Friday, August 8, 2014

One Very Special Farm Field in the Pickaway Plains

On the trailing end of the till plains around Circleville in south-central Ohio lies the historical Pickaway Plains.  The region's wide rolling hills and fertile soil once displayed a patchwork of prairie grasslands and intermittent wetlands prior to European settlement.  Unfortunately, today finds that landscape all but gone and converted to monocultures of corn and soybeans with hardly a tangible trace of the diversity that once occurred.

However, one special farm in Pickaway county contains a hidden secret that has fascinated Ohio botanists for decades on end for its ephemeral nature and the rare plants within.  In millennia and centuries past, the field was home to a relic of the last glacial epoch in a seasonal wetland known as a prairie pothole.  The shallow depression would hold standing water during the winter and spring months before drying out as summer warmed and waned into autumn.  It was an integral habitat for the area's migratory/wetland birds, amphibian life, and unique flora that inhabited its margins.

A venerable chinkapin oak overlooks a rare glacial relic prairie pothole full of very rare plants

The landscape above might not look like much to most people but that patch of vibrant green vegetation in a sea of soybeans is a prime example of one of Ohio's most critically imperiled of habitats in the aforementioned prairie pothole.  Due to its rarity and eminence, the Appalachia Ohio Alliance (AOA) along with the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves has teamed up to purchase this priceless piece of Ohio natural history and set it aside for permanent preservation and management.

Standing within the shallow depression full of mudflat flora

The farm was originally settled back in the 1830's by the Hitler family with its accompanying wet depression photographed above known locally as Hitler Pond.  For well over a century, the pond has been plowed and planted to crops with nothing but the seed bank as any evidence for what lay beneath.  During exceptionally wet years when the standing water made farming impossible, the specialized mudflat flora of the site would spring back to life and get a fleeting moment of fresh air before returning to its subterranean holding pattern.  It's incredible to think of the resiliency exhibited by these plants to lie dormant for decades at a time in the annually disturbed soils of a farm field, only to come back to life like they didn't miss a beat.

Upright Burhead (Echinodorus berteroi)
Upright Burhead (Echinodorus berteroi)

My early August visit coincided with many of the prairie pothole's characteristic flora either in flower or fruit, including the last vestiges of the state-threatened upright burhead (Echinodorus berteroi) in bloom.  This species' annual habit and preference for muddy shorelines and shallow water makes it a perfect fit for such a fluctuating habitat.  Its leaves and flowers look strikingly like those of the aquatic arrowheads (Sagittaria spp.) but the spiky brown fruit clusters easily set it apart.

Lowland Tooth-cup (Rotala ramosior)

Another innate species of the mudflat flora at Hitler Pond was an unusual member of the loosestrife family (Lythraceae) in the lowland tooth-cup (Rotala ramosior).  Its small white flowers occur singly in the leaf axils and are accented nicely by the plant's fleshy squared stems that can turn an attractive scarlet red in full sun conditions.

Scarlet Tooth-cup (Ammannia coccinea)
Scarlet Tooth-cup (Ammannia coccinea)

One of the most dominate plants of the wet depression was the lowland tooth-cup's close relative, the scarlet tooth-cup (Ammannia coccinea).  Scarlet tooth-cup's flowers may be modest but what they lack in size they more than make up for in color.  Their deciduous pinkish-red petals are quick to drop in the heat of the afternoon and pepper the ground below like blushed snow.

Clammy Hedge-hyssop (Gratiola neglecta)
False Pimpernel (Lindernia dubia)

Other species such as clammy hedge-hyssop (Gratiola neglecta) and false pimpernel (Lindernia dubia) were common associates of the drying pond and much like all the previously mentioned plants use their annual habit to efficiently replenish their seed bank stores.  If you're driving past this site and happen to glance out into it, you're unlikely to give it a passing thought with so many inconspicuous wildflower denizens.  It definitely takes walking out into it to get a grasp on what's really there.

Rocky Mountain Bulrush (Schoenoplectiella saximontana)

Of all the plants to call Hitler Pond home none are as important or famous as the presence of Rocky Mountain bulrush (Schoenoplectiella saximontana).  Only true grami-nerds (thanks for the word, Jackie!) and/or appreciators of the rare and unusual like your narrator would find something as mundane as this sedge to be a real eye-opener.  The Rocky Mountain bulrush put this very spot on the map decades ago when famous 20th century Ohio botanist Floyd Bartley first discovered it back in 1936.  It was the first location this plant was ever found in our state and going on a century later it remains the sole site.  After Bartley's initial discovery, the bulrush was collected off and on from Hitler Pond until 1979 when it disappeared altogether.  Despite attempts to relocate it, it evaded botanists for decades before being rediscovered in 2008 by accomplished 21st century Ohio botanist Dan Boone during a wet spring/summer in 2008.

North America distribution of Schoenoplectiella saximontana (courtesy BONAP)

What makes the Rocky Mountain bulrush's presence at Hitler Pond even more substantial than being Ohio's only known site is the additional fact it's the only site known for the species east of the Mississippi River!  Inspecting the range map presented above you can get a spatial grasp for just how disjunct and removed it is from its more western plains distribution.  The current accepted hypothesis is it was brought to the buckeye state long ago on the muddied legs of a migrating waterfowl that must have found this ephemeral wetland a good place to splash down in long before European settlement.  The thousands upon thousands of bulrushes that come up in force points to the species having been at the site for a long time and become quite established.  Some have argued it may have come in as a waif in grain or hay but the combination of its distribution-wide rarity, location in such a specific/typical habitat type and the unlikelihood any local farmers would utilize such distant grain sources makes myself, experts on the species/genus and the Ohio powers that be fully recognize and count it as an indigenous species to our state.

State-endangered Engelmann's spike rush (Eleocharis engelmannii)

Another plant that scratches this sedge-head right where he itches is the state-endangered Engelmann's spike rush (Eleocharis engelmannii).  This great state rarity is known from very few other places and much like the bulrush occurs in phenomenal numbers throughout the pothole.  It looks nearly identical to the dirt common blunt spike rush (E. obtusa) but differs in having achenes lacking (or with severely reduced) perianth bristles and a depressed/flattened tubercle; the elongated nature of the spikelets is a helpful characteristic as well.

Marsh Yellow Cress (Rorippa palustris)
False Daisy (Eclipta prostrata)

From the exceedingly rare to the commonplace, Hitler Pond has quite a bit to share with those who take the time to explore it.  Even native wildflowers that some might call weedy are welcome here like marsh yellow cress (Rorippa palustris) and false daisy (Eclipta prostrata).

Obe-Wan-Conobea (Leucospora multifida)

If you're a fellow Star Wars nerd like me, then you'll probably be as much a fan of this inconspicuous wildflower as I am.  Obe-Wan-Conobea (Leucospora multifida) is the clever common name given to this plant that made a lot more sense when it was still placed in the genus Conobea.  Regardless of the switch, I will always refer to this member of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae) as the Jedi master it's named after.

American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

The preserve is also home to a plethora of toads like this American toad.  Fowler's toads are recorded from the site as well and this could very well be one but from what I can tell, the one-two warts per dark spot on its back says American to me.  Feel free for anyone more familiar and comfortable with toad ID to chime in!

Ancient Adena culture burial mound on the preserve

The Hitler farm wasn't only known for the botanical treasures on its land but for its priceless natural history as well in the presence of an Adena culture burial mound circa two thousand years ago.  The Circleville region is known for its ancient earthworks and seems to have been a hot bed of Adena culture activity.  It's definitely been a win-win situation for our state in preserving both a critical habitat and a precious gem tying us to our past.

Standing in the middle of the glacial relic prairie pothole known as Hitler Pond

The 95 acres of farmland purchased by the AOA and Division of Natural Areas and Preserves will come to be known as the Bartley Preserve in honor of Floyd Bartley, who brought the true full worth and importance of this site to light and will be open in the coming year or so for visitation and exploration.  The surrounding buffer zone around Hitler Pond and another smaller nearby wet depression will be returned to its pre-settlement prairie state in the coming years and with some luck and a lot of care and management will begin to look a lot like it did before the white man's plow and crops supplanted them.  All in all, the Bartley Preserve is already a real gem for the Pickaway Plains and a true natural treasure for our wonderful and diverse state.


  1. Isn't it amazing how a prairie pothole, so common further west, can be home to such rare plants here, always enjoy your detailed posts and maybe learning a little botany from you. I'm going to email you a question.

  2. What an awesome place! Close enough I might actually see it some day (about 7 hours away)

  3. Hi, Andrew. I'm always happy to hear about special places that gain protection through conservation groups and agencies. I wonder how the vegetative composition will change under a new management regime. Without the yearly disturbance from agricultural activities, the door is open for a wide range of other species to enter. Let's hope that doesn't threaten the amazing plants you shared in this post. The changes over the next few years should be quite exciting to witness.

  4. Wow! What an interesting and educational post!

  5. We went to the dedication earlier this year...pretty neat place.