Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Federally Threatened Appalachian Spiraea

I love the rare and unusual in the botanical world.  There's something about those hidden gems that make the hours, months, even years of anticipation and searching worth every second.  The more rare and disjunct a plant species is, the more interesting its accompanying story typically is and this featured botanical wonder certainly fits the bill.

Scioto Brush Creek flowing through wild and rural Scioto county

In the rolling, forested hills and deep, steamy valleys of Scioto county in extreme southern Ohio flows arguably our state's most pristine and high-quality waterway: Scioto Brush Creek.  Its waters and riparian habitat is home to dozens of rare species of flora and fauna such as some critically endangered species of freshwater mussels and the only site in the state for the endangered southern monkshood (Aconitum uncinatum).  In fact, this precious aquatic ecosystem is one of the few remaining in Ohio with breeding populations of the muskellunge (musky) and the extraordinary hellbender (our continent's largest salamander at nearly three feet long!).  This intact diversity is largely due to over 80% of its entire watershed still being forested and nearly unblemished.

Peering through the dense vegetation of the gravelbar

A couple weekends back your blogger finally got the opportunity to explore a particular stretch of the stream with a very specific type of habitat and plant on the menu.  On a gravelbar jutting out into the dirvese waters of the creek lives one of our state's rarest of vascular plants.  The dense thicket of vegetation certainly did a good job of concealing it but I knew with enough luck and tenacity the object of my quest couldn't hide forever.

Appalachian Spiraea (Spiraea virginiana)

Peering through the tangle of river birch, sycamore, and buttonbush finally paid off as my eyes were greeted with the majestic off-white blossoms of the Appalachian spiraea (Spiraea virginiana).  It's not too hard to see the relation to our other Spiraea species (S. alba and S. tomentosa respectively) by the showy clusters of flowers with its conspicuous protruding stamens.  Unlike the other two more common species with their elongated, wand-like inflorescence, the Appalachian spiraea has a flat-topped corymb that is the envy and desire of countless bee, beetle, and fly pollinators.

Appalachian Spiraea (Spiraea virginiana)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Appalachian spiraea is the dynamic habitat type it has evolved to occupy and utilize.  While most other plants tend to shy away from extreme episodes of disturbance and erosion, this peculiar plant has learned to cope and thrive with its destructive powers.  Appalachian spiraea grows in the specialized niche of gravelbars and scour-zones of mid-sized streams and waterways that are seasonally flooded and swept clean of competing vegetation.  Its underground root system is comprised of a fibrous root mass containing lateral rhizomes that allow the plant to send up shoots after a flood/erosion event and quickly bounce back.

North American distribution of Spiraea virginiana (courtesy BONAP)

Not only is the Appalachian spiraea very rare in our state but over much of its range as well.  This global rarity combined with dwindling habitat availability has earned it the right to be recognized as a federally threatened species; one of six Ohio species listed at the federal level.  It is still extant in seven states throughout the Appalachians and Cumberland plateau with historical records in Pennsylvania and Alabama.  Here in Ohio, it is only known to occur in a handful of locations along the banks of Scioto Brush Creek and that's it statewide.  Its presence here is owed to the extinct Teays River that flowed northwest up from the Virginians and into Ohio; bringing with it the Appalachian spiraea and other botanical rarities such as the flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) and Canby's mountain lover (Paxistima canbyi).

Appalachian spiraea setting to fruit

In addition to its restricted geographical range and rare occurrences, the Appalachian spiraea is fighting a losing battle genetically as well.  Today there are less than 30 total genotypes known; meaning there are less than 30 individual sets of genes for this species.  All the remaining plants belong to one of those 20-some individuals.  This has resulted in very poor seed production and little to no true sexual reproduction among populations.  Fortunately, their specialized trait of vegetative cloning is a saving grace and allows the species to continue to persist and potentially spread throughout its watershed post flooding events.

Appalachian Spiraea (Spiraea virginiana)

In regards to its uphill battle for survival and the odds stacked against it, I found myself overly pleased to be in its presence and witness to its stunning blooms concealed among thickening mass of shrubs and maturing trees.  How lucky is the Buckeye state to claim something so scarce and beautiful to her soils; brought here by ancient forces long extinct but hardly forgotten.  The Appalachian spiraea has called the scoured banks and gravelbars of Scioto Brush Creek home for thousands of years before its discovery by man and with any luck it will continue to call this remarkable waterway home for millennia to come.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Copperhead vs Eastern Black Kingsnake!

You just never know what your day has in store when you walk out that front door in the morning.  I feel quite fortunate to have experienced and traveled as much as I have in my relatively short time on this planet and I certainly hope to continue that trend well into my future.  That being said, your blogger will have a damned hard time to ever surpass the incredibly luck-fueled and chance spectacle that unfolded along a forested road in Shawnee state forest yesterday afternoon.

The morning found myself and good friend, Michael Whittemore (Flora and Fauna of Appalachia) meeting up for a day spent in the botanical paradises of Scioto and Adams county to see what summer bloomers we could uncover along the forest roadsides of Shawnee and the limestone prairies/glades of the Edge of Appalachia.  It's always a pleasure to get out with someone as passionate about the outdoors as Mike, and luck never seems to be too far behind when we get together...

The preliminary part of our day was spent slowly cruising the forest roads of Shawnee state forest and pulling over every so often for one wildflower species or another.  No sooner had we finished up some camera time with the dainty green adder's mouth orchid (Malaxis unifolia) when I heard Mike beep his horn behind me, signaling to pull off.  I knew it had to be something good to qualify for such a sudden stop.

Mike's eyes served him well as that something turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime event!  Along the side of the road were two snakes entangled in a duel for the ages.  Immediately recognizable was the brown and tan northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokeson), one of only three venomous snakes in Ohio.  The black serpent we originally thought was a eastern black rat snake but would later come to discover was actually the uncommon and fascinating eastern black kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula nigra).  It only occurs in a handful of extreme southern Ohio counties and is a species of concern within the state; which only makes this chance discovery all the more unbelievable.

The kingsnake, being a constrictor had the copperhead in its vice-like grip but both snakes seemed to be keeping their heads at a distance, perhaps unsure of how to proceed or waiting for their aggressor to make an ill-timed move.  Eventually the copperhead's patience, or perhaps its oxygen supply ran thin and it begin to slither in closer and make repeated attempts to free itself from the kingsnake's death clamp.

Being a venomous (not poisonous!) snake, we kept our distance from the tussle and for good reason as with lightning quick speed the copperhead sank its fangs into the kingsnake and began to inject its venom!  Mike and I couldn't hardly believe what we were seeing as our camera shutter's sang like a machine gun on full auto.

We both thought the kingsnake was a goner after getting such a heavy dose of the copperhead's venom but wouldn't you know the things are immune to its effects?!  Kingsnakes have evolved an incredible ability to withstand and ignore the venom of venomous species such as the copperhead and due to that often times utilize them as prey.  Here all along I was thinking the "black snake" was defending itself or being territorial only to find out the son of a gun was trying to make a meal out of the copperhead!

With its venom, albeit ineffective, tapped out and strength continuing to wane, the kingsnake made its move and clapped its jaws around the neck of the copperhead and refused to release no matter how much the copperhead thrashed or writhed.  It's not every day you see something that would almost always get the better odds in a fight be in such a perilous, life-and-death situation!

It wasn't long before the battle was all but over as the kingsnake slithered back into the woods and the copperhead a limp and lifeless hunk of flesh left to dry out in the harsh July sun.  Mike and I were fascinated at the callousness of the kingsnake killing just to kill but later hypothesized that it had no desire to take the time or risk of feasting on it while we stood and watched.  Snakes with their mouths full are rarely in any kind of position to defend themselves and I don't blame it for feeling uncomfortable in our presence.

What seemed like a two minute encounter lasted nearly 20 minutes and gave Mike and I more thrills, yells, and jaw-dropped-open moments than we could have ever dreamed of.  I can't imagine ever getting the chance to witness something like this again in person; let alone with two uncommon, awesome species of snake.  Hindsight is always 20/20 and I can't believe neither of us ever thought to film the struggle with our phones or cameras but I think the shock and awe of what was taking place in front of us was too much to allow ourselves to think or do more than click the shutter button on our cameras.  Such a powerful and rare display of the infinitely wondrous world that goes on right under our species' noses on a daily basis.  Life and death, prey and predator.  I suppose most things like this are out of sight, out of mind for a majority of our population but for those that do take the time to immerse themselves in the wild, this stands as testament that you just never know what you may come across out in the field!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Hometown Prairie Project

I think it's long overdue that I gave my own hometown some love and attention for their efforts in making the community and city a healthier, better looking place.  Tipp City is located in Miami county in west-central Ohio and best known for being a stop along the long-extinct Miami and Erie canal, Spring Hill nursery, and the annual Mum Festival in the fall.  For a little over a decade Tipp City has been purchasing farm land outside of town along the Great Miami River with Clean Ohio Conservation Grant funds to convert the agriculture into prairie.  The major reason for this has been an effort to protect and safe guard the well fields and underground aquifer the city and surrounding area gets its potable water supply from.

Lost Creek prairie preserve just east of Tipp City along the Great Miami River and Lost Creek

In addition to that it's an obvious improvement to the look and feel of the landscape with wildflowers and warm season grasses coloring up your drive in and out of the east end of town.  It's vital habitat and foraging ground for numerous birds, mammals, and insects as well.  A definite win-win for nature and the city!

Aerial view of the prairie preserves (courtesy Google Maps) with their boundaries marked (to best of my knowledge)

As of now three parcels of land totaling over 350 acres have been taken out of crop production and planted/seeded to tall grass prairie with a slew of nearly all native prairie associated species.  The aerial image above shows the three prairie projects and their boundaries (note: the boundaries were drawn by myself and may not be on the nose accurate) relative to the town itself.  This particular post focuses on the Lost Creek prairie preserve located along Tipp-Elizabeth road east of town (the yellow box on top above).

Lost Creek is typically nearly bone dry by July but is flowing nicely due to recent rain events

Lost Creek prairie preserve gets its namesake from the tributary of the Great Miami River that flows along the eastern border of the prairie before terminating into the Miami at the back southeast corner of the preserve. Typically by this time of year the creek is nearly bone dry but thanks to recent rain events it has managed to keep flowing into July; something I wish I saw more often.

Looking out across Lost Creek Prairie 

Normally the dry creek bed is a sure sign of wildflower fireworks out in the sea of maturing grasses!  Big blue stem (Andropogon gerardii), indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), little blue stem (Schizachyrium scoparium), sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) are spread throughout with a healthy mixing of summer bloomers.

False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbekia hirta)

During my visit this week the false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) was really kicking into gear with its dark golden color standing above the sea of green below.

Can you see the predator trying to blend in on these black-eyed Susans?

Coming into peak bloom around the same time are the black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta).  In good years you will see large patches of the grassland covered in the rich yellows of them as they beckon their pollinators to pay them a visit.  Not only do they draw the pollinators but predators as well.  Can you see the goldenrod crab spider (Misumena vatia) blending in in the photo above?

Showy tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense)

Pretty now but a pain later are the tick-trefoils (Desmodium spp.).  I'm sure many are familiar with the little brown, flat, and velcro-like seeds that get stuck to your clothing by the dozens come late summer and fall.  This particular species is showy tick-trefoil (D. canadense) and adds a splash of blue-purple color in the mid-summer months.

Another view across the prairie

I drive past this particular spot all the time and love to watch the progression of the vegetation as the year waxes and wanes.  It's hard to believe that the uniformly drab yellow-brown winter scene can turn into an explosion of color and life each year.  Nature truly is quite the magician!

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) in full bloom

My favorite wildflower currently showing off its stuff is the lovely wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).  Its flower heads almost seem like lavishly painted alien spaceships hovering in the humid July air.  They add a wonderfully different color to the prairie's palette and attract honeybees and bumblebees in droves.

Field Brome (Bromus arvensis)
Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula

Most of the warm season grasses are still purely vegetative at this point in the year but one of my favorite of Ohio's grasses, sideoats grama (B. curtipendula) was just starting to drop its feathery stigmas and bright red anthers.  Already in fruit was the non-native field brome (Bromus arvensis); an attractive grass from one of my favorite Poaceae genera.

Black-eyed Susans in peak bloom

Despite being very common in the prairie planting as previously mentioned, it's hard not to take more photos and admire the black-eyed susans in peak bloom again and again.

Grey-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)

Just beginning to open its fertile disc flowers was the grey-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) among the other yellow-colored wildflowers.  Their drooping ray flowers (petals) put on quite the show when bunched together in attractive clumps.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) was probably not part of the original seed mix and has since integrated and naturalized itself within the prairie planting.  While some may have issues and negative feelings towards this unwanted 'weed', I love its presence in both terms of its aesthetic value and its high quality as a butterfly and insect attractant.

Honeybee on common milkweed blooms
Wild Blue Sage (Salvia azurea)

The honeybees sure do love the milkweed flowers as just about every plant I came across was buzzing with activity and excited pollinators.  A welcome addition to the seed mix but not an indigenous species to Ohio is wild blue sage (Salvia azurea).  This species is native to the south-central and southeastern states and blooms later in summer with its salvia-like blue flowers.

The more modern "prairie" across the road from Lost Creek

Just across the street from the Lost Creek preserve is the much more common and modern "prairie".  I'm very thankful my hometown has had the wits and foresight to set aside some land for preservation and revert it from a monoculture of grain to a woven tapestry of summer wildflowers and tall grasses.  Here's hoping that the future sees the town purchase more property to preserve and reclaim from agriculture.  As I mentioned before it truly is a win-win for our wells and aquifer's sake as well as our landscape!

Monday, July 1, 2013

A Rare Orchid on the Prairies

Late June.  When the heightened humidity begins to make your clothes stick and the hum of annual cicadas rings in your ears; when the sun seems to hang motionless in the western sky and the raspberries are just about ripe, I know it's time to make my annual pilgrimage to a very special slice of Ohio.

E. Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea)

In a wet sedge meadow that seems no different than the rest but for a few short weeks each summer lives one of North America's most rare and spectacular of orchids: the eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea). I've posted on this site and species in years past but it deserves a breath of fresh air and some more attention as one of your blogger's most treasured of plants.

Lone orchid among the sea of sedges, forbs, and willows

In the past few years a few willow species (Salix discolor, S. eriocephala, and S. interior) have aggressively invaded and taken over the previously woody-free meadow.  This added competition combined with the stress from heat and drought of summers past had the prairie fringed orchids bloom much less vigorously than in previous seasons.  What two years ago was a profusion of blooming orchids, this section had only one flowering plant that I could locate.

E. Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea)

That being said there was still quite a few specimens in stupendous shape if you knew where to look.  Finding and enjoying their beauty pre-settlement wouldn't have been too hard a task throughout the fen and wet prairie regions of Ohio and the mid west/great lake states.  Being a life long fan of Big Ten football and basketball, I nicknamed this the "Big Ten orchid" for almost its entire geographical range occurring within states that are home to a conference's campus.

Closer look at their charming individual flowers

Within its wet prairie/meadow/marsh, fen, and shoreline habitats, prairie fringed orchid can grow upwards of four feet tall and contain well over 20 greenish-cream flowers spiraled around its stalk.  Each individual flower is about the size of a quarter and has its lower lip (labellum) deeply cut in a fringed fashion; almost as if the wind had shred and tattered tissue paper.  Their scent is light and faintly detectable by day but intensifies at night when its hawk and sphinx moth pollinators are most active and in the hunt for a nectar snack.

Handful of orchids peaking out above the sedges and grasses

I could witness these wondrous summer rarities every summer for the next 50 years and each meeting would be as precious and held dear as the last.  For your blogger nothing beats the sight of the prairie fringed orchids dancing in the warm summer breezes and their cream, waxy flowers gleaming in the sunlight.  There's little comparable to seeing their conspicuous wands contrasted against the surrounding green vegetation and brilliant sapphire sky.

A lovely pair of prairie fringed orchids

It may be hard to believe but the plant on the left in the photograph above could very well be older than I am. Fred Case, a brilliant botanist and master of North America's orchids recorded some plants eclipsing 30 years in age as an individual.  That's a lot of time, energy, and luck that has gone into an orchid that has evaded and escaped drought, flood, disease, browsing, and any kind of negative habitat change.  Just another reason to respect and appreciate these orchids not just for their looks but for their brawn as well.

E. Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea)

One of the more fun aspects to writing and publishing this blog is the opportunity to bring rare and unusual plants and habitats/ecosystems (like the prairie fringed orchid) home to those who cannot see or experience it for themselves.  I do my best to bring these topics and photos to life on your computer monitors and have you travel vicariously into the field with me; especially at sites and places as sensitive and secret as the prairie fringed orchids.

Orchid hiding alongside a spotted joe-pye weed (Eupatoriadelphus maculatus)

It really does seem like just the other day I was alongside these very orchids, admiring their physical charm and ghostly appearance like I am again a year later.  Even more difficult to believe is July is upon us again with so many more wonderful wildflowers and orchids to grace our landscape with their presence.  But you can't have July before you have the prairie fringed orchids knocking on the summer solstice's door once more...