Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Last Vestiges of the Darby Plains

Of all the natural landscapes and ecosystems Ohio had to offer around the time of European settlement, none have seen the same systematic destruction and removal quite like our prairies.  Over 99% of Ohio's indigenous tall grass prairie has succumbed to the activities of man or the inevitable march of natural succession.  You thought over 90% of our state's wetlands being lost was bad, the prairies have statistically had it worse.  Originally representing nearly 5% (or 1,500 square miles) of Ohio's vegetation at the time of settlement, these open, grass-dominated ecosystems are relatively new to Ohio from a geologic viewpoint and came into existence around four to eight thousand years ago during a shift to a warmer, drier climate.  This change disrupted and discouraged reforestation's northward advancement post Wisconsin glaciation and allowed the western tall grass prairie to migrate east through Illinois, Indiana and into Ohio.  Gradually the climate returned to a more cool and wet cycle and forestation picked back up as the prairies were invaded and recolonized by the trees.

Considering how fast open grassland can revert to shrubs-saplings and on into young forest, we have to thank in large part the Native American tribes that lived in western/northern Ohio for keeping our prairies around.  They played a huge role in maintaining these grassland habitats with their frequent use of fire.  They realized wild game was more attracted to the lush new-growth of burned areas and the open environment made hunting them easier and more successful.  This led to a consistent fire regime that kept the woody invaders at bay and a key aspect to their livelihoods healthy and intact.  Naturally-occurring fires from the likes of lightning strikes did occur historically but hardly at the same interval and efficiency as the native people's.  Without their influence, I highly doubt any substantial tracts of prairie would have persisted up until the time of settlement.  I can only imagine what it must have been like to gaze out at an almost never-ending expanse of grasses and the occasional tree with herds of grazers like bison and elk spread out across its vastness or seeing a hot and intense prairie fire speed across the ground with flames licking 15-20 feet into the sky.

The first pioneers found these open tracts of tall warm season grasses, occasional oaks and hickories, and colorful summer wildflowers to be quite formidable and were initially ignored for their lack of trees.  The early thought was any land that didn't support forest was infertile and not worth the time or effort to farm.  If only that assumption had never been questioned.  Once that mindset was reversed and the prairie's deep, rich black soil was bitten into by the steel plow and drained with tile, it wasn't long before it had all but disappeared and turned into modern prairie monocultures of corn, soybeans, and wheat.

Gazing out across the wildflower bonanza at Bigelow Prairie 

It's not all doom and gloom as within that 1% fraction of tall grass prairie left are some true gems.  
Inside the Darby Plains of west-central Ohio lies arguably some of the grandest of our state's last vestiges of grassland. Formally encompassing nearly 400 square miles of land between Columbus and Springfield, the Darby Plains sit on a flattened to gently undulating landscape of glacial till dissected by a handful of waterways; none more well-known and pristine than the Big and Little Darby Creeks.  These waterways are registered as both state and national scenic rivers and widely regarded as one of the most biologically diverse aquatic systems in the entire Midwest.

The Darby Plains current state of existence consists almost solely of tiny, widely scattered parcels of prairie remnants rarely larger than an acre.  Perhaps the most famous of all is a pioneer cemetery known as Bigelow Prairie state nature preserve.  Early settlers used the site to bury their passed loved ones, with some of the graves dating back to the early 1800's.  Since the cemetery was never plowed or grazed, its indigenous prairie flora was able to survive and thrive within the half acre plot.  This ended up resulting in one of the most spectacular shows of summer wildflowers in the entire state as you'll see next.

Prairie obligate wildflowers in full glorious bloom.

Bigelow prairie really comes to life during the month of July and exhibits a month long fireworks display almost unparalleled anywhere else.  Vibrant yellows, reds, purples and pinks explode out of the surrounding greenery and make even the most novice wildflower admirer's mouth hang agape.

Royal Catchfly (Silene regia)

Nothing on the Darby Plains will catch the eye and keep its attention quite like the scarlet flowers of the state threatened royal catchfly (Silene regia).  If there's a wildflower in the plant kingdom with a more rich and mesmerizing shade of red, I'd certainly like to see it.  Today, this stunning wildflower hangs on in a handful of Darby Plains localities with none nicer than the display at Bigelow cemetery.

Gorgeous display of Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

If the royal catchfly is the star of Bigelow cemetery, then the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is its equivalent at nearby Smith cemetery prairie.  Their purple umbrella-like flowers seem to glow in the dappled shade of the surrounding bur oaks.

Prairie wildflowers at Bigelow Cemetery Prairie
Prairie wildflowers at Bigelow Cemetery Prairie

One can only imagine the sight that must have met the early settlers and pioneers as they broke out of the surrounding forest and were greeted by the large expanse of open prairie.  grey-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), ox-eye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), whorled rosinweed (Silphium trifoliatum) and prairie dock (S. terebinthinaceum) were all common associates of the Darby Plains and persist in its remnants today.

Scurf Pea (Orbexilum onobrychis)
Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)

A closer look under the larger and showier prairie plants reveals a hidden world of diversity that one can easily overlook.  The unique scurf pea (Orbexilum onobrychis), otherwise known as sainfoin or French-grass, is one of the more inconspicuous denizens in these prairies.

Prairie or Sullivant's Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)

The bubblegum pink flower umbels of Sullivant's milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii) is one the surest signs you're in a region of former tall grass prairie within the buckeye state.  Like many other prairie obligates in the region, this milkweed is much more common in the western Midwest and Great Plains and is at the eastern fringes of its range in the Darby and Sandusky Plains of Ohio.

Culver's Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
Savanna Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa)

In the more high quality and intact remnants of the Darby Plains are species like Culver's root (Veronicastrum virginicum) and savanna blazing star (Liatris scariosa var. nieuwlandii).  Both happen to be some of my favorite prairie wildflowers and add a touch of color and class to any prairie scene. Unfortunately, the savanna blazing star seems to be disappearing across the state and was recently added to our rare plant list.

Virginia Bunchflower (Melanthium virginicum)

Another high quality species known from the Darby Plains is the stunning Virginia bunchflower (Melanthium virginicum).  I hope to be corrected and/or proven wrong but I believe this species to be extirpated from the region in this day and age and only lives on in diverse and carefully managed prairie plantings.  It's a shame the prettiest plants tend to be the most fragile and finicky.

Prairie Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata)

Nigh on joining the aforementioned Virginia bunchflower in disappearing from west-central Ohio's prairie landscape is the state-endangered prairie ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata).  Its narrow, almost linear leaves, relatively glabrous (hairless) and short nature, and compacted flower heads help separate this rarity from the weedy common ironweed (V. gigantea).

Pearl King Oak Savanna in Madison County

In spots where trees like oaks and hickories congregated above the tall warm season grasses was a habitat known as a savanna.  The Darby Plains was prehistorically dotted with these scattered groves of bur, white, and post oaks and just about all met their fates decades, even centuries ago.  Thankfully, one site in Madison county known as Pearl King oak grove has survived to this day.  Enormous, venerable bur and white oaks sit as silent sentinels overlooking the dense sea of grasses and forbs.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)

Although never touched by a settler's plow, Pearl King was used for grazing and pasture in the past which did a thorough job of erasing many of the region's quintessential prairie forbs within.  That being said, Pearl King makes up for it in its assortment and diversity of warm season grass communities.  Species such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) all occur within.

Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis)
Prairie Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata)

Arguably Pearl King's most valuable treasure is the presence of the aforementioned prairie dropseed.  This state threatened prairie obligate grass has never been recorded from anywhere else in the state than the Darby Plains and exists in its greatest numbers in this spectacular oak grove remnant.  Prairie dropseed is very sensitive to soil disturbance and likely only occurs at Pearl King due to its lack of historical plowing.  It also happens to have a very pleasant aroma that reminds your narrator of cilantro.

Under the massive oaks in Pearl King

Standing under the stalwart oaks of Pearl King allows any visitor to travel back in time and get a small albeit powerful feel for what the landscape of the region was like before the dominion of the white man.  If only these venerable trees could talk and tell of the things they've seen over the centuries.

Prairie False Indigo (Baptisia lactea)
Prairie False Indigo (Baptisia lactea)

Yet another state rarity that still manages to call the prairies of west-central Ohio home is the stately and conspicuous prairie false indigo (Baptisia lactea).  This member of the pea or legume family (Fabaceae) can reach over four feet in height and impresses with its sprawling stem and lateral branches of large white flowers.  Its flowers are replaced with equally unique inflated pods that turn black as they mature.

Ragged Fringed Orchid (Platanthera lacera)

I'd be remiss if I concluded this post without mentioning at least one orchid, so I'll top this marathon of a read off with one of the few orchids that call our tall grass prairies home.  The ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera) and its yellow-green appearance makes it one helluva plant to notice and hone in on while in the prairies; which makes this relatively common species all the more treasured of a find.

In the end, the Darby Plains of west-central Ohio is undoubtedly one of our state's best natural treasures.  With so much of its former grandeur long gone and lost forever, it becomes increasingly more important that we protect and manage what does remain for future generations to visit and enjoy.  Natural succession, invasive species, agricultural practices, and climate change will only continue to put pressure on these fragile and fragmented habitats.  I highly encourage any of my readers to get out and see these last vestiges of the Darby Plains for themselves in our state nature preserves and Columbus metroparks.  Spots like Bigelow and Smith cemetery prairie, Milford Center prairie, Pearl King oak grove, railroad right-of-ways (and subsequent bike paths), Prairie Oaks metropark, and Battelle Darby Creek metropark are all can't miss places during the mid-late summer months and on into fall.


  1. Fascinating read. We have one or two tiny vestiges of prairie in southern Ontario too , but probably not even as much as in Ohio.

  2. Love your posts:) I am a native Ohioan and have lived here all my life. I grow more appreciative each year of the beauty and diversity of this state. I plan on using your blog as a part of our regular home school curriculum this year! Thank you for your lovely photos and inspiring words:)

  3. That is one incredible post, Andrew. Your posts are some of the best I've seen on the natural history of an area - fascinating reading and beautiful photos. Thankfully we live in an area where there is still quite a bit of land that has never been disturbed.

  4. This is just great! Thank you! I have wandered around the Smith Cemetery many times with my grandmother from Plain City, and my daughters. I love that place.