Saturday, August 30, 2014

Adams County's Not So Barren Barrens

There's few other habitats in our state that can make a botanist's ears perk up at their very mentioning quite like the barrens of Adams county.  These prairies and their intricate plant assemblages sit atop some of Ohio's oldest exposed bedrock and predate any of our state's other grassland habitats by a huge margin thanks to lying just beyond the reach of the last two glacial maximums.  This combined effort of the glacier's northern influence, the expansion of the West's tall grass prairies and the migration of southern flora from across the Ohio River collided into a melting pot of diversity and globally rare habitat.

Hanging prairie in Adams County

These specialized barrens also go by the name of cedar glades for their open, rocky, bare-soiled conditions accompanied by a scattering of stunted trees, typically red cedar (Juniperus virginiana).  Adams county's glades come in all shapes, sizes, and plant compositions with many shared attributes between them but no two exactly the same.  Even wandering a hundred yards through the woods between openings can result in two distinctly different flavors and communities if one is savvy in the local flora and has an eye for all things botanical.

Rattlesnake master growing in a xeric barrens opening of Adams county

Despite such a presumptuous title, these barrens are anything but when summer's warmer temperatures and long bouts of sunlight arrive and result in a spectacular explosion of wildflowers.  Many of the plants you're likely to make acquaintances with during a hike are not to be found many, if any other places in the entire state and combine to make Adams county have more rare species than just about any other county.  I believe only Lucas county in the Oak Openings region near Toledo can claim more.

Wood Lily (Lilium philadelphicum)
Wood Lily (Lilium philadelphicum)

One of the most rare of summer's wildflowers to be found in the barrens of Adams county is the enchanting wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum var. andinum).  The fire orange/red glow of these state endangered June blooming beauties are only known to inhabit a select few prairie openings anymore and with proper management will hopefully continue to light up their shade dappled margins for years to come.

Famed Lynx Prairie in mid July

Walking through these islands of rock and dirt with the crunch of desiccating vegetation and dolomite limestone gravel under boot, one can't help but wonder how such a lush array of vegetation can thrive, let alone survive in such a harsh environment.  Countless millennia of evolution and adaptation to this specific habitat niche has assuredly been the key but it's still hard to grasp just how resilient and tenacious life is in all its forms.

Short Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora)
Scaly Blazing Star (Liatris squarrosa)

Resiliency truly is the name of the game for these prairie plants.  They have to endure harsh heat, drought, and sun exposure all while expending an immense portion of their energy reserves to flower and (hopefully) set to seed. Many prairie obligate species have come to battle such intense conditions by having coriaceous (rough, leathery) leaves like the short green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora) or very hairy leaves/stems like the scaly blazing star (Liatris squarrosa) which help prevent water loss.

American Bluehearts in situ
American Blueheart (Buchnera americana)

Of the nearly one hundred rare plants to call Adams county home, the delicate American bluehearts (Buchnera americana) may be my favorite of them all.  Years ago when I was just beginning to get into botany and dissect these barrens, I came across their purplish-blue flowers and for one reason or another was overly impressed by them and the charm has yet to wear off even after numerous meetings.

Juniper Hairstreak on Rattlesnake Master

Ohio has over 130 native species of butterfly in the state and much like the aforementioned bluehearts wildflower, you'd be hard pressed to find me a more captivating taxon than the juniper hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus).  They are tiny, skittish, and absolutely adorable when you can get a good look at the undersides of their wings.  As you may have guessed their host plant is the locally abundant red cedar and as such are a common sight out in the glades and barrens.

Lynx Prairie 
Profusion of Prairie Orange Coneflower

It's widely accepted that these precious ecosystem's current day existence is due to the burning regimes of the indigenous cultures as well as the geology and bedrock of the area.  This landscape has had eons of weathering and erosion occur without the replenishing effect of the glacier's till and sediment load.  Additionally, the region sits on the edge of the Appalachian Escarpment, bringing about a steep step in the land which helped create the region's exciting geologic formations.  All these factors have helped the prairies and barrens remain open and intact for tens of thousands of years.  The large expanses of exposed bedrock and thin soils take a forest a lot more time to encroach and envelope than Ohio's more traditional tall grass prairies over deep, rich till.

Carolina Buckthorn (Frangula caroliniana)
Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica)

It's not just the wildflowers that set summer ablaze in color but the early-ripening fruits as well.  Locally common small trees and shrubs such as the Carolina buckthorn (Frangula caroliniana), a native and welcome buckthorn, and fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) are hard to miss when their branches are laden with their scarlet fruit.

Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris spicata)

On the less conspicuous side is perhaps the Bluegrass region's most peculiar summer wildflower in the crested coralroot (Hexalectris spicata).  This saprophytic orchid lives almost its entire life cycle underground and only surfaces to send up its flowering stalk maybe a few times per decade.  The crested coralroot relies entirely upon mycorrhizal fungi in the soil for nourishment as it completely lacks any chlorophyll and cannot photosynthesize, hence the lack of any green color or leaves.

Great Spangled Fritillary on Purple Coneflower
Black Swallowtail

In addition to the previously shown juniper hairstreak, dozens upon dozens of other butterflies occur in excellent numbers with such a wide variety of host plants available.  The slower you walk and the more vigilant your eyes are, the more you're likely to encounter.  Even when out hiking people seem to be in too big a hurry to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures and complex cycles nature is exhibiting right under their noses.

Adams Lake Prairie State Nature Preserve

Gazing out across the larger xeric dolomite barrens of Adams county, it can be hard to appreciate just how much differentiation and specific organization there is in each one.  Even subtle changes in the topography result in different drainage patterns and moisture gradients which allow for a diversification of plant species assemblages.

massive Allegheny mound ant mounds with clipboard for scale

Adams county's barrens and cedar glade's most unmistakable non-botanical residents are hands down the Allegheny mound ants.  These prolific builders create some of the largest earthen mound ant nests on the continent, which can reach upwards of four feet tall.  I have no idea how old or how long it took for the nests photographed to reach such a size but needless to say the phrase "Rome wasn't built in a day" applies here!  It seems to be a bit of a crap shoot which barrens or cedar glades has these ants and which ones don't, as I've yet to notice or catch on to any pattern.

Post Oak (Quercus stellata)
Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica)

Some prairies might be better described as oak barrens for the prevalence of species such as post oak (Quercus stellata) and the rare blackjack oak (Q. marilandica) rather than red cedars.  Unlike the bur, white, and post oaks out on the prairies of the till plains, the post and blackjacks of the barrens never get very big no matter their age; undoubtedly due to the harsh and restrictive growing conditions.

Climbing Milkweed (Matelea obliqua)
Downy Milk Pea (Galactia volubilis)

Weird and unusual plants are in no short supply with species like the climbing milkweed (Matelea obliqua).  Its flowers are reminiscent of the true milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) but with a strong dose of gamma radiation thrown in for mutative purposes.  The rare downy milk pea (Galactia volubilis) isn't particularly unusual as it is obscure. Its tiny pink flowers appear later in the summer on its trailing vine-like stems.

State-threatened wall-rue fern (Asplenium ruta-muraria)

Adams county's specialized geology and exposed dolomite limestone bedrock has a great deal to do with the plant life that occurs within the region.  Many calcareous and lime-loving epilithic species such as the state-threatened wall rue fern (Asplenium ruta-muraria) grow on suitable rock faces and boulders.

Tall Larkspur (Delphinium exaltatum)

I could easily go on forever sharing the floral wonders of these richly diverse natural treasures and have probably already gabbed for too long so I'll end it with one more of my favorite summer barrens bloomers.  Tall larkspur (Delphinium exaltatum) is one of the region's most regal prairie bloomer during summer's peak.  It's quite rare throughout the entirety of its largely Appalachian range and despite being arguably almost a weed in some select sites just a wee bit north of the Ohio River, tall larkspur has never been known or recorded from Kentucky.  Hard to believe it hasn't popped up somewhere in Kentucky's river county's similar limestone barrens and woods.

I unfortunately had very little time this past summer to get down and immerse myself is these beloved places and missed out on a lot of my favorite and most anxiously anticipated wildflower events.  That being said it was fun to reminisce and vicariously experience a whole summer of bloomers on this post from summers past to pass for the experience this season.  There's always next year right?


  1. Fascinating! And those are some nts! I like the wall Rue; that's a very healthy looking specimen.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Furry Gnome! The site for the wall rue is one I frequently visit due to it having the best and nicest looking specimens of any population I know.

  2. Hi, Andrew. I never tire of reading about the Adams County Barrens, so please feel free to go on forever talking about these wonders.

    1. I might take you up on that, Steve. I know few people could or do love the region more than yourself. Your slice of heaven in the Bluegrass of Adams county must make you heart swoon even with all the hard work and management that you do!

  3. It's a pleasure joining you on another jaunt through your beautiful state. I always enjoy reading your prose and seeing your photographs. I feel like I am there with you on your adventures...

    Jim Fowler, Greenville, SC

  4. Thanks, Jim! Your kind words and thoughtful comments always brighten my day and let me know to keep the blogging interest and fire alive.

  5. I recently purchased six acres on the hill overlooking Serpent Mound. The diversity of plant life is amazing, part of it is prairie, thin soil and very rocky. The rest is regrowing forest after being clear cut perhaps thirty years ago. It is truly a unique area in many ways.