Thursday, April 4, 2013

Early Bloomers at Clifton Gorge State Nature Preserve

I think it's safe to say spring has finally arrived after thoroughly taking its sweet time all through the month of March.  It's quite a breath of fresh air to read the expanded weather forecast and see highs in the upper 50's and 60's for the foreseeable future.  Those seemingly endless weeks of chilled temperatures and spotty snow showers have finally come to an end.

This past weekend saw your blogger return home to west-central Ohio from the hills and hollers of the southeast to spend the Easter holiday with family.  In typical fashion I spent some of my free time taking advantage of the nearby botanical attractions.  I knew with the newly minted warmer temperatures and weather the flora was sure to still be a bit lethargic in waking up but some early bloomers could still be expected breaking through the thawed soil.

Little Miami River flowing through the deep limestone gorges at Clifton Gorge

One of the best stations for early wildflower viewing accompanied with a healthy dose of impressive geologic formations is Clifton Gorge state nature preserve just outside Yellow Springs.  The state and national scenic Little Miami River flows through a stunning stretch of deep dolomite limestone gorge cut during the waning periods of the last glacial epoch and creates some spectacular views.

White cedars growing directly out of the gorge's limestone cliff walls

The resulting geologic features have created a microclimate able to sustain the cool, moist conditons needed for many of the rare and unusual disjunct northern plant species that still reside within the canyon walls.  A walk along the river during the winter and early spring months easily shows off the many evergreen eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) and northern white cedars (Thuja occidentalis) that grace the limestone cliff faces and lower slopes.  Other interesting northern species such as red baneberry (Actaea rubra), Canada yew (Taxus canadensis), and mountain maple (Acer spicatum) persist in the unique climate as well.

Maidenhair spleenwort fern
Carex plantaginea sending up flowering culms

The tiny, delicate fronds of the maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) is rather out of place in this area of the state but is right at home on its favored habitat of moss-covered limestone boulders and rock slumps in the shadows of the gorge.  Another 'evergreen' plant not typical of west-central Ohio is the conspicuous clumps of plantain-leaved sedge (Carex plantaginea) persisting alongside the maidenhair spleenwort fern on the cool, moist, soil-covered rocks.  Many of them were welcoming the more spring-like temperatures by sending up their flowering culms; ensuring their presence in the limestone chasm would continue on in the next generation.

Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa) in full, albeit tiny bloom

One of the surest signs of spring's arrival is the diminutive appearance of the aptly-named harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa).  Bravely facing the frost-prone mornings, this dainty wonder proudly displays its charming flowers for the season's first insects.  It can also go by the common name of salt-and-pepper for its contrasting white petals and purple-turning black anthers.  It's certainly an easy wildflower to pass over but those with a keen eye can take pleasure in its early-spring charisma.

Sessile trillium just about to break bud
Sharp-lobed hepatica (Anenome americana)

It wouldn't truly be spring here in the Midwest without the abundance of sharp-lobed hepatica (Anenome americana) breaking bud and painting over winter's browns and greys with their endless shades of white, pink, purple, and blue.  The attractive mottled leaves of the sessile trillium (Trillium sessile) accompanied the surrounding hepaticas but were still a few days away from breaking bud.  I've always admired them more for their leaves than flowers anyway; which is not something that can really be said for any other species of Ohio trillium.

Red and white cedars precariously clinging to the cliff's edges

Much like the white and red cedars of Adams county fame, Clifton gorge has its own accompaniment of trees clinging precariously to the limestone cliff's edges and sheer walls.  Growing right out of crevices and gaps in the rock, the white (Thuja occidentalis) and red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) grow excruciatingly slow and are much older than their size would suggest.  This nearly-stagnant growth pattern also allows them to attain unique, gnarled forms of a strangely artistic appearance.

Snow trillium (Trillium nivale)

One of the gorge's most hallowed and anticipated of wildflower denizens are those ever-so-popular and beloved snow trillium (Trillium nivale).  The shallow, limestone gravel-derived soils at the base of the cliff faces are the perfect set up for this early bloomer to thrive in.

How many trillium can you see?
Snow trillium (Trillium nivale)

I shared their awakening in the similarly-situated limestone gorge of Fort Hill in my last post but I don't think anyone could ever truly tire of seeing these floral wonders.  There's just something to be admired and said about the year's first showy and magnificent wildflower.  All those chills and long months of winter instantly melt away from your heart and soul at the very sight of these as they peak out their heads from the decaying leaf litter.

Snow trillium (Trillium nivale)

It's a bit bittersweet for me to have one of my absolute favorite wildflowers be one of the very first out the gate each season.  I can't think of a more anticipated and welcoming sign that spring is here once again and the avalanche of blooming wildflowers has only just begun, but at the same time it's sad to know it will be another year before I get to sit down and catch up with these close acquaintances.  In a weird way it makes me question and ponder my own mortality.  How many more chances will I have to spend time in their presence before its time to return my bones back to the earth?  It certainly gives every waking moment with them and in the great outdoors in general a great deal of value.  Why I always encourage everyone to get outside and breath in the fresh air as much as they can.  Sure, the natural world will always be there to enjoy but unfortunately the same cannot be said for our mortal selves.

White cedars lining a long-fallen limestone boulder along the banks of the Little Miami River

Once through the narrow limestone gauntlet of the gorge, the water slows itself to a much more calm pace and slowly meanders its way downstream.  Without the protection of the precipitous canyon walls the microclimate quickly dissipates and with it goes the unusual plant species/communities.  I'm very thankful for the souls who had the wisdom and mind for conservation to protect this incredible place early on from the stain and reckless behavior of mankind.  It's a great deal of comfort to me knowing that whenever I want to experience arguably the finest inter/post-glacial limestone gorge in the entire state it's always there with open arms.

1 comment:

  1. We visited Adams County in 2013, loved the area. Glad to find your blog.
    Joan King