Thursday, February 1, 2018

Top Ten Life Plants of 2017

Better late than never! That's become the theme of this blog the last few years. I always pondered why some of my favorite nature blogger's work waned so much years ago and I've come to find out for myself just how quickly and easily it happens. Life gets busy...and busier, and busier! However, it doesn't get so busy that I can't manage to sit down and write up what's come to be a yearly favorite of mine. My annual look back on the past year's top ten life plants! Additionally, it's a superb way to reminisce on a growing season's worth of adventure and discovery.

2017 was an eventful year with exciting happenings both in my home state of Ohio and outside her borders. My work as a field botanist with the Ohio Division of Natural Areas & Preserves kept me busier than ever with some noteworthy discoveries. I also made treks out to southern Illinois and eastern Missouri to visit a close botany buddy of mine; as well as up to Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. Both trips provided some unforgettable botanical moments and finds, some of which will be proudly featured here. It is especially nice to see Ohio represented on my top ten life plants list again, as over the last couple years substantial lifers in my home region have been hard to come by.

I will say that I've become a bit of a lazy botanical photographer these days and rely heavily, really almost solely on my iPhone as a camera. It takes wonderful photos and just about every single one featured in this post was shot with it. However, when viewed so large and in closer detail the images are a bit lackluster to my nitpicky self. So for those with as high a standards as me, I apologize for some photos not being as up to snuff.

All that being said, let's begin the countdown of my favorite life plants from a memorable spring, summer, and fall of botanizing throughout the Midwest.


My botanical cohort and good friend/mentor, Dan Boone at the site of life plant #10

Starting things off is a look back to late June and an especially gorgeous summer day spent within one of Ohio's most spectacular remnant grasslands. It was at this location that I finally made acquaintances with an uncommon Asteraceae member that had evaded my life list for quite some time and comes in at #10.


#10 - Pasture Thistle (Cirsium pumilum)
#10 - Pasture Thistle (Cirsium pumilum)




































Pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum) isn't what I would call rare in Ohio, but it certainly isn't common either. With most of its occurrences residing up in the northeast and eastern portions of the state, I wasn't likely to see any of it in my normal haunts in the southeast and southern reaches. It's curious it occurs at all at this particular site in south-central Ohio, but I'm forever thankful it does. Pasture thistle never gets very tall and can be a pain to see but for its stunning purple composite flowerhead. Sadly, each individual plant only gets one opportunity to show off its thistle-licious (yes, I just made that word up) flowers. Like some of its other thistle kin, this species is monocarpic, meaning it only flowers once and subsequently dies. My visit to this site was at the tail end of its blooming cycle and many plants were already dispersing their seeds on the wind. Thankfully, a lucky few were still in photogenic shape and allowed them to just make the cut!


#9 - Cut-leaved Water Parsnip (Berula erecta)
#9 - Cut-leaved Water Parsnip (Berula erecta)




































The criteria for how a plant makes this most esteemed of lists is much more than physical beauty. Some plants I find too curious, unique, and/or rare to not feel extra special about finding them. Life plant #9 fits that mold just right! The cut-leaved water parsnip (Berula erecta) is a small member of the carrot family (Apiaceae) I was lucky enough to spot while up in Michigan back in mid-July. It's much more common out West but quite rare east of the Mississippi River. It's at its easternmost and disjunct stations in Michigan and subsequently listed as a state-threatened species [S2]. It is only known to occur in about a dozen counties along Lake Michigan, where it grows in the specific habitats of cold headwater streams and seeps. This particular population was just beginning to flower in a tiny, freezing-cold spring-fed brook flowing through a white cedar swamp.


The incredible surroundings of a secluded kettle lake with surrounding bog mat in the eastern UP of Michigan

For life plant #8 let's hang around in Michigan but move further north into the Upper Peninsula. While there's not much going on in many people's eyes, the UP is heaven of earth for a botanist like me. I sincerely hope to deliver a post or three about my experiences up there and the insanity of treasures that came with it, but for now let's focus on one specific plant. A secluded and rarely visited kettle lake my friends and I visited contained the most intact and diverse floating bog mat I've ever stepped foot on. Orchids and sedges galore but the plant I was most honored to see was a teeny, tiny little rush...


#8 - Moor Rush (Juncus stygius)
#8 - Moor Rush (Juncus stygius)




































What the moor rush (Juncus stygius) may lack in beauty, size, and well, interest for many folks it more than makes up for in rarity and peculiarity. This cute little graminoid is one of Michigan's more endangered plant species and currently known from less than ten extant sites. It also happens to be an overall rarity within the United States. Also known as bog rush, it's a circumboreal species found throughout the northern hemisphere but scarcely makes it south of boreal Canada in North America. Michigan's UP, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Maine are the only extant states for it and it's damn rare in all them, too. This rush's white flower, poorly photographed in the left photo above, is actually quite showy for a Juncus when seen perfectly opened. Its capsules have a pleasing aesthetic to them as well. Sure, it's not much to look for you but to a rare plant junkie and grami-nerd like myself it's botanical royalty! 



#7a - Broad-lipped Twayblade (Neottia convallarioides)
#7b - Blunt-leaved Orchid (Platanthera obtusata)




































I love the UP so much that I've decided to stay put a little longer with life plant #7. Well, to be honest there's two species for number seven because I just couldn't decide between the two and declared things a tie. During my single day on the UP my botanical cohorts and I saw 30, yes 30 species of wild orchid! A majority were in flower, too, including the two lifers featured here. On the left in the above photo is the broad-lipped twayblade (Neottia convallarioides), a painfully small orchid that we found in great numbers growing in pure sand in a forested dune along Lake Superior. Above right is the blunt-leaved orchid (Platanthera obtusata), a taxon I'd seen vegetatively a few times before but never in flower. Finding it in a dense white cedar swamp was a needle-in-a-haystack situation but fortunately one peatmoss-covered hummock had a plant or two still in bloom. The UP was kind enough to proffer me a third life orchid on this most sacred of days but we'll get to that later.


#6 - Large-flowered Fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus)
#6 - Large-flowered Fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus)




































2017's life plant #6 takes us out to eastern Missouri and a wildflower I'd long wanted to meet face-to-face. My botany buddy, Roger Beadles (Hi, Roger! I know you'll read this as one of my few remaining faithful readers!) treated me to an unusual and globally-significant habitat I'd never experienced before known as an igneous glade. There, in the sun-baked and dessicated landscape grew the large-flowered fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus), a fascinating little succulent that couldn't be happier in such a harsh environment. It was 90+ degrees that late afternoon without a cloud in the sky and the vivid, deep-pink fameflowers polka-dotted the exposed bedrock with their intense color. Which made perfect sense, as they only open in the latter half of the day and in full-sun conditions. Even had they not been flowering, I'd still been plenty pleased to see their charming fleshy, finger-like leaves. I wasn't expecting on seeing any during my trip and it made for a most excellent botanical surprise and easy inclusion on my countdown of best life plants.


#5 - Glade Spurge (Euphorbia purpurea)
#5 - Glade Spurge (Euphorbia purpurea)




































Hitting the halfway point on my countdown of 2017's top ten life plants is #5. It also has the distinction of being one of Ohio's rarest of the rare. Featured here is the odd and unusual glade spurge (Euphorbia purpurea). It's not only rare in Ohio, where it's an endangered species [S1], but globally as well [G3]. Glade spurge is currently only known to occur sparingly at about 50 sites in eight mid-Atlantic states, with Ohio being an intriguing westernmost disjunct. It grows at only two spots at one site in south-central Ohio, both on rich-mesic limestone bluffs above a small dolomite-bottomed stream. The two dozen or so plants in total rarely flower but a few appeared to have tried this season, as evidenced by the orbicular bracts produced at the apex of the stem in the above right photo. Despite being a toxic spurge, deer browse is a real and present threat to this plant. So it's no surprise our only known remnants of it are in such an inaccessible situation. The photos may not be much to look at, especially of vegetative-only material but for a botanist, at least this botanists it's a most precious member of Ohio's diverse flora. Long may it reign...or at least persist!


#4 - Triangle Grape Fern (Botrychium lanceolatum)
#4 - Triangle Grape Fern (Botrychium lanceolatum)




































The final four plants on this countdown all had a big impact on my botanical year no matter their size, and believe me when I say #4 is about as small as it gets! This past late May I had the pleasure of checking a rare fern off my life list while working in the Hocking Hills region. It's the tiniest, daintiest thing you ever saw, too! The triangle grape fern (Botrychium lanceolatum) is a state-threatened [S2] species in Ohio, and something you'd better have luck on your side to find. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the first plant and how miniscule it was: it makes my pencil look gargantuan in the photo above right. This particular grape fern grows on rich, moist stream terraces in more mature woodlands and should hypothetically be more commonly known since that habitat type isn't exactly rare. I'd imagine its impossibly small size keeps most, even those looking specifically from ever noticing it. Triangle grape fern is an expert hider under taller vegetation, especially stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). Ouch!


#3 - Greater Round-leaved Orchid (Platanthera macrophylla)


I've whittled down my top ten list of 2017's best life plants to the last three. This is where the fun really begins if you ask me. I don't think I've ever had an orchid not take at least one of these last three spots in the four years or so I've done this and 2017 is no different. #3 is my favorite of the 30 UP orchids I saw this past July and was a long-awaited lifer I'd daydreamed of seeing for many years, too!


#3 - Greater Round-leaved Orchid (Platanthera macrophylla)
#3 - Greater Round-leaved Orchid (Platanthera macrophylla)




































The greater round-leaved orchid (Platanthera macrophylla) looks nearly identical to its close kin, the lesser round-leaved orchid (P. orbiculata) when viewing it in a book or online. However, seeing it in the flesh and it's instantly clear you're not dealing with the same species at all. The greater round-leaved orchid looks like it raided a less-than-honest weight lifter's gym locker and stole every steroid it could find. This behemoth of an orchid is larger in every regard from its brethren with nectar spurs twice as long (40+ mm) and basal leaves sometimes as large as dinner plates (my sunglasses served for scale in the one photo). Unlike the wide-ranging lesser round-leaved species, the greater is restricted to the northern Great Lakes region and NE US/Canada. My group and I found a dozen or so in bloom in dry wooded dunes of the Grand Sable Dunes near Lake Superior. One especially monstrous specimen was just shy of two feet tall and had 50-60 flowers on its raceme. Due to the harsh lighting and its awkward color, I had a tough time photographing it with satisfactory results in situ. I guess I'll just have to go back, eh?


#2 - Mead's Milkweed (Asclepias meadii)


I hope people have enjoyed this countdown thus far as it comes down to the final reveal. I love reminiscing on yet another great field season with the wildflowers and plants that caused the most memorable emotion and joy! This global rarity that comes in at #2 has us travel back out to Missouri and its stunning igneous glade ecosystem.


#2 - Mead's Milkweed (Asclepias meadii)
#2 - Mead's Milkweed (Asclepias meadii)




































On top of a very special Missouri mountain glade lives the federally threatened Mead's milkweed (Asclpeias meadii). It's a rarity I'd wanted to see since I first got into botany nigh on a decade ago and bless Roger, he knew right where to look. This particular milkweed has all the right parts and physically looks like a milkweed but its jumbo flowers and lime-green coloration has it stand apart from much of its kin. We only were able to find a total of seven plants, only two of which flowered and even then a sole specimen with perfect blossoms. Beggars certainly cannot be choosers. The surrounding scenery was stunning, too with phenomenal vista views across the rolling forested mountains from the milkweed's glade home. This precious rarity is only known from few extant sites in five Midwestern states and was an absolute honor to witness. It interestingly seems to prefer both dry glade/barren habitats and mesic upland tall grass prairie. It's an extremely conservative and fickle species that is indicative of a stable and old prairie ecosystem. Mead's milkweed would have been an easy #1 life plant had I not been so lucky to have seen this next plant....


#1 - Featherfoil (Hottonia inflata)


It's time to reveal the best and #1 life plant I had the pleasure of seeing during the 2017 botany season. It was an instant and easy decision to have this wildflower be my ultimate lifer as it was one of the most exciting and meaningful of rare plant discoveries of my career thus far.


#1 - Featherfoil (Hottonia inflata)

#1 - Featherfoil (Hottonia inflata)






































The featherfoil (Hottonia inflata) has been considered extirpated and unseen in Ohio for over 30 years and thought long-lost for our flora. It's a winter annual that is very fickle and finicky about blooming, which makes finding/tracking it even more difficult. Many have looked for it over the decades with zero luck. As the botanical fates would have it, I managed to rediscover a lovely population of it back in late May in a pond in extreme southern Ohio doing its thing and looking great! I can't recall the last time my heart about leaped out of my chest in such a manner as it did: I couldn't believe my eyes! It's such an odd and goofy plant that nothing, and I mean nothing else comes close to looking like. It also happens to be rather rare across its range in the eastern US, too. The feather-like submerged leaves are topped with hollow inflated stems adorned with tiny and inconspicuous white flowers. The cherry on top was the presence of the state-endangered low spearwort (Ranunculus pusillus) occurring at the site as well! Days and discoveries like this are an easy part of why I became a field botanist and do what I love, and love what I do. It's definitely a plant few would find attractive but it's the most beautiful thing I saw in 2017! I plan to do a post dedicated to this plant and discovery in the near future; I meant to back in May when I found it, but we know how that goes.

I hope you've enjoyed this look back on my favorite finds and life plants of 2017. I'll be curious to hear from you, my readers if any of these are on your life lists or plants you've had the pleasure of coming into contact with before. If anything, I hope I've warmed your spirits and computer screens even a little bit as Ohio's winter and wildflower-less season trudges on. Spring is on the horizon, though, and I expect to be staring some skunk cabbage, snow trillium, harbinger-of-spring etc. in the face in the next couple months. Thanks for tuning in and reading!

- ALG -

4 comments:

  1. Hi! Long-time reader here. I'm glad to see you're still using this blog, even if it's biannually. My best plant of last year was hundreds of surprise Calypso bulbosa orchids in the Rockies, followed by Orange-fringed Orchids in the Kankakee Sands of Illinois. Glad you got to rediscover a new plant species for Ohio!

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  2. Great list of plants. Hopefully we might add another one this year if possible. I do miss the blogs but I understand time gets shorter and shorter

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  3. Oh man, did my heart beat faster when I saw you had posted this blog! How I love following along with you on your botanical excursions, sharing your excitement and delight at finding these rare beauties. I am super lucky to have botanized with you in person, feeling the joy you bring to the hunt and discoveries, and I love, love, LOVE that you have returned to this blog to record this past year's treasures. I loved your last post, too, in which you recounted the amazing trip to the Bruce Peninsula. It always breaks my heart, however, to see what I missed because of my accident. Ah well, there's lots of great stuff to find closer to my home. Wish you could come out to NY in early June to visit Valcour Island in Lake George. Trouble is, this trip gets canceled if thunderstorms threaten, so it's hard to plan for it. Thanks for posting these blogs, Andrew. They bring me a lot of joy.

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  4. Awesome post Andrew! See; there are some of us who regularly watch for more!

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