Thursday, September 15, 2011

Adams County's Prairies Revisited

I'm quite excited to move on with my series on Ohio's native prairies!  For part two I will focus on the tall grass prairies of north and west central Ohio known as the Sundusky and Darby Plains.  These once immense prairie systems were some of Ohio's most diverse and ecologically important habitats prior to European settlement until they were almost entirely erased forever.  However I can't help but first share a few examples of the amazing flora seen during my most recent time spent down in Adams county!  Just consider this a happy extension and continuation of previous post on the bluegrass prairies of Ohio.

Big Bluestem looking over the rolling hills and valleys of southern Ohio

There is nothing better than spending a few days in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian's in southern Ohio.  With the forecast predicting clear blue skies and sunny warm weather ahead, my father and I made the two hour drive down to our property in Adams county.  We'd been meaning to give the cabin and surrounding deck a fresh coat of paint for a while and decided to take advantage of nature's temporary compromise.  As promised, the sun shined brightly through the yellowing canopy of leaves that rippled in the refreshing breeze.  Painting has never been known to put a smile on my face but I couldn't complain spending all day outside in the fresh forest air with nothing but the sounds of late summer tickling my eardrums.  Despite the days filled with a cramped hand and paintbrush, I was able to slip out in the early morning or evening hours for some botanizing!  Lucky I did as I was in for a treat with an array of tantalizingly rare and gorgeous wildflowers!

Rough Rattlesnake-root - Prenanthes aspera

When it comes down to it I really am a fan of just about any plant species and/or family.  It's easy to play favorites, as I frequently do, when so many share the characteristics and qualities I look for in a plant.  Having said that, I can say without any doubt come fall one of the best genera to go looking for are the Rattlesnake-roots (Prenanthes spp.).  Rough Rattlesnake-root (P. aspera) is one of the rarest and is listed as an endangered species in Ohio.  The open and rocky situations in the county's more acidic barrens are home to the few state populations still extant.  Some point in the near or far future I'd love to do a post dedicated solely to our state's seven Prenanthes species.

Yellowish Gentian - Gentiana alba

Ah, Gentian season is here!  Nothing says fall like the white and blue colored, tubular blooms from the Gentians.  The first up to bat is the Yellowish Gentian (Gentiana alba), which also goes by the common names of Cream or Prairie Gentian.  Listed as threatened in Ohio, I've never seen it anywhere else than a couple separate populations along Adams county's most secluded forested roads.  Their ghostly cream flowers glowed through the morning mists as I walked up to the first patch just starting to open at the top of the corolla.  I did a more detailed post on these wonderful plants last fall that can be found HERE.

Blue Curls - Trichostema dichotomum

After a few seasons of eluding me I finally found the dainty and cute Blue Curls (Trichostema dichotomum) blooming in one of the areas numerous prairie openings!  I'd waited a long time to capture these sophisticated little flowers with my camera lens and jumped at the chance to final mark these off the list.  There's no mistaking Blue Curls with their dark blue spotted lip and curving stamens and styles.  Each flower is only the size of a pinkie nail so the macro lens was a must!  Ohio is home to the state endangered Narrow-leaved Blue Curls (T. setaceum) which only differ in very narrow, linear leaves and slightly larger flowers.

Elephant's-foot - Elephantopus carolinianus

Easily one of my favorite wildflowers come fall in the southern Ohio counties is the easily ignored Elephant's-foot (Elephantopus carolinianus).  An inconspicuous member of the Asteraceae family, it's small white flowers actually only have four petals, each comprised of five rays; all making the flower seem to have numerous individual petals.  Elephant's-foot typically grows in openings and borders of rich, mesic woods with a rosette of large, basal leaves.

Rough Blazing Star - Liatris aspera

Generally the last of the Liatris' to bloom and my personal favorite is the Rough Blazing Star (L. aspera).  Sometimes reaching four to five feet tall and covered with over 100 flower heads, it just doesn't get much more breath-taking than seeing a prairie filled with these tall, thick wands of pink!  This particular specimen was over four feet tall and branched towards the top.  I love these plants!

Smooth Yellow False Foxglove - Aureolaria flava

A drive down almost any back road during September on the upper slopes and ridge tops of southern Ohio's oak/hickory forests should reward the careful observer with one of the late summer's most delightful wildflowers.  These large, bright yellow and trumpet-like flowers belong to the Smooth Yellow False Foxglove (Aureolaria flava).  These plants are known to be semi-parasitic on the roots of oak trees, tapping into the much larger plant's resources for its own use.

Slender False Foxglove - Agalinis tenuifolia

A common sight in prairies, woodland borders, thickets and openings is the Slender False Foxglove (Agalins tenuifolia).  Found throughout nearly the entire state, it seems to be most frequent down in the southern reaches, as I've seen it with increasing frequency the more south I travel.  The deep pink corollas have a light, polka-dotted throat lined with fuzzy, cotton-like stamens/anthers.

Stiff Goldenrod - Oligoneuron rigidum

Even the greenest of any plant appreciator is familiar with the fall blooming Goldenrods (previously all Solidago's).  Fields, meadows, roadsides and prairies are painted bright shades of gold and yellow from the numerous different species; some as common as weeds, others much more rare.  An uncommon goldenrod and arguably my favorite is the Stiff Goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum).  It's unbranched stems contain alternately-attaching, entire leaves that are thick and clasp the stem.  This with the aid of large, less numerous flower heads add up to a pretty easy I.D.  All the goldenrods were once under the Solidago banner but many, such as this guy, have been separated out into new genera.

Tune back in soon to catch the continuation on Ohio's native prairies but I think one more post dedicated to a very rare and very beautiful wildflower is due before getting back on track....

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ode to Ohio's Prairies: Bluegrass Region (Part I)

Those with a thirst for Ohio's natural history are in for quite the treat!  I've had this project on the blogger shelf for quite some time and am pleased to see it finally come to fruition.  This post is the first of four dedicated to the creation, history and biological composition of Ohio's natural prairies; probably my favorite ecosystem to explore.  To begin let's take a look at how our landscape came to support this fascinating habitat and then examine the first of four regions or types of Ohio's prairies; the Bluegrass Region of Adams county.  This will be followed by the tall-grass prairies of the Darby and Sandusky Plains then Ohio's prairie fen complexes and conclude with the Oak Openings.  I hope these will spark your interest in our state's unique and exciting prairie and fen remnants as well as our natural history!

Close your eyes and picture Ohio's wild and primeval landscape circa 1400.  Most people envision a massive and continuous forest of gargantuan trees where a squirrel could hop from tree to tree across the canopy and never touch the ground for miles and miles.  That's not an inaccurate interpretation of Ohio before settlement but rather bland and homogenous is you ask me.  There was a lot more to the scene than just big trees in a sprawling forest!   Ohio's landscape has changed more times in its eons of existence than you can imagine.  From a lifeless and charred rock to a shallow warm sea to agricultural fields and metros; there's more than enough history under our feet to keep someone like me busy studying for a lifetime.  The way the landscape and current topography looks today is only the most recent chapter of its life...but what an exciting chapter it is!

Ice cover from the Wisconsinan Glaciation (courtesy ISU G.S.)

20,000 years ago a large majority of Ohio was covered by a massive, mile thick sheet of ice known as the Wisconsin glacier.  This enormous extension of the North American Laurentide ice sheet moved south as the climate cooled and drastically changed the shape and appearance of the land as it inched along.  I can't even begin to think what it must have been like for the prehistoric Homo sapien who saw this unfathomable sight firsthand.  The climate then began to gradually warm around 10,000 years ago and slowly but surely the ice sheet shrunk back further to the north, leaving behind a flat and largely barren Ohio for nature to reclaim.  Pre-Wisconsinan glaciated Ohio looked nothing like it does today.  Lake Erie and the Ohio River were merely shadows of their current selves; a river by the name of Teays ruled the scene with countless forgotten tributaries.  Evidence of these primordial rivers are now buried under hundreds of feet of glacial till as ancient valleys, forever lost to the past.  When you stand on a piece of exposed bedrock in flat Miami county today, you could be standing on top of an ancient hill overlooking a valley since filled by the previous glaciers debris.  Those buried extinct river valleys now act as our aquifers as the glacial till comprised of pebbles, rocks and sand is saturated with ground water and naturally filtered.  In due time these forces will come back and re-shape our state once more.  After the glacier receded the immense amounts of melt water began to carve out the new landscape, creating today's rivers, valleys and kettle ponds.  A new Ohio was born.  Deciduous forests began to creep northward again from their refuge in the Appalachian Mountains.  Millennia of isolation allowed numerous plant and animal species to evolve and thrive in this still lush and warm environment.  This is a large reason why the forests and ecosystems of the Appalachians, especially the Smoky Mountains, are so world-renowned for their biodiversity. 

Teays River pre-glacial watershed (courtesy Emporia State University)

As this transition occurred, North America experienced a very warm and dry spell between 4,000 and 8,000 years ago which caused the great tall-grass prairies of the west to invade the mid-western states and stretch into western Ohio.  This xerothermic periond known as the Hypsithermal Interval allowed parts of our state to resist forest communities and instead be ruled by open plains of grass.  As time went by the climate converted back towards that of one supporting and favoring deciduous forest.  The trees moved back in, slowly fragmenting and closing in on Ohio's expansion of the Prairie Peninsula from the west.  By 1700, around the time of the earliest pioneer settlers, Ohio was covered by over 1,000 square miles of prairie, encompassing around 3-5% of the state's vegetation.  What was once a huge, sprawling expanse of unbroken prairie had by this time been split and partitioned into several hundred openings ranging from a few acres in size to several thousand acres by the ever-advancing forest.  Had the Europeans been a few thousand years earlier they would have found a much, much more open and prairie-dominated landscape!

Bur and Post oak grove in a rare patch of virgin Ohio prairie

The first pioneers and surveyors wrote of waving seas of tall grasses and an accompanying mosaic of colorful wildflowers; all integrated with a patchwork of groves of oaks and hickories, especially Bur oaks.  Most of the earliest settlers saw these expanses of grass and forbs as a wet, mosquito-infested wasteland where no good soil was to be found.  Their logic was the lack of trees meant a lack of rich, nutrient earth.  I mean, if a tree wouldn't grow in the soils how ever could their crops?  Too bad this mindset didn't stay the course of time as it wasn't long before the invention of the steel plow allowed them to conquer the final frontier of Ohio's wilderness.  The deep, rich black soils of indigenous Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian-grass (Sorghastrum nutans) quickly gave way to today's prairies of corn and soybeans.  As I sit here writing this, over 99% of Ohio's historical and indigenous prairie is gone forever.  Lost to mankind's ruthless desire to tame and rule.  Next time you are driving on I-70 between Springfield and Columbus, look out across the never ending sight of agriculture and wonder what it must have been like to see grasses taller than you, dotted with brilliant wildflowers come June and July.

Map of Ohio's pre-settlement prairies (courtesy Wild Ohio: The Best of our Natural Heritage)

Referencing the map from above, the dark gray patches represent areas of Ohio's pre-settlment landscape that were dominated by prairie.  The biggest area just west of Columbus was known as the Darby Plains, and the section just to the north as the Sandusky Plains.  Further north into the Toldeo area is the famed Oak Openings versus deep in the southern confines of Adams County you get the oldest and most different of all our native prairies.  While they share many of the same species of flora with the rest of Ohio's indigenous prairie, they have their fair share of unique and rare species that are more reminiscent of the southern Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri Ozark cedar glades and barrens.  Let's take a look at what makes this tiny area so unique.  Cue the photogenic portion of this post (finally)!

Chaparral Prairie in Adams county in late October

Adams county lies in the small but significant bluegrass region of Ohio where a flux of southern plants and ecosystems cross the river from Kentucky and just barely make it into our state.  The name of the game resulting in this sliver of diversity is in the geology.  Ordovician and Silurian-age limestones, dolomites and calcareous shales dominate the region where the soil is thin and rocky but home to a diverse number of rare and interesting plant life.

Typical prairie opening
Prairie 'island' surrounded by mixed oak

The small, but numerous prairie-like openings appear like islands in an otherwise thick sea of mature, second-growth deciduous forest.  These openings are believed to pre-date the Wisconsinan glaciation and could be tens of thousands of years old.  What exactly has caused these 'islands' to exist and persist to this very day is a bit of a mystery but most agree on one important factor, the bedrock.  The extremely shallow and poor soils of the prairie glades, mixed with exposed Peebles dolomite bedrock has preserved the open nature of the prairies while in areas where the acidic shale dominates, Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana) and other large vegetation can take root and actively mark the forest-prairie boundaries.  The trees will only go as far as the soil condition allows them.

Post Oak leaves
Blackjack Oak leaves

Within these large and small prairie pockets are several globally rare ecosystems, most notably Post (Quercus stellata) and Blackjack Oak (Q. marilandica) savannah.  These hardy, drought and fire-resistant trees slowly grow in the xeric soils as if it wasn't a problem at all.  Surviving periods of drought and the frequent early spring or fall prairie fires of old, these two trees evolved to handle the harsh environment and brunt of nature's forces.  Chaparral Prairie nature preserve is one of the largest and best remaining places in Ohio to see this rare ecosystem in its original state.  What excites me the most about these cedar glades or barrens is the plethora of rare and unique plants to be found at almost any time of the year.  The following are a number of species that I think best illustrate and portray the floristic flavor of the time-tested bluegrass prairies of Adams county.

Michaux's Gladecress - Leavenworthia uniflora

First to bloom in the barren soils are the tiny and rare mustards from the Brassicaceae family.  These minute little wonders are annuals that rely solely on each year's seed production to make sure their dainty but charming little white flowers make it to the next season.  I did a blog post a ways back digging deeper into the number of rare mustards to be found in the cedar glades that can be found HERE.

Small White Lady's slipper - Cypripedium candidum

One of Ohio's rarest plants and easily one of the most charming as well is the Small White Lady's slipper (Cypripedium candidum).  Only recently discovered in the area, if you look in the right spots come early May you might just get a glimpse of these intricate beauties.  A few calcareous, wet hillside prairies on the Edge of Appalchia preserve system house small populations of these immensely fascinating orchid wonders.  If you'd like to learn more and see additional pictures please click HERE to read my personal experience with these little ladies!

Spider Milkweed - Asclepias viridis

My personal favorite of Ohio's 13 indigenous Milkweed species, the Spider Milkweed (Asclepias viridis) is rather rare in Ohio and can be most commonly seen blooming in late May through June in some of Adam county's more pristine prairie openings.  It's large and conspicuous umbels of gorgeous yellow-green flowers are perfectly accented with the purple colored stamens.

Scaly Blazing Star - Liatris squarrosa

One of the first true fireworks of the prairies and glades is the potentially threatened Scaly Blazing Star (Liatris squarrosa).  Each individual inflorescence seems to be a pink serpent 'tasting' the air with its tongue-like stamens.  The Blazing Stars are one of my most highly anticipated summer bloomers and decorate the area with their stunning pink-purple blossoms.  A year or so ago I did a more detailed post about a few of Ohio's native species found HERE.

Rattlesnake Master - Eryngium yuccifolium

This native member of the carrot family (Apiaceae) is arguably one of Ohio's most unique and unforgettable wildflowers.  The Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) is a potentially threatened species in Ohio and exists in its highest numbers in the bluegrass region.  The dried heads were once used as rattles by the Native Americans while the roots were believed to be an effective antidote to rattlesnake venom.  Obviously this turned out to be untrue.

American Bluehearts - Buchnera americana

If any of the bluegrass rarities steal my heart it's the American Bluehearts (Buchnera americana).  A true indigenous species to this region of Ohio, these delicate little flowers are listed as threatened in the state.  Each plant begins to flower in June and continues unfurling its five-petaled perfections through July.  I caught these just after a summer shower with the corolla's filled with raindrops.

Spiked Blazing Star - Liatris spicata

Not necessarily a representative solely of the region, the Spiked Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) is just too stunning a wildflower to omit from this slideshow.  The tall wands spend the first half of summer maturing and biding their time in bud stage before revealing their feathered beauty to the world.  Something different about the Liatris' is the fact they bloom from the top down, rather than from bottom up like most wildflowers.  For the best show in the state head to Chaparral Prairie in mid to late July for an unforgettable sea of purple!

American Aloe - Manfreda virginica

Perhaps the strangest of all the plants to call the dolomite barrens home is the American Aloe (Manfreda virginica).  Each spring a rosette of fleshy, succulent leaves sprout from the ground and by mid-July a tall stalk of buds is ready to burst.  Like the American Bluehearts above, this is a true bluegrass endemic within Ohio.  It just barely sneaks across the river and has more than likely always been an Ohio rarity.  Each flower only lasts a day or so before its anthers drop and the ovary quickly sets to seed.  If you are lucky to see one of these in bloom be sure to treat your olfactories to its insatiable aroma.  Smells like jasmine to me!

Crested Coralroot - Hexalectris spicata

It just wouldn't be a normal post if I didn't include more orchids!  This is probably my favorite Ohio orchid, the Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris spicata).  A careful and lucky walk around the Ohio bluegrass region's open mixed Oak and cedar barrens come late July and early August just might reward you with one of these gorgeous plants.  The fleshy, large flowers almost seem as if someone molded them from clay and painted each lip with the most royal shade of purple to be found in the natural world.  This is a very fickle plant that only send its flowers up in optimal years, otherwise remaining underground in hibernation.  For a fun in detail post on this plant click HERE!

Western Sunflower - Helianthus occidentalis

My favorite of Ohio's many sunflowers is the Western Sunflower (Helianthus occidentalis).  Perhaps it should go by its other common name of the Few-leaf Sunflower, as there is really nothing too western about this species, predominately growing in the great lake states.  It's mostly basal leaves and relatively naked, short stem easily separate it from the tricky Helianthus spp..  Come August and September it's not too hard to find this species keeping the late summer prairies fresh with color.

Great Plains Ladies' Tresses - Spiranthes magnicamporum

If the Michaux's Gladecress is the first to bloom in the bluegrass prairie openings of Adams county it's only fitting and appropriate I end this photo shoot with the last species to bloom, the Great Plains Ladies' Tresses  (Spiranthes magnicamporum) orchid.  A rarity within Ohio, this species loves the calcareous and xeric soils of the cedar glades.  By mid-October almost everything, even the asters and goldenrods are beginning to call it a year but not these guys, they are just getting going!  It's not uncommon to see these in bloom even into November!  This is another plant that deserves your noses attention as the perfume these emit is intoxicating.  I posted on these wonders last fall which can be found HERE.

If you've made it this far and are still reading this I sincerely thank you and hope you enjoyed it!  I know it was a marathon of a post but it has already launched itself into my top ten I've ever done.  There is just something about the prairies of the Adams county region that calls me back time and time again.  In fact, I should probably get to bed as I'm headed down for a day trip in the morning!  Keep checking back in for the soon to follow part two, three and four to complete this series on Ohio's fantastic prairie ecosystems!  I'll leave you with a gorgeous shot of an Adams county sunset looking across a plowed field of planted crops.  Perhaps this was once one of the many prairie openings, full of incredible plants...such is life.

Adams county summer sunset across the rolling hills

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Purple Fringeless Orchid (Platanthera peramoena)

As summer winds to its inevitable close I find myself already looking forward to next year's edition.  I've seen a remarkable amount this past season, more than I could ever hope or even try to share with you on here, but a few species still eluded me.  How anyone could ever truly see everything they want in one year is beyond me and I think it's important to miss some just for the sake of something to look forward to as the depths of winter take hold.  Despite the few that remained on the life list plenty more have a very satisfying check mark next to their name.  One wildflower that received an extra bold mark for it's ability to evade my detection the past few years was was the delightful Purple Fringeless Orchid (Platanthera peramoena). 

Purple Fringeless Orchids - Platanthera peramoena

It's becoming more and more evident that perhaps I should change the name of this blog to Ohio's Native Orchids, as my infatuation and deep-rooted love for these wondrous monocots only grows stronger by the day.  I do my best to keep things balanced on the seemingly infinite number of subjects within the vascular plant world but I can't help but keep coming back to orchids.  Ohio has 46 native members of the Orchidaceae family and the purple fringeless is no doubt one of the most remarkable of its kin.

Close up of the individual inflorescences beginning to unfurl

While walking through a wet meadow in Indian Creek Wildlife Area I came across this lone and rather robust plant who's buds were just beginning to break their silence and show off their perfect blooms.  Each flower was easily the size of a quarter and the most rich and brilliant shade of pink I've ever seen.  Part of me was a bit disappointed to have not found the plant in full bloom, however the chance to see a few fully-opened flowers along with buds in varying degrees of unfurling was rather unique.  Each delicately designed and constructed flower beckons its large butterfly and moth pollinating friends to pay a visit and leave with a package of pollen, or pollinia, to share with the next inflorescence it visits.  Hard to imagine any passing Lepidoptera would choose to ignore this beckon of pink in a sea of green.

Purple Fringeless Orchid - Platanthera peramoena
Taking a closer look at an individual inflorescence of this orchid reveals the true beauty and design behind the flower itself.  The scientific epithet even plays tribute to this plants beauty.  The latin word 'peramoena' translates to 'very loving' in regards to the flowers stunning and 'lovely' appearance.  It hails from the same genera of its closely related cousins; the Greater and Lesser Purple Fringed orchids (Platanthera grandiflora, P. psycodes).  The purple fringed orchids exhibit an obvious fringe to the central lobe of their lower lips while the purple fringeless only shows a slight 'toothing' around the margin of the lip (hence the name 'fringeless'). 

Purple Fringeless Orchid - Platanthera peramoena

P. peramoena is largely southern in range and can be found predominately in the south-western quarter of Ohio.  This orchid is relatively dependent on moisture and is most commonly found in the wet, mucky soils of meadows, prairies, swamps, lake/stream banks as well as openings in floodplain/wet woods.  It's also known to tolerate moderate disturbance that removes taller, competing vegetation such as trees and shrubs.  It can withstand some amounts of shade however the more sunlight it receives the healthier and more robust the plant appears.  Like many other orchids this species can be very fickle on when it decides to bloom or remain dormant in the ground.  One can never guarantee seeing this plant from one year to the next even if you know exactly where to look.  Here's to hoping next year is a boom year for this species as just this one only added to the drive and thirst to see more!

You can trust to see future posts exhibiting Ohio's native orchids.  As of the day of this publication I have seen 35 of the 46 indigenous species this year alone with the promise of a few more still to go!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Old Faces in New Places

I love botany.  I don't think you need to know me on a personal level to arrive at that conclusion.  There's just something about it that really gets the heart pumping and adrenaline flowing.  One never knows what lies just around the bend no matter how many times you've walked that trail before.  That's what keeps the passion so fresh; the humility of the search is only bested by the excitement of discovery.  Earlier this week while botanizing west-central Ohio's remnant tall-grass prairies and fen complexes I was lucky enough to recharge my botanical chi with a few thrilling discoveries of my own...

The day started by picking up good friend and fellow blogger Michael Whittemore of Flora and Fauna of Appalchia fame for a fun-filled day of hiking and exploring the aforementioned ecosystems my home area of Ohio is known for.  Mike had yet to experience the fascinating and unique plant communities fens have to offer so I was certainly excited to introduce him to arguably my favorite Ohio ecosystem.  First up, though was a quick swim through the sea of tall, warm-season grasses at Pearl King oak savannah, one of Ohio's largest and most intact prairie remnants of the once formidable Darby Plains.

*Remember to click on the photographs to see them in a larger, more detailed resolution!*

Ancient Oaks of Pearl King
An open area with a surprise!

I apologize for the first few pictures being rather washed out but not much you can do when trying to photograph in bright, sunny conditions.  Just have to deal with what Mother Nature gives you!  While Pearl King is only 14 acres in size it more than makes up for its small proportions with a rich and deep look into Ohio's natural history.  Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian-grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Prairie Cordgrass (Spartinia pectinata) and the rare, state-threatened Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) abound in the fertile, unplowed virgin terra firma along with gargantuan and ancient Bur, White and Post oaks.  Look for a more detailed and intimate post going into the history and flora of this preserve in the near future.  Today I want to focus on one little plant hiding amongst the prairie grasses.

Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis
Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis

As we made our way through the grasses at Pearl King I came across a small, open patch of ground with a curious little stalk of white, spiraled flowers growing near a stunted oak sapling.  Kneeling down for a closer look I immediately recognized it as Slender Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis) by the green coloration on the lip and mouth of the inflorescence.  I quickly called Mike over to take a look, as I knew he was a big fan of the Spiranthes orchids.  I was excited at the chance to show him the Nodding Lady's Tresses (S. cernua) at Gallagher fen but had little hope of finding any other Spiranthes during our hikes.  I've seen slender lady's tresses plenty of times and have always thought of it as one of Ohio's most common species of Spiranthes and didn't really think much of the sighting at the time but more on that later...

Gallagher Fen in Clark County
A tiny curiosity caught my eye...

After leaving Pearl King behind we set our sights on one of the most interesting and down right awesome natural areas in the state, Gallagher Fen.  This particular fen is unique among others by combining not only the normal features of a fen environment but the added pleasure of a naturally-occurring perched hill prairie above the fen.  This upland habitat adds another floristic component to the equation with native prairie species blooming and watching guard over the delicate aquatic calcifiles below.  After spending a couple hours exploring the fen and surrounding prairie, Mike and I started to make our way back through the mature Oak/Hickory woods bordering the preserve when a tiny little plant caught my attention.

Spiranthes ovalis
Spiranthes ovalis

As luck would have it I happened to be face to face with yet another unexpected Spiranthes, the Lesser Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata).  Easily the smallest and least attractive of the lady's tresses, I was a bit taken aback to have found this plant in Gallagher fen, let alone to have noticed it as we walked down the path.  I had previously seen this dainty little orchid in several spots in Adams county last fall but never outside the confines of southern Ohio.  I quickly pulled my trusty iPhone out to check the current known distribution of the species as I wasn't aware of S. ovalis being known from Clark county.  After a quick check of the out-dated USDA distribution maps as well as the more trusted and current BONAP ranges I quickly noticed neither had any records of this for Clark county.  Hmm?  I'm pretty hesitant to ever get my hopes up when the maps don't confirm my findings but it did leave me a bit more curious about the situation.

Size comparison against camera lens
Lesser Lady's Tresses in full bloom

Since I had all the ranges of the North American Spiranthes at my finger tips I decided to take the few seconds needed to check on the Ohio distribution of the previously found S. lacera var. gracilis just to be thorough.  My brow furrowed as I noticed no record for the species being collected in Madison county before.  Could I possibly have stumbled across new county records for these two miniscule orchids?  I needed a better source than USDA and BONAP to soothe my wandering mind so I quickly shot an email to Rick Gardner, one of Ohio's premiere botanists.  If anyone could point me in the right direction I figured he could.  The following morning Rick responded by saying he would check the records later in the week but suggested I get in touch with director of the herbarium at the Ohio State University, Dr. John Freudenstein.  Rick said Dr. Freudenstein had been working on the orchids of Ohio and had the most up-to-date county distribution maps for our state.

A few hours later my iPhone chimed the tone signaling a new email.  I quickly became excited to see a new message from Dr. Freudenstein and anxiously read his response.  After taking a look at the maps and the collection records from not only Ohio State's herbarium but Miami University and Ohio University as well he concluded it was safe to say both the Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis from Pearl King in Madison county and Spiranthes ovalis var. erostellata from Gallagher fen in Clark county were both new county records!  Pretty cool stuff if you ask me!  It's not every day you find a species of plant never previously known from the county before, but to find two on the same day and to both be from my beloved Orchidaceae family really puts a smile on my face.  Just goes to show you there is still plenty of things to discover out there in the botanical world and nothing is completely known.  Like I said before there is just something about the thrill of discovery that just can't be beat!

If you want a more in-depth look at these two species of orchid you can take a look at a post I did last fall on several species of Spiranthes to be found HERE.  I hope you vicariously enjoyed these discoveries and look forward to more detailed posts about the days finds and experiences at Pearl King and Gallagher Fen.  Thanks for tuning it!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Story of my Sida

As I dig ever deeper into the botanical world it's becoming more and more obvious to me the need to study and understand plants on a daily basis.  This is much easier said than done when one lives in the city where most of the plant life is either cultivated non-natives or at the very least native plants genetically altered to better suit its urban lifestyle.  If your blogger had his way he'd live on a thousand acres covered with woods of varying species composition, savannahs, prairies, barrens, fens, bogs...well you get the idea.  This past spring and summer I got the opportunity to do a bit of an experiment with one of Ohio's more obscure and little-known native plants, Sida hermaphrodita.

Back in late March I partook in a botanical foray around Adams county in search for some of Ohio's earliest bloomers.  Towards the end of the day we came across a roadside population of the Virginia Mallow (S. hermaphrodita) along state route 52 near the Ohio river.  The withered and dried, towering stalks of last years growth swayed in the cool spring breeze as my memory stirred with a blog post published last summer by Jim McCormac on this specific plant found HERE.  I remembered reading how this species does exceptionally well when planted in someone's yard and watered adequately.  Within a few minutes and the help of a shovel I had myself a bare rootball of the Sida plant.  I honestly had no real idea what to expect but was excited at the prospect of the whole thing.  The next day (March 24, 2011) I transplanted it in the backyard of my parent's house, gave it a good watering and wondered if it would grow...and boy did it ever!

*Please click the following photo's to see them in a large, more detailed resolution!  Also, almost all of these were taken with my iPhone so quality is a bit less than the norm*

Just beginning to sprout on 4/15
Status as of 4/23

Before long a few sprouts emerged from the base of last years stalk and continued to grow slowly but surely as time went by.  I decided to photograph the Sida's progress each time I came home to gauge its growth and have something for comparison as time passed.

The Virginia Mallow is a potentially threatened species within Ohio and is only found along the southern-most river counties in Ohio.  In fact, this plant was under consideration for federal listing as a threatened or endangered plant a ways back, as it is quite rare throughout its range.  Several Ohio botanists published an extensive report on the ecology and distribution of this species back in the mid 80's that can be found HERE if interested.  I definitely recommend it for anyone wanting to know more about this truly fascinating plant!

Growth as of 5/4
Growth as of 5/13

Planting it next to the back deck ended up being a good choice.  The preexisting flowerbed provided the plant with good, rich soil and the deck itself with the furniture on it allowed me to really grasp the weekly height growth of the Sida.  Within 5-6 weeks it had already eclipsed the one foot mark and was well on its way to surpassing two feet tall.

Growth as of 5/22
Growth as of 6/3

The pictures above are about two months after being planted and in your bloggers opinion the most aesthetically pleasing point in the plants life-cycle.  The leaves are large and a rich green color, layered nicely up the main stem.  It may still be a good month away from flowering but as you will see the plant gets a much more haggard and rough look as the days and weeks pass.  I started to get texts every few days from my concerned mother on 'the weed'.  How tall/big is it going to get, is it going to take over the flowerbed, etc were common questions.  I assured her 'the weed' or 'your weed' as she liked to call it would cause no harm and would make for quite the conversation piece with backyard visitors.  I think she enjoyed teasing guests by asking them what they thought of her son's 'marijuana plant' growing in the backyard ;).

Growth as of 6/22
Growth as of 7/9 and starting to flower!

When I came back from my week long botanical expedition to the Bruce peninsula in Ontario, Canada I couldn't believe how much it had grown!  It was now as tall as me (I'm 5'9 on a good day) and the flower buds were starting to swell, I couldn't believe it was doing so well.  'The Weed' finally began to flower right around the Forth of July as if it was celebrating the birthday of its home country with its own display of miniature fireworks.  It had eclipsed six feet in height at this point and showed no signs of stopping.  A surprising second stalk had even emerged from the base and was quickly making its way towards the sky.

Main leader reaching for the heavens
Flowers and leaves of the Sida

The flowers are born on long peduncles that originate in the axils of the large, palmate leaves.  At the end of each stalk 4-8 white, hibiscus-like flowers formed and bloomed for a few days before wilting and quickly setting to seed.  It wasn't long before the plant was constantly abuzz with bees, skippers, butterflies and other pollinating insects that I expected to see.  However, there was one pollinator that I never expected, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird!  Much to my delight the hummingbirds couldn't leave this plant alone.  This was an even more welcome surprise for my mother who adores her 'hummies' and spends nearly every evening relaxing on the back porch admiring them.  Yet another plus for planting it so close to the deck!

Close-up of the flowers
The plant at 11' tall on 8/24

After nearly two months of continuous flowering and thousands of visits from the hummingbirds the plant really started to look its age.  Leaves began to yellow, the number of fresh flowers lessened and all the branches began to point up as if surrendering after a long and successful summer.  I decided to cut the plant down on August 24, exactly five months after first placing the root ball in the ground.  I laid the stalk down on the ground and took one last and final measurement to get its exact height.  11'7".  Over 11 feet of growth in five months!  I decided to do the math and determined it grew for 153 days with a final height of 139 inches.  That equates to 0.91 inches of growth PER day!  Wow!  You really could almost watch it grow if you sat there long enough but an inch a day?!

What a fun way to spend the summer watching this plant go from roots to a towering green stalk over 11 feet tall.  I've left the rootball in the ground and it has since begun to re-sprout but will go into hibernation come the first hard frost.  I'm already looking forward to next year and how big it could get.  With a full years growth under its belt and plenty of new roots I have hopes of it growing as tall as 13-14'+!  It was a blast to observe this unique and under-appreciated plant, especially discover it's powerful attraction for hummingbirds!