Thursday, March 21, 2013

Snow Trillium and Big Trees at Fort Hill

What a difference a year can make!  The calendar officially says spring but the current weather patterns claim otherwise with rain, snow, and below-average temperatures.  This time last year I was sweating in 80 degree heat looking at a whole slew of wildflowers that shouldn't have been up and blooming in late March.  Definitely not this year!  However, unless my eyes deceived me, I do believe the emergence of a few of my wildflower cohorts this past weekend was proof enough spring is indeed upon us.  This annual event is truly a joyous occasion worth celebrating as the brown drabs of winter are pierced with the first vivid greens of new growth.  Soon the world will be flooded with the faces of old friends I haven't seen in a year's time and not a moment too soon.

One of the most anticipated of spring's arrivals here in Ohio is that of the charmingly dainty snow trillium (Trillium nivale).  Your blogger decided to head out this past weekend to check on the progress of these tiny wonders at a few southern stations in Adams and Highland counties along with any other early spring bloomers that may be braving the cold.  Quite serendipitously, I happened to bump into good friend and brilliant botanist Dan Boone during my foray and was fortunate enough to spend the day hiking through one of southern Ohio's finest natural areas in his company.

Old woods in Fort Hill state memorial

Located in the unglaciated foothills of southern Highland county, Fort Hill is home to many unusual and rare plant species along with relic earthworks of the antiquated Hopewell culture.  Wandering through its mature, contiguous forests will reward the adventurous with a diverse array of ancient and impressive trees scattered throughout the steep slopes and weathered limestone gorge.

Dan standing among the quiet giants

While any time of the year is a can't miss experience, I've found winter and early spring to be the best times to soak in the intrinsic beauty and stately dimensions of any old-growth forest.  Free of their leaves and hidden canopies, the tree's gnarled forms can be fully observed and one can get a grasp on just how unique and individualized each leviathan specimen is.

Cranefly orchid over-wintering leaf
Puttyroot orchid over-wintering leaf

Believe it or not winter can also be a very helpful time to locate a few of Ohio's native orchid species.  Hiding in scattered patches among the detritus throughout the moist lower slopes of Fort Hill were the over-wintering leaves of cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) and puttyroot (Aplectum hyemale).  Both send up their leaves in the autumn to persist all winter, utilizing the tree's naked conditions to better soak up the plentiful rays of the sun.  It makes perfect sense to do its photosynthesizing during the less competitive winter months than during the growing season when shade and darkened under story conditions make it much more difficult.

'Evergreen' basal leaves of the downy rattlesnake-plantain orchid

Quite similar to the cranefly and puttyroot orchids strategy is that of the evergreen basal leaves of the downy rattlesnake plantain orchid (Goodyera pubescens).  Arguably our most common species of orchid in the state, it's not hard to come across some in the more dry and acidic areas of upland oak and pine forests.

Limestone gorge of Baker Fork 

Dan and I opted for the gorge trail with high hopes of finding the snow trillium in bloom along with the peculiar pollen cones of the Canada yew (Taxus canadensis) that precariously clings to the edges of the limestone bluffs along Baker Fork.  It's not just interesting flora that calls this stretch of the gorge home but also a handful of Ohio's natural rock arches carved out of the erosion-resistant Peebles dolomite.

Snow trillium (Trillium nivale) beginning to bloom

It wasn't long after entering the gorge before the miniscule tri-leaved plants of the snow trillium and their delicate unfurling petals began to dot the ground.  Few things warm my heart and soul like the spring's first wildflowers that face the frosty March mornings and greet my eyes that have starved for color through the patience of winter.

Snow trillium (Trillium nivale)
Snow trillium (Trillium nivale)

It seems appropriate that one of the very first wildflowers to break the thawing soil every year also shares the distinction of being one of your blogger's most highly anticipated and personal favorites.  Snow trillium are quite uncommon throughout Ohio and their largely Midwest and Great Lakes region distribution.  They can most frequently be found growing on the slopes and terraces along streams and rivers over shallow, gravely soil derived of limestone; especially in areas with exposed cliffs, bluffs, and ridges.

A quarter next to a snow trillium to emphasize their small stature

If any doubt remains in the minds of those who aren't sure what exactly constitutes as small in the trillium world, I think this picture will speak for itself.  No photoshop gimmicks or hijinks here!  The snow trillium really are that modestly-sized.  Hard to believe something so runty can withstand the cold and potentially harsh weather of such an early bloom time (especially this year) but survive and thrive they do!

Walter's violet (Viola walteri) basal leaves
Barren strawberry's over-wintering leaves

While scanning the area for blooming snow trillium, several other promising signs of spring could be seen popping up from underneath the decomposing leaf litter.  The greening basal leaves of the state-threatened Walter's violet (Viola walteri) happen to enjoy the thin, calcareous soils much like the snow trillium and will soon be adorned with their charming periwinkle blue flowers in a month's time.  Scattered about as well were the over-wintering leaves of the barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides), a native relative to our commercialized strawberry but much, much less satisfying and tasty.

View down the gorge valley of Baker Fork at Fort Hill

After some much deserved camera time with the lovely snow trillium it was time for the more daring aspect of our hike.  Growing quite perilously on the edges and cliff faces of the limestone bluffs above the stream were scatterings of our native yew that Dan and I wanted to inspect for their flowering pollen cones.  Unfortunately, the strong deer presence in the area limits the growth of these plants to their aforementioned parlous growing locations as Canada yew happens to be one of white-tailed deer's favorite browsing items.  Rarely do you find any in good enough shape where the deer can easily access it.

Canada yew's unopened pollen cones
Dan taking a closer look

Ah, close but no cigar, as we discovered the pollen cones to still be ever-so-slightly closed and just a warm snap's away from opening.  You can just make out the tiny, bb-like pollen cones occurring in the needle's axils of last year's woody growth.  Yew is a very common hedge shrub used in cultivation with their conspicuous autumn-time red 'berries' (called arils in botany-speak) but those are of introduced species and not Ohio's native taxon.

Greening leaves of Carex platyphylla
Dan and an old-growth blackgum tree

The continuation of our hike saw Dan and I start to scale the higher slopes of the gorge in an effort to connect with the rim trail at the top that circles around the old remains of the Hopewell earthworks.  I quickly realized the winter had significantly softened me up as my lungs and calves felt on fire as I trudged up and up and up out of the deep valley.  Luckily, the forest was full of old-growth tree specimens worth admiring and thus getting a subsequent breather.

Dan admiring the weathered remains of an American chestnut stump

One of the most intriguing aspects to the forests of Fort Hill would hardly be noticed by the casual hiker or passerby.  All throughout the upper slows and ridges of the woods were the remains of fallen logs and stumps belonging to American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) that met their fate many decades ago during the height of the blight invasion.  Extremely weather and rot-resistant, it wasn't too hard to pick out which trees were of chestnut origin.  It's such a shame to think of the billions of vitally-important mast crop trees we lost to mankind's own devices of world travel and trade.  What I wouldn't do for a time machine to travel back to the famed and storied pre-blight forests with trees over 100' tall and six to eight feet in diameter!

Dan and a mighty red oak
Dan with an impressive pignut hickory

Impressive old-growth examples of various oaks and hickories; beech; tuliptree; blackgum; ash; and sugar maple abounded that were amazing sights for sore eyes.  I understand the need and importance of lumbering and logging but for every tree we cut down, we remove its possibility of growing to such a mesmerizing size. If I had my way, I would leave many stretches of forest logging-free to allow them to mature and eventually wow future generations of hikers and appreciators at their splendor and size.  I'm incredibly thankful Fort Hill is immune from chainsaws and logging trucks.  It would be a travesty for Ohio to lose such a great natural treasure!

One helluva tuliptree!
Looking into the canopy of the mighty tuliptree

The cherry on top of the Fort Hill sundae and our climb to the top of the ridge for me was the mighty tuliptree that has graced this preserve for well over a century.  I've seen many other enormous examples of tuliptrees in other woods and natural areas but I never tire of their grandeur and timeless beauty.  There's just something to be admired and appreciated for the luck and time involved for these specimens to reach such majestic dimensions and proportions.

Looking into the next week's forecast it doesn't look like the temperatures and weather will improve much but when it does be assured I will be out in force to bring you as much of Ohio's spring as I can!  It's been a long, cold, and wet winter and the warm sunshine and lovely wildflowers certainly can't get here soon enough!

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