Friday, June 21, 2013

St. Marys River Wetlands

Last week I had the pleasure of having my job take me up to an area in northern Mercer county known as the St. Marys River wetlands.  It's slated to be dedicated sometime this summer as Ohio's newest state nature preserve; a very fitting and deserving recognition as I would come to find out!

Aerial view of the preserved wetlands via Google Maps

Being a botanist for the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves (DNAP) has opened the door to many of our state's most unique and interesting ecosystems and habitats and this place was no different.  Within the 69 acres of the preserve is river frontage, riparian floodplain forest, and adjacent flat woods with an abandoned river channel and accompanying button bush swamp.  Naturally, with that kind of territory comes mosquitoes and boy were they thick!  In the sections of the swamp woods with standing water it become necessary to breathe through your nose.  Trying to breathe with your mouth only resulted in the inhaling, and subsequent choking on the blood-sucking nuisances.

In the aerial photo above you can make out the standing pools of water in the old river channel as the darker botches and the St. Marys river itself as the northern border of the preserve.  It's incredible this riparian community stills exists today when you see the surrounding sea of agriculture.  Mercer county isn't exactly known as a nature-friendly area with some of the most heavily-farmed land in this section of the state.  That makes this preserve all the more valuable and worth protecting!

Panoramic view of the swamp flat woods full of sedges and other botanical goodies

Joining me that day was Ohio's chief botanist Rick Gardner and a number of other DNAP employees and volunteers with our task to update a couple rare plant records and continue a biological inventory of the preserve.  Being on the job, I never take my camera gear with me into the field so I make due with my iPhone's camera, of which all these shots were taken on.  I'm consistently impressed with its capabilities and good quality captures.

Canada anenome - Anenome canadensis

One of the first things to grab our attentions was a lovely display of Canada anenome (Anenome canadensis) in full flower on the edges of the forest.  This plant is sometimes used in cultivation for its fast-spreading ground cover foliage and lovely white flowers.  Just be sure to keep an eye on it as its aggressive rhizomes can and will quickly take over an area.

Carex muskingumensis
Carex grayi

For the sedge-loving members of the group like Rick, who is an expert in this intimidating and tricky group, and I, the preserve was heaven on earth.  Being a high-quality wetlands it should come as no surprise that the sedge diversity would be quite large.  Music to my ears!  Even better was the amount of personal favorites that called the swamp woods home such as: Carex grayi, C. crus-corvi, C. muskingumensis, C. typhina, C. squarrosa, C. lacustris, and C. lupulina.

Raven's Foot Sedge - Carex crus-corvi

In fact, one of the main reasons we were there was to check up on and update the occurrence of the state-listed raven's foot sedge (Carex crus-corvi).  Its gorgeous, large fruiting heads full of sharply pointed perigynia accompanied with the blue-green foliage weren't too hard to notice walking through the sea of other sedges and vegetation.  This particular sedge is threatened in the state of Ohio and only occurs in a handful of counties in high-quality swamps and floodplain woodlands.

Virginia Iris - Iris virginica

Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder and while I find the raven's foot sedge to be absolutely stunning, I think most others would be more interested in these flowering monocots instead.  Scattered throughout the open understory was the delicate and short-lived Virginia iris (Iris virginica) that certainly stood out against the surrounding greens.

Green Carrion-flower - Smilax pulverulenta

Despite being arguably the least-attractive of our finds that day, this species was hands down the most meaningful and exciting of them all.  After some careful examination and consideration it was decided (and later confirmed) this is the incredibly rare green carrion-flower (Smilax pulverulenta); an endangered species in Ohio and one with a confusing history in our state.  Of the eight species of Smilax native to Ohio, three are woody, spined perennials (e.g. S. rotundifolia, hispida, and glauca) and the most frequently encountered while the remaining five are more uncommon and herbaceous annuals that lack prickles/spines.  The latter group can be confusing and hard to tell apart with tedious differences.

Previously S. pulverulenta was a variety of S. herbacea along with S. lacioneura before both were given full species status.  S. pulverulenta can be differentiated from S. lacioneura (which was present in the area as well) by its lustrous, abaxially dark green leaves; hemispheric (one-sided) flower umbels; and black, non-glaucous mature fruit. Our specimen showed all these signs except for the mature fruit since the plant was still flowering.  Rick mentioned all the specimens in Ohio's herbaria labeled S. pulverulenta were mis-identified and were actually S. lacioneura; meaning as far as he or anyone else knew, this lone plant in front of us was the only known and confirmed site and specimen of the green carrion-flower in the state.  Pretty darn cool if you ask me!

Rough-Leaved Dogwood - Cornus drummondii

Ok, enough of the botanical jargon and nerd talk; even if I could go on and on.  A frequent shrub and/or small tree of the open swamp understory in full bloom was the rough-leaved dogwood (Cornus drummondii).  It certainly blends in with the half dozen or so other thicket-forming, shrubby dogwood species outside the obvious and more-showy flowering dogwood (C. florida) but with a quick touch it's not too hard to tell apart.  The top and bottom surfaces of the leaves have a scratchy, rough feel to them (hence the name) from their dense covering of wooly, rough hairs.  This species also has very showy white berries on red pedicels come late summer and autumn.

Baby bowfin (or dogfish) found in the shallow standing pools of water

After our exciting botanical discovery I suppose it's only appropriate we make another one; only this time it was of the ichthyological kind!  As our group passed through the area of the abandoned river channel, we took notice of the water 'boiling' with hundreds of little fish in the shallow waters of the buttonbush pools.  Rick scooped out the little fellow pictured above and we all scratched our heads at its identity.  As it turned out it was a baby bowfin (Amia calva), the sole surviving species of an ancient order of long extinct fish!  Also known as dogfish, the bowfins were a very unexpected surprise that caught all of us off guard.  I would assume a heavy flooding event isolated the adults from the main channel of the St Marys river into the swamp forest's pools sometime in the past.  We did observe large fish swimming around further out in the water but assumed they were carp but looking back now I believe them to have been adult bowfins!  How else would there have been so many fingerlings?

American Sweet Flag - Acorus americanus

Walking past the sunnier margins of a swamp woods or marshy area many would probably see this plant and pass right by thinking they were simply cattails.  How wrong they would be and why taking a closer look is never a bad idea!  This is the rare American sweet flag (Acorus americanus); a species of concern in Ohio that grows in scattered wetlands throughout the northern half of the state.  It can be told apart from the much more common introduced European species (A. calamus) by looking at the veins in the leaves and flowering/fruiting material.  Our native species has a raised midvein plus an additional two or so more raised veins, while the European species only has a single, obvious raised midvein.  The American species is also a fertile, flowering diploid versus the sterile triploid Europen taxa.

From L to R: Carex lupulina, C. squarrosa, C. lacustris, C. crus-corvi, C. typhina, and C. muskingumensis

All in all, I left the St. Marys River Wetlands very impressed with its botanical diversity, intact and pristine swamp forest habitat, and of course all the sedges!  I'm very thankful this gem of a place is in good hands and will see a long future of protection and management for myself and future generations to enjoy and hike through; if they aren't drained dry by all the mosquitoes that is haha.  I'd certainly like to visit at other times of the year to see what goodies and secrets this place still has to share.  Once dedicated and open to the public, I highly recommend getting out and experiencing its charm and sights for yourself!


  1. Boy I am impressed. Anyone who can identify the sedges gets my utmost respect! And a pretty nice job you have too. Are there any good pictorial ID guides for sedges? We must have many of the same species up here in Ontario.

  2. Wow! What a place! It almost seems a shame that this little piece of heaven will be open to the public and their too-often disrespectful ways.