Friday, September 20, 2013

Rare Sedge Discovery at Lawrence Woods

My job this summer with the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves (DNAP) allowed your blogger the pleasure of visiting and working in nearly 50 of our fine state's nature preserves, state parks, state forests, and metroparks.  Each and every one was unique and special in its own way with some being unequaled in the rest of the state.  I could easily spend all fall and winter writing and sharing many of my adventures from the past few months (and plan to!).  It's a shame so many people fail to see the charm and splendor of Ohio's natural landscape and think of us as a flat, boring hunk of real estate.  Few things could be further from the truth!

Lawrence Woods state nature preserve in southern Hardin county

One of those unrivaled gems I spent a number of hot, muggy, and buggy days in was Lawrence Woods state nature preserve in southern Hardin county.  This nearly pristine, somewhat old-growth woodland has a mixture of different forest types ranging from drier oak-hickory to inundated buttonbush swamp and tops out at over 1,000 acres in size.  Huge, ancient bur, red, white, and chinkapin oaks tower into the emerald canopy with beech, ash, maple, and hickory mixed in with impressive specimens as well.  Perhaps the most precious denizen of this sprawling wet woods is the state's largest population of the endangered and very rare heart-leaved plantain (Platango cordata); which also happens to grow intermixed with the largest population of the uncommon northern tubercled orchid (Platanthera flava var. herbiola) I've ever seen.

Northern Leopard Frog

It's not just the flora that is worthy of attention but the diversity of fauna as well.  White-tailed deer, wild turkey, fox squirrels, dozens and dozens of species of nesting birds, and plenty of amphibians call this large tract of mixed forest types home.  This gorgeous northern leopard frog is just one example of the wildlife waiting for those willing to enter its dim, mosquito-filled depths.

Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris)

However, this particular time I was there with sedges on my mind.  In a select spot near the southern edge of the preserve sits a low-lying, swampy area full of a rather scarce and unusual member of the Cpyeraceae family.

Inundated swamp forest full of the rare raven's foot sedge (Carex crus-corvi)

This summer's fortune of rain had the ground inundated with about a foot of water and in prime condition for the rarity I had my eyes set on finding.  Pin oak, swamp white oak, green ash, and red maple of various sizes abounded with a scattering of swamp rose (Rosa palustris), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), and swamp dogwood (Cornus obliqua) growing out of the saturated, mucky soil.

Raven's Foot Sedge (Carex crus-corvi)
Raven's Foot Sedge (Carex crus-corvi)

It didn't take too long to spot the long, spiky fruit clusters of the state-threatened raven's foot sedge (Carex crus-corvi) growing in large, dense clumps throughout the water-logged swamp forest.  Of the 160+ species of Carex in Ohio, I think this one could take the cake for being the most conspicuous and attention-grabbing.  It almost looks like a flail-like weapon from medieval times to me!

An intriguing, suspicious sedge among the wetland plants

As I continued to wade through the water, keeping a census count of each clump of Carex crus-corvi I came across, I noticed an intriguing and suspicious looking sedge that just didn't look quite right.  The other typical sedges were there: C. frankii, C. crinita, C. lupulina, and C. comosa respectively; but this one just seemed to stand out.

A closer look at the suspicious sedge

It certainly looked similar to the abundant hop sedge (C. lupulina) growing throughout the swamp but its narrower, more elongated perigynia clusters and lime-green color had me scratching my head if this could indeed be the rare and painfully similar false hop sedge (C. lupuliformis).  In a flurry of excitement and suspicion, I plucked a perigynium off the cluster and ripped open the inflated, papery bladder to unveil the achene (seed); the best and most consistent way to differentiate the two species.

Carex lupuliformis perigynia and achene (L) compared to the same of C. lupulina (R)

What I was hoping to see was the mature achenes of the mystery sedge have conspicuous and clearly-defined knobby, pointy protuberances (umbonate in nerdy Latin talk) on the sides of the seed.  As luck would have it, the achenes showed off the desired trait beautifully and confirmed its identity as Carex lupuliformis.  In the photograph above you can see side-by-side comparisons of both the fruiting structures and individual achenes of C. lupuliformis on the left and C. lupulina on the right.  Notice the knobby protrusions on the C. lupuliformis achenes (creating an almost diamond outline) while C. lupulina has more rounded and elongated achenes.

Even better was the realization that this rare sedge had never been recorded for Lawrence Woods or Hardin county.  Another rare sedge find is always a great way to spend a day out in the field!  I collected a few specimens for pressing and after finishing my survey of the now two rare sedges growing under the oaks and ash, made the long trek back to my car with a satisfied smile on my face.  Not even the hoard of mosquitoes above my head and the ounce or two of blood I lost to their tenacious nature could break the happy mood I was in.  Serendipitous finds like these are always the cherry on top to any field botanist's work!

From L to R: C. frankii, C. crus-corvi, C. lupulina, C. lupuliformis, C. grayi, C. comosa, and C. crinita

Lawrence Wood's size and wonderfully intact and diverse plant communities certainly hold more secrets and surprises to find, I have little doubt about that.  With more exploration and time who knows what other goodies could be lying in wait.  I know I'll be back for more in the coming months and years; it's just the kind of place that's hard to stay away from for all the right reasons.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Cranberry Glades of West Virginia

This past summer I had the pleasure of revisiting one of the most botanically interesting and diverse areas of my region of the country: the Cranberry Glades of West Virginia.  If you'll remember correctly, I posted about this famed botanical area from last year's trip a ways back but wanted to give another, more detailed glance (at least photogenically) at its splendor for my readers.  This post is designed to be more of a visual journey; if you're interested in learning more you can read the previous corresponding post here.

View across the rolling green mountains of southeast West Virginia at 4,500 feet

Deep in the bowl-like valley of the surrounding mountains lie the millennia-old open peat bogs of the cranberry glades.  This antiquated relic of the last glacial epoch is a prime representation of a habitat type and ecosystem typically found hundreds of miles to the north.  While the glaciers never made it far enough south to physically alter or shape West Virginia, their climatic influence and boreal conditions allowed its accompanying northern plants to invade its borders tens of thousands of years ago.  As the massive sheets of ice receded back to the north, they left those unique plants behind in the refuge of the higher elevations that managed to replicate their cooler environmental requirements.  Once the temperate deciduous forests began to creep back north from the south, they displaced these disjunct communities until just about all that remained today are the ancient, peat-filled bogs of the cranberry glades.  Given enough time and the addition of an ever-warming climate, even this famous place will end up lost to the ages.

Large Purple Fringed orchid (Platanthera grandiflora)

One of the best finds in the cranberry glades region are the forest springs and seeps that are home to the stunning large purple fringed orchids (Platanthera grandiflora) growing along their moist, steep banks.

Large Purple Fringed orchid (Platanthera grandiflora)

A closer look at their remarkable flowers shows just how complex and artfully sculpted each individual inflorescence is.  This particular species was collected a few times in extreme northeastern Ohio back in the early 1900's and never seen again.

Allegheny Brookfoam (Boykinia aconitifolia)

Growing and blooming in profusion with the large purple fringed orchids was the unusual and unique Allegheny brookfoam (Boykinia aconitifolia).

Hay-scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula)

Thick seas of hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) glowed a vivid green in the darkened understories of the surrounding woodlands.

Canada Lily (Lilium canadense)
Canada Lily (Lilium canadense)

Just beginning to open their gorgeous red-orange flowers in the higher elevations was Canada lily (Lilium canadense) with their delicately speckled tepal undersides.

Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

The evergreen mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) shrubs were in peak bloom at the highest elevations and gave off an appearance and aroma I wouldn't soon forget.

Running Clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum)
Fan clubmoss and tubercled orchid leaves

The higher and drier, acidic conditions of the mountains were full of interesting fern allies such as these club mosses.  Long runners of the aptly named running clubmoss (Lycopodium clavatum) spread across the most open and barren of soils, while in more moist and shaded areas fan clubmoss (Diphasiastrum digitatum) ruled.

Rosebay Rhododendron (R. maximum)
Rosebay Rhododendron (R. maximum)

While the mountain laurel was at peak, its heath family relative, rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) was just beginning to unfurl its tightly bunched pink buds.  One glance at its flowers in full bloom and its not hard to understand why this species is West Virginia's official state wildflower.

The Cranberry Glades botanical area!

At an elevation of about 3,400 feet above sea level, the cranberry glades remain relatively cool during even the summer months; especially with the supplementary chilled air flowing down from the surrounding mountains that rise an additional 1,000+ feet.  It was late June during this visit and while I left a hot and muggy Ohio, I was greeted by temperatures in the upper 60's upon my arrival to the glades.  It wasn't just the atmospheric conditions that were favorable and admirable but the flora too!

Looking across the open expanse of bog full of rare, disjunct plants

A spectacular view across the open peat-filled bogs of the cranberry glades full of rare and disjunct flora and fauna.

Green False Hellebore (Veratrum viride) 
Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)

Two frequent and conspicuous plants in the understory of the glade's surrounding swamp woods was the green false hellebore (Veratrum viride) and red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa).  Dozens of the hellebore's large basal leaves dotted the forest floor but only a handful of blooming stalks could be found.

Open swampy habitat in the cranberry glades

The wetter areas of the swamp opened up into a more marsh-like habitat full of sedges and other emergent aquatic vegetation.

Appalachian Jacob's Ladder (P. vanbruntiae)
Appalachian Jacob's Ladder (P. vanbruntiae)

One of the most interesting and rare of the open swamp habitat's plant species was the very unusual Appalachian jacob's ladder (Polemonium vanbruntiae).  This scarcity only grows in a handful of northeastern states and is related to our common spring-flowering jacob's ladder (P. reptans) but differs with larger, more erect flowers and habit.

Oblong-fruited Serviceberry (Amelanchier bartramiana)

Another northern disjunct far from home in the glades is the oblong-fruited serviceberry (Amelanchier bartramiana).  This species only occurs in New England and the northern Great Lakes states and is at its most southern locale here in southeastern West Virginia.  Its oblong-shaped fruit (duh) and leaves on very short petioles (seemingly sessile) are excellent identification factors.

View across the more filled-in part of the bog mat

Looking out across the more filled-in areas of the peat bogs shows a great diversity of plants such as red spruce (Picea rubens), black chokeberry (Photinia melanocarpa), cinnamon fern (Osmandastrum cinnamomeum), grass pink orchid (Calopogon tuberosus), rose pogonia orchid (Pogonia ophioglossoides), pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) and bristly dewberry (Rubus hispidus).

Grass Pink orchids in full bloom above the sphagnum

The bubblegum colored grass pink orchids (Calopogon tuberosus) were in full bloom across the large, open expanse of sphagnum moss and cranberry.  Their brilliant, jeweled pink appearance was set perfectly against the vibrant emerald green vegetation.

Grass Pinks (Calopogon tuberosus)
Grass Pinks (Calopogon tuberosus)

More looks at the gorgeous forms and displays of the lovely grass pink orchids.  The adorable little mini Christmas trees in the photo on the right belong to another fern-ally lycopod called ground pine (Dendrolycopodium obscurum).

Large Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

I would be remiss if I didn't make specific mention of the bog's namesake plant: the cranberry.  Both large (Vaccinium macrocarpon) and small (V. oxycoccos) occur in the glades and were in full bloom during my visit. These pictured belong to the large cranberry species.

Rose Pogonia Orchid (Pogonia ophioglossoides)

Another cute, pink member of the orchid family blooming in the large expanse of bog was the rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides).  The open, windier conditions of the cranberry glades causes the orchids to grow more stunted and much closer to the ground than the specimens typically seen in kettle pond sphagnum bog mats.

Rose Pogonia Orchid (Pogonia ophioglossoides)
Rose Pogonia Orchid (Pogonia ophioglossoides)

You'd be hard pressed to find a more dainty, charming orchid growing in such an otherwise demanding and harsh environment.

Characteristic pitchers of the northern Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea)

Another characteristic plant of the cranberry glades area is the always-popular northern pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea).  This species is much more at home in the north in acidic kettle lake bogs and shoreline fens of the Great Lakes but the similar climatic conditions at the glades do just fine as a substitute.

Characteristic pitchers of the northern Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea)
Perhaps equally as unique and eye-catching as their leaves, the flowers of the pitcher plants sit high above the leaves on thick, red stalks.  If you can think of a more alien-like flower, I'd love to know which one(s) you might suggest!

Looking upstream while crossing the mighty Ohio River

After a morning and afternoon well spent in the glades it was time for the long trip home.  I had plenty to digest and reflect on after time in one of the region's most exciting and pristine of places.  I hope to head back sometime next year in late spring or fall to see what other botanical wonders await.