Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Weekend on the Edge

If you ask me there is no better way to spend a Fall weekend in Ohio than exploring the more than 13,000 acres of the states largest and most diverse (both botanically and geologically) nature preserve, The Edge of Appalachia Preserve in Adams County.  From the large, unbroken tracts of forest to its remnant prairie islands and stunning vista views, "The Edge" is in my opinion Ohio's most precious natural treasure.  I had the unique pleasure and honor of completing my college internship with the Edge this past summer which turned out to be one of the most educational, fascinating and rewarding experiences of my life.  The amount of knowledge, research and depth of understanding exhibited by the hardworking staff stationed at the Eulett Center on the preserve is something all other organizations should strive to duplicate.  The photograph below is a panoramic view from Buzzards Roost Rock, one of a few unbeatable views of the Ohio Brush Creek valley the Edge is widely known for.  Hailing from west central Ohio, this scene makes me forget I'm still in a state that is more known by people for its cornfields and flat landscapes.

View of the Ohio Brush Creek valley from Buzzard's Roost Rock

I awoke early Friday morning to rainy, dreary conditions threatening to damper my drive from Athens to the Edge but by the time I pulled into the Eulett Center a couple hours later the gray mist had given way to sunny, sapphire skies just in time for my hike with preserve manager and friend, Chris Bedel.  Any time spent out in the field with Chris, tapping into his seemingly bottomless well of knowledge is worth its weight in gold.  Our focus on this excursion was a couple of small prairie openings that had one of the season’s last, rare orchids in peak blooming condition.

Spiranthes magnicamporum
Tall-grass prairie opening

Nestled between clumps of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) hides the Great Plains Ladies' Tresses orchid (Spiranthes magnicamporum).  A potentially threatened species, this late bloomer persists in its greatest numbers in the state on the Edge.  Within the prairie opening pictured above I counted over 30 stalks of S. magnicamporum in bloom in an area less than an acre in size.  Known to be tolerant of soil disturbances, almost all the plants I found were growing along the path or in areas where the hillside had slipped down to create small depressions.  Great Plains Ladies' Tresses is primarily found in grassy fields and dry prairies comprised of calcareous soils which the preserve has in spades.  In many areas of the preserve the primary bedrock is dolomite (a variety of limestone rich in magnesium) which gives the soil a sweeter, more calcareous make up and accounts for many of the unique plant communities.  A fun fact about S. magnicamporum is it's one of the few orchids that has the added pleasure of being fragrant.  It's worth the strain and time to get down on ones hands and knees to treat your olfactories to the pleasing aroma that reminds me of fresh linens.  

Spiranthes magnicamporum
Spiranthes magnicamporum


Spiranthes magnicamporum is easy to identify in the field by its striking yellow throat and the unusual arrangement of its lateral petals.  Most Spiranthes' lateral petals are either flared out or appressed to the side of the inflorescence.  However the Great Plains Ladies' Tresses are curved upwards giving off what I personally think looks like the horns of a charging bull.  Finding so many in bloom was a pleasant surprise and certainly put a smile on Chris and I's faces, but what came next made our hike one of the most memorable in recent memory.

Chris mentioned he had not explored this particular area in quite some time and decided to take a look around while I was busy photographing.  About half an hour later as we were walking up the slope to make our way back, Chris pointed out a suspicious and different looking species of Goldenrod (Solidago) that had caught his eye.  I agreed it looked different than the other members of the genus I was familiar with so we collected a specimen to analyze and go over once we got back.  A couple hours later back at the office we went through several references and keys and came up with a name for our new friends face, Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), a species NEW to the preserve!  One of the most heavily botanized and studied areas not only in Ohio but the Midwest, it's not every day you get to be a part of a discovery as exciting as this!  The thought to photograph this new plant escaped my mind during the excitement of the discovery, but if interested you can see pictures and find out more about this species here.

Sugar Maple


Saturday dawned clear and cool and promised another beautiful and exciting Autumn day.  Unfortunately the prolonged drought we suffered this summer and fall directly affected the foliage show usually in full swing this time of year.  The above pictures are from last years splendid display of color.  From the deep scarlet of the Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) to the pristine yellows and oranges of the Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum) the leaves this year mostly turned brown, crinkled up and fell to the ground.  Nonetheless some of the trees were putting on their usual show and didn't disappoint.  I decided to start my day with a stroll through Lynx Prairie on the preserve, one of my absolute favorite spots.  Many rare and gorgeous species of wildflowers and plants I have and will discuss on this blog come from the diverse and unique patches of prairie openings of Lynx.  As I pulled into the parking lot an older couple was just arriving as well and after introducing myself and a few minutes of conversation I was asked to lead them on a hike through Lynx, which I graciously accepted.  Members of the Audubon Society, they had driven from their home in Oxford, Ohio to hike the three trails (Lynx Prairie, Buzzards Roost and the Wilderness) open to the public on the Edge.  I had a great time being able to delve into my nerdy world of botany and natural history of the Adams County prairies with them and found that I absolutely love taking interested people out on hikes.  A couple hours later they left with many of their questions and curiosities answered and thanked me for an amazing experience.  They certainly seemed to have a great time but I think I walked away having just as much, if not more fun than them!  It's my wish I get these kinds of opportunities more often.  The more I can share and pass along the better off our natural world is and the greater the chance of survival for our future generations.

Shale Barren Aster
Involucre of the Shale Barren Aster

Two of my favorite fall blooming plants are still in peak bloom this time of the year and neither are in short supply on the preserve grounds.  First up is the state threatened species the Shale Barren Aster (Aster oblongifolius).  It is also known as Aromatic Aster for the balsam-like odor emitted from its crushed or bruised foliage.  With 19 species of Aster being found throughout the Edge this is one of the easiest to identify.  The oblong, sessile and entire leaves (along with the aroma), unique involucre with dark green bracts that stick out perpendicular to the stem and the particular shade of blue/purple all add up to be the best means of identification.  While only found in three southern Ohio counties this species is pretty common on the preserve and can be found growing in dry, open and often rocky situations where limestone soils are present.  In the near future I plan get into the I.D. and individual beauty of more of our native Asters.

Stiff Gentian
Closeup of Stiff Gentian

Found many times growing right alongside Aster oblongifolius in their shared habitat, Stiff Gentian (Gentianella quinquefolia) adds another striking shade of purple to Mother Nature's palette.  It's nearly impossible to go anywhere on the preserve this time of year and not find this beauty gracing the landscape at some point.  Prairie and woodland openings, cedar glades and moist streambanks are the desired habitat for this species.  While most members of this genus have flowers that remain closed almost all the time, G. quinquefolia will unfold its petals wide and beckon a nearby pollinator to pay it a worthwhile visit.  Taking a closer look at the inflorescence shows the dark purple, vertical lines that act as a nectar guide for pollinating insects, just like the Gentians I talked about in a previous post for you devotees.  

The last great discovery I made before getting back into the truck for the drive back to the apartment and civilization was something that contradicts an earlier post regarding the Lesser Ladies' Tresses orchid (Spiranthes ovalis).  In a moist cedar glade opening where I was photographing the Stiff Gentian's I came across SEVEN spikes of S. ovalis all within a a few feet of each other.  They were past bloom and I only noticed them when I sat down to change lenses on the camera (awesome the way things work out sometimes!) but to find that many all so close to each other was amazing.  They are usually pretty spread out and you only find one or two in an area, but seven all huddled together within a 2 square meter area was a fitting way to cap off an unforgettable weekend down on the Edge. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Liatris, the "Star" of the Prairies

As spring starts to fade and gets swallowed by the hot, steamy months of summer, wildflowers begin their move from woodland sanctuaries to the open, sunny fields and prairies.  While a number of species continue to thrive and bloom on the forest floor and woodland borders/openings throughout the year, many more need larger amounts of sunlight the closed forest canopy cannot provide.

Lynx Prairie in Adams County

Hailing from the largest family of vascular plants, Asteraceae or Compositae, the genus of Liatris has to rank near the top of my favorite summer wildflowers.  Seven species are indigenous to Ohio's soils and all are beautiful and unique in their own ways.  The many small prairie openings in Adams County, OH are home to five species of Liatris and provided me many opportunities to see these plants in their natural habitat.  Some species are grown in nurseries and wildflower gardens so a few of you may recognize these plants from those experiences.  Let's take an inside look at some of the charming members of this intricate genus.

Liatris squarrosa
Liatris squarrosa

Scaly Blazing Star (Liatris squarrosa) is one of two species of Liatris that are state listed with this particular one falling under the potentially threatened status.  While only found in a handful of Ohio counties, this species shows no geographical distribution preference, being found in all quarters of the state except the far southeast.  Blooming and fruiting from July - October, this plant is found growing in xeric prairies, rocky open woodlands and barren Oak savannas; all having poor soil conditions in common.  The inflorescence (whole flower cluster) of this species lies at the top of the stem as well as singly in the leaf axils and is made up of 15-60 disk flowers (single, pink flower).  The single disk flowers remind me of a tiny, pink snake 'tasting' the air with its tongue-like stamens.  One of the best means of keying these plants down to the species level is taking a close look at the involucre (the rosette of bracts the inflorescence emerges from; essentially the area between the inflorescence and where it attaches to the stem).  The shape, color and glabrous (smooth) or pubescent (hairy) nature of the bract helps tremendously.  With L. squarrosa the bracts have a telltale appearance of coming to a sharp point, scaled structure (hence the common name) and being covered in hairs.  While the pubescence can vary greatly in this species, all the plants I came across showed a heavy amount.

Liatris squarrosa white variation

The above picture is of a lone white flowered variation of L. squarrosa.  In the multiple prairie openings, out of the hundreds and hundreds of plants in bloom this was the only white one I saw.  How rare and unique it is I'd love to know.

The other state listed species is the threatened Cylindrical Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea) which I was fortunate to come across but did not have my camera equipment with me.  It can be found blooming around the same time and in the same habitat as L. squarrosa and has a similar plant/flower structureThe best means of I.D.'ing this species in the field is once again looking at the involucre.  The smooth cylindrical surface constructed from the green bracts along with the long and narrow nature of the involucre make for positive identification.

Liatris aspera
Liatris aspera

Next up is my favorite of the group, Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera).  Much more common in the state than the previous species, this guy is still mostly restricted to the southern third of Ohio and some populations up along Lake Erie in the sand dune areas.  Why it is largely absent from the northern two thirds of Ohio is unknown despite suitable habitat being available.  This beauty blooms later in the season (August-September) in the same habitat and environments as just about all Liatris'.  With such robust and full blooms as shown in the photograph on the left, this plant will commonly droop over from the weight.  Similar to the species above the involucres are key to identifying this species along with the much shorter and less emergent disk flowers.  Taking a look at the bracts (seen in the photograph on the right), they are circular in fashion and around the edges, especially at the apex, are a pinkish/white color.

Liatris spicata
Liatris spicata with Tiger Swallowtail

The last species I would like to discuss is the Spiked Blazing Star (Liatris spicata).  Our most common and widely distributed Blazing Star it differs from the all the previously mentioned species in a couple different ways.  Instead of growing in xeric conditions this species prefers moist soils of all types of habitats.  I've seen in it prairies, marshes, fens and wet meadows/fields.  Also different is the appearance of the plant itself.  A tall, straight stem is covered with much smaller inflorescence's that contain fewer disk flowers per bundle.  Something interesting within the Liatris genus is the fact that it flowers from the top down (as shown in the photograph on the left.  The top most flowers have wilted while the bottom is still healthily in bloom), while many, many other plants bloom the traditional bottom up.  Blazing Stars are a huge hit with the butterfly crowd as well as the human.  As seen above an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is making good use of the nectar from L. spicata.  Watching these guys start at the bottom of the stalk and work their way up, taking the time to sample each disk flower with their long proboscis is something I could watch all day.  The insect-plant interactions I witness on an almost daily basis never get old.  Such an amazing world that goes on right under our noses with a very large majority never taking the time to care or notice. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Ladies of Fall

A frequently asked question I receive is, "What is your favorite time of year?".  A question I can honestly say I have no true answer to.  To me every day is my favorite time of year because nature has an interesting way of making all 365 days unique and important, even during winter.  However, I could easily make the argument that Fall is extra great even if it only truly lasts a few weeks.  As the days become shorter and the sun starts to sink in the sky one of my absolute favorite families, Orchidaceae, shows off its other Ladies.

The Ladies' Tresses that is.  Spring is known for the five native Lady's Slipper orchids, much larger and showier than the Ladies of the Fall.  Nine species are native to our state and I was fortunate enough to encounter a few this season while on my many hikes in southeastern and southern Ohio.  The genus name for these inconspicuous orchids is Spiranthes, which is Latin for "spiral flower".  Judging from the photographs below I think the earliest Taxonomists captured a pretty accurate name for them.  These orchids, unlike almost all the other species, can be pretty difficult to get down to species.  A number of things can help make this process considerably easier.  Flowering time, size of the inflorescence (which is a fancy botany term for the 'flower(s)' on a plant), structure of the inflorescence, color of the inflorescence's 'throat', habitat and whether or not the plants leaves are visible/present during flowering are all quite diagnostic.

Spiranthes vernalis
Spiranthes vernalis

Spiranthes vernalis
Grass-leaved Ladies' Tresses, Spiranthes vernalis, is also known as Spring Ladies' Tresses which is quite an inaccurate common name for Ohio since this species blooms in late summer/early fall.  This orchid is much more common in its frequency and distribution in the South where it lives up the latter common name and blooms in Spring.  Being one of Ohio's tallest Spiranthes at over two feet and its yellow colored throat/lip help to I.D. this species in the field.  This species was found growing in it's usual habitat of an abandoned, dry field and is also found in dry meadows/prairies in either acidic or alkaline soils.  Personally, I think the inflorescence of this particular plant were a bit more robust than those of the norm which made for even better detail.  While not rare in Ohio, it is relatively uncommon and is mostly restricted to the southern most counties.

Spiranthes lacera
Spiranthes lacera

After discovering and photographing S. vernalis, I bumped into its close relative, Spiranthes lacera blooming all over the place in the same old field.  Known as Slender Ladies' Tresses this tiny orchid grows in the same types of habitat as the aforementioned species.  This orchid is almost identical to S. gracilis, a species that shares almost every aspect of S. lacera.  Some people treat them as separate species while others consider the latter as a variation: Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis.  Consulting my copy of The Monocotyledoneae of Ohio by Lucy Braun (an absolutely fantastic resource I constantly use), who separates them as two individual species, I believe the sample photographed above to be S. gracilis due to the small difference in the size/shape of the inflorescence and size of the green coloration on the lip or throat which is illustrated in the key.  My hesitation lies in the fact that I have an up-to-date and very thorough list of ALL the species of plants found on the Edge of Appalachia preserve and only S. lacera is listed as occurring on the preserve system which is where this plant was found.  Who am I to disagree about the I.D. of a plant that many smarter, better and more accomplished botanists have collected, looked over and identified?  Or maybe some botantists are just too picky and this really is just one species.  Regardless it is a splendid and beautifully delicate wildflower to be admired.

Spiranthes ovalis
Spiranthes ovalis

The third and final species of Ladies' Tresses I've encountered this Fall was the potentially state threatened Lesser Ladies' Tresses, Spiranthes ovalis.  Much more rare in Ohio than the previously mentioned two species, this small lady has only ever been collected and found in six southern Ohio counties according to the ODNR.  As I mentioned in my previous blog post regarding the Yellowish Gentian, Gentiana alba, this plant was found growing in the moist, calcareous soil where a seep emerged from the hillside.  There are two varieties to be found in the United States for this species.  The two are separated by the presence or absence of essential flowering organs but I won't go into the details to save some sanity and explanation.  Ohio's typical variety is that of Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata, which does not contain the necessary flowering organs and thus is self pollinated while the other variety S. ovalis var. ovalis is insect pollinated.  Unfortunately due to the self pollination of our species it's quantities in the area are limited and usually only a few plants are found.  I was able to find just this one and she was just starting to bloom in mid September.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Yellowish and Bottle Gentians

I decided for my first post to take a look at two of my favorite fall blooming plants that come from a family well known for their unique beauty, the Gentians, Gentianaceae.   Click the photo's to see them in their original size for better quality and detail!

Gentiana alba
Gentiana alba

One of the first Gentians to bloom in Ohio is the Yellowish Gentian, Gentiana alba.  Also known as Cream or Plain Gentian, it is listed as a threatened species in the state of Ohio only being currently found in Adams and Athens counties according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR).  I came across this species on the diverse and botanical wonderland that is the Edge of Appalachia preserve in Adams County, OH.  The flowers look like small, white, football shaped tubes but are actually 5 petals that hardly open when they are in full bloom.  The photograph above shows how tightly these 5 petal tips are wound.  As the flowers mature the tips loosen just enough to allow this plants chief pollinator, the bumblebee, to pry apart the petals to access its nectar reward and in the process pick up and deposit pollen, thus pollinating the flower.  The photographs below are an example of nearly mature blooms just starting to open.

Gentiana alba
Gentiana alba

The Yellowish Gentian resides in mesic prairies, savannas, grassy meadows and damp woods; which is where I found this particular population.  A small seep from the side of the hill has allowed these plants to continuously receive the amount of moisture they need to survive.  However with the natural progression and succession of nature in the forest opening these plants are at risk.  Without management of this spot; such as clearing the understory and opening the canopy so these plants can receive their high quota of sunlight, these very rare and beautiful plants will disappear.  Even more reason to manage this spot is the presence of two potentially threatened species: Tall Larkspur, Delphinium exaltatum and Lesser Ladies-tresses, Spiranthes ovalis, which I plan to discuss on a post in the future.   That's three rare, state listed species all within a few feet of each other, a very good reason to give this area some attention!

Gentiana andrewsii
The next species of Gentian is essentially a purplish blue version of the aforementioned Yellowish Gentian and shares some of its habits.  Bottle Gentian, Gentiana andrewsii, is a gorgeous fall bloomer that is found in high quality wetland areas such as moist prairies and forest openings, fens, moist thickets and swampy areas near bodies of water.  Funnily enough I stumbled across a large colony off it in full bloom in a wet ditch along my road in Athens county, a welcome surprise!  

Gentiana andrewsii
Gentiana andrewsii

These plants stand 1-2 feet tall at maturity and produce flower buds at the top of the stem as well as in the leaf axils on the upper sets of leaves.  The flowers in the pictures are fully matured and are never seen open, hence their common name.  Similar to the Yellowish Gentian, the Bottle Gentian has 5 petals whose tips are closed at the end.  The inside of the flower structure exhibits the tiny fringing on the tips of the 5 petals as well as the stamens and pistil.  Normally the stamens are up tight against the pistil but upon opening of the flower I caused them to spread out.  The dark blue vertical lines on the inside of the petals serve as nectar guides for the pollinating bumblebees.  The bees see them through the outside of the flower and know that inside lies a nutritious meal.  The following photographs show the process of the bumblebee forcing his way inside the flower which was fascinating to watch in person.  I found a comfortable spot to sit and waited patiently for a bumblebee to buzz close enough to my lens to capture his fascinating task.  As the bumblebee breaks into the flower he disappears inside to collect his prize and upon satisfaction backs up and slides out of the flower and continues on to the next.

Many people complain about all the annoying, biting and stinging flying insects in nature and wish the world was rid of them.  How regretful and sorry those people would be if their desire came to fruition.  Without the bumblebees evolved relationship with the Bottle Gentian this plant would cease to exist and the bumblebee would be without a major food source.  Such inter-relationships are vitally important to just about all flowering plants and the countless numbers of insects.  Without those bothersome six legged fliers our world would be a much more bleak, barren and hungry place.

I hope you have enjoyed my first post and look forward to the many, many more to come covering all kinds of different flora and fauna!  If along my journey I can get just one person to care and become interested in our natural world and the conservation, preservation and protection of it then I will have done my job.  After all we are all just one person and look at the differences we, you can make!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Greetings and Salutations!

It's been my intent to start a nature blog on here for quite awhile but somehow the idea slipped my brain time and time again.  Well I've finally come around and decided to get one started!  As some of you are hopefully aware it's been my hobby and passion the past few years to capture natures beauty with my camera lens and share it through my Facebook page (which can be found at A.L. Gibson Photography...hey it's my blog so no harm in the free plug!).  I decided to take it to the blogging level to increase my audience and be able to go more in depth with the identification, natural history and interesting nuggets of information I so love to blab on and on about.  With time I hope to establish this as a solid field guide to many of our great states native flora and fauna.  Since my passion runs deepest in the botanical world I will try to keep things balanced between my beloved plants and our more 'mobile' wildlife...but no promises!  Ultimately I hope this blog inspires many of you to get off your duffs and take the time to lace up your hiking boots and see many of the things I share for yourself!  A park, forest, nature preserve, etc. is never too far away to explore at any time of the year.  Here is a map of the 89 public Nature Preserves in Ohio.  Check back day to day for new posts as I will do my best to keep this updated 4-5 times a week.