Friday, October 5, 2012

Fringed Gentians at Betsch Fen

The other day I was going back through some older posts I had published in previous years when one particular topic caught my eye and reminded me I had a certain fen complex to pay a visit to before the growing season was done.  About this exact same time last fall I wrote about the stunning lesser fringed gentians (Gentianopsis virgata); an Ohio rarity that graces a small number of the state's fen complexes and sedge meadows.  Reading back through I noticed I make specific mention of wanting to return to this site the following autumn and experience their electric blue beauty all over again.  I owed myself that much to cap off another wildly entertaining and successful year of botanizing my revered home state.

Lesser Fringed Gentians  ~  Gentianopsis virgata

Wednesday's tend to be my least busy day and with the weather forecast calling for a gorgeous day I decided it was now or never to see gentians this time around.  I asked my good friend and fellow nature blogger, Michael Whittemore to accompany me because places like this deserve to be shared and experienced by others who love and appreciate the natural world as much as myself.  Ecosystems and habitats like Betsch fen are disappearing every day at the likes of mankind's destructive hands and nature's natural succession to forest.

I picked Mike up just as the sun was rising for the hour drive to the fen from the Athens area.  The warm, golden glow of the first rays illuminated the rolling hills of southeastern Ohio and splashed the changing trees with its warm light.  The fire oranges and deep scarlets of the chlorophyll drained leaves contrasted sharply against the sapphire blue skies and all combined into a gorgeous country drive that Mike and I could not have enjoyed more.  Upon arriving we slid on our rubber boots and away we went into the open expanse of alkaline fen.

Lesser Fringed Gentians  ~  Gentianopsis virgata

We followed the deer paths through the sea of browning Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and out into the primary fen opening where I remembered seeing the most gentians from the previous visit.  It wasn't long before blue patches began to appear, glowing with droplets of dew in the intensifying morning light.  I immediately noticed there seemed to be a lot more gentians compared to last year.  In fact they were everywhere and easily numbered in the hundreds of plants!  I could tell from the look on Mike's face he was happier than ever to have tagged along.

Lesser Fringed Gentians  ~  Gentianopsis virgata

The primary reason for our early start that morning wasn't for naught as we found the gentians still tightly bundled and waiting for the warmth of the sun to unfurl their fringed perfection and beckon the day's first pollinators to come pay it a worthwhile visit.  This opening and closing feature allows for two distinct and equally exquisite 'stages' of the flower and will keep your camera shutter clicking all morning long.

Lesser Fringed Gentians  ~  Gentianopsis virgata

The recent history of Betsch fen is quite the success story and an example of what exciting results can be acheieved from proper and active management of the habitat.  The open fen meadows had filled in with woody vegetation over time and had almost fully choked out the gentians when the site was first bought by the Ohio chapter of the Nature Conservancy years ago.  As the woody vegetation was removed and the sunlight restored to full strength over the newly cleared meadow, back came the brilliant blue wildflowers of the fall.

Mike admiring and photographing a patch of lovely gentians

While the fringed gentians were certainly the object of our desire, they weren't the only wildflowers to still be blooming in the wet fen meadow.  The honey-yellow, flat-topped flower heads of Ohio goldenrod (Oligoneuron ohioense) and their accompanying clumps of green basal leaves are easily visible in the photograph above.  Bog goldenrod (Solidago uliginosa) and rough-leaved goldenrod (S. patula) also intermittently occurred throughout and were all just about done flowering.  A few other wildflowers still hanging on were the purple-stemmed (Symphyotrichum puniceum) and willow-leaved (S. praealtus) asters; Canadian burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis); and purple false foxglove (Agalinis purpurea).

Lesser Fringed Gentians and Nodding Ladies-tresses (Spiranthes cernua)

Another exciting realization was the increased number of flowering stalks of the nodding ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes cernua) orchid in select areas of the fen.  In some cases one could enjoy both exciting species growing side-by-side.

Nodding Ladies'-tresses  ~  Spiranthes cernua

The nodding ladies'-tresses is a frequent associate of our fens and wet meadows, prairies, fields, and thickets throughout the Great Lakes and eastern North America.  Their snow white, crystal-like flowers stand out immediately against their more bleak surroundings.  Determining you have a Spiranthes species of orchid in front of you isn't too hard a conclusion to come to but which one can make you scratch your head and create tedious judgement decisions on varying similar characteristics.  I've found the more time I spend with this genus in the field and its taxa, the more confident and qualified I feel I've become at making an ID.  Spiranthes cernua can be identified by its pure white, two-ranked inflorescences; lack of fragrance; and calcareous fen habitat.  This species is notoriously variable throughout its range but here in Ohio the above characteristics seem to hold pretty true.

Nodding Ladies'-tresses  ~  Spiranthes cernua

The nodding ladies'-tresses comes from a complex group of excruciatingly similar species that until recently were all lumped into S. cernua and considered mere varieties of a single taxon.  Since then at least four different taxa (S. cernua, S. magnicamporum, S. ochrolueca, and S. odorata) have been split out and elevated to full species status.  It doesn't stop there though, as some botanists and taxonomists recognize a handful of forms strictly within S. cernua.  Some may pull their hair out at the sound of it but I consider it a reason to investigate and a topic that deserves further study and research.

Lesser Fringed Gentians  ~  Gentianopsis virgata

Not long after our arrival and the sun's energy having been diffused across the landscape, the gentians were fully opened and exhibiting their sublime fringed petals of the most astonishing blue you'll ever seen in a wildflower.  No tricks or changes, no need to check your monitor's settings; the fringed gentians really are that vibrant and staggering.

Gentianopsis virgata distribution map: courtesy BONAP

Looking at the overall distribution and range of the lesser fringed gentian you can see that south-central Ohio is about as far south this species ever ventures.  Its presence at Betsch fen and the rest of the state is owed to the last glacial period and the immense ice sheets that carried it down from the north.  The cold, seeping groundwater and calcareous conditions of the fen have been just the trick to keep them around.

Lesser Fringed Gentians  ~  Gentianopsis virgata

Ohio is home to two native species of fringed gentian: the presented lesser fringed and another taxon called the greater fringed gentian (G. crinita).  Both are strikingly similar but can be told apart by taking a look at the leaves.  The greater fringed has shorter, more wide lanceolate leaves; while the lesser fringed exhibits long, much more narrow (almost linear) leaves.  The amount of fringing around the end of the petals (as suggested by their names) can be used but is not very consistent and a very variable feature.

Lesser Fringed Gentians  ~  Gentianopsis virgata

After a couple hours thoroughly exploring the fen and filling our memory cards with photographs of the charming gentians, Mike and I decided to head back to the car and return to civilization for some breakfast. With my stomach growling as we tromped out of the fen I took one last glance out across the grasses and wildflowers and smiled knowing I'd be back a year later to spend another memorable autumn morning with one of my favorite botanical beauts.  I don't think I'd have to ask Mike twice to come back either.  There's just a certain lure these plants have on the willing, a siren's call that this botanist can't ignore and quite frankly has no desire to.

No comments:

Post a Comment