Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Secrets of the Stillwater River

In the nearly three years I've been publishing this blog, I have covered every corner of Ohio and many, many places in-between.  The Oak Openings in the northwest, to the bogs of the northeast, and of course the timeless cedar glades and rolling contiguous forests of Adams and Scioto counties respectively.  All covered and proudly displayed in numerous posts throughout this blog's history.  But one specific area has always been missing and nagging at your blogger for its undesirable absence.

That place is Miami county.  My native county and a place I'm proud to have called home for so many years.  Its scenic farmland country side and quaint small towns scattered about make it a desirable and laid back place to grow up. However, it's not exactly what one would label a botanically interesting place with just about all its landscape turned to corn, wheat, and soybean monocultures.  Or at least so you'd think.  Fortunately, the powers that be at the Miami County Parks District have done an incredible job of preserving and managing the county's last few great places.

Stillwater River flowing through northwestern Miami county

My favorite of their designated parks is hands down the 260 acres set aside as the Stillwater Prairie Reserve that protects a variety of prairie, woodland, riparian, and marshy habitat along the scenic Stillwater River in the northwestern section of the county.  There are several miles of trails to hike and enjoy any time of year but naturally the most exciting and intact are off the beaten path.  A particular stretch of secluded, undisturbed mature floodplain forest along the banks of the river is home to one of the most diverse and dense displays of spring wildflowers in this part of the state and even includes a number of botanical rarities.

Old and gnarled chinkapin oak and hackberry along the river

The Stillwater River is known for its limestone banks and bluffs that are home to an assortment of calcareous soil-loving plants.  These two old and gnarled specimens of chinkapin oak and hackberry have long overlooked the river, perched above its banks on a shallow bluff.  This stretch of the river bank still has a few other impressive chinkapin oaks that are the last of the great sentinels of the Stillwater.

Snow trillium setting to seed
Scattering of snow trillium

Walking deeper into the undisturbed riparian woodland one should keep an eye out for one of the more rare calciphiles alluded to earlier in the post.  Snow trillium (Trillium nivale) occurs by the hundreds, if not thousands and provided quite the show a few weeks earlier.  By late April all the flowers have faded, leaving their three-parted leaves and maturing fruit capsules behind to make sure the next generation of snow trillium get their chance.

Mature, undisturbed riparian floodplain forest along the Stillwater

It's easy to quickly forget you're surrounded by a landscape of agriculture, long bereft of its indigenous forest cover while wandering through the intact, mature riparian woods.  The diversity of canopy species is a stark contrast to the scattered island woodlots in the surrounding sea of corn and beans.  Cottonwood, silver maple, blue ash, beech, red/white/pin/swamp white oaks, black walnut, Ohio buckeye, and black cherry are all healthily mixed in together with a relatively open understory comprised of a liberal helping of herbaceous wildflowers as well as the intriguing prickly ash (Zanthozylum americanum).

Sea of maturing shooting star
Cut-leaved toothwort (Cardamine concatenata)

One of the most charming and noticeable features of this stretch of river is the sea of shooting star (Dodecatheon media) that dominates the ground cover in several areas.  I've never seen such a dense display of this uncommon wildflower and was just a bit too early for the show with their maturing buds still a week or two from opening. Pride of Ohio is another common name for this stunning species and one I rather like for its shout out to our fine state!

Large-flowered trillium beginning to bloom at the base of a beech tree

Interestingly, the large-flowered trillium kick in a ways down the river just as the snow trillium ends.  It's almost like it was done on purpose and mother nature didn't feel the need to have the two relatives share the same space. The cooler, wet weather of spring had the trillium slow to open but a few had unfurled their petals and graced the understory with their unmistakable blooms.

Small vernal stream flowing down to the Stillwater

Anyone who lives in the unglaciated section of Ohio knows that changing topography can be a bit of a challenging thing to find but the Stillwater River valley is home to some interesting glacial formations and small, rolling hills. Interestingly, the highest point in the state is a small hill located in the west-central town of Bellfountaine, not too far from this site.  You'd never know it if it wasn't for the informational plaque at the spot!

Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)
Sessile trillium (Trillium sessile)

Beginning to bloom in the ever-greening understory was a whole slew of spring ephemerals.  Sessile trillium (Trillium sessile), twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla), cut-leaved toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), yellow trout-lily (Erythronium americanum), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), and bluebells (Mertensia virginica) all added their own shades of color and texture to the wildflower show.

The rare and intriguing Wood's hellebore (Veratrum woodii) sending up its basal leaves

Out of all the dozens of wildflower species in full bloom all along the river's terraces, it was the emerging basal leaves of one particular member of the lily family (Liliaceae) that had me the most excited.  All the green tufts of parallel-veined leaves you see popping from the warming soil in the photo above belong to the state-threatened Wood's hellebore (Veratrum woodii); easily one of our state's most under-appreciated and ill-known constituents of our vascular flora.  It is also known by the botanical name of Melanthium woodii as well.

Wood's hellebore (Veratrum woodii)

Wood's hellebore is known to occur throughout the Midwest and sparingly south into the Gulf states but doesn't exist with any real consistency or frequency anywhere outside of the Ozarks region of Missouri.  Here in Ohio, it has only ever been recorded from the Stillwater and Great Miami river valleys and is only extant in Darke, Miami, and Montgomery counties today.

Wood's hellebore (Veratrum woodii)

The plant is easiest to notice come mid-spring when the basal leaves burst forth and quickly grow into large, pyramid-shaped bunches.  An interesting thing to note about this plant is its erratic blooming and long periods of dormancy; regardless of whether the population consists of a few individuals or hundreds of plants like this site pictured.  Come late July and into August, the basal leaves start to wither away and a tall, multi-branched  stalk up to five feet tall erupts from the plant's bulb below with dozens of maroon star-shaped flowers scattered about. After three years of scouting and observing this large population, I have only seen ONE plant flower out of the hundreds in all that time in the summer of 2011.  It's a real crap shoot to say when and what plants might flower each season, if any at all!  Good photos of this plant in flower are very few and far between even on the internet but if you head over to its designated plant page on Missouri Plants, you can get a taste for what the plant looks like in bloom.

Wood's hellebore overlooking the muddy and high waters of the Stillwater

With any luck at least one or two of the Wood's hellebores will bloom this summer and I'll be able to add some much better photos to my botanical database and share them on here as well.  It's a real stunner and something very few of even the most dedicated of botanists have seen in flower.  I'm quite proud to have this elusive and puzzling plant almost exclusively call my home county of Miami home in our state.  It's a testament that it's not all corn and soybean fields left; some unspoiled and undisturbed spots remain that deserve our preservation and protection!

Monday, April 22, 2013

A Secluded Trillium Paradise

For the past few years I have thoroughly enjoyed bringing to life the botanical and natural wonders of my great home state of Ohio.  It's been a great pleasure to share with you, the readers my travels and experiences that I am blessed and fortunate enough to have the time and desire to seek out.  Often times while out on these botanical excursions my mind is churning with ideas and excitement on the next potential topic and adventure I can paint on the computer monitors of those who aren't in the field with me.  It's a worthy responsibility and privilege to have this blog allow others to vicariously live through my camera lens.  I always look forward to the next story I can't wait to sit down and write out.  That being said, I think this one definitely fits that bill...

Looking into the sandstone ravine

This past weekend found you blogger cruising the back country roads of the Hocking Hills region in attempt to seek out some of spring's finer wildflower shows and displays.  The skies hung low and dark with the threat of rain constantly on the horizon which cast an aesthetic shadow on the landscape and created a stillness I found eerily comforting.  I eventually came to the spot a friend had suggested for marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) in bloom in a spring seep along the road.  I pulled off to the side and exited my vehicle and began to walk back down the road when I noticed a small break in the forest and a deep ravine crawl back into the hills that my friend had also mentioned to keep an eye out for.  I could feel the cool, moist air flowing out of its sandstone walls and brush past my face, enticing me to explore its depths.

Narrow sandstone cliffs and overhangs of the small gorge

I shouldered my camera gear and slowly stepped into the mouth of the narrow ravine and was instantly immersed into a world of sandstone and the quiet trickle of water that had slowly but surely carved out this beautiful example of time and patience.  To one side of the gorge stood sheer cliffs and overhangs of weather-resistant bedrock and the other steep slopes covered in a dense mosaic of spring wildflowers.

Trillium-lined slopes
Lobed spleenwort (Asplenium pinnatifidum)

My steps were slow and carefully calculated as my boots glided over the soft sand and past rocks glazed over with a slimy film, waiting for their chance to send the ill-footed tumbling into the chilled water.  Growing out of the cracks and crevices of the sandstone were an assortment of ferns perfectly situated to the moist and cool conditions of the hollow.  One that caught my attention were the artful fronds of the lobed spleenwort (Asplenium pinnatifidum).  You'll have to excuse the blurred nature of its portrait above; the darkened skies and deep shadows of the ravine don't combine well with a handheld camera and long exposure.

Red and large-flowered trillium carpeting the lower slopes of the hollow

As I crept deeper into the narrowing hollow and rounded a sharp corner my eyes were suddenly met with one of the most incredible floral sights these traveled and experienced eyes had ever seen.  Hundreds, if not thousands of red trillium (Trillium erectum) and large-flowered trillium (T. grandiflorum) carpeted the precipitous slopes in a fashion nigh on unbelievable.  Each seemed to have been laboriously and tediously situated to perfectly exemplify every individual plant's handsomeness.

Sea of red trillium

My heart began to beat faster as my mind tried to comprehend what I was standing before.  It's ineffable to truly communicate the emotions that were coursing through my body at the sight of such prosperity and beauty.  To many it may sound inane to react in such a way at the mere sight of some flowers but for anyone who knows me understands it's so much more than that.  Each one of us spends much of our lives in the struggle to find and maintain a sense of unity and happiness that gives our minds peace.  Nature has always been that nucleus for myself and its moments like this that continue to strengthen my resolve and reinforce that the path I have chosen for myself is nothing short of exactly what I desire.

Quite the show of red and white
Trillium ensconced hillside

You know you've found a place worth its weight in gold when no photograph you take could ever do its true self any justice.  The camera lens can only just begin to scratch the surface of its beauty and splendor; this secluded trillium paradise can only begin to fulfill its prophecy in person and in all three dimensions.  It really is the epitome of a "you'd had to been there" type of situation.

Red trillium (Trillium erectum)

The most sensational part for your blogger was the dizzying quantities of red trillium present throughout the inner stretches of the sandstone hollow.  I'd seen them before here and there throughout the Hocking Hills region but oddly enough it's always been the white-colored variant (T. erectum var. album) that was the dominant form.  The rich crimson petals may dazzle the eyes but your nose is in for quite the opposite reaction. Red trillium are also commonly known as the stinking trillium for the foul, pungent odor emitted in an attempt to attract pollinating insects.

The sight of all the trillium never gets old

Many other predictable spring ephemerals graced the slopes as well but none could muster the power to overcome the majestic trillium that grew overhead.  It's hard to grasp just how long this site must have existed while remaining undisturbed by the destructive hand's of mankind.  Trillium can take up to a decade to reach flowering maturity and to have so many, so tightly packed together all down the several hundred yards this hollow stretched is quite the remarkable and time-consuming task.

Red trillium (Trillium erectum)
Red trillium (Trillium erectum)

A sudden breeze and cold nip to the air awoke me from my trillium-induced daze and caused me to realize the skies overhead were darkening further with swelled clouds that promised rain.  I certainly could have stayed in the mighty company of these marvelous wildflowers all day and never tired of their presence but precipitation and camera equipment do not mix very well.

Back end of the hollow

The entire drive back my mind continued to envision the scene I had just left and the astonishment I would never forget at the first sight of such an unbelievable accumulation of spring ephemeral wonder.  I hope to find time to return before the trillium are completely kaput for the season but also look forward to what other secrets this impressive site may hold later in the year.  I think it's safe to say I've found another spot to add to my growing list of great places that remain in our state.  Who knows what else lies out there, waiting to be found by the willing and curious.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bike Path Spring Wildflowers

Last week I posted on my time spent admiring the different color forms of the common sharp-lobed hepatica along the forested slopes of the Hockhocking-Adena bike path.  While quite cheerful, it's certainly not the only spring ephemeral to grace the landscape in that area and with the warming temperatures and recent rain things have really exploded in the past few days.

Hockhocking-Adena bike path in-between Nelsonville and Athens

As mentioned in the prior post, the Hockhocking-Adena bike path runs from Nelsonville to Athens along 18 miles of an old, abandoned railroad grade.  The overhanging trees create a tunnel-like cathedral on your walk/ride with the Hocking River flowing on the one side and rich, mesic woodland slopes and terraces on the other.

Large-flowered trillium abound along certain stretches of the path 

Come spring those forested slopes come alive with some of the finest wildflowers shows in the county and are not to be missed for those who live in the area.  It's not uncommon to come across whole hillsides covered in a mass of large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) that will simply take your breath away. I think even the most uninterested of bikers and joggers have to notice their sensational appearance as they pass by.

Such a glorious sight
Large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

For those that didn't know already, the large-flowered trillium is the state wildflower of Ohio and can actually be found in just about all 88 counties.  While us humans admire these fine floral wonders with our eyes only (or at least should), the same cannot be said for white-tailed deer; the trillium are a delicacy that makes their mouths water. Combine that with their over-populated numbers and it can cause this beautiful plant to quickly disappear.

Large-flowered bellwort with large-flowered trillium in the background

While the trillium will certainly be the first to catch your eye and attention, the diversity of other wildflowers mixed in will do even more to whet your appetite.  Large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora) add a nice splash of color alongside the trillium as they dot the hillside with their drooping yellow blossoms.

Large-flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora)
Rue anenome (Thalictrum thalictroides)

I'm not sure how much attention and appreciation the bellworts get from other admirers and wildflower enthusiasts but I find their delicate and unique appearance to be on par with their rest of their lily family relatives.  Likewise, the common rue anenome (Thalictrum thalictroides) may be overlooked and passed over as simply not deserving of any extended observation time but their central spreading stamens and crown of snow-white petals demand more.

The very short-lived blooms of the twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)

One of spring's most serendipitous of finds for your blogger tends to be those of the very short-lived and aptly-named twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla). While the plant itself is not all that uncommon, finding it in perfect bloom certainly is! Much like bloodroot flowers, those of the twinleaf only retain their petals for a few short hours before dropping them and setting to seed.  As a friend of mine once said, you must be careful not to breathe when photographing these beauties.  Even the slightest breeze can send their petals scattering to the ground.

Squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis)
Squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis)

Another wonderful yet fleeting sight come April along stretches of the bike path are the lacy leaves and intriguing flowers of squirrel corn (Dicentra canadensis).  Now, I know what you're thinking...how does a plant get the name of squirrel corn?  Well, this member of the fumitory family (Fumariaceae) has underground bulbets that look very similar to kernels of corn that apparently squirrels like to dig up.  I've never observed this activity but I'll take the naming botanist's word for it.

Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

Often growing right alongside its closely related squirrel corn brethren, dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) is another uniquely-shaped member of the fumitory family.  One can find their common name to be much more transparent and understandable even at first glance.  I can easily see the resemblance of its flowers to that of a pair of pants drying on the clothesline, albeit upside down. When in flower the two species are hard to confuse but I can understand some's frustration when only in its vegetative stage.  In my experience dutchman's breeches is more of a green color while those of squirrel corn have a distinct silver-blue/teal hue to them.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Further down the path near my residence the forest opens up due to a tornado that passed through the area a few years ago.  It's been interesting to observe what species have responded positively to the increased sunlight conditions and vice versa.  The bloodroots (Sanguinaria canadensis) have been one to take full advantage of the canopy opening; quickly spreading and sending up more plants each year.  The scattered patches in this area have nearly doubled in size in just the past three years.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) closed
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) open

I'm not sure which stage I find more pleasing when it comes to the bloodroot's flowers.  The closed version with its petals unfurled and appearing like a tulip have a beauty all their own, even when compared to the more traditional and crowd favorite fully opened.

Yellow trout-lily (Erythronium americanum)

It wouldn't truly be spring without the charming trout-lilies adding their colors to the landscape.  The yellow trout-lily (Erythronium americanum) typically blooms about a week before its white cousin (E. albidum) here in the hills and hollers of southeastern Ohio and is a personal favorite of this botanist.

Fragile fern (Cystopteris protrusa)
Large-leaf waterleaf (Hydrophyllum macrophylla)

It's not all about the wildflowers as some plants purely in their vegetative forms can add a touch of class and color to those willing to keep a keen eye open for them.  The suitably named fragile fern (Cystopteris protrusa) is one of our state's most frequent pteridophytes but often goes unnoticed for its small size and humble personality.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is that of the large-leaved waterleaf (Hydrophyllum macrophylla).  It's conspicuously marked leaves densely line the bike path for much of its journey in such a manner that the unknowing might mistake it for an invasive weed.  It's "water stained" leaves add an artful touch to any stroll or ride down the bike path.  They won't begin their flowering cycle until closer to summer once the canopy is leafed out and the shade thickened.

I highly encourage any readers and followers living in the Nelsonville and Athens area to get out and experience the Hockhocking bike path for themselves as spring begins to really kick into gear and hit peak levels.  There's so much more to see and experience along its scenic route than I could ever share here!  I'll be back in a couple weeks to bring the next wave of floral sights as spring continues its inevitable march towards summer.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Ohio's Spring Gold Rush

Rich wooded slopes of a diverse mixed mesophytic woodland

Each and every spring around this time of year a particular brand of anxiousness and excitement invades the mind of this blogger in anticipation for Ohio's very own gold rush.  Only the reward isn't the increasingly rare natural element we humans have placed so much curious value in, but rather the presence of one of our state's most rare and absolutely spectacular of spring ephemerals: the goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum).

Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum)

With the warmth of spring finally settling into the Ohio river valley and sunny skies on the docket, I decided it was now or never to head down south into Scioto county to see if luck and timing was to be in my favor.  The luminous goldenstars only grace the re-awakening woodland landscape for a very short time and once that window of opportunity slams shut it's a long wait for their reappearance the following spring.

Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum)
Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum)

My stomach knotted a bit as my car turned onto the secluded back road that winded along the stretch of Rocky Fork Creek that had long been known to harbor these great rarities.  After famed and brilliant Ohio botanist/ecologist Lucy Braun's chance discovery of these delicate beauties back in 1963, it would be nearly 50 years before a new population outside this specific watershed would be discovered.  As fate would have it, I happened to be along for the ride the day this serendipitous uncovering was made and I documented it HERE back in the spring of 2011.

Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum)

With my car slowed to a crawl and nervous eyes fixated on the forested roadside and lower slopes of the mixed-mesophytic woodland, I waited for any flash of unmistakable golden yellow to catch my attention.  Suddenly one appeared, then two and three, and like the flood waters of a compromised levee, dozens and dozens began to spill into view.  Their dazzling tepals were spread wide open, attempting to catch every ray of sunlight radiating down from the naked canopy above.  While our other species of Erythronium droop and nod during antithesis like a shy introvert, the same cannot be said of the goldenstar.  It seems to know its beauty and authority is second to none. In a show of strength, its peduncles hold the flowers aloft to proudly gaze at the heavens above.

Distribution map of Erythronium rostratum (courtesy BONAP)

Taking a glance at the range map of the goldenstar it becomes noticeable that this peculiar plant is not only interesting for its looks but its natural range(s) as well.  Here in Ohio, the species is at the northernmost fringe of its predominately southern distribution and a part of one of three distinct population clusters.  I wonder what caused the goldenstar-lily to occur in three divergent, different sized zones?

Mixed-mesophytic forest home of the goldenstar-lilies

Even without the hundreds of vibrant yellow faces of the goldenstars it wouldn't have been too hard to conclude spring had arrived under the beech, tuliptrees, and oak.  A number of other spring wildflowers were beginning to glance out from under the decaying leaf litter as the evergreen fronds of Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) relinquished their monopoly of the color green.

Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa)
Awakening bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Other associate plant species were in bloom or bud throughout the mesic slopes such as: slender toothwort (Cardamine angustata), spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), early bluegrass (Poa cuspidata), and wood rush (Luzula echinata).

Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum)
Hillside full of emerging wild leeks

Easily the most noticeable part of the greening landscape was the mass emergence of thousands of wild leeks (Allium tricoccum) from their subterranean homes.  Their bulbs have long been a popular spring vegetable and onion substitute for foragers and go amazing with the soon-to-arrive morel mushrooms!  Their leaves soon wither away and disappear completely before the plant flowers in the deep shade of the summer woods.

Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum)

While I typically prefer overcast days for wildflower photography to best balance out the shadows and contrast, one really must catch the goldenstar-lilies on days of full sun.  Their sensitive flowers quickly close under cloud cover and are a far cry from the full potential these specimens photographed are boasting.

Goldenstar-lily (Erythronium rostratum)
Just waking up

There's been many occasions where timing has provided your blogger with moments of fleeting to severe frustration.  There are few things worse than driving long distances to find wildflowers just about to bloom or just past peak and beginning to set seed.  Fortunately, that was hardly the case this time around and I was able to enjoy a full afternoon pleasantly spent in the company of one of Ohio's most remarkable and fervent of spring ephemerals.  I image as I sit down and write this all the flowers shown in these pictures have done their job and are now featuring their characteristic beaked fruit capsule.  With any luck the seeds within will be viable and help to ensure these wonderful plants are around for years and generations to come.  I'm already looking forward to next year's gold rush and the bounty of goldenstars that await!