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. 


  1. Sounds like you had a great day at The Edge. Spiranthes magnicamporum is one of my favorites. As dry as it's been at The Edge, northern Adams County has been worse. No matter where you walk, woods or prairie, you crunch with every step. I enjoyed your post.

  2. Thanks, Steve! I read your post about the S. magnicamporum you have at Bluejay Barrens. Very neat stuff! Prairie habitat and it's botanical diversity is one of my passions and great interests.

  3. Great post, and beautiful photos! I know this is a rather late comment in relation to when this was posted, but I had a question. Over here near Chicago, I've read that it is essentially impossible to tell apart Spiranthes magnicamporum from S. cernua morphologically (you need seeds or a lab) because S. cernua is so variable. I've read/heard that it can even have all the characteristics of S. magnicamporum (the ascending lateral sepals, the cream to yellow throat, the slightly later flowering time, the lack of leaves at that time, even the smell). I don't have very much experience yet, so I was just wondering if you know of a way to tell them apart in the field? Is there a way that you can tell them apart in Ohio that might not work in Chicago/Indiana? It's frustrating having something that is practically impossible to ID in the field, so I would love to hear your response! Thank you so much.

  4. Hi, Abby! Thanks for stopping by and I'm glad you enjoyed the post no matter how old it is! I'd be more than happy to give my thoughts on your debacle as I spent a lot of time with both species this year, along with many of Spiranthes spp.

    Chicago lies within a strong overlap of both species ranges so I can imagine them being rather hard to differentiate. Fortunately in Ohio it's mostly range and habitat that can quickly separate the two. S. magnicamporum is rare in Ohio and only grows (as far as I know) in calcareous soiled prairies and meadows (with one record being in a limestone quarry). S. cernua grows in a variety of habitats here but I've only ever seen it in our fen complexes.

    S. cernua has an all-white flower and throat in all the plants I've ever seen (3 different populations in varying parts of the state) and has little to no noticeable fragrance. S. magnicamporum always exhibits an obvious yellow throat and is extremely fragrant, I can smell them before I see them on occasion. S. cernua also usually has its leaves at antithesis while S. magnicamporum typically does not.

    Comparing photographs of the two species I took this fall I notice the bottom lip of S. cernua is more fringed than S. magnicamporum. Also the top lip or "hood" of the inflorescence of S. cernua is two-pronged while S. magnicamporum comes to a single point. Maybe that's a phenological difference and only applies from the populations I visit but it's pretty obvious to me.

    All in all I use habitat, throat color, leaves at antithesis and especially fragrance to separate them. Blooming time is also a factor as the S. cernua in the fens blooms beginning in late August while S. magnicamporum doesn't bloom (where I see it at least) until late September. Hope this helps some!