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!


  1. Great post, and lovely spot!

  2. Oh Andrew, we sure can count on you to find the most amazing sites that produce the rarest plants. Thanks for taking us with you with your marvelous photographs.