Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Quiet Walk Through the Woods

September 11th draws a lot of thoughts and emotions out of just about everyone.  The events of that day eleven years ago have changed and molded all of us in one way or another, even as the catastrophe itself slowly falls farther into the past.  For your blogger, September 11th has always had a distinction all its own since he was born.  I can still remember sitting in my 8th grade history class and watching that day go from just being my birthday to a day the world would never forget.

Eleven years later I find myself fully acclimated to sharing the date with the country's worst act of terrorism and celebrate/mourn the day separately but together.  Since moving down to the Athens area in southeastern Ohio four years ago, I have done my best to spend a couple hours each birth day outside in the realm of the natural world, alone and enveloped in its beauty and calming charm.  A couple hours of myself and what means most to me to be spent reflecting on the past year and the blessings and positive experiences I've had.  A couple hours to be at peace and without a care or worry in the world.  A couple hours devoted to the intricate mosaic of life I'm forever intertwined with.  To go out into the woods on a cool, sunny early fall afternoon and smell the dirt and leaves, glance the brilliant sapphire blue sky through the patchwork canopy is something that gives my heart and soul true peace and healing.  Anyone who has a similar attachment and relationship with the natural world understands where I'm coming from; it's just a feeling and state of mind achieved only by those who take the time and patience to seek it out.  The best part is it's always there waiting for you to return.

My favorite secluded haunt in Zaleski state forest

I decided to spend this year's annual solo hike in one of my favorite areas in the county.  I've spoke of it before when I told the story of the green adder's mouth orchid a couple months ago.  I haven't been to this particular spot in some time and decided to see what old friends I could find in bloom throughout the diverse landscape.

White Wood Aster  ~  Eurybia divaricata

Blooming throughout the lower slopes of the ravine and stream terrace were the white petaled flowers of the white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata).  The fall-blooming asters can be a challenge and pain to identify to species but this common taxa can be readily ID'ed by the zig-zag pattern of the stem and white color of the ray flowers.  Once the inner disc flowers are pollinated they turn from golden yellow to purplish brown as seen above.

Wild Stonecrop  ~  Sedum ternatum

Moving further into the ravine, the stream bed and banks become carpeted with the thick, fleshy leaves of one of Ohio's only native succulents, wild stonecrop (Sedum ternatum).  The flowers bloom in mid to late spring and are long gone come autumn but that doesn't take away from the aesthetic beauty and presence of the plant.  It's quite common in wet, shaded, rocky areas throughout the unglaciated portion of the state and is one of my favorite plants spring through fall.

Beech Drops  ~  Epifagus virginiana

Come late August the east-facing slope's forest floor comes alive with the hardly noticeable but very common beech drops (Epifagus virginiana), a parasitic plant from the broomrape family (Orobanchaceae).  If you haven't guessed already, this plants only host plant is the American beech (Fagus grandifolia) and utilizes the beech's root system for nutrients and sustenance.  The chasmogamous (open) flowers at the top of the stem are largely sterile while the lower pistillate flowers are cleistogamous (closed) and self-pollinating.

Crooked-Stem Aster  ~  Symphyotrichum prenanthoides

Another common aster species of the ravine and lower moist slopes is the accurately named cooked-stem aster (Symphyotrichum prenanthoides).  The pale lavender ray flowers; zig-zagged stem; and long, winged petioled leaves that clasp at the base help to distinguish it.  It's a common species found in just about any wet situation.

Sun fading behind the old, mature trees on the east-facing slope

The afternoon sun began to dip behind the east-facing slope's ridges and cast long shadows across the narrowing ravine.  The old-growth trees thick trunks rise precipitously into the canopy with hardly a limb for 50+ feet.  Sugar maple, tuliptree, basswood, white oak, red oak, wild black cherry, yellow buckeye, and beech make up the canopy species composition, an impressive amount of diversity.

Coral fungus of some kind, Artomyces genus?

While most people seem to associate spring with mushrooms, it's actually the fall when the highest diversity can be seen in the woodlands and forests.  One of the more common species I encounter is this guy pictured above.  Now, I'm no mycologist but I believe this to be a species of coral fungus from the Artomyces  genus.  It always seems to be growing in heavy leaf litter/humus in mixed deciduous forests of varying moisture gradients.

Tall White Rattlesnake-root  ~  Prenanthes altissima

Growing in open areas and along the woodland margins was some of Ohio's most common species of rattlesnake-root, the tall white rattlesnake-root (Prenanthes altisimma).  Of the seven species of Prenanthes  native to Ohio, this species has the smallest flowers and despite the name 'tall' is not among the tallest of taxon.  Look for an in-depth treatment and ID post on the Prenanthes genus soon!

White Turtlehead  ~  Chelone glabra

Even though I've explored and hiked this spot countless times before all throughout the year, I always seem to come across something new each visit.  This time around I was pleased to discover some white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) plants blooming along the stream banks.  I don't think it's hard to picture the resemblance of a turtle's head in the unique inflorescences.  It's presence was a very welcome sight as this species is commonly associated with high-quality wetlands and riparian zones.

Thin-Leaved Sunflower  ~  Helianthus decapetalus

Close to the white turtlehead plants were some fresh specimens of the thin-leaved sunflower (Helianthus decapetalus) still in flower.  Many have frustrating experiences trying to nail down the identity of Ohio's numerous sunflowers but with time, practice, and hands on experience in the field the lines become more clear.  Another common name for this species is the ten-petaled sunflower however in all my wanderings I've never seen a ten-petaled specimen, so I prefer the thin-leaved moniker.  As with the Prenanthes, look for a future post dedicated to some helpful ID characteristics on all of Ohio's native Helianthus species.

Blue Mistflower  ~  Conoclinium coelestinum

A hard-to-miss and frequently seen fall wildflower of southern Ohio's wet fields, roadsides, and thickets is the striking blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum).  Formally a Eupatorium, further scientific study has placed this species in a new genus Conoclinium with a couple other North American taxon.  The frilly countless 'strings' are not petals but actually stamens.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seed pods with milkweed bug larvae

As I neared the road and the end of my slow and enjoyable saunter through the woods, I came across a small field full of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seed pods already matured and releasing their seeds to the air.  Upon closer inspection of one plant revealed several large milkweed bug larvae (Oncopeltus fasciatus) presumably making a meal of the pods contents.  It made me think back to my 'larval' days as a young kid carelessly playing with friends and no thought on the future and what it may hold. Those days feel like a lifetime and a half ago and merely a memory in my head.  I've enjoyed my growth into adulthood and the challenges and experiences the road has supplied.  I jumped back into the car and returned to civilization with awaiting friends for an evening of celebration.  I thanked Mother Nature for a day well spent and already looked forward to next year's annual birthday excursion.


  1. Very Nice! And in particular, I look forward to your helpful promised comments about Helianthus!

    Ron Gamble

  2. What a lovely post. Yes, a walk in the woods in Ohio is an excellent way to get away and reflect. Thank you for taking us along.