Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Asplenium Ferns of Ohio

The world of ferns is diverse and ancient. Many of these spore-producing wonders are living fossils and have remained relatively unchanged over millions of years. They've found their place and function in nature and are content to sit back and admire their successes at this point. Or, at least that's how I like to romanticize it. Ferns also happen to be some of my favorite plants but for whatever reason have seen little time dedicated to them on here. I believe that's due for a change.

It's been a while since I last focused on a specific genera of Ohio native plants, too. So why not mix things up and spend some time in the pteridophyte zone and break down the seven extant species of spleenworts (Asplenium) indigenous to my home state. The Aspleniums are arguably my most beloved of all fern genera and can superficially look similar from a distance and even up close. They aren't a hard group to get wrap your mind around with a little help and practice. Which is why I'm here!

The seven extant species of spleenwort (Asplenium spp.) ferns to be found in Ohio

Worldwide there are hundreds of species of Asplenium, with a large majority of them restricted to the tropical regions of the globe. Here in North America we have 28-30 different species and only seven within Ohio's borders. All our spleenworts are small, delicate ferns with slender and somewhat lacy appearances. They also happen to be a promiscuous bunch with many naturally-occurring hybrids. In fact, many of the 'species' we have today are hybrid in origin. Through the millennia the sterile diploid hybrids experienced a doubling of their chromosomes to create fertile allotetraploids. An example is lobed spleenwort (A. pinnatifidum), an allotertraploid derived from the mixing of mountain spleenwort (A. montanum) and walking fern (A. rhizophyllum). I could spend an entire post on this fascinating, and admittedly complex process but let's keep things simple.

All Ohio Asplenium are more or less evergreen. They hang around through the winter months but don't look near as aesthetic or ideal in the harsher conditions. Don't be fooled though: these ferns are tough as nails! They have a tenacity and fight in them that's to be admired, for they choose some harrowing places to live.

Typical habitat for many species of Ohio spleenwort

When it comes to hunting spleenworts around here your best bet is to find some nice rock exposures in the S/SE/E sections of the state. The greatest spleenwort diversity and densities in Ohio are definitely in the unglaciated SE quarter. Almost all our species are rock specialists and will only be found growing in pretty predictable and specific situations. Some of these ferns prefer non-calcareous substrates like acidic sandstone, granite, or shale. Others stick to calcareous rocks and are restricted to the state's limestone regions. They occur in full sun to partly shaded conditions, with some preferring more mossy, mesic spots to others growing literally out of tight crevices and cracks in pure rock. I'll discuss each spleenwort's specific preferences in their profiles below.

For as tough as they all, they're still non-mobile organisms that can't get up and move if a spot becomes unsuitable. So when you're looking for these wonderful ferns try to find a more secluded and/or undisturbed rock habitat to visually scour. Rock climbing, popular hiking destinations with rude plucking fingers, and overly exposed areas typically have fewer ferns to admire. You'll know you're somewhere special when a rock face is just dripping with a diversity of ferns!

With all that being said, I'd like to jump into the species profiles. Each of the seven native taxa, and one naturally-occurring hybrid are featured below with photos, descriptions, range maps, habitat descriptions and some general pointers on where to find them. I've decided to list them in alphabetical order for sake of ease and organization. As usual, I don't write any keys as the experts have graciously done that already and how could I expect to do any better. For a great book on Ohio's (and the surrounding region) ferns, I could not recommend one more than Midwest Ferns: A Field Guide to the Ferns and Fern Relatives of the North Central United States by Steve W. Chadde. It's not expensive and readily available on Amazon. It's definitely become my go to for all my spore-producing needs.

Asplenium bradleyi  -  Bradley's Spleenwort

First up is Ohio's rarest of the ferns featured here, Bradley's spleenwort (A. bradleyi). It's an endangered [S1] species in the state and found in precious few places. It's an allotetraploid that arose as a hybrid between mountain spleenwort (A. montanum) and ebony spleenwort (A. platyneuron).

Bradley's Spleenwort (A. bradleyi) in situ

Bradley's spleenwort is a small, clumped evergreen fern that is restricted to sandstone and other non-calcareous rock. It does an incredible job of fitting into small fissures, cracks, and crevices where a spore was fortunate enough to land. It prefers dry, sunny sites with few other plants growing on the sheer rock faces.

Close up of the fronds of Bradley's Spleenwort
View of the sori of Bradley's Spleenwort

Bradley's spleenwort has a relatively short, dark red-black stipe (stem before the 'leaves') that transitions to a green as you approach the rachis (stem with the 'leaves' or pinnae). Each pinnae is born on a very short stalk with a sharp-toothed to wavy margin. The spore-containing sori are found on the undersides of the pinnae on fertile fronds. They're paired up along the midrib and mature from a gold color to blackish brown. The only Asplenium you're likely to confuse Bradley's with is mountain spleenwort, which makes sense as one of its parent species. However, Bradley's fronds are long and narrow, while mountain's fronds are more deltoid in shape and their pinnae are on longer stalks. Compare with the photos below.

North American distribution of Bradley's Spleenwort (courtesy: BONAP)

Bradley's spleenwort is primarily a species of the Appalachians and curiously the Ozarks region of Missouri and Arkansas. Here in Ohio it's only ever been located in a handful of southeastern counties and currently considered extant in Fairfield and Washington counties. Two of the known sites are thankfully on preserved land but due to their rarity and fragility their locations will not be shared.

Asplenium montanum - Mountain Spleenwort

The next species on this treatment of Ohio's spleenworts is the mountain spleenwort (A. montanum). I'm of the opinion that this fern is the most attractive and intricate of our spleenworts. It can form large aesthetic clumps if happy and really impress anyone who notices as they walk by.

Mountain Spleenwort (A. montanum) in situ

Much like its aforementioned Bradley's kin, the mountain spleenwort is a non-calcareous rock specialist. It will often be about the only vascular plant seen growing in its rock face habitat. Mountain spleenwort is a locally common species where impressive sandstone rock formations are prevalent and relatively undisturbed. The Hocking Hills region and Lake Katharine state nature preserve in SE Ohio are excellent places to see this fern in situ.

Mountain spleenwort doing what it does best
Mountain Spleenwort

Appearance wise mountain spleenwort isn't too hard to discern from Ohio's other Aspleniums. It grows in concentrated clumps with oblong-triangular shaped fronds that appear greenish-blue and leathery. The pinnae sit on noticeable stalks, with each containing some lobing, especially the lowermost pairs. The sori mature brown and are scattered irregularly on the undersides of mature fronds. Mountain spleenwort is additionally one of the more scandalous Aspleniums and regularly hybridizes with other species, especially lobed spleenwort.

North American distribution of Mountain Spleenwort (courtesy: BONAP)

Looking at mountain spleenwort's distribution map it's easy to notice its a fern of the Appalachian mountain range. Here in Ohio it is restricted to the unglaciated Allegheny Plateau where it occurs on a variety of non-calcareous rock, especially sandstone. As mentioned, the Hocking Hills and Lake Katharine areas are excellent places to seek out this fern.

Asplenium pinnatifidum - Lobed Spleenwort

Continuing on is another species in the Appalachian spleenwort complex, the lobed spleenwort (A. pinnatifidum). It arose as a hybrid between mountain spleenwort and walking fern (A. rhizophyllum). 

Lobed Spleenwort (A. pinnatifidum) in situ

Keeping with the trend of the ferns shared so far, lobed spleenwort is another one that prefers non-calcareous rock substrates. It is a bit more forgiving in the shade and can occur in both dry and more moist conditions. Here in Ohio it's most commonly seen on sandstone but can grow on gneiss as well.

Lobed Spleenwort close up
Lobed Spleenwort in situ

The fronds overall are lance-shaped, like their parent walking fern with a long-tapering tip. The lower sections are usually cut into the pinnae-like lobes. It should pointed out that lobed spleenwort can vary greatly in just how 'lobed' its fronds are. I've observed extremely lobed fronds, I've seen fronds that didn't have nearly any lobes, and everything in-between. Regardless of how many lobes a frond may have it's most important to look at the base of the lobe and confirm there is no stalk and the lobe is firmly attached to the rachis. Observe this feature in the accompanying photos. Lobed spleenwort is usually a more solitary-occurring plant but large colonies can sometimes be found.

North American distribution of Lobed Spleenwort (courtesy: BONAP)

Lobed spleenwort's distribution looks strikingly similar to mountain spleenwort's. It ranges further west and is more prevalent in Ohio, too. Anytime you see some exposed sandstone rock formations is a good place to take a peek. With such overlaying ranges and shared habitat preferences it's no surprise lobed and mountain spleenwort will often grow in association with one another. And when that happens things can get a bit wild so to speak...

Asplenium x trudellii - Trudell's Spleenwort

As I pointed out in the opening sections of this post the genus Asplenium is notorious for producing hybrids. There are over 20 accepted spleenwort hybrids in North America, with no fewer than six having been collected in Ohio. The most common of all is Trudell's spleenwort (A. x trudellii), a sterile triploid formed from the crossing of mountain and lobed spleenwort.

Trudell's Spleenwort (A. x trudellii) in situ

Trudell's spleenwort is intermediate in appearance between its two parents but definitely has more of a lobed spleenwort look to it than mountain spleenwort. It will come as no surprise that it occurs in the same habitats as its parents and often nestled right in with 'pure' strains of both. 

Comparison: mountain spleenwort on L; Trudell's spleenwort in the middle; lobed spleenwort on the R

While in the Hocking Hills a ways back, I plucked a couple fronds of Trudell's, mountain and lobed spleenworts for a comparison shot. The key feature to know you have Trudell's is to find the lower pinnae with conspicuous stalks. Recall that lobed spleenwort, no matter how lobed it is will lack stalked pinnae entirely. The middle fronds show that feature perfectly. Also take note that the fronds of Trudell's are larger than either of its parents. Many times hybrid "species" are larger than their parents due to something called 'hybrid vigor' or heterosis. That can be another clue you have Trudell's spleenwort if you see an exceptionally lobed and monster-sized lobed spleenwort.

North American distribution of Trudell's Spleenwort (courtesy: BONAP)

For reference is a distribution map of known collections of Trudell's spleenwort in North America. Obviously, it's restricted to where both parents occur together and if you'd like to sniff some out, I'd recommend the aforementioned Hocking Hills and Lake Katharine locales. I've personally seen nice examples of this hybrid alongside its parents at both locations.

Asplenium platyneuron - Ebony Spleenwort

This next species of fern is undoubtedly Ohio's most common Asplenium and found throughout most of the state. Ebony spleenwort (A. platyneuron) is also on average the largest of our spleenworts.

Ebony Spleenwort (A. platyneuron) in situ

Ebony spleenwort distinguishes itself from the rest of its Asplenium kin in several ways. Most noticeable and previously mentioned is its size. This fern can appear in a smaller fashion but larger fronds can grow well over a foot long. Another factor separating it from other spleenworts is it's just as likely to be found growing in soil as it is on rock. Most all other Aspleniums featured here are restricted to rock substrates. With variety of substrates comes a variety of habitat choices, too. You can find it in open woodlands, along streams, in old fields and clearings, and even growing in sidewalk cracks and on building foundations.

Ebony Spleenwort (A. platyneuron) in soil
Ebony Spleenwort on rock with smooth cliffbrake (Pellaea glabella)

Ebony spleenwort is a pretty easy species to identify even at a distance by its typically erect growing fertile fronds. The sterile fronds are usually more prostrate and evergreen, while the vertical fertile fronds wither in the winter months. The stipe is quite short before the pinnae appear. Both the stipe and rachis is smooth, shiny and a reddish or purple brown color. The pinnae are paired up in an alternately arranged fashion up the rachis. The lowermost pairs are quite small and increase in size as you go up the rachis with the frond being largest/widest in the upper third.

North American distribution of Ebony Spleenwort (courtesy: BONAP)

Ebony spleenwort ranges widely throughout eastern North America and occurs is just about every county in Ohio. It's mostly absent from the glaciated lake plain of NW Ohio. I encounter is most often in early-mid successional mesic woodlands in my area of the state.

Asplenium rhizophyllum - Walking Fern

Of all the Asplenium ferns I'll share on here, I don't think you'll find one as unique and charming as the walking fern (A. rhizophyllum). Older literature will place it in the genus Camptosorous but modern treatments have it rightfully in Asplenium. Which makes sense considering it readily hybridizes with other spleenworts.

Walking Fern (A. rhizophyllum) in situ

In a departure from most of the Aspleniums we've covered so far, the walking fern is strictly a limestone lover. If you find yourself in a cool, moist place with exposed limestone bedrock covered in moss, I'll bet you'll find some! The Edge of Appalachia preserve system and Clifton Gorge state nature preserve are places you'd be hard pressed to not see walking fern at.

Walking Fern on a moss-covered limestone boulder
Walking Fern

Another departure from the previous spleenworts is walking fern's tendency to form large, sprawling colonies in prime conditions. This is achieved by a frond's ability to form a plantlet at the end of its long-tapered tip. This plantlet will root and subsequently grow into a new plant and clone of the original. This allows the fern to, ahem...'walk' across its substrate. How neat is that!

North American distribution of Walking Fern (courtesy: BONAP)

Walking fern isn't nearly as common as the distribution map above infers. Due to its habitat specificity you're only going to find it in certain situations and they can be rather isolated. However, it's still not by any means a rare find and once you get the eye for its haunts you'll come across it with regularity.

Asplenium ruta-muraria - Wall-rue

We've come to the penultimate Asplenium species on this treatment of Ohio's spleenworts. It also happens to be my personal favorite of them all! The wall-rue (A. ruta-muraria) is a state threatened [S2] species in Ohio and only to be found in a handful of southern counties. It's certainly as rare as it is cute.

Wall-rue (A. ruta-muraria) in situ

The dainty and delicate wall-rue is another limestone lover and only found growing on shaded dolomite slump rocks, boulders, and cliff faces in Ohio. Due to such habitat specificity you're only going to see it in special places where its necessary bedrock requirements are met. The Edge of Appalachia preserve system and its plethora of dolomite is your best bet at spotting some in Ohio.

Wall-rue in the hand
Wall-rue on a dolomite boulder

Wall-rue's small and lacy appearance, as well as its unique habitat preferences make it a pretty easy fern to identify. The fronds and its bluntly-toothed pinnae are deltoid in shape and appear rather leathery. This fern can range from dark green to a blue-green color, which I find to be extra beautiful. The photo above of an exceptionally large fronds with your blogger's hand behind it gives a great opportunity to study its features and shape.

North American distribution of Wall-rue (courtesy: BONAP)

Wall-rue is most common along the central spine of the Appalachian Mountains with some outlying distributions to the west. It strangely reappears hundreds of miles disjunct to the north in the Straights of Mackinac region and the Bruce peninsula, where I've seen it on dolomite bedrock on Flowerpot Island.

Asplenium trichomanes - Maidenhair Spleenwort

The seventh and final species of Ohio Asplenium I have to share is the maidenhair spleenwort (A. trichomanes). It's another small, dainty species that comes across as extra charming when one finds it in the field.

Maidenhair Spleenwort (A. trichomanes)

Maidenhair spleenwort is another rock lover but interestingly can't seem to make up its mind whether it prefers calcareous or acidic, non-calcareous substrates. In Ohio you can find it on both types of rock, but the limestone-loving stuff is definitely more rare. Experts treat this spleenwort with two subspecies depending on its substrate choice. Those found growing on acidic sandstone are A. trichomanes subsp. trichomanes; those found on limestone are subsp. quadrivalens.

Maidenhair spleenwort on limestone (subsp. quadrivalens)
Maidenhair spleenwort on sandstone (subsp. trichomanes)

Like a majority of Ohio's spleenworts, maidenhair isn't too hard a species to discern from the others. It grows in tight clumps in cracks/crevices on slump rocks, boulders, and cliff faces. The stipe/rachis is smooth and a dark purple-brown color. The little orbicular pinnae are oppositely paired up and usually a pale green to greenish-yellow color. It typically occurs as sporadic individuals but I have seen it grow in sizable clumps, too.

North American distribution of Maidenhair Spleenwort (courtesy: BONAP)

Maidenhair spleenwort is the most wide-ranging of Ohio's Asplenium species and has been collected from just about every contiguous state. The previous six ferns have been restricted to east of the Mississippi River, but this one continues on westward and occurs in the southern Rockies and Pacific Northwest. In select areas of its range (NE, N Great Lakes and PNW), you may come across the green spleenwort (A. trichomanes-ramosum or A. viride). It looks nearly identical to the maidenhair and grows in the same habitat, even growing in association, but the green spleenwort has an entirely green stipe/rachis. Recall the maidenhair's is a dark purple-brown. Green spleenwort is much more uncommon and a celebrated find here in the east.

Asplenium resiliens - Black-stemmed Spleenwort

To wrap things up, I wanted to touch on an eighth and final spleenwort species that should be mentioned and included. The black-stemmed spleenwort (A. resiliens) was collected a single time in Ohio back in 1900 and has yet to be seen again. The collection site was in southern Adams Co., where its preferred habitat of sunny calcareous bedrock exposures, slump rocks, and cliff faces are quite common. It looks strikingly similar to the ebony spleenwort (A. platyneuron) and takes a pretty keen eye to notice the differences. Black-stemmed spleenwort has a pure black, glossy rachis; pinnae that are more or less oppositely arranged vs ebony's alternate arrangement; and the pinnae of black-stemmed are more or less entire vs ebony's wavy/toothed margins and the presence of a little auricle near the pinnae's stalk.

North American distribution of Black-stemmed Spleenwort (courtesy: BONAP)

Black-stemmed spleenwort is a species of the southeastern and south-central US, and isn't uncommon just south of Ohio's border in central Kentucky. It stands to reason this species could still be lurking on some isolated, over-looked rock in extreme southern Ohio and the romantic in me would like to think it can and will be rediscovered one day.

I hope you've enjoyed this look into the Asplenium ferns of Ohio! Like I've mentioned they are some of my most cherished ferns and a group that while not too difficult to learn still deserved some light shed on them. I hope this post will inspire you to get out and see these spore-producers for yourselves and perhaps take the time to become better acquainted with them. I'm sure many have walked right past them and not taken much notice before. Even better is you don't have to wait for spring due to most all species we have being evergreen! Thanks again for tuning in and happy botanizing!

- ALG -

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Top Ten Life Plants of 2017

Better late than never! That's become the theme of this blog the last few years. I always pondered why some of my favorite nature blogger's work waned so much years ago and I've come to find out for myself just how quickly and easily it happens. Life gets busy...and busier, and busier! However, it doesn't get so busy that I can't manage to sit down and write up what's come to be a yearly favorite of mine. My annual look back on the past year's top ten life plants! Additionally, it's a superb way to reminisce on a growing season's worth of adventure and discovery.

2017 was an eventful year with exciting happenings both in my home state of Ohio and outside her borders. My work as a field botanist with the Ohio Division of Natural Areas & Preserves kept me busier than ever with some noteworthy discoveries. I also made treks out to southern Illinois and eastern Missouri to visit a close botany buddy of mine; as well as up to Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. Both trips provided some unforgettable botanical moments and finds, some of which will be proudly featured here. It is especially nice to see Ohio represented on my top ten life plants list again, as over the last couple years substantial lifers in my home region have been hard to come by.

I will say that I've become a bit of a lazy botanical photographer these days and rely heavily, really almost solely on my iPhone as a camera. It takes wonderful photos and just about every single one featured in this post was shot with it. However, when viewed so large and in closer detail the images are a bit lackluster to my nitpicky self. So for those with as high a standards as me, I apologize for some photos not being as up to snuff.

All that being said, let's begin the countdown of my favorite life plants from a memorable spring, summer, and fall of botanizing throughout the Midwest.

My botanical cohort and good friend/mentor, Dan Boone at the site of life plant #10

Starting things off is a look back to late June and an especially gorgeous summer day spent within one of Ohio's most spectacular remnant grasslands. It was at this location that I finally made acquaintances with an uncommon Asteraceae member that had evaded my life list for quite some time and comes in at #10.

#10 - Pasture Thistle (Cirsium pumilum)
#10 - Pasture Thistle (Cirsium pumilum)

Pasture thistle (Cirsium pumilum) isn't what I would call rare in Ohio, but it certainly isn't common either. With most of its occurrences residing up in the northeast and eastern portions of the state, I wasn't likely to see any of it in my normal haunts in the southeast and southern reaches. It's curious it occurs at all at this particular site in south-central Ohio, but I'm forever thankful it does. Pasture thistle never gets very tall and can be a pain to see but for its stunning purple composite flowerhead. Sadly, each individual plant only gets one opportunity to show off its thistle-licious (yes, I just made that word up) flowers. Like some of its other thistle kin, this species is monocarpic, meaning it only flowers once and subsequently dies. My visit to this site was at the tail end of its blooming cycle and many plants were already dispersing their seeds on the wind. Thankfully, a lucky few were still in photogenic shape and allowed them to just make the cut!

#9 - Cut-leaved Water Parsnip (Berula erecta)
#9 - Cut-leaved Water Parsnip (Berula erecta)

The criteria for how a plant makes this most esteemed of lists is much more than physical beauty. Some plants I find too curious, unique, and/or rare to not feel extra special about finding them. Life plant #9 fits that mold just right! The cut-leaved water parsnip (Berula erecta) is a small member of the carrot family (Apiaceae) I was lucky enough to spot while up in Michigan back in mid-July. It's much more common out West but quite rare east of the Mississippi River. It's at its easternmost and disjunct stations in Michigan and subsequently listed as a state-threatened species [S2]. It is only known to occur in about a dozen counties along Lake Michigan, where it grows in the specific habitats of cold headwater streams and seeps. This particular population was just beginning to flower in a tiny, freezing-cold spring-fed brook flowing through a white cedar swamp.

The incredible surroundings of a secluded kettle lake with surrounding bog mat in the eastern UP of Michigan

For life plant #8 let's hang around in Michigan but move further north into the Upper Peninsula. While there's not much going on in many people's eyes, the UP is heaven of earth for a botanist like me. I sincerely hope to deliver a post or three about my experiences up there and the insanity of treasures that came with it, but for now let's focus on one specific plant. A secluded and rarely visited kettle lake my friends and I visited contained the most intact and diverse floating bog mat I've ever stepped foot on. Orchids and sedges galore but the plant I was most honored to see was a teeny, tiny little rush...

#8 - Moor Rush (Juncus stygius)
#8 - Moor Rush (Juncus stygius)

What the moor rush (Juncus stygius) may lack in beauty, size, and well, interest for many folks it more than makes up for in rarity and peculiarity. This cute little graminoid is one of Michigan's more endangered plant species and currently known from less than ten extant sites. It also happens to be an overall rarity within the United States. Also known as bog rush, it's a circumboreal species found throughout the northern hemisphere but scarcely makes it south of boreal Canada in North America. Michigan's UP, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Maine are the only extant states for it and it's damn rare in all them, too. This rush's white flower, poorly photographed in the left photo above, is actually quite showy for a Juncus when seen perfectly opened. Its capsules have a pleasing aesthetic to them as well. Sure, it's not much to look for you but to a rare plant junkie and grami-nerd like myself it's botanical royalty! 

#7a - Broad-lipped Twayblade (Neottia convallarioides)
#7b - Blunt-leaved Orchid (Platanthera obtusata)

I love the UP so much that I've decided to stay put a little longer with life plant #7. Well, to be honest there's two species for number seven because I just couldn't decide between the two and declared things a tie. During my single day on the UP my botanical cohorts and I saw 30, yes 30 species of wild orchid! A majority were in flower, too, including the two lifers featured here. On the left in the above photo is the broad-lipped twayblade (Neottia convallarioides), a painfully small orchid that we found in great numbers growing in pure sand in a forested dune along Lake Superior. Above right is the blunt-leaved orchid (Platanthera obtusata), a taxon I'd seen vegetatively a few times before but never in flower. Finding it in a dense white cedar swamp was a needle-in-a-haystack situation but fortunately one peatmoss-covered hummock had a plant or two still in bloom. The UP was kind enough to proffer me a third life orchid on this most sacred of days but we'll get to that later.

#6 - Large-flowered Fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus)
#6 - Large-flowered Fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus)

2017's life plant #6 takes us out to eastern Missouri and a wildflower I'd long wanted to meet face-to-face. My botany buddy, Roger Beadles (Hi, Roger! I know you'll read this as one of my few remaining faithful readers!) treated me to an unusual and globally-significant habitat I'd never experienced before known as an igneous glade. There, in the sun-baked and dessicated landscape grew the large-flowered fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus), a fascinating little succulent that couldn't be happier in such a harsh environment. It was 90+ degrees that late afternoon without a cloud in the sky and the vivid, deep-pink fameflowers polka-dotted the exposed bedrock with their intense color. Which made perfect sense, as they only open in the latter half of the day and in full-sun conditions. Even had they not been flowering, I'd still been plenty pleased to see their charming fleshy, finger-like leaves. I wasn't expecting on seeing any during my trip and it made for a most excellent botanical surprise and easy inclusion on my countdown of best life plants.

#5 - Glade Spurge (Euphorbia purpurea)
#5 - Glade Spurge (Euphorbia purpurea)

Hitting the halfway point on my countdown of 2017's top ten life plants is #5. It also has the distinction of being one of Ohio's rarest of the rare. Featured here is the odd and unusual glade spurge (Euphorbia purpurea). It's not only rare in Ohio, where it's an endangered species [S1], but globally as well [G3]. Glade spurge is currently only known to occur sparingly at about 50 sites in eight mid-Atlantic states, with Ohio being an intriguing westernmost disjunct. It grows at only two spots at one site in south-central Ohio, both on rich-mesic limestone bluffs above a small dolomite-bottomed stream. The two dozen or so plants in total rarely flower but a few appeared to have tried this season, as evidenced by the orbicular bracts produced at the apex of the stem in the above right photo. Despite being a toxic spurge, deer browse is a real and present threat to this plant. So it's no surprise our only known remnants of it are in such an inaccessible situation. The photos may not be much to look at, especially of vegetative-only material but for a botanist, at least this botanists it's a most precious member of Ohio's diverse flora. Long may it reign...or at least persist!

#4 - Triangle Grape Fern (Botrychium lanceolatum)
#4 - Triangle Grape Fern (Botrychium lanceolatum)

The final four plants on this countdown all had a big impact on my botanical year no matter their size, and believe me when I say #4 is about as small as it gets! This past late May I had the pleasure of checking a rare fern off my life list while working in the Hocking Hills region. It's the tiniest, daintiest thing you ever saw, too! The triangle grape fern (Botrychium lanceolatum) is a state-threatened [S2] species in Ohio, and something you'd better have luck on your side to find. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the first plant and how miniscule it was: it makes my pencil look gargantuan in the photo above right. This particular grape fern grows on rich, moist stream terraces in more mature woodlands and should hypothetically be more commonly known since that habitat type isn't exactly rare. I'd imagine its impossibly small size keeps most, even those looking specifically from ever noticing it. Triangle grape fern is an expert hider under taller vegetation, especially stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). Ouch!

#3 - Greater Round-leaved Orchid (Platanthera macrophylla)

I've whittled down my top ten list of 2017's best life plants to the last three. This is where the fun really begins if you ask me. I don't think I've ever had an orchid not take at least one of these last three spots in the four years or so I've done this and 2017 is no different. #3 is my favorite of the 30 UP orchids I saw this past July and was a long-awaited lifer I'd daydreamed of seeing for many years, too!

#3 - Greater Round-leaved Orchid (Platanthera macrophylla)
#3 - Greater Round-leaved Orchid (Platanthera macrophylla)

The greater round-leaved orchid (Platanthera macrophylla) looks nearly identical to its close kin, the lesser round-leaved orchid (P. orbiculata) when viewing it in a book or online. However, seeing it in the flesh and it's instantly clear you're not dealing with the same species at all. The greater round-leaved orchid looks like it raided a less-than-honest weight lifter's gym locker and stole every steroid it could find. This behemoth of an orchid is larger in every regard from its brethren with nectar spurs twice as long (40+ mm) and basal leaves sometimes as large as dinner plates (my sunglasses served for scale in the one photo). Unlike the wide-ranging lesser round-leaved species, the greater is restricted to the northern Great Lakes region and NE US/Canada. My group and I found a dozen or so in bloom in dry wooded dunes of the Grand Sable Dunes near Lake Superior. One especially monstrous specimen was just shy of two feet tall and had 50-60 flowers on its raceme. Due to the harsh lighting and its awkward color, I had a tough time photographing it with satisfactory results in situ. I guess I'll just have to go back, eh?

#2 - Mead's Milkweed (Asclepias meadii)

I hope people have enjoyed this countdown thus far as it comes down to the final reveal. I love reminiscing on yet another great field season with the wildflowers and plants that caused the most memorable emotion and joy! This global rarity that comes in at #2 has us travel back out to Missouri and its stunning igneous glade ecosystem.

#2 - Mead's Milkweed (Asclepias meadii)
#2 - Mead's Milkweed (Asclepias meadii)

On top of a very special Missouri mountain glade lives the federally threatened Mead's milkweed (Asclpeias meadii). It's a rarity I'd wanted to see since I first got into botany nigh on a decade ago and bless Roger, he knew right where to look. This particular milkweed has all the right parts and physically looks like a milkweed but its jumbo flowers and lime-green coloration has it stand apart from much of its kin. We only were able to find a total of seven plants, only two of which flowered and even then a sole specimen with perfect blossoms. Beggars certainly cannot be choosers. The surrounding scenery was stunning, too with phenomenal vista views across the rolling forested mountains from the milkweed's glade home. This precious rarity is only known from few extant sites in five Midwestern states and was an absolute honor to witness. It interestingly seems to prefer both dry glade/barren habitats and mesic upland tall grass prairie. It's an extremely conservative and fickle species that is indicative of a stable and old prairie ecosystem. Mead's milkweed would have been an easy #1 life plant had I not been so lucky to have seen this next plant....

#1 - Featherfoil (Hottonia inflata)

It's time to reveal the best and #1 life plant I had the pleasure of seeing during the 2017 botany season. It was an instant and easy decision to have this wildflower be my ultimate lifer as it was one of the most exciting and meaningful of rare plant discoveries of my career thus far.

#1 - Featherfoil (Hottonia inflata)

#1 - Featherfoil (Hottonia inflata)

The featherfoil (Hottonia inflata) has been considered extirpated and unseen in Ohio for over 30 years and thought long-lost for our flora. It's a winter annual that is very fickle and finicky about blooming, which makes finding/tracking it even more difficult. Many have looked for it over the decades with zero luck. As the botanical fates would have it, I managed to rediscover a lovely population of it back in late May in a pond in extreme southern Ohio doing its thing and looking great! I can't recall the last time my heart about leaped out of my chest in such a manner as it did: I couldn't believe my eyes! It's such an odd and goofy plant that nothing, and I mean nothing else comes close to looking like. It also happens to be rather rare across its range in the eastern US, too. The feather-like submerged leaves are topped with hollow inflated stems adorned with tiny and inconspicuous white flowers. The cherry on top was the presence of the state-endangered low spearwort (Ranunculus pusillus) occurring at the site as well! Days and discoveries like this are an easy part of why I became a field botanist and do what I love, and love what I do. It's definitely a plant few would find attractive but it's the most beautiful thing I saw in 2017! I plan to do a post dedicated to this plant and discovery in the near future; I meant to back in May when I found it, but we know how that goes.

I hope you've enjoyed this look back on my favorite finds and life plants of 2017. I'll be curious to hear from you, my readers if any of these are on your life lists or plants you've had the pleasure of coming into contact with before. If anything, I hope I've warmed your spirits and computer screens even a little bit as Ohio's winter and wildflower-less season trudges on. Spring is on the horizon, though, and I expect to be staring some skunk cabbage, snow trillium, harbinger-of-spring etc. in the face in the next couple months. Thanks for tuning in and reading!

- ALG -