Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Showy Lady's Slippers of Cedar Bog

Cedar Bog.  Few places in the Midwest, let alone Ohio, have as much botanical wonder, biodiversity, and history stored inside than the white cedar swamp forests, fen sedge meadows, and tall grass prairie habitat here.  Owned and operated by the Ohio Historical Society since 1942, it was the first Ohio nature preserve to be purchased with state monies and is on the national natural landmarks register to boot.  Located in south-central Champagin county, Cedar Bog currently preserves well over 400 acres of original habitat and is home to nearly 100 rare species of flora and fauna.  It's a good thing this gem was saved and preserved because Ohio's intact, naturally-occurring wetlands are a very rare thing today.  Around 90% of Ohio's wetlands no longer exist and are gone forever. From over 5,000,000 acres pre-settlement to just a tiny fraction of that in under 300 years is depressing but that's what makes places like Cedar Bog so precious and vital to our biodiversity.  If you want a fact to really drive the nail home on our wetland habitat loss: California is the only state that has lost a larger percentage of its original wetlands than Ohio.  Click this link here for more on the matter.

Don't be fooled by the name however.  Cedar Bog is not a bog but in fact a fen.  What's the difference?  Bogs are non-flowing acidic environments associated with accumulated masses of sphagnum moss while fens have internal flowing groundwater that seeps to the surface and is usually rich in magnesium and calcium, making for a neutral to alkaline environment.  Just remember "fens flow"!

View out across the fen sedge meadow of Cedar Bog

When the early pioneers first started to settle the Mad River valley they found countless tracts of wet, marly fields and meadows full of mosquitoes and curious plants that didn't make for good farm land.  Quickly and with prejudice, the land was drained and transformed to support their agricultural ways while the natural landscape slipped into memory.  The 450+ acres Cedar Bog currently preserves was once a fen complex over 7,000 acres in size.  Imagine 7,000 acres of pristine fen habitat choked full of fascinating flora, massasauga rattlesnakes, spotted turtles, swamp metalmarks, and indigenous brook trout.  I can't fault the settlers for their lack of foresight or preservation but what a sight that must have been.

The Mad River valley was host to a seemingly infinite supply of fen complexes and wetland habitat pre-settlement that served as a reminder to the area's icy past.  Over 12,000 years ago as the Wisconsin glacier receded to the north it left behind a barren landscape of melted ice, glacial till, and boreal plant species from the northern climates.  The previous period's ancient river valleys were filled with gravel and saturated with melt water, which today comprises west-central Ohio's natural aquifers.  In spots where this cold, calcareous groundwater percolates and bubbles to the surface is where these incredible fen communities persisted for thousands of years after the glaciers left, leaving behind the plants and animals you won't see anywhere else in the state today.

Mature male Five-lined Skink (Eumeces fasciatus) on the boardwalk.

Okay, enough of the history lesson even if I could go on and on.  Fens and their histories and biological communities fascinate me to no end and I could blab about them forever!  Now on to the main event and that magical word 'orchid' in the title that probably nabbed your attention.  But not before I share a quick tidbit about one of Cedar Bog's most frequently seen animals.  Pictured above is a critter I'm willing to guarantee just about everyone sees on their stroll down the boardwalk.  Five-lined skinks love to sun themselves on the warm wood and then go scurrying off as your footsteps approach.  Good luck trying to catch one, these guys move like lightning!  Juveniles start off black with five yellowish lines down their backs and tails of the most gorgeous electric blue you've ever seen.  The specimen above is a mature male with its copper-colored body and red face.

Orchids, orchids...I know, I know.  So without testing your patience any further I give you North America's largest terrestrial species of orchid.  An orchid that stole my heart many years ago along these very same creaky boardwalk planks and has yet to release me from its grasp.

Showy Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium reginae)

Scattered along the margins of the northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) of which Cedar Bog gets its name, lies one of the greatest botanical shows Ohio puts on each early June.  The showy lady's slipper (Cypripedium reginae) is the largest and last of the slipper orchids to bloom and mother nature certainly knows how to save the best for last.

An 'eat your heart out' clump of Showy Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium reginae)

This is my sixth year in a row heading to Cedar Bog to see the performance and what a spectacle they've been this time around.  While my run isn't nearly what many other local residents, botanists and orchid-lovers have going, I can say this has been the greatest year I've seen them put on in my experience and a number of  other long-time fans are voicing their agreement.  Just look at that clump above!  Nearly two dozen plants all clustered together and topping out over three feet tall under the partial shade of the cedars is a site no one is likely to forget anytime soon.

Showy Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium reginae)

Each flower's pouch or 'labellum' is about the size of a golf ball and delicately painted the most perfect shade of pastel pink to be found in nature.  Depending on what I assume to be a matter of sunlight, the labellum's pigmentation can vary greatly from soft and pale to intense and deeply saturated.  Another common name for these is the queen lady's slipper.  As the binomial nomenclature would have it, the scientific or botanical name for this species is very fitting.  The scientific epithet of reginae translates to 'queen', implicating the regal and majestic beauty of this orchid.  The lady's slippers genus name was conceived from the combination of the Greek word Kypris (for Cypris, the goddess of beauty and love) and the Latin word pedis  (meaning 'foot') as told by Michael Homoya is his brilliant book The Orchids of Indiana.

Showy Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium reginae

Taking a closer look at the inflorescence or 'slipper' of the showy ladies just magnifies their stimulating appeal.  I was happy to have coincidentally timed my visit on an overcast day right after a rain shower had passed through, giving all the slippers an aesthetically pleasing coating of water droplets.  Unfortunately their beauty is not lost on those who seek to remove them from their rightful homes.  Ignoring the heavy loss they have endured from habitat loss due to succession and destruction, these royal plants have long fought the hands and shovels of mankind.  The floral trade, ignorant digging for wildflower gardens and careless picking has removed these plants to the point of extirpation and extinction of populations throughout much of its range.  Even the botanist is to blame in some situations where avid over-collecting depleted their numbers to nothing.  This is one of the those plants that is best touched with our eyes only, despite the human urge to take the beauty home with us.

North American distribution of Cypripedium reginae (courtesty BONAP)

Looking at the distribution map for this species shows how strong an association it has with the northern Canadian provinces and Great Lakes region.  The further south you slip away from the lakes the more rare it becomes due to an increased lack of habitat availability.  Their preferred habitat of fens, northern swamp woods and glacial depressions aren't found further south than Ohio, hence their increase in frequency the further north you go.  Populations in the south, such as in the Appalachians, grow in circumneutral seeps in limestone regions where plants are few in number and locations.  The one vitally important thing an environment must support regardless of geographical location is what's called "cold-bottom" conditions.  These conditions exist when groundwater reaches the surface and saturates the soil to create a constant supply of cold water that this plant needs to survive.  This in turn allows these plants to exist and survive in more southern latitudes whose normal conditions would not otherwise support them.  In many cases where these plants have disappeared despite not much disturbance to the habitat is the result of a change in the hydrology.  It's not just the surface you have to worry about but what's going on underneath as well to keep these orchids happy and alive.

Showy Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium reginae)

An interesting piece of information about this particular species that will probably engage my entomologist readers and friends most is that the showy lady's slipper is apparently the only eastern Cpypripedium that is largely pollinated by flies and beetles rather than bees.  In any case, the insects are attracted inside the labellum by the promise of a nectar meal but are quickly disappointed to find it's a sham and they are forced to retreat back out the way they came.  Upon their exiting they (hopefully) pick up a package of pollen (pollinia in orchid-speak) from the column (the unique orchid organ comprised of fused stamens and pistil) and in a case of instant memory-loss, enter a new labellum in search for that mythical nectar and we have pollination!

Showy Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium reginae)

There truly are few other plants that I can sit in front of and admire their timeless grandeur for what seems like hours on end.  It's not everyday one sits in front of royalty like this and can have such close interaction with them.  A warning must be issued though to all who suffer with frequent bouts of skin irritation and dermatitis.  The dense pubescence of the leaves, stem and pedicels can cause a severe case of dermatitis much like that of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) to those susceptible.

The incredibly early start to this year affected these plants much like the rest and saw the showy lady's slippers start blooming in late May, something I'd never seen before.  The intense heat of last week hastened the freshness of the blooms this year and the show has already passed when under normal circumstances would just be starting.  Be sure to mark late May and early June on your calender for 2013 to see these wondrous plants in action.  Don't fear, there are still many more orchid wonders Cedar Bog has in store for the future and I will be here to bring them to you when they happen!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ohio's Native Cactus: Eastern Prickly Pear

One of the most frequently asked questions I get from people on the topic of botany is what's my favorite species of plant.  Well, easier asked than answered is the first thought that comes to mind for myself.  Almost like a parent with multiple children, I really don't think I could pick just any one member from the Plantae kingdom.  I don't hide my passion or obsession with our native, wild orchids and they are certainly well-represented among my favorites.  There's just too much beauty and uniqueness to choose from in the end but one plant I can say ranks high on the ladder's rungs is Ohio's very own indigenous species of cactus.

E. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa)  Adams county population

Believe it or not Ohio is home to a species of cactus native to select areas of the state where xeric, sandy soil deposits exist.  Each late spring and early summer the plants come alive with gorgeous golden blooms that delicately sit on top of the mature cactus pads.  This makes them a popular ornamental addition to homeowner's rock gardens and sun-drenched flowerbeds.

E. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa)  Adams county population

Unfortunately, the reality of being so crowd-pleasing has caused this already uncommon species in Ohio to become even more rare in the wild to the point of being state-listed as potentially-threatened.  The continued digging and collecting of these remarkable plants along with its ever-shrinking habitat puts this species at risk of disappearing across its already small natural range here.  I'd much rather have the chance to see this stunning plant bloom in its natural habitat than in cultivation in someone's yard.

North American distribution of Opuntia humifusa (courtesy BONAP)

Opuntia humifusa is the only wide-ranging species of prickly pear in eastern North America; stretching from southern New England to the eastern fringes of the Great Plains.  Here in Ohio, it's restricted to the sandy dunes and savannas of the Oak Openings region in the northwest as well as scattered counties in the south.  It grows well in areas of full sun on very well-drained sandy soils in dry, rocky fields and barrens.

E. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa)  Adams county population

Come June the tightened buds unfurl their inner elegance in the forms of multi-petaled satin yellow flowers choked full of stamens.  Each individual flower only lasts a single day but luckily large colonies of plants have plenty of buds and can bloom more or less continuously for up to a month.  Some exceedingly colorful flowers exhibit an inner ring of burnt orange-red  that takes their already dashing looks to the next level.  It's no surprise then that insects flock to this plant to meet their sustenance needs.  Between the mesmerizing color of the inflorescence and the pollen-covered stamens, this truly is crack cocaine for bees.

E. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa)  Adams county population 

I think just about everyone can fall in love with the prickly pears due to their good looks but even more so from the satisfaction that just about anyone can identify them.  Even asking a random person walking down the street would result in the correct answer of a 'cactus'.  The fleshy pads of the prickly pear start a fresh green color but slowly fade to a glaucous blue-green hue as they mature and age under the heat of the harsh sun.  Fortunately, these plants are very easy to propagate from cuttings and can be successfully grown from seed as well.  With a little research and patience people can safely grow these plants at home without harming natural populations.  Although, as always, it's best to just buy them from a nursery.

E. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa).  Oak Openings population

A brightly colored patch of prickly pears in the Oak Openings region is one of my favorite sights each year that I anxiously await to see in the sandy dunes and fields.  Even driving 60 miles an hour down the road with your eyes focused straight ahead isn't enough to miss these out of your peripheral vision with a subsequent slamming of the breaks to get a better look.

E. Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa).  Oak Openings population

If you want to catch these prickly wonders in bloom then now's the time to head out and see them for yourselves.  The Oak Openings region in northwest Ohio is your best bet with Kitty Todd nature preserve and the metro park outside Toledo having plenty of chances to see them.  For those in the southern sections of Ohio you can see these in the sandy springs area of Adams county along the Ohio River as well as other rocky, sandy areas in the vicinity.