Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Spring in Shawnee State Forest

There are few better places to enjoy spring in full swing than the majestic rolling hills and deep shaded hollows of Shawnee State Forest in Scioto county.  It has been dubbed by many as the "Little Smokies of Ohio" for its similarity in appearance and biodiversity to the famed national park further to the southeast.  At over 60,000 acres it is Ohio's largest state forest and provides the public with hiking, bridle trails, camping, boating, birding, fishing and hunting opportunities.  For someone like myself it's the long and diverse list of flora that beckons me within its confines.  Shawnee is home to many of the state's great plant rarities among the countless other uncommon and interesting species scattered throughout.  A slow and careful drive down the forested gravel roads come April and May will reward the ardent observer with stunning displays of wildflowers and ferns that are nigh on impossible to beat elsewhere in the state.

Birdsfoot Violet (Viola pedata)

Making your way along select areas of forest road passing through dry and sun-drenched ridge tops may result in the lucky glimpse of a most royal shade of purple.  The Birdsfoot Violet (Viola pedata) is a threatened species in Ohio with a good amount of its remaining populations occurring in Shawnee.  An added bonus is many of these violets exhibit a gorgeous bi-color appearance as seen above.  Everywhere else I've ever seen this species it has always been a uniform light purple color.

Rose Azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum)

If you recall a post I did a few months back on the rosebay rhododendron, I mentioned there were other additional native species to be found, this being one of them.  Rose Azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum) is another state-listed species that calls Shawnee home in small pockets of acidic mixed oak woodland.  The flowers can range from nearly white to dark pink and are extremely fragrant.  It's rare to be the only living creature attracted to its beauty and aroma.  These plants are often abuzz with bees and flies all vying for a taste.

Rose Azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum)

You have a relatively short window of opportunity each year to search out and discover small patches and colonies of these native shrubs.  Without the aid of their instantly noticeable and showy flowers you'd be hard pressed to find this any other time of the year.  Looking for other members of the heath family (Ericaceae) such as mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), low bush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) and black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata) all growing together is a great place to start as I commonly see all those species in association with rose azalea.

Fire Pink (Silene virginica)

Sticking with the 'too hard to ignore' category of plants, Fire Pink (Silene virginica) is a frequent wildflower along Shawnee's roadsides come late April and May that is hard to ignore.  Not many other members of our native flora show off such a brilliant scarlet bloom which in turn do wonders in attracting the ruby-throated hummingbird, its primary pollinator.

Vernal Iris (Iris verna)

Another dweller of the xeric dirt banks and ridge tops in Shawnee is one of my most anticipated and beloved of spring's displays.  Vernal Iris (Iris verna) stands apart from its more water-appreciating kin and proudly boasts its dazzling flowers along sunny, open spans of rocky and well-drained soil in acidic oak woodlands.

Vernal Iris (Iris verna)

It's hard to believe something so delicate looking can survive and even flourish under such harsh habitat and environmental conditions.  It's toughness and determination to persevere and persist is evenly matched by its impressively good looks.

Large Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens)

One of the surprises Shawnee may share with you is the fortuitous encounter with large yellow lady's slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens).  You never know when you may just happen across a patch blooming alongside the road.  Just the other day I pulled the Subaru over to get out and admire a rather large grouping of two-flowered cynthia (Krigia biflora) when I noticed a scattering of them mixed in amongst the trees.

Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus)

The sprawling, contiguous forests of Shawnee are home to many rare and intriguing plant species but few are more unique and attention-grabbing than the Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus).  Much like the aforementioned rose azalea, these large shrubs or small trees are difficult to seek out when not brandishing its quite conspicuous flowers.  A member of the olive family (Oleaceae), this unusual woody plant is in the same family as our ash trees (Fraxinus spp.).

Fringe Tree (Chionanthus virginicus)

The four-petaled flowers hang in large clusters off the new growth twigs and when in sunny situations can really put on an incredible display.  The flowers are very fragrant and can quickly call you to their attention when passing underneath a large specimen.  Rare in Ohio, it is restricted to the southernmost counties where it is at the northern fringe of its range (pun intended).  It becomes much more common in the southeast where it is often dug and planted for its ornamental value.

Spotted Mandarin (Prosartes maculata)

Another rarity seemingly sentenced to seclusion in the depths of Shawnee and the more or less next door Edge of Appalachia preserve is one of the most jaw-dropping spring wildflowers you're likely to find.  Spotted Mandarin (Prosartes maculata) is listed as threatened in Ohio with extant populations only left in Adams and Scioto counties where it occupies mesic slopes and ravines of mature mixed mesophyitic woods.  This plant is notorious for being hard to catch in perfect bloom with the petals and sepals only lasting a couple days before falling off at the slightest touch or breeze.  There's just no other wildflower like it with its creamy white petal's interior meticulously speckled with purple spots.

Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata)

Perhaps one of the more common wildflowers lining the roads, streams and lower slopes of Shawnee is the charming Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata).  Some people may be quick to label these as the previously shown vernal iris but it's important to take a look at the 'crest' on the upper surface of the sepals.  On the dwarf crest irises pictured above, you can see the crest is predominately colored white with some yellow mixing in closer towards the interior; while the vernal iris has almost an entirely yellow colored crest.

Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata)

I'd always seen pictures and heard the dwarf crested iris can sometimes be found in an all-white albino form but had never had the personal satisfaction of finding one myself...until the other day.  The uniformly snow white petals and sepals are only blemished by the small yellow crests.

While there are literally hundreds of other wildflowers I could share to demonstrate the beauty and splendor of Shawnee state forest's spring display I will end it here and hope you enjoyed the ride through one of Ohio's greatest natural treasures.  I highly encourage you to take an afternoon or weekend day to explore the vastness and diversity of Shawnee.  All of these plants are visible and findable alongside the roads along with so much more.  It just takes patience, your attention and sometimes a little luck!