanying mosaic of colorful wildflowers; all integrated with a patchwork of groves of oaks and hickories, especially Bur oaks.  Most of the earliest settlers saw these expanses of grass and forbs as a wet, mosquito-infested wasteland where no good soil was to be found.  Their logic was the lack of trees meant a lack of rich, nutrient earth.  I mean, if a tree wouldn't grow in the soils how ever could their crops?  Too bad this mindset didn't stay the course of time as it wasn't long before the invention of the steel plow allowed them to conquer the final frontier of Ohio's wilderness.  The deep, rich black soils of indigenous Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian-grass (Sorghastrum nutans) quickly gave way to today's prairies of corn and soybeans.  As I sit here writing this, over 99% of Ohio's historical and indigenous prairie is gone forever.  Lost to mankind's ruthless desire to tame and rule.  Next time you are driving on I-70 between Springfield and Columbus, look out across the never ending sight of agriculture and wonder what it must have been like to see grasses taller than you, dotted with brilliant wildflowers come June and July.

Map of Ohio's pre-settlement prairies (courtesy Wild Ohio: The Best of our Natural Heritage)

Referencing the map from above, the dark gray patches represent areas of Ohio's pre-settlment landscape that were dominated by prairie.  The biggest area just west of Columbus was known as the Darby Plains, and the section just to the north as the Sandusky Plains.  Further north into the Toldeo area is the famed Oak Openings versus deep in the southern confines of Adams County you get the oldest and most different of all our native prairies.  While they share many of the same species of flora with the rest of Ohio's indigenous prairie, they have their fair share of unique and rare species that are more reminiscent of the southern Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri Ozark cedar glades and barrens.  Let's take a look at what makes this tiny area so unique.  Cue the photogenic portion of this post (finally)!

Chaparral Prairie in Adams county in late October

Adams county lies in the small but significant bluegrass region of Ohio where a flux of southern plants and ecosystems cross the river from Kentucky and just barely make it into our state.  The name of the game resulting in this sliver of diversity is in the geology.  Ordovician and Silurian-age limestones, dolomites and calcareous shales dominate the region where the soil is thin and rocky but home to a diverse number of rare and interesting plant life.

Typical prairie opening
Prairie 'island' surrounded by mixed oak

The small, but numerous prairie-like openings appear like islands in an otherwise thick sea of mature, second-growth deciduous forest.  These openings are believed to pre-date the Wisconsinan glaciation and could be tens of thousands of years old.  What exactly has caused these 'islands' to exist and persist to this very day is a bit of a mystery but most agree on one important factor, the bedrock.  The extremely shallow and poor soils of the prairie glades, mixed with exposed Peebles dolomite bedrock has preserved the open nature of the prairies while in areas where the acidic shale dominates, Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana) and other large vegetation can take root and actively mark the forest-prairie boundaries.  The trees will only go as far as the soil condition allows them.

Post Oak leaves
Blackjack Oak leaves

Within these large and small prairie pockets are several globally rare ecosystems, most notably Post (Quercus stellata) and Blackjack Oak (Q. marilandica) savannah.  These hardy, drought and fire-resistant trees slowly grow in the xeric soils as if it wasn't a problem at all.  Surviving periods of drought and the frequent early spring or fall prairie fires of old, these two trees evolved to handle the harsh environment and brunt of nature's forces.  Chaparral Prairie nature preserve is one of the largest and best remaining places in Ohio to see this rare ecosystem in its original state.  What excites me the most about these cedar glades or barrens is the plethora of rare and unique plants to be found at almost any time of the year.  The following are a number of species that I think best illustrate and portray the floristic flavor of the time-tested bluegrass prairies of Adams county.

Michaux's Gladecress - Leavenworthia uniflora

First to bloom in the barren soils are the tiny and rare mustards from the Brassicaceae family.  These minute little wonders are annuals that rely solely on each year's seed production to make sure their dainty but charming little white flowers make it to the next season.  I did a blog post a ways back digging deeper into the number of rare mustards to be found in the cedar glades that can be found HERE.

Small White Lady's slipper - Cypripedium candidum

One of Ohio's rarest plants and easily one of the most charming as well is the Small White Lady's slipper (Cypripedium candidum).  Only recently discovered in the area, if you look in the right spots come early May you might just get a glimpse of these intricate beauties.  A few calcareous, wet hillside prairies on the Edge of Appalchia preserve system house small populations of these immensely fascinating orchid wonders.  If you'd like to learn more and see additional pictures please click HERE to read my personal experience with these little ladies!

Spider Milkweed - Asclepias viridis

My personal favorite of Ohio's 13 indigenous Milkweed species, the Spider Milkweed (Asclepias viridis) is rather rare in Ohio and can be most commonly seen blooming in late May through June in some of Adam county's more pristine prairie openings.  It's large and conspicuous umbels of gorgeous yellow-green flowers are perfectly accented with the purple colored stamens.

Scaly Blazing Star - Liatris squarrosa

One of the first true fireworks of the prairies and glades is the potentially threatened Scaly Blazing Star (Liatris squarrosa).  Each individual inflorescence seems to be a pink serpent 'tasting' the air with its tongue-like stamens.  The Blazing Stars are one of my most highly anticipated summer bloomers and decorate the area with their stunning pink-purple blossoms.  A year or so ago I did a more detailed post about a few of Ohio's native species found HERE.

Rattlesnake Master - Eryngium yuccifolium

This native member of the carrot family (Apiaceae) is arguably one of Ohio's most unique and unforgettable wildflowers.  The Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is a potentially threatened species in Ohio and exists in its highest numbers in the bluegrass region.  The dried heads were once used as rattles by the Native Americans while the roots were believed to be an effective antidote to rattlesnake venom.  Obviously this turned out to be untrue.

American Bluehearts - Buchnera americana

If any of the bluegrass rarities steal my heart it's the American Bluehearts (Buchnera americana).  A true indigenous species to this region of Ohio, these delicate little flowers are listed as threatened in the state.  Each plant begins to flower in June and continues unfurling its five-petaled perfections through July.  I caught these just after a summer shower with the corolla's filled with raindrops.

Spiked Blazing Star - Liatris spicata

Not necessarily a representative solely of the region, the Spiked Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) is just too stunning a wildflower to omit from this slideshow.  The tall wands spend the first half of summer maturing and biding their time in bud stage before revealing their feathered beauty to the world.  Something different about the Liatris' is the fact they bloom from the top down, rather than from bottom up like most wildflowers.  For the best show in the state head to Chaparral Prairie in mid to late July for an unforgettable sea of purple!

American Aloe - Manfreda virginica

Perhaps the strangest of all the plants to call the dolomite barrens home is the American Aloe (Manfreda virginica).  Each spring a rosette of fleshy, succulent leaves sprout from the ground and by mid-July a tall stalk of buds is ready to burst.  Like the American Bluehearts above, this is a true bluegrass endemic within Ohio.  It just barely sneaks across the river and has more than likely always been an Ohio rarity.  Each flower only lasts a day or so before its anthers drop and the ovary quickly sets to seed.  If you are lucky to see one of these in bloom be sure to treat your olfactories to its insatiable aroma.  Smells like jasmine to me!

Crested Coralroot - Hexalectris spicata

It just wouldn't be a normal post if I didn't include more orchids!  This is probably my favorite Ohio orchid, the Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris spicata).  A careful and lucky walk around the Ohio bluegrass region's open mixed Oak and cedar barrens come late July and early August just might reward you with one of these gorgeous plants.  The fleshy, large flowers almost seem as if someone molded them from clay and painted each lip with the most royal shade of purple to be found in the natural world.  This is a very fickle plant that only send its flowers up in optimal years, otherwise remaining underground in hibernation.  For a fun in detail post on this plant click HERE!

Western Sunflower - Helianthus occidentalis

My favorite of Ohio's many sunflowers is the Western Sunflower (Helianthus occidentalis).  Perhaps it should go by its other common name of the Few-leaf Sunflower, as there is really nothing too western about this species, predominately growing in the great lake states.  It's mostly basal leaves and relatively naked, short stem easily separate it from the tricky Helianthus spp..  Come August and September it's not too hard to find this species keeping the late summer prairies fresh with color.

Great Plains Ladies' Tresses - Spiranthes magnicamporum

If the Michaux's Gladecress is the first to bloom in the bluegrass prairie openings of Adams county it's only fitting and appropriate I end this photo shoot with the last species to bloom, the Great Plains Ladies' Tresses  (Spiranthes magnicamporum) orchid.  A rarity within Ohio, this species loves the calcareous and xeric soils of the cedar glades.  By mid-October almost everything, even the asters and goldenrods are beginning to call it a year but not these guys, they are just getting going!  It's not uncommon to see these in bloom even into November!  This is another plant that deserves your noses attention as the perfume these emit is intoxicating.  I posted on these wonders last fall which can be found HERE.

If you've made it this far and are still reading this I sincerely thank you and hope you enjoyed it!  I know it was a marathon of a post but it has already launched itself into my top ten I've ever done.  There is just something about the prairies of the Adams county region that calls me back time and time again.  In fact, I should probably get to bed as I'm headed down for a day trip in the morning!  Keep checking back in for the soon to follow part two, three and four to complete this series on Ohio's fantastic prairie ecosystems!  I'll leave you with a gorgeous shot of an Adams county sunset looking across a plowed field of planted crops.  Perhaps this was once one of the many prairie openings, full of incredible plants...such is life.

Adams county summer sunset across the rolling hills


  1. Hope you had a good trip. I saw my first blooming Spiranthes ovalis this morning.

  2. Thanks for the tour!
    I recognize a couple of friends - the Eryngium yuccafolium, the Manfreda virignica (although I've never smelled it - a treat for next year).
    I want to add Asclepias viridis - thought it's called green antelopehorn down here - to my list of finds next year.
    Looking forward to Part 2 and beyond?

  3. What a trip! It's just so much fun to wander the prairie with you, Andrew. Your delight is so infectious, your knowledge impressive, and your photos are pretty spectacular, too. I will probably never see most of the species you show us, but that doesn't diminish my delight. Thank you for going to all the effort to produce this post.

  4. Thanks for botany culture window of Ohio. I miss that flora ever since I moved to New York. And yo, this blog is the "fly-shit," without, like, wings. As a kid I'd go to various bogs and gorges and forests with my Pop, so your blog is also nicely nostalgic. Your writing style is also fun. Readers can definitely feel your heart boner for plant life in ever sentence. I've been reading through older posts at work all week. Don't tell my boss, bro-friend.

    <3 <3 <3 <3 Clifford

  5. Enjoyed viewing your site.
    I have a plant that I would like someone to identify.
    See photo?