Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Winter Wonderland in the Hocking Hills

Earlier this week Southeast Ohio finally received what felt like its first appreciable snow event of the season.  We've had countless dustings and a few passing systems that left an inch or two on the ground but in the end nothing that made you want to throw your snow boots on.  So when a fresh five inches fell overnight and draped the world in a picture perfect winter wonderland, I immediately felt the urge to get out and enjoy it.

Quiet, snow-covered trail along Queer Creek in the Hocking Hills

I decided the best bang for my hiking buck would be to brave the cold and make the short drive to the Hocking Hills for the day. The snow coincided perfectly with a rare day where I had little on the schedule and I was determined to take advantage of it.  The road conditions were poor and air temperatures only in the single digits during the drive out but the crisp blue sky and bright sun really made the landscape pop under all the snow.

Blackhand sandstone is a work of art carved by wind, rain and ice

I passed hardly any cars during the drive and encountered even fewer people on the trails.  In fact, just about everywhere I went my tire and/or foot tracks were the first to tarnish the previously pristine snow.  The Hocking Hills is easily one of the state's most popular and heavily visited attractions year-round but I had it more or less entirely to myself for the day and loved every minute of it.

A frozen solid Cedar Falls

The morning started off with a quick stop by famed Cedar Falls.  With subzero temperatures the night before and daily highs well below freezing for days on end, I knew its typically graceful flow would be locked up in a tremendous display of ice.  I was not disappointed.  The silence of the scene was only broken by a slow trickle of water behind the massive mask of ice.

Wide view of frozen Cedar Falls in the Hocking Hills

One of the reasons the Hocking Hills was an easy choice for a snow-laden hike was its year-round presence of color.  Most of Ohio over-winters in a variety of depressingly drab shades of brown and gray.  The Hocking Hills bucks that trend with a rich display of iron-orange Blackhand sandstone and evergreen hemlocks.  I'm especially partial to the color of the uniquely patterned sandstone. It's deserving of its own color in a Crayola crayon box coming soon.

Appalachian rockcap fern (Polypodium appalachianum) tightly curled in the subfreezing temperatures

Multiple layers of wool and fleece kept your narrator warm and toasty despite hours spent out in the subfreezing temperatures.  The same could not be said for the rest of the plant and animal life trying to survive the winter.  The Appalachian rockcap ferns (Polypodium appalachianum) that grace many slump rocks and boulders throughout the region looked especially cold.  Their evergreen fronds were all tightly curled inward, as if to shiver off the arctic chill.

Snow, sandstone and hemlocks

Leaving Cedar Falls behind, I made for my next stop in a lesser known part of Hocking state forest in Edison Hollow.  It's off the beaten path but contains much of the same beauty and features that make the region so popular.

Mature forest within Edison Hollow

Walking back into the bottleneck of the hollow takes you through an impressive forest with a lofty canopy and mature timber. Hemlock, black and yellow birch, beech, tuliptree, red and white oak, sugar maple, black cherry and basswood were all present and combine to make a locally significant forest community.  The Hocking Hills rugged and rough topography creates a cool, moist micro climate in its deep hollows which allows for the typically more northern assemblage of trees and plants to persist.

80'+ waterfall at the back of Edison Hollow
Once I reached the back of the gorge my eyes were met with an impressive straight plunge waterfall over 80 feet tall.  Much like Cedar Falls, Edison's was nearly frozen solid and only had a small drip of life to it.  The ice pyramid at its base was especially impressive.  It dwarfed me when standing next to it at nearly 20 feet in height and emitted a soft greenish-blue glow through its complex layers of ice crystals.

Snow, wind and light combine for a stunning scene

My visit to Edison Hollow happened to coincide with the sun positioned behind the falls and illuminating the stand of hemlocks at its precipice.  For a few brief moments the wind would pick up and send the hemlock's accumulated snow into the air, creating a heavenly glow of light above the falls.  The sunbeams would stream through the haze of ice and dance in waves and ripples.

Abruptly ending squirrel tracks
Greenshield Lichen (Flavoparmelia caperata)

The winter woods has a silence and beauty all its own, even more so after a fresh snowfall.  Animal activity was sparse with only a few lines of tracks meandering through the trees.  My favorites were the squirrel prints.  Their tracks would abruptly end a few feet from a tree as if it was suddenly snatched up in an alien spaceship's tractor beam...instead of just jumping onto and scurrying up the tree.

Overlooking the Queer Creek valley from atop a sandstone rock outcropping

After experiencing some impressive upward views in the sandstone gorges and hollows, it was high time to gain some elevation.  I chose another secluded and hardly-traveled area in the south-facing ridge line of the Queer Creek valley.  The valley contains a number of nice rock outcroppings that show off their views across the rough terrain.  Once again the dominant presence of the evergreen hemlocks and their snow-covered branches really magnified the charm of the scene.

Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)
Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

The hemlocks weren't the only source of seasonal greenery.  Stunted Virginia pines and tangles of mountain laurel grew all along the rocky cliff's edges and perimeter.  They were right at home with the other dry, acidic condition-loving plants of the ridge tops like chestnut, black and scarlet oaks, downy serviceberry, hillside blueberry, black huckleberry and sourwood.

Sandstone rock outcrop above Rooty Hollow along the Queer Creek Valley

This past summer was the first time I'd ever experienced this particular part of the Hocking Hills.  These same rocky outcrops and cliff edges above Queer Creek are home to the state endangered cow-wheat (Melampryum lineare) and were the subject of a day's monitoring and surveying back on a hot and humid day in June.  The views and off-trail seclusion of it all made an instant impression back then and I knew it had to be equally good come winter.

Walking back into the bottleneck of Conkle's Hollow

No trip to the Hocking Hills for me is ever complete without a stop by Conkle's Hollow.  I'm fortunate to have seen and experienced as much of our fine state as I have and even after the years and new places, Conkle's still makes me swoon.  Walking back into its deep gorge or walking the rim trails, I never tire of the feel or atmosphere of the preserve.

Sheer sandstone goodness

Conkle's hollow is one of the deepest in the entire state with depths of over 200 feet.  Many people consider Ohio to be flat and featureless.  It depends on where you're standing when you say that I suppose, but they'd best not be in the Hocking Hills!  Where else in the state do you get sheer walls of rock hundreds of feet tall right in your face?

Yellow birch roots exposed and growing down rock
Hefty hemlock

The predominate bedrock material of the Hocking Hills was laid down some 340 million years ago during the Mississippian Period. During that time the region was under a warm, shallow sea where several prehistoric waterways deposited their sediment loads over a series of deltaic complexes.  Over the eons the sediment layers cemented together to form the Blackhand sandstone we know today. Subsequent geological unrest in the region uplifted and exposed this strata of bedrock to the elements, where millions of years of wind, water and ice has carved out the incredible features we see today.

Frozen ice pillars at the back of Conkle's Hollow

Conkle's Hollow is supremely one of Father time and Mother nature's best works of erosion and patience in the state.  It's fun to think about what the preserve and hollow will look like hundreds of thousands of years into the future.  We live in such a brief flash of geologic time it's hard to comprehend the changes that have happened and will continue happening over the millions and billions of years.

Looking back into the bottleneck of Conkle's Hollow from the east rim trail

As the Blackhand sandstone was laid down, the sediments conglomerated into layers of varying erosion resistance.  The bottom and topmost layers are course-grained and firmly cemented, thus being very resistant to weathering.  These layers make up the basements of the region's hollows and their respective rims and tops of waterfalls.  The middle strata is comprised of a much finer grained sand that was crossbedded and weakly cemented, leaving it vulnerable to erosion.  This layer is where you see your recesses, caves and rock shelters.  Conkle's Hollow and the countless others in the Hocking Hills came to exist when a massive crack or fault in the previously more or less solid block of bedrock occurred and was gradually eaten away until it met more resilient rock.  Over millions of years it's gotten as far as what you see in the photo above.  It all comes back to time and the Earth has had a lot of it to work with.

Looking south out of Conkle's Hollow

This view just never gets old or boring, no matter how many times you've seen it

The afternoon skies had clouded up and a brisk wind was beginning to stir by the time I got to the eastern rim trail.  Temperatures had warmed into the low 20's but that new wind cut like a knife.  Still, it wasn't enough to dull the experience of the rim.  I've soaked in this view dozens of times and taken the same photo dozens more but it never, ever gets even one iota old.

The state-rare resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides)

I capped off my all-day Hocking Hills hiking extravaganza with a quick stop by a particular hunk of rock to see how one of our hardiest ferns was dealing with the harsh winter conditions.  Just as I expected, the state-rare resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides) looked just about dead.  But not to fear, it's just playing possum and will be back good as new with time.  This species gets its common name from its ability to dry and shrivel to a near-crisp during times of cold and/or arid conditions and snap right back to a lush, green state after getting a drink.  A fern that can come back from the "dead".  Resurrection, indeed.

I certainly got my wish for a good snowfall at some point this winter but it could be noted that you should always be careful what you wish for.  Another six-seven inches has fallen today to leave a solid foot of the white stuff on the ground.  That can only mean it's time to get out and do some more winter wonderland exploration, right?

~ ALG ~

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Top Ten Life Plants of 2014

Ah.  It's good to hear the clack of the keyboard again.  I'd like to apologize for the lack of activity on here the past few months. Lately too many things have come together to steal my attention and free time but rest assured your blogger is alive and well.  I'm still as busy as ever but hope to manage and keep a presence on here until the less burdened summer months return.  Regardless, it's nice to get something fresh out there for those who have anxiously awaited a new post.  In a perfect world I would have had this post written and published around the turn of the new year but better late than never, right?

The 2014 field season was one to remember for your narrator.  There's never enough time to see and do everything on your list during a calendar year but then that's what makes each and every new experience you do have all the more enduring.  For a botanist, or at least this botanist, one of the most rewarding tasks at the conclusion of a growing season is updating the life list.  As time goes on and I become more and more acquainted with my local and regional flora, the frequencies of making new floral friends decreases.  This makes each additional life species marked off the list feel just a bit more gratifying than the last.

With that being said, I'd like to reminisce on my personal top ten favorite "lifers" from 2014's botanical forays. It was not an easy task to achieve, believe me.  Many worthy contenders just couldn't make the last cut.  All ten plants were species I'd never had the pleasure of seeing in the flesh before; many only dreamily through a computer monitor.  Some I specifically set out to see, others I came across by complete chance.  If you're a regular reader of my blog, you might recognize a number of the forthcoming plants; some just deserve their own separate 15 minutes of fame at the time.

#10  -  Long Beech Fern (Phegopteris connectilis)

Number ten takes me back to the Hocking Hills this past June.  As a field botanist for the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, my job sees me work with hundreds of our state's rare plant species.  Surveying, monitoring and managing their occurrences is a large component of that work and is what had me finally face to face with the state-rare long beech fern (Phegopteris connectilis).  Typically found further to the north, it manages to persist in a rather disjunct fashion in the Hocking Hill's more secluded cool, moist hollows.  It looks strikingly similar to its close relative (and much more common) broad beech fern (P. hexagonoptera).  Looking at the bottom pair of pinnae helps separate the two: long beech's rachis between the bottom two pairs of pinnae lacks any wings; while broad beech's rachis is winged between every pair of pinnae.  

#9  -  Catesby's Trillium (Trillium catesbaei)

The mountains of northern Georgia produced dozens of new lifers during my visit in mid May, and I don't think much of anything impressed more than the trillium.  If I had to play favorites of the four-five new species I encountered, Catesby's trillium (T. catesbaei) will do nicely.  To see and read more on the other lifers from this trip you can check out this link right here.  There's still more to come on this list from Georgia though.

#8  -  Limestone Adder's Tongue Fern (Ophioglossum engelmannii)

If you didn't already know what you were looking at, number eight might have you thinking little green ogres had been buried up to their ears.  This alien-looking organism is actually a species of fern known as limestone adder's tongue (Ophioglossum engelmannii) and is quite rare in our state.  In fact, it's only known to occur in a handful of limestone barrens and glades in Adams county and that's it.  The spore-containing fertile frond was thought to resemble a snake's tongue, hence the common name of adder's tongue fern for this genus.

#7  -  Rough Boneset (Eupatorium pilosum)

Lifer number seven has the distinction of being a very, very new lifer for any Ohio botanist, well their state list anyway.  Rough boneset (Eupatorium pilosum) was never known from our state until late summer 2013, when exceptional field botanist and good friend, Brian Riley discovered it growing (apparently) wild in Athens county. Come August 2014, Brian led your blogger and a few other distinguished Ohio botanists to the sites to discuss its native status.  After weighing and debating the topic we concluded it was very likely a natural occurrence and not an intentional (or accidental) introduction.  Just another excellent find by Brian!  For a more detailed account on our day with the rough boneset, you can check out Jim McCormac's post here.

#6  -  Bradley's Spleenwort (Asplenium bradleyi)

Here we are halfway through the countdown and we're on fern species number three.  Needless to say, they've recently become a bit of a hot topic for me and one I put more focus into studying during the 2014 field season. Bradley's spleenwort (Asplenium bradleyi) is one I'm quite pleased to finally have a check mark next to as it's arguably one of Ohio's rarest pteridophytes.  Listed as endangered, it's only known to occur in a handful of sites in southeastern Ohio, often on sheer, inaccessible sandstone rock faces.  That type of habitat niche made getting a photo of even a single fertile frond or two difficult and involved a bit of free hand rock climbing.

#5  -  Swamp Valerian (Valeriana uliginosa)

As I  alluded to earlier, some great plant finds come out of nowhere and catch you by complete surprise.  Those are the ones that are even harder to forget.  Enter life plant number five in the absolutely stunning swamp valerian (Valeriana uliginosa).  While wading through a sprawling fen meadow in southeast Michigan last June, my botanical cohorts and I came across a scattering of these snow white-capped flowers and despite never seeing them before it clicked almost instantly what they were.  Swamp valerian was a plant I'd only ever dreamed of seeing and wasn't sure where, if or when I'd ever get to mark it off the list.  It was only known from a single site in northeast Ohio and hasn't been seen since the end of the 19th century.  For more on this species and the other botanical goodies within its remarkable fen, you can check out this link here.

#4  -  Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)

In terms of new species added to the life list in 2014, nothing came close to my time on the Florida panhandle. I could have just as easily made this entire list out of Florida flora but I did my best to refrain from such a biased approach.  Of the hundreds of lifers I encountered in the swamps and pine lands of the panhandle, the fabled Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula) was the most anticipated. The plants were admittedly planted at the site I knew about decades ago and have persisted in the boggy habitat but that did little to take away from the experience.  For more photos of the fly traps and their other bog associate denizens you can check out this link here.

#3  -  Sweet Pinesap (Monotropsis odorata)

Most wildflowers people remember with their sense of vision.  The same could be said for lifer number three but I personally will always recall them most fondly with my olfactories.  Sweet pinesap (Monotropsis odorata) was the target of a late April excursion to the Red River Gorge of Kentucky, with the motto being, "follow your nose!".  Sweet pinesap gets its name from the intoxicating aroma emitted from its perfectly purple flowers.  I've never smelled anything more enchanting than these oddities and in fact smelled their presence before visually locating them.  For more photos and info on this trip and these odorous wonders you can follow this link.

#2  -  Pine Lily (Lilium catesbaei)

We're down to the two biggest plant finds of my 2014 and it's back to the hot and steamy confines of the Florida panhandle.  After my time with the Venus fly traps, I decided to explore the nearby depths of Apalachicola National Forest's longleaf pine savannas. Gazing out across their open expanses of graminoids and pitcher plants invoked feelings of nirvana and utter tranquility.  The cherry on top of the savanna sundae was stumbling across lifer number two dotting the seas of green with their fire orange-red tepals.  I adore lilies but had no idea just how much until the pine lily (Lilium catesbaei).  Much like the aforementioned swamp valerian, I hadn't even considered encountering such a remarkable wildflower but am overjoyed that I did.  There wasn't much else to compare the feeling of their discovery to except for the last species left.

#1  -  Small Whorled Pogonia (Isotria medeoloides)

If you know me and you read this blog, it probably isn't hard to surmise that my number one life plant from 2014 was hands down, no contest, how-could-it-not-be the federally threatened small whorled pogonia (Isotria medeoloides).  I made the 500+ mile trek to Chattahoochee National Forest in the mountains of northern Georgia last May to specifically see this most elusive orchid.  Many might wonder why a small, bland and green "if you can even call it a flower" would illicit such a strong reaction from me, and honestly I might ask myself the same.  Its genuine distribution-wide rarity, sporadic and poorly understood life cycle, and mythic nature all combine to make it an arduous chase.  I could go on and on about this particular experience and plant but I'll leave that up to you. An entire post dedicated to this little green blob can be found here.

I hope you enjoyed this retrospective look at my favorite field finds of 2014.  Perhaps one of these made your life list last year? Maybe one of these will be a target for your 2015?  I look forward to bringing you more botanical forays and treatments in 2015 and know I have a lot of catching up to do from years past.  So stay warm and dream of spring!  The snow trillium and hepaticas will be out before we know it.