Thursday, March 27, 2008


Just last week, my former boss, Larry, and I walked through a recently burned landscape with the state's leading botanist. I'm a competitive person, so when a game of identification commenced with the first break of a fire scarred, desiccated stem, I set aside the warm and fuzzy side of my brain that defers to others for answers. I can see his big brown eyes, the botanist squinting at me as he presents me and Larry with a brown stem, one leaf, no seedheads. Larry taught me everything I know about dry chert woodlands (and glades, and fens, and how to deal with people), so I -rather uncharacteristically- deferred to him for the first guesses. When he stammered, I threw out an answer. I'm pleased to report that Larry and I were right more times than not, flubbing up only rarely, mostly on the graminoids.

Anyway, it's fun to play the winter game. So, that was a week ago. Today I ventured out into the lovely Current River Hills: steeply dissected terrain, lots of dolomite outcroppings, my cherished dry chert woodlands everywhere, erosion from the 12 inch rain event. I was happy to see the floodwaters receded and the high water mark as evidenced by the leaf debris stacked over 20 feet high in the sycamores. Quite a sight. Spicebush was setting buds today, but no sign of life from the oaks and hickories. I expected the early spring wildflowers, the usual suspects, in the more mesic sites...rue anemone, false rue anemone (and to tell them apart, I have to consult a guide every single year), Claytonias. Instead, I found myself oddly happy to see a still dormant landscape. I love the winter landscape, prefer it sometimes to the bold, bright, verdant spring woods.

Maybe it's in the name, ephemeral spring wildflowers, that makes me sad when spring sets in. A bloom period so short, so fleeting. To really understand spring in the Ozarks, you have to be out in the woods every single day to catch all of the beauty typical to the region. Spring is so fast, changing every morning with another plant in bloom, another shrub bursting in white flowers. And maybe that fast pace is why I sometimes prefer the cold, dead winter landscape. As one who appreciates floral displays, life is less manic in the winter. You don't have to rush to the far reaches of the state in hopes of catching a certain flower in bloom. During winter you can focus on mosses and lichens, still silence, ice, and personal projects that (gasp!) might not include plants.

Oh, of course, I love the growing season. I love driving 100 miles to see a single orchid in a fen or hiking 12 miles to see a glade full of yellow coneflowers. I camp, I canoe, I travel, I seldom spend time inside and my hair turns white blonde during the growing season. Nevertheless, I cherish the brown woods of winter. They don't change very much and I can rest from the constant cataloguing of plants, from remembering genus and species, constantly quizzing myself. When growing season starts, I have to move, to recall every little grass, sedge and wildflower. When you're with a true botanist (I learned last week), even dormancy calls for a plant identification game.

Today, among the several years' worth of leaf litter, a charming spring ephemeral poked through blaring its white or purple petals (depending on the soil chemistry, I guess). Yesterday I saw the vegetative structure of the same flower and tried to convince the leading botanist that it was something that it wasn't. (I love it when the natural world stumps me, reminding me that I'm just a Classics major.) Mind you, my first forays into the Ozarks included a lag time: I was traditionally laid off between December and April, so I missed learning any plants that bloomed before April. I was in Louisiana in the interim, enjoying Coreopsis and other late spring wildflowers.

So, I added this plant to my life list today. Hepatica nobilis (pictured). It's funny, really, that I tried learning Missouri's natural history before I moved here, gorging on any and every book that pertained to the state's natural features. I recall passing the early page in the white wildflower section of Edgar Denison's Missouri Wildflowers, Hepatica nobilis. A pretty little flower. I had taken almost 15 pictures of the same flower in different shades and tones today before it dawned on me what it was. I haven't looked at a wildflower guide in several years because I learned most of the plants in the field, but this one, lovely and delicate, I had never seen before, and it was everywhere today.

The Ozarks continue to fascinate me. Their steep hills, rich woodlands, even richer understories, soon to be flush with spring green. Once spring really sets in, I'll get past my maudlin attachment to winter and you, dear reader, will be subjected to photos of canoe trips, woodlands in bloom, fresh ferns, morels, and every other aspect of life worth celebrating.

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