Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Ozark least trillium

My mother's King Alfred daffodils bloomed in February. Now, in mid-April, intricate blooms cover her summer-blooming passion vines. Spring has departed the Deep South and it's creeping up through the Midwest (despite Saturday's forecast of snow). Last weekend we set out for the Ozark Highlands of Arkansas, just over the Missouri border towards the Buffalo River. I joined a whole gaggle of Missouri's accomplished botanists, all in search of spring wildflowers, all eager to kiss winter goodbye.

I didn't go to Arkansas to see plants rare to Missouri's Highlands, but I went in search of that certain moment that hits me in the chest each spring. My first day on the job in the Ozarks, I distinctly remember walking over a north facing slope into the heart of a dry chert woodland. I felt my heart shatter into a million pieces when I saw the entire floor covered in pink and white wildflowers. As far as the eye could see, rich layers of dogwoods and redbuds, all in pristine bloom, interrupted only by clear, cool, creek waters rushing over exposed limestone. I felt very safe there. I felt that someone was taking care of these woods, that they were, indeed, loved, and that nothing bad could ever happen there.

When I returned to my car at the end of the day, I put the club (the device which kept my car from being stolen in New Orleans) in the trunk where it's been ever since. I stopped locking my car door (a habit which irritates everyone but Alyssa, who leaves her keys in the ignition). I spend a lot of time alone in Ozark woods and I never feel threatened. I set up my tent and hike around all day. I leave my gear at the campsite and carry nothing but water and a field guide. My sense of security in managed woodlands is tested when I find myself in degraded woods, those tracts of lands covered in exotics and discarded tires and refrigerators. When I stumble into homogenized woods where the populations of exotic species outnumber the natives, I freak out, convinced that monsters are lurking in the shadows of the Japanese honeysuckle. No fault of the woods themselves, they're just so uncared for.

Nevertheless, that brilliant moment that ushers in my Ozark spring experience didn't hit me in Arkansas. A few redbuds, the ones scattered along the edges of thick, overgrown woods were in bloom. No dogwoods, no carpets of wildflowers, no open woodlands with uneven aged growth of midstory shrubs that define Missouri's Ozark Highlands. No, none of that, but in my brief stay in Arkansas, I was astonished to stumble across one plant that I've only seen in a Missouri wildflower field guide. I have a soft spot for all members of the genus Trillium, what with their three bracts poking through the oak-hickory leaf litter in early spring. They can be found in Louisiana, but never in the places where I found myself in the early spring. I met the aforementioned Trillium sessilethat first spring in Missouri, astonished by its brown flower. But the trillium next to my campsite in Arkansas, Trillium pusillum var. ozarkanum, was a blaring white, delicate and fresh, nestled amidst Claytonias, toothworts and bloodroots. Uncommon in Missouri (and now Arkansas), Ozark least trillium dominated the woods around my campsite.

Like bloodroot, the seeds of trillia are largely spread by ants, with mice offering a helping hand. The true leaves of trillium are found underground as papery covers wrapped around the rhizome. Nevertheless, trillia shouldn't be picked (well, nor should any wildflowers in natural settings) because the above ground bracts provide the only food source for the plant. Remove the stem and the bracts, and the plant can't live.

Eager to see what was in bloom in Missouri's woods, I set out the same day I returned from Arkansas to find a woodland floor with Dutchman's breeches, early fronds of ferns, and false rue anemones in bloom. For Missouri woods, these were pretty beat up, but they still suggested spring. Once that moment hits when the woods are awash in flowers, I'll post plenty pictures. Of course, pictures won't let you hear Northern parulas in the background, or see water coursing over exposed bedrock, or feel the crisp cool spring air that keeps the blooms fresh for several weeks. No, you'll just have to visit Missouri to find out why these woods are so dearly loved.


Ted C. MacRae said...


I know these Highlands well - your lovely writing sends me back to many of those special places I hold in my memories. Thanks.

Wake robins are among my favorites also - I saw western (T. ovatum) and giant wake robin (T. chloropetalum) for the first time last month in Muir Woods.

Allison Vaughn said...

Trillia are awesome. Usually, when I find a whole mess of them, I find morels, mayapples and a lone box turtle. Muir Woods...lucky duck. A magical man and a magical place. Missouri's Ozarks are being well cared for, for the most part. I can't speak for Arkansas, and their terrible honeysuckle problems...(I think we burn a lot more than they do). I bet chloropetalum was incredible. Only seen it in drawings...

Nathan W. said...

Lovely post, Allison. It made me want to get outside and learn more!

Nickelplate said...

My wife and I recently found a previously-unknown population of Ozark Wake Robin while planting seedlings for our restoration project. We mapped it with the GPS and submitted it to MDC. Very pretty flowers.

Allison Vaughn said...

That's great! The distribution is pretty small these days. Thanks for taking care of it.