Sunday, March 27, 2022

Top Ten Life Plants of 2019

Resurrection! Spring is a time of rebirth and new life so what better time for The Buckeye Botanist to awaken from his blogging coma. I miss posting on here. I sincerely do. But life always seems to find a way to prevent that perfect combination of free time and energy to actually sit down and catch up on the 101 different posts I'd like to do. C'est la vie...

In the three years since I last published on here not too much has changed. Which the older I get, the more I like being able to say. My wife and I did buy a house in a small village outside the concrete jungle of Columbus in summer 2020. It fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine to have a yard to call my own and paint with native plants. That's a project forever in progress but it's been very fun and rewarding thus far. Maybe one day I'll be able to do a yard tour themed post on here? We now have two adorable feline children: Leela - a black cat with one eye, and Lily - an adorable tripaw (she's missing her front left leg). I guess we just like cats that aren't physically 100% complete haha. We unexpectedly lost our beloved tuxedo kitty Arya in August 2019 and the loss still pains us to this day but we're so enamored with and thankful to have Leela and Lily in our home. I'm still a field botanist and ecologist with the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves and am very much looking forward to another field season spent in the depths of Ohio's wilderness. Busy is the theme here: always busy. And as already mentioned this blog was the first thing to be lost in the shuffle. Especially since I do regularly post my adventures and botanical highlights on Instagram or Facebook.

That all being said let's start catching up by doing the countdown of my top ten life plants from 2019. It's only going on three years later but better late than never, eh? Plus it's a fun way to reminisce on pre-pandemic life and the "before times". This annual post was always the one I managed to get out each year and I have three years to make up for.

2019 was a botanically exciting year for me. Field work all over the Buckeye state produced some memorable discoveries and lifers. Likewise, family vacations to northern Michigan in July and coastal North Carolina in August produced plenty of action. Finally experiencing the famed Green Swamp and its plethora of orchids, sedges, and carnivorous plants was a treat! As always, I'd love to highlight those trips in blog form someday. promises there. I still have trips to Wyoming (2015), Colorado (2016), Lake Superior (2018), Florida (2018/2021), and Michigan's UP (2017/2021) to name a handful that I need to document. Sigh. So without any further delay lets dive into the top ten life plants I encountered during the 2019 growing season. 

#10 Pennsylvania Catchfly (Silene caroliniana ssp. pensylvanica)

Silene caroliniana ssp. pensylvanica bearing more pink-colored flowers

Life plant #10 takes us the shale region of eastern Ohio in late May. I was in the area doing rare plant monitoring with the Pennsylvania catchfly (Silene caroliniana ssp. pensylvanica) being one of my main targets. It's a very attractive wildflower with its pale pink to white colored flowers and sticky stems and calyces. Also known as Pennsylvania wild pink, it's a state threatened species here in Ohio with most extant populations clustered in Columbiana and Jefferson counties.

Silene caroliniana ssp. pensylvanica on a roadside shale bank

I managed to relocate a number of populations that day and took great pleasure in finally seeing this plant that I'd long wanted to. We also have its equally rare kin, Wherry's catchfly (S. caroliniana ssp. wherryi) in Ohio but it has much darker pink flowers, non-glandular hairs on its calyces, and is restricted to south-central Ohio. I've shared that species on here before so feel free to use the "search this blog" tool on the right to check it out.

#9 Coville's Scorpion-weed (Phacelia covillei)

Phacelia covillei in flower

I love the rare, unusual, and inconspicuous in the plant world. 2019 life plant #9 is most certainly all three. In fact, it's so rare, unusual, and inconspicuous, I'll bet few people reading this post have ever even heard of Coville's scorpion-weed (Phacelia covillei) before. It's a globally rare [G3] annual species of the borage family that flowers early in spring before senescing and disappearing by early summer. In fact, my visit to this site in early May had almost all the plants already in fruit and some even beginning to yellow and wither away.

Phacelia covillei in fruit

In Ohio, Coville's scorpion-weed is only known from a few sites in Lawrence Co. where it grows in mesic valley woodlands, low slopes, and stream terraces. Globally it's only known from about 20 counties in 8 Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. It's possible this species is overlooked but it's rather unique and unlikely to be overlooked by botanists. Curiously, while rare overall it can be extremely common at a given site. One of the Ohio's populations occupies over a mile of stream valley with millions of plants! At least during a boom year for the site. Coville's scorpion-weed was once synonymous with Phacelia ranunculacea, but research has shown the latter to be a Midwest endemic with genetic/morphological/geographical differences. That's all probably more than you needed or wanted to know about such an unshowy plant but I live for stuff like this. Very cool to finally see this oddity and rarity!

#8 Cooper's Milk-vetch (Astragalus neglectus)

Astragalus neglectus in flower

Continuing on with my countdown on 2019's top ten life plants is #8 and Cooper's milk-vetch (Astragalus neglectus). You'll notice a theme so far with lifers from Ohio - they're all state-listed rarities. The more time I've spent working and botanizing in Ohio, the fewer new plants there are to encounter. So naturally the rarer, more difficult ones to see dominate those left. And rare Cooper's milk-vetch is! There's only a single known site in the entirety of Ohio, which thankfully is doing quite well. 

Astragalus neglectus in fruit

Cooper's milk-vetch is actually pretty rare-uncommon throughout its northern range. Its tall nature with pinnately compound leaves and clusters of pea-like cream flowers make it pretty unique among our native flora. The mature inflated fruit pods make it really stand out, too. A fun fact about Ohio's sole site for Cooper's milk-vetch is the state endangered American vetch (Vicia americana) grows side-by-side with it to make the spot extra special.

#7 Drummond's Rock Cress (Boechera stricta)

Boechera stricta in fruit along Lake Erie

These twig-like plants overlooking Lake Erie may not seem like much but they happen to be one of Ohio's rarest plants and #7 on this countdown. I spent a lovely summer solstice day up on Middle Bass Island surveying the last known site for the critically endangered Drummond's rock cress (Boechera stricta) with little hope of finding it. The mustard had not been seen in Ohio in nearly 20 years with previous surveys ending in failure. Due to this absence the species was set to lapse into "presumed extirpated" status. However! I managed to find a couple dozen plants clinging to existence in a hidden shoreline sanctuary. Botanical bliss! The harsh rocky limestone shorelines of the Erie islands could harbor more of this rare mustard but it's not exactly easy surveying this habitat. Not to mention invasive species and woody vegetation encroachment are serious threats. In the end, I was ecstatic to rediscover this species for Ohio's flora and confirm it still occurs. Finally getting to mark it off my life list was just the cherry on top.

#6 Clinton's Wood Fern (Dryopteris clintoniana)

Dryopteris clintoniana growing in a white cedar swamp

We're hitting the midpoint on this countdown of my top ten life plants of 2019 with #6. We finally move out of Ohio for one of the most surprising and serendipitous finds of the year. I'd been on the hunt for Clinton's wood fern (Dryopteris clintoniana) for the better part of a decade with nothing to show for it. It's an endangered species in Ohio but considerably more common up in Michigan, where I encountered some in a mosquito-filled cedar swamp. It's a fern of hybrid origin between crested wood fern (D. cristata) and Goldie's wood fern (D. goldiana) and definitely looks like an intermediate between the two.

Dryopteris clintoniana frond underside and its spore-containing sori

I was over the moon to stumble into such a significant life fern and finally mark it off my life list. Even the annoyance and blood loss from the mosquitos did little to dampen the excitement of a such a special find. I did finally see Clinton's wood fern in Ohio this past summer while doing surveys in northeastern Ohio, too!

#5 Southern White Fringed Orchid (Platanthera conspicua)

Platanthera conspicua in a wet longleaf pine savanna

As history will show it's not a true Buckeye Botanist top ten life plant countdown without an orchid appearance. Coming in at #5 is the stunning, the gorgeous, the perfection that is the southern white fringed orchid (Platanthera conspicua). I'd wanted to make acquaintances with this wonder for years and spent may a dreary winter daydreaming of finally doing so. The time finally came in late August 2019 while in coastal North Carolina. I visited a couple sites known to harbor this beauty and was not disappointed!

Platanthera conspicua in picture perfect flower

Southern white fringed orchid is very similar to its close kin the northern white fringed orchid (P. blephariglottis), and sometimes considered a variety of it. However, after seeing it in person it definitely felt like its own entity. The plants were considerably larger with the flowers bearing long arching nectar spurs. I had the pleasure of seeing this orchid again in the Florida panhandle's Apalachicola National Forest in August 2021 and was wowed all over again. Hope to post on that trip one of these years...

#4 Spreading Rock Cress (Arabis patens)

Arabis patens in its typical limestone ravine habitat

Coming in at #4 is the globally rare spreading rock cress (Arabis patens). This ever-disappearing wildflower is an endangered species here in Ohio, where it's only known from a precious few limestone ravines along a small stretch of the Scioto River. Spreading rock cress has special ties to the Buckeye state as it was first discovered and described to science from Ohio plants by William Starling Sullivant back in 1842. This mustard has an affinity for sheer limestone rock faces and walls where human disturbance and invasive species are wrecking havoc and causing its decline.

Arabis patens in flower

I spent some time in spring 2019 surveying the last handful of known Ohio sites and had mixed results. Nonetheless, some was relocated and allowed me to finally get the chance to see this charming little rock cress. Even better was discovering a previously unknown population at a site where the local park district had removed bush honeysuckle and garlic mustard in the previous couple years. The management allowed for the spreading rock cress to spring from the seed bank and was luckily in flower and easily noticed. A good reminder the positive results that can come from invasive species removal and proper eco management!

#3 Northern Monkshood (Aconitum noveboracense)

Aconitum noveboracense in its seepy sandstone ledge habitat

Ohio is home to five species of plants that are federally listed as threatened. These aren't just rare and in trouble here in Ohio, but everywhere they occur. The fifth and final Ohio species I needed to see comes in at #3 on our 2019 countdown. The northern monkshood (Aconitum noveboracense) is a remarkable plant and to put it simply a real looker. It's unique habitat niche of seeps, talus slopes, and rock shelters in cool, deep sandstone gorges makes it all the more interesting a plant. This member of Ranunculaceae is only known from a literal few sites in Ohio and New York, as well as the driftless region of Iowa and Wisconsin where it occupies an equally rare and fascinating habitat of algific talus slopes (look them up - so cool!).

Aconitum noveboracense in peak flower in early August

There's long been taxonomic debate about whether this Aconitum is truly its own entity or rather a disjunct subspecies of the Mountain West's A. columbianum. Its habitat choice tends to support the idea our eastern occurrences may be small pockets of glacial refugia of the western taxon. Regardless, it's a plant that's as beautiful as it is rare and a very special part of Ohio's flora. I was honored to finally have encountered the northern monkshood at one of its last Ohio sites during an annual monitoring survey back in August 2019.

#2 Yellow Fringeless Orchid (Platanthera integra)

Platanthera integra flowering in a pristine longleaf pine savanna

We're down to the penultimate life plant of 2019 and this is a wildflower that no photo could ever do proper justice of. Its diminutive size and brilliant orange-yellow coloration just cannot be replicated in two dimensions on your computer or phone screen. Yellow fringeless orchid (Platanthera integra) is a globally rare species essentially endemic to the Southeast's coastal plain where it predominately occurs in open pine savanna habitat. The longleaf pine savanna I was in back in late August 2019 had literal hundreds of this orchid in bloom where they glowed like beacons above the endless display of wiregrass (Aristida stricta).

A trio of Platanthera integra under the longleaf pines

I couldn't believe their unique shade of yellow-orange and how tiny these orchids were. Simply magnificent and well worth the long wait (and drive) to finally come face to face with such a marvelous wildflower. I chanced upon the yellow fringeless orchid at a number of sites in Apalachicola National Forest in 2021, too, and was just as mesmerized the second time around. Just an ineffably wonderful orchid!

#1 Black-stemmed Spleenwort (Asplenium resiliens)

Asplenium resiliens growing out of some exposed limestone bedrock

When putting together my annual list of the top ten life plants I encountered that year it can be quite the challenge to figure out the order. Except when it comes to number one. There's usually that one plant that blows everything else out of the water. And 2019's life plant numero uno is undoubtedly seeing black-stemmed spleenwort (Asplenium resiliens)! It wasn't just seeing this species for the first time BUT seeing it in Ohio that made it so memorable. This fern was collected/seen once(!) in Ohio back in 1900 and never seen again and not for a lack of looking...

Fresh and new fronds of Asplenium resiliens

Then in early spring 2019 a few friends of mine said they were going to go looking for the black-stemmed spleenwort. I told them the general area of Adams Co. where it had been collected and suggested a couple spots to look and said "good luck". So off Hannah, Shaun, and Josh went along some limestone cliffs and bluffs overlooking the Ohio River valley...and they found some. I was shocked and beyond excited! We went out to the site later in spring so i could see this mega lifer for myself and sure enough - there it was. What an incredible find for Ohio's flora to have a native fern brought back from the "dead" after 119 years. I suspect it may be hiding somewhere else in the vicinity but recent additional surveys have turned up nothing. Yet. So for now we'll cherish the handful of plants that are clinging to some limestone rock in southernmost Ohio...

Well, there we have it. My top ten life plants from the 2019 growing season. A bit overdue even if I do say so myself! I hope everyone has enjoyed the countdown and I'd love to hear from any readers...are there any left? Have y'all abandoned hope I'd ever be back haha?...on what your favorite(s) were. I really hope to be back soon with 2020 and 2021's edition and other content. It honestly felt good to hear the keyboard keys clack once more and remember how to format and do one of these blog posts. I have so much respect and admiration for my friends who still churn out consistent content on their Blogspots. Wish I had the same effort and determination as you.

Hope everyone has a wonderful spring and is staying healthy and happy out there. Happy botanizing!


Friday, February 22, 2019

Top Ten Life Plants of 2018

Hello? Tap, tap, tap...this thing on? Whew, it's been a minute since I've been on here. Just over a year, actually. Definitely the longest hiatus since this blog's inception back in the fall of 2010. Speaking of which, I can't believe its been eight years since I sat down and wrote my first post. It seems so much shorter and longer ago at the same time. Weird how time works isn't it?

A quick update on things before we dive into the subject matter at hand. First off, I got married to my long time partner, Kara early last year! Definitely the highlight of 2018 for me! We also moved to Columbus this past summer after nearly a decade of living down in the rolling hills of southeast Ohio. I miss the Athens area and all my favorite haunts but it's nice to be centralized and enjoying my own office in the ODNR headquarters in town. Happy to report I'm still working as a field botanist and ecologist for the Ohio Division of Natural Areas & Preserves and loving most every minute of it. That pretty much catches you, my ever-patient and faithful readers (I mean, how many of you are actually left these days anyways haha?) up on the major happenings in the Buckeye Botanist's life.

I'd also like to take this time to dedicate this post to Keith Board, a good friend of mine and spirited fan of my writing and photography. Keith passed away last month after an extended illness. He was only 58. Keith was a sensational and accomplished botanist and naturalist in the northern Indiana and Chicago region and he will be greatly missed by countless individuals who's lives he touched. He was the most positive and encouraging person you could hope to know. Rest in peace, Keith.

Back to business. It's that time again to sit down and write up what's come to be a yearly favorite of mine and a post I'll always make time for: this past year's top ten life plants! It's a wonderful way to reminisce on a growing season's worth of discovery and adventure and 2018 had plenty.

2018 was an eventful year with exciting happenings both in my home state of Ohio and outside her borders. My aforementioned work kept me busier than ever with some noteworthy discoveries that I certainly hope to share on here one day. I also made treks down to the Florida panhandle back in early May, as well as a once-in-a-lifetime loop trip around the entirety of Lake Superior in July! I'd love to document both excursions, especially the Superior trip in blog form one day, too. Both adventures provided countless unforgettable botanical moments and finds. Honestly, all ten species you'll see below come from those two forays. I made acquaintances with my fair share of new Ohio flora this year but none managed to make the list this time around. All this made for the most difficult top ten list I've had to put together in the 4-5 years I've been doing this post.

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

#10  "Red" Yellow Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia flava var. rubricorpora)

Longleaf Pine savanna community near Sumatra, Florida

2018 life plant #10 takes us down to Apalachicola National Forest on the Florida panhandle. My wife and I took a belated honeymoon down to the beach in early May for a week of lazy cocktail drinking and seafood eating. However, she knows who she married and I had to get out into the wild from time to time; she was even a good enough sport to come with one day! In one particular longleaf pine savanna community was an extra diverse display of flora and home to plant #10...

Sarracenia flava var. rubricorpora

I love any and all of North America's native pitcher plants but there's something about this very rare and beautiful red form of the yellow pitcher plant (Sarracenia flava var. rubricorpora) that really speaks to me. Legend has it this unique color morph only occurs in the wild on the Florida panhandle. It's a highly sought-after variety in the carnivorous plant trade, which makes seeing it actually out in the wild an extra special thing. I'd had the luck of seeing typical yellow pitcher plants on several occasions, including countless times on this trip but these blood red beauties stole the show!

#9  Cahaba Paintbrush (Castilleja kraliana) &
Alabama Pinkroot (Spigelia alabamensis)

Ketona Dolostone glades of the Bibb County Glades in central Alabama

2018 life plant(s) #9 take us to a quick stop in central Alabama to see a site I've drooled over for many years. The famed Bibb County Glades deserve and will get their own dedicated post one day but for now this very brief introduction and appetizer will have to do. This fascinating habitat sits on a unique form of dolostone that is extra pure and allowed for some remarkable plant evolution to take place. In fact, eight species of plants to be found in these glade complexes occur nowhere else in the world! Two of which are featured below. And, no, I couldn't decide on just one.

Cahaba Paintbrush (Castilleja kraliana) G2
Alabama Pinkroot (Spigelia alabamensis) G1

Kara and I stopped at the Bibb County Glades on our way down to Florida to check things out, even if for only a precious and hurried few hours. We managed to catch a number of things either still hanging on or just starting to bloom as the season transitioned from spring to summer. That included the two endemics featured here. On the left is Cahaba paintbrush (Castilleja kraliana). It's closely related to the widespread scarlet paintbrush (C. coccinea) but diverged from it in this unique scenario and developed different pollinator/pollen vectors due to its changes in bract coloration. On the right is Alabama pinkroot (Spigelia alabamensis), and perhaps the glade's most famous denizen. Like the paintbrush, it evolved in this specialized habitat and only occurs in these glades and nowhere else on Earth. It was just starting to bloom and open its corollas during our visit. If it looks vaguely familiar to you it may be because you saw it on the side of a U-Haul truck! Can't say any other plant I'll feature on this blog has that same distinction. I saw so, so much more in these glades and will share it all in their own post one day. Hopefully...

#8  Coastal Plain Spreading Pogonia (Cleistesiopsis oricamporum)

Coastal Plain Spreading Pogonia (Cleistesiopsis oricamporum)

It wouldn't be a proper "top ten life plants" countdown without an orchid's first appearance. And if you know me even a little bit you'll also know this is hardly the last orchid that will appear on this list. Coming in at #8 is the coastal plain spreading pogonia (Cleistesiopsis oricamporum). It's another Florida panhandle discovery but the last time we'll be in this amazing botanical paradise on this countdown.

Coastal Plain Spreading Pogonia (Cleistesiopsis oricamporum)
Coastal Plain Spreading Pogonia (Cleistesiopsis oricamporum)

If I had a dollar for every one of these orchids I saw in the open longleaf pine savanna communities I was botanizing in, I'd be retiring much earlier than planned. They were quite common and an especially nice find when growing in large colonies of pitcher plants, as seen in the above left photo. An additional wow factor from this orchid was its deliciously sweet fragrance that was reminiscent of vanilla to my nose.

#7  Intermediate Sedge (Carex media)

Intermediate Sedge (Carex media) on the rocky north shore of Lake Superior

If orchids are my favorite plants then it would only be right to have #7 represent my other favorite plant family: the sedges! On my incredible Lake Superior loop trip we came across well over 100 species of sedge, quite a few of which were lifers that I'd never seen before. The best and most anticipated of all was this little fella. The intermediate sedge (Carex media) is a circumboreal species found throughout the northern hemisphere but quite the rarity as far south as the northern shorelines of Lake Superior. Yes, you heard that right. This plant considers that to be the "south".

Closeup view of the fruiting spike of intermediate sedge (Carex media)

Intermediate sedge was the number one Cyperaceae life species I wanted to come across. Our group managed to cross it off the list on the precarious rocky shorelines of Superior in the Grand Marais, Minnesota region. It's a dainty thing but has a lot of charm and character in its light green coloration contrasted by dark pistillate scales. It reminds me of a micro version of Buxbaum's sedge (C. buxbaumii), which happens to be one of my most beloved sedges. This one may not make many other folk's top life plant list but it was a no-brainer for me!

#6  Common Moonwort (Botrychium lunaria)

Common Moonwort (Botrychium lunaria)

Much like orchids and sedges, this countdown wouldn't be complete without a fern making an appearance. No fern made a bigger splash with me in 2018 than #6 and the common moonwort (Botrychium lunaria). When it comes to moonworts you're dealing with tiny plants and endless frustration. They are a painfully difficult group to get a handle on due to so many looking so similar to one another. However, the common moonwort stands out with its unique crescent moon-like leaves on the tropophore (sterile blade).

Common Moonwort (Botrychium lunaria)

Speaking of small, I think the photo above with one of these moonworts framed against my hand shows just how tiny we're talking here. The common moonwort is found throughout the world but is most frequent in the northern latitudes. Our Lake Superior crew came across this moonwort and 2-4 other species in a sterile, sandy habitat along an old railroad up on the north shore. The exact number and identity of all the moonworts we found at this spot remains unknown and very aggravating!

#5  Oval-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias ovalifolia)

Oval-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias ovalifolia)

We've reached the halfway point on my countdown of 2018's top ten life plants. I hope you've enjoyed the list thus far. It's only going to get more interesting and aesthetic from here, at least in my opinion. Dropping in at #5 on the list is the oval-leaved or dwarf milkweed (Asclepias ovalifolia). Not to sound like a broken record or someone who loves everything but the milkweeds are another group that hold a special place in my heart. This species was the prime target during a stop at a sand barrens community in northern Wisconsin, where this milkweed is getting to be exceedingly rare.

Closer look at the flowers of the Oval-leaved Milkweed (Asclepias ovalifolia)

The sand barrens we visited and thankfully found our target in has an interesting recent story. It resides on state land and was planted to red pine several decades ago for future timber. As the pines came in they shaded out the barrens flora and pushed them into the seed bank. Flash forward to a handful of years ago and the state logged this pine plantation and opened the habitat back up. With the sudden lack of suppression from the pines the barrens flora, including this milkweed sprang forth and had their day in the sun once more. Unfortunately, the site has been replanted to pine and the milkweeds and other sun-loving plants are once again getting pushed back.

#4  Encrusted Saxifrage (Saxifraga paniculata)

Encrusted saxifrage (Saxifraga paniculata)

When I first laid eyes upon #4 I knew I was witnessing a remarkable plant. I'd never even heard of encrusted saxifrage (Saxifraga paniculata) before but was instantly taken by its beauty and tenacious nature. This stunning wildflower is an alpine and subarctic specialist that barely makes it far south enough to occur along the rugged, unforgiving north shore of Lake Superior. It's much more common in NE Canada, as well as in Greenland, Iceland, and Norway. That's one tough plant!

Succulent-like basal leaves of encrusted saxifrage (Saxifraga paniculata)
Encrusted saxifrage (Saxifraga paniculata) on its rocky shoreline home 

The fleshy, off-white colored petals of their flowers are delicately polka-dotted with black flecks and the first thing that drew my attention. However, it was their succulent-like basal rosettes growing right off the rocks that won me over. The tips are tinged white from their pores secreting lime taken in from their calcareous substrate, hence the name 'encrusted'. I'm amazed they survive the brutally cold and ice-covered winters on their shoreline habitat but life always finds a way!

#3  Cahaba Lily (Hymenocallis coronaria)

Cahaba Lily or Shoals Spider-lily (Hymenocallis coronaria)

We're down to the final three most meaningful finds and they all bring back very fond memories. At #3 is the globally rare Cahaba lily or shoals spider-lily (Hymenocallis coronaria). This was another stop of Kara and I's on our way down to the Florida panhandle and fortuitously very close to the Bibb County Glades. These wonders occur in the shallow flats of the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge and were just starting to bloom during our visit. A month or so later and countless thousands bloom en mass at this location.

Cahaba Lily or Shoals Spider-lily (Hymenocallis coronaria)
Cahaba Lily or Shoals Spider-lily (Hymenocallis coronaria)

Getting out to the lilies was a bit treacherous and involved careful wading. The rocks were slick as snot and the deeper channels acted as a maze I had to solve. Kara was fine with admiring them from the shorelines and was waiting for me to slip and fall in the river haha. The Cahaba lily is only known from few watersheds in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina where it has severely declined due to dam construction flooding out its required specific habitat. I certainly hope to get back down to see this wildflower at its peak one day but I'll settle for the blooms I did see without complaint for now!

#1B  Small Round-leaved Orchid (Amerorchis rotundifolia)

Small Round-leaved Orchid (Amerorchis rotundifolia)

I'll right off the bat say that the final two plants on this list are interchangeable. There's no real way I could decide between the two and finally seeing both with my own two eyes meant everything to me plant-wise in 2018. That being said at #1B is the mythical, the magical, the marvelous small round-leaved orchid (Amerorchis rotundifolia). I've been chasing wild orchids for almost a decade now and seen 90+ of North America's native species but this one...this was one of my holy grails. One I'd spent hours daydreaming about seeing. So when this Lake Superior trip was put together this was near or at the top of everyone's list. I'll be sharing and detailing a lot more about this species when I do my Superior series as there's a lot more than meets the eye about this spot and orchid...

Small Round-leaved Orchid (Amerorchis rotundifolia)
Small Round-leaved Orchid (Amerorchis rotundifolia)

I finally made acquaintances with this long desired orchid within the depths of a secluded rich cedar swamp in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Ontario. There, our group came across hundreds in perfect flower and it was like being in a lucid dream. We'd found them the day before at a site further north and inland but the recent heat wave had cooked them and they were well past prime shape. Fortunately, Lake Superior acts as a refrigerator around the Sibley Peninsula and kept the orchids at  this site in perfect shape for our visit! They were simply unbelievable and the long, slow-moving bushwhack to see them along with the liter of blood I lost to the black flies, deer flies, and mosquitoes was completely worth it. Words fail me how excited I was to witness this rarity of the northern woods.

#1A  Sparrow's Egg Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium passerinum)

Sparrow's Egg Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium passerinum)

And then there was one. We've come at last to my number one life plant of 2018 and, of course it's another orchid. In fact, every year but last year (2017) the top spot has gone to one of my beloved orchids. My Lake Superior loop trip gave me more botanical bliss than any trip I've been on before and its greatest gift of all was the sparrow's egg lady's slipper (Cypripedium passerinum). It's a tiny little plant with the delicate slipper about the size of its namesake sparrow egg. It also goes by the common names of Franklin's or spotted lady's slipper.

Sparrow's Egg Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium passerinum)
Sparrow's Egg Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium passerinum)

Within Pukaskwa National Park on Ontario's north shore they grew in scattered clumps on the mossy, juniper-covered stabilized dunes under pine/spruce a ways back from the active shoreline. The cool, refrigerator-like air coming off Superior helps provide a microclimate for this northern disjunct arctic orchid and how they've managed to persist so far south. This is more or less the only spot in the entire Great Lakes region this orchid still occurs. You have to travel hundreds of miles north and/or west to find them again. Interestingly, the sparrow's egg lady's slipper is self-pollinating (see: autogamous), which is unusual for a Cypripedium. You can see the ovaries already swelling/maturing with the flowers in peak shape in the accompanying photos. The photo above right shows just how miniscule the slippers and plants are! It's such an incredible orchid and one that brought long-awaited tears of joy to my eyes. I can still months later hardly believe I got the opportunity to witness their perfection in such a special place.

I hope you've enjoyed this look back on my favorite finds and life plants of 2018. I'll be curious to hear from you all on which ones were your favorites; species you have on your life lists; or experiences with them yourselves. I hope I've warmed your spirit and computer screens even a little bit as Ohio's winter trudges on. Spring is nigh, though! I heard my first red-winged blackbird singing yesterday and already seen skunk cabbage in bloom. Thanks for tuning in and reading and I hope to be back with more content in 2019!

~ ALG ~

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Asplenium Ferns of Ohio

The world of ferns is diverse and ancient. Many of these spore-producing wonders are living fossils and have remained relatively unchanged over millions of years. They've found their place and function in nature and are content to sit back and admire their successes at this point. Or, at least that's how I like to romanticize it. Ferns also happen to be some of my favorite plants but for whatever reason have seen little time dedicated to them on here. I believe that's due for a change.

It's been a while since I last focused on a specific genera of Ohio native plants, too. So why not mix things up and spend some time in the pteridophyte zone and break down the seven extant species of spleenworts (Asplenium) indigenous to my home state. The Aspleniums are arguably my most beloved of all fern genera and can superficially look similar from a distance and even up close. They aren't a hard group to get wrap your mind around with a little help and practice. Which is why I'm here!

The seven extant species of spleenwort (Asplenium spp.) ferns to be found in Ohio

Worldwide there are hundreds of species of Asplenium, with a large majority of them restricted to the tropical regions of the globe. Here in North America we have 28-30 different species and only seven within Ohio's borders. All our spleenworts are small, delicate ferns with slender and somewhat lacy appearances. They also happen to be a promiscuous bunch with many naturally-occurring hybrids. In fact, many of the 'species' we have today are hybrid in origin. Through the millennia the sterile diploid hybrids experienced a doubling of their chromosomes to create fertile allotetraploids. An example is lobed spleenwort (A. pinnatifidum), an allotertraploid derived from the mixing of mountain spleenwort (A. montanum) and walking fern (A. rhizophyllum). I could spend an entire post on this fascinating, and admittedly complex process but let's keep things simple.

All Ohio Asplenium are more or less evergreen. They hang around through the winter months but don't look near as aesthetic or ideal in the harsher conditions. Don't be fooled though: these ferns are tough as nails! They have a tenacity and fight in them that's to be admired, for they choose some harrowing places to live.

Typical habitat for many species of Ohio spleenwort

When it comes to hunting spleenworts around here your best bet is to find some nice rock exposures in the S/SE/E sections of the state. The greatest spleenwort diversity and densities in Ohio are definitely in the unglaciated SE quarter. Almost all our species are rock specialists and will only be found growing in pretty predictable and specific situations. Some of these ferns prefer non-calcareous substrates like acidic sandstone, granite, or shale. Others stick to calcareous rocks and are restricted to the state's limestone regions. They occur in full sun to partly shaded conditions, with some preferring more mossy, mesic spots to others growing literally out of tight crevices and cracks in pure rock. I'll discuss each spleenwort's specific preferences in their profiles below.

For as tough as they all, they're still non-mobile organisms that can't get up and move if a spot becomes unsuitable. So when you're looking for these wonderful ferns try to find a more secluded and/or undisturbed rock habitat to visually scour. Rock climbing, popular hiking destinations with rude plucking fingers, and overly exposed areas typically have fewer ferns to admire. You'll know you're somewhere special when a rock face is just dripping with a diversity of ferns!

With all that being said, I'd like to jump into the species profiles. Each of the seven native taxa, and one naturally-occurring hybrid are featured below with photos, descriptions, range maps, habitat descriptions and some general pointers on where to find them. I've decided to list them in alphabetical order for sake of ease and organization. As usual, I don't write any keys as the experts have graciously done that already and how could I expect to do any better. For a great book on Ohio's (and the surrounding region) ferns, I could not recommend one more than Midwest Ferns: A Field Guide to the Ferns and Fern Relatives of the North Central United States by Steve W. Chadde. It's not expensive and readily available on Amazon. It's definitely become my go to for all my spore-producing needs.

Asplenium bradleyi  -  Bradley's Spleenwort

First up is Ohio's rarest of the ferns featured here, Bradley's spleenwort (A. bradleyi). It's an endangered [S1] species in the state and found in precious few places. It's an allotetraploid that arose as a hybrid between mountain spleenwort (A. montanum) and ebony spleenwort (A. platyneuron).

Bradley's Spleenwort (A. bradleyi) in situ

Bradley's spleenwort is a small, clumped evergreen fern that is restricted to sandstone and other non-calcareous rock. It does an incredible job of fitting into small fissures, cracks, and crevices where a spore was fortunate enough to land. It prefers dry, sunny sites with few other plants growing on the sheer rock faces.

Close up of the fronds of Bradley's Spleenwort
View of the sori of Bradley's Spleenwort

Bradley's spleenwort has a relatively short, dark red-black stipe (stem before the 'leaves') that transitions to a green as you approach the rachis (stem with the 'leaves' or pinnae). Each pinnae is born on a very short stalk with a sharp-toothed to wavy margin. The spore-containing sori are found on the undersides of the pinnae on fertile fronds. They're paired up along the midrib and mature from a gold color to blackish brown. The only Asplenium you're likely to confuse Bradley's with is mountain spleenwort, which makes sense as one of its parent species. However, Bradley's fronds are long and narrow, while mountain's fronds are more deltoid in shape and their pinnae are on longer stalks. Compare with the photos below.

North American distribution of Bradley's Spleenwort (courtesy: BONAP)

Bradley's spleenwort is primarily a species of the Appalachians and curiously the Ozarks region of Missouri and Arkansas. Here in Ohio it's only ever been located in a handful of southeastern counties and currently considered extant in Fairfield and Washington counties. Two of the known sites are thankfully on preserved land but due to their rarity and fragility their locations will not be shared.

Asplenium montanum - Mountain Spleenwort

The next species on this treatment of Ohio's spleenworts is the mountain spleenwort (A. montanum). I'm of the opinion that this fern is the most attractive and intricate of our spleenworts. It can form large aesthetic clumps if happy and really impress anyone who notices as they walk by.

Mountain Spleenwort (A. montanum) in situ

Much like its aforementioned Bradley's kin, the mountain spleenwort is a non-calcareous rock specialist. It will often be about the only vascular plant seen growing in its rock face habitat. Mountain spleenwort is a locally common species where impressive sandstone rock formations are prevalent and relatively undisturbed. The Hocking Hills region and Lake Katharine state nature preserve in SE Ohio are excellent places to see this fern in situ.

Mountain spleenwort doing what it does best
Mountain Spleenwort

Appearance wise mountain spleenwort isn't too hard to discern from Ohio's other Aspleniums. It grows in concentrated clumps with oblong-triangular shaped fronds that appear greenish-blue and leathery. The pinnae sit on noticeable stalks, with each containing some lobing, especially the lowermost pairs. The sori mature brown and are scattered irregularly on the undersides of mature fronds. Mountain spleenwort is additionally one of the more scandalous Aspleniums and regularly hybridizes with other species, especially lobed spleenwort.

North American distribution of Mountain Spleenwort (courtesy: BONAP)

Looking at mountain spleenwort's distribution map it's easy to notice its a fern of the Appalachian mountain range. Here in Ohio it is restricted to the unglaciated Allegheny Plateau where it occurs on a variety of non-calcareous rock, especially sandstone. As mentioned, the Hocking Hills and Lake Katharine areas are excellent places to seek out this fern.

Asplenium pinnatifidum - Lobed Spleenwort

Continuing on is another species in the Appalachian spleenwort complex, the lobed spleenwort (A. pinnatifidum). It arose as a hybrid between mountain spleenwort and walking fern (A. rhizophyllum). 

Lobed Spleenwort (A. pinnatifidum) in situ

Keeping with the trend of the ferns shared so far, lobed spleenwort is another one that prefers non-calcareous rock substrates. It is a bit more forgiving in the shade and can occur in both dry and more moist conditions. Here in Ohio it's most commonly seen on sandstone but can grow on gneiss as well.

Lobed Spleenwort close up
Lobed Spleenwort in situ

The fronds overall are lance-shaped, like their parent walking fern with a long-tapering tip. The lower sections are usually cut into the pinnae-like lobes. It should pointed out that lobed spleenwort can vary greatly in just how 'lobed' its fronds are. I've observed extremely lobed fronds, I've seen fronds that didn't have nearly any lobes, and everything in-between. Regardless of how many lobes a frond may have it's most important to look at the base of the lobe and confirm there is no stalk and the lobe is firmly attached to the rachis. Observe this feature in the accompanying photos. Lobed spleenwort is usually a more solitary-occurring plant but large colonies can sometimes be found.

North American distribution of Lobed Spleenwort (courtesy: BONAP)

Lobed spleenwort's distribution looks strikingly similar to mountain spleenwort's. It ranges further west and is more prevalent in Ohio, too. Anytime you see some exposed sandstone rock formations is a good place to take a peek. With such overlaying ranges and shared habitat preferences it's no surprise lobed and mountain spleenwort will often grow in association with one another. And when that happens things can get a bit wild so to speak...

Asplenium x trudellii - Trudell's Spleenwort

As I pointed out in the opening sections of this post the genus Asplenium is notorious for producing hybrids. There are over 20 accepted spleenwort hybrids in North America, with no fewer than six having been collected in Ohio. The most common of all is Trudell's spleenwort (A. x trudellii), a sterile triploid formed from the crossing of mountain and lobed spleenwort.

Trudell's Spleenwort (A. x trudellii) in situ

Trudell's spleenwort is intermediate in appearance between its two parents but definitely has more of a lobed spleenwort look to it than mountain spleenwort. It will come as no surprise that it occurs in the same habitats as its parents and often nestled right in with 'pure' strains of both. 

Comparison: mountain spleenwort on L; Trudell's spleenwort in the middle; lobed spleenwort on the R

While in the Hocking Hills a ways back, I plucked a couple fronds of Trudell's, mountain and lobed spleenworts for a comparison shot. The key feature to know you have Trudell's is to find the lower pinnae with conspicuous stalks. Recall that lobed spleenwort, no matter how lobed it is will lack stalked pinnae entirely. The middle fronds show that feature perfectly. Also take note that the fronds of Trudell's are larger than either of its parents. Many times hybrid "species" are larger than their parents due to something called 'hybrid vigor' or heterosis. That can be another clue you have Trudell's spleenwort if you see an exceptionally lobed and monster-sized lobed spleenwort.

North American distribution of Trudell's Spleenwort (courtesy: BONAP)

For reference is a distribution map of known collections of Trudell's spleenwort in North America. Obviously, it's restricted to where both parents occur together and if you'd like to sniff some out, I'd recommend the aforementioned Hocking Hills and Lake Katharine locales. I've personally seen nice examples of this hybrid alongside its parents at both locations.

Asplenium platyneuron - Ebony Spleenwort

This next species of fern is undoubtedly Ohio's most common Asplenium and found throughout most of the state. Ebony spleenwort (A. platyneuron) is also on average the largest of our spleenworts.

Ebony Spleenwort (A. platyneuron) in situ

Ebony spleenwort distinguishes itself from the rest of its Asplenium kin in several ways. Most noticeable and previously mentioned is its size. This fern can appear in a smaller fashion but larger fronds can grow well over a foot long. Another factor separating it from other spleenworts is it's just as likely to be found growing in soil as it is on rock. Most all other Aspleniums featured here are restricted to rock substrates. With variety of substrates comes a variety of habitat choices, too. You can find it in open woodlands, along streams, in old fields and clearings, and even growing in sidewalk cracks and on building foundations.

Ebony Spleenwort (A. platyneuron) in soil
Ebony Spleenwort on rock with smooth cliffbrake (Pellaea glabella)

Ebony spleenwort is a pretty easy species to identify even at a distance by its typically erect growing fertile fronds. The sterile fronds are usually more prostrate and evergreen, while the vertical fertile fronds wither in the winter months. The stipe is quite short before the pinnae appear. Both the stipe and rachis is smooth, shiny and a reddish or purple brown color. The pinnae are paired up in an alternately arranged fashion up the rachis. The lowermost pairs are quite small and increase in size as you go up the rachis with the frond being largest/widest in the upper third.

North American distribution of Ebony Spleenwort (courtesy: BONAP)

Ebony spleenwort ranges widely throughout eastern North America and occurs is just about every county in Ohio. It's mostly absent from the glaciated lake plain of NW Ohio. I encounter is most often in early-mid successional mesic woodlands in my area of the state.

Asplenium rhizophyllum - Walking Fern

Of all the Asplenium ferns I'll share on here, I don't think you'll find one as unique and charming as the walking fern (A. rhizophyllum). Older literature will place it in the genus Camptosorous but modern treatments have it rightfully in Asplenium. Which makes sense considering it readily hybridizes with other spleenworts.

Walking Fern (A. rhizophyllum) in situ

In a departure from most of the Aspleniums we've covered so far, the walking fern is strictly a limestone lover. If you find yourself in a cool, moist place with exposed limestone bedrock covered in moss, I'll bet you'll find some! The Edge of Appalachia preserve system and Clifton Gorge state nature preserve are places you'd be hard pressed to not see walking fern at.

Walking Fern on a moss-covered limestone boulder
Walking Fern

Another departure from the previous spleenworts is walking fern's tendency to form large, sprawling colonies in prime conditions. This is achieved by a frond's ability to form a plantlet at the end of its long-tapered tip. This plantlet will root and subsequently grow into a new plant and clone of the original. This allows the fern to, ahem...'walk' across its substrate. How neat is that!

North American distribution of Walking Fern (courtesy: BONAP)

Walking fern isn't nearly as common as the distribution map above infers. Due to its habitat specificity you're only going to find it in certain situations and they can be rather isolated. However, it's still not by any means a rare find and once you get the eye for its haunts you'll come across it with regularity.

Asplenium ruta-muraria - Wall-rue

We've come to the penultimate Asplenium species on this treatment of Ohio's spleenworts. It also happens to be my personal favorite of them all! The wall-rue (A. ruta-muraria) is a state threatened [S2] species in Ohio and only to be found in a handful of southern counties. It's certainly as rare as it is cute.

Wall-rue (A. ruta-muraria) in situ

The dainty and delicate wall-rue is another limestone lover and only found growing on shaded dolomite slump rocks, boulders, and cliff faces in Ohio. Due to such habitat specificity you're only going to see it in special places where its necessary bedrock requirements are met. The Edge of Appalachia preserve system and its plethora of dolomite is your best bet at spotting some in Ohio.

Wall-rue in the hand
Wall-rue on a dolomite boulder

Wall-rue's small and lacy appearance, as well as its unique habitat preferences make it a pretty easy fern to identify. The fronds and its bluntly-toothed pinnae are deltoid in shape and appear rather leathery. This fern can range from dark green to a blue-green color, which I find to be extra beautiful. The photo above of an exceptionally large fronds with your blogger's hand behind it gives a great opportunity to study its features and shape.

North American distribution of Wall-rue (courtesy: BONAP)

Wall-rue is most common along the central spine of the Appalachian Mountains with some outlying distributions to the west. It strangely reappears hundreds of miles disjunct to the north in the Straights of Mackinac region and the Bruce peninsula, where I've seen it on dolomite bedrock on Flowerpot Island.

Asplenium trichomanes - Maidenhair Spleenwort

The seventh and final species of Ohio Asplenium I have to share is the maidenhair spleenwort (A. trichomanes). It's another small, dainty species that comes across as extra charming when one finds it in the field.

Maidenhair Spleenwort (A. trichomanes)

Maidenhair spleenwort is another rock lover but interestingly can't seem to make up its mind whether it prefers calcareous or acidic, non-calcareous substrates. In Ohio you can find it on both types of rock, but the limestone-loving stuff is definitely more rare. Experts treat this spleenwort with two subspecies depending on its substrate choice. Those found growing on acidic sandstone are A. trichomanes subsp. trichomanes; those found on limestone are subsp. quadrivalens.

Maidenhair spleenwort on limestone (subsp. quadrivalens)
Maidenhair spleenwort on sandstone (subsp. trichomanes)

Like a majority of Ohio's spleenworts, maidenhair isn't too hard a species to discern from the others. It grows in tight clumps in cracks/crevices on slump rocks, boulders, and cliff faces. The stipe/rachis is smooth and a dark purple-brown color. The little orbicular pinnae are oppositely paired up and usually a pale green to greenish-yellow color. It typically occurs as sporadic individuals but I have seen it grow in sizable clumps, too.

North American distribution of Maidenhair Spleenwort (courtesy: BONAP)

Maidenhair spleenwort is the most wide-ranging of Ohio's Asplenium species and has been collected from just about every contiguous state. The previous six ferns have been restricted to east of the Mississippi River, but this one continues on westward and occurs in the southern Rockies and Pacific Northwest. In select areas of its range (NE, N Great Lakes and PNW), you may come across the green spleenwort (A. trichomanes-ramosum or A. viride). It looks nearly identical to the maidenhair and grows in the same habitat, even growing in association, but the green spleenwort has an entirely green stipe/rachis. Recall the maidenhair's is a dark purple-brown. Green spleenwort is much more uncommon and a celebrated find here in the east.

Asplenium resiliens - Black-stemmed Spleenwort

To wrap things up, I wanted to touch on an eighth and final spleenwort species that should be mentioned and included. The black-stemmed spleenwort (A. resiliens) was collected a single time in Ohio back in 1900 and has yet to be seen again. The collection site was in southern Adams Co., where its preferred habitat of sunny calcareous bedrock exposures, slump rocks, and cliff faces are quite common. It looks strikingly similar to the ebony spleenwort (A. platyneuron) and takes a pretty keen eye to notice the differences. Black-stemmed spleenwort has a pure black, glossy rachis; pinnae that are more or less oppositely arranged vs ebony's alternate arrangement; and the pinnae of black-stemmed are more or less entire vs ebony's wavy/toothed margins and the presence of a little auricle near the pinnae's stalk.

North American distribution of Black-stemmed Spleenwort (courtesy: BONAP)

Black-stemmed spleenwort is a species of the southeastern and south-central US, and isn't uncommon just south of Ohio's border in central Kentucky. It stands to reason this species could still be lurking on some isolated, over-looked rock in extreme southern Ohio and the romantic in me would like to think it can and will be rediscovered one day.

I hope you've enjoyed this look into the Asplenium ferns of Ohio! Like I've mentioned they are some of my most cherished ferns and a group that while not too difficult to learn still deserved some light shed on them. I hope this post will inspire you to get out and see these spore-producers for yourselves and perhaps take the time to become better acquainted with them. I'm sure many have walked right past them and not taken much notice before. Even better is you don't have to wait for spring due to most all species we have being evergreen! Thanks again for tuning in and happy botanizing!

- ALG -