Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hope springs eternal and all


Several times a month, Molly feels an urgent need to go to the woods. She gets antsy, paces around the house, barks incessantly at nothing in particular, and doesn't relent until she's in the front seat of my car. The backyard isn't enough for her, apparently, despite the thick understory of little woodland sedges and wildflowers. She finally relaxes after clumsily bailing out of the front seat and into this tract of (overgrazed, overbrowsed, overused by hikers and cyclists, truly abused in every sense of the word) oak-hickory woodlands. Officially located in the Outer Ozark Border, these woods have relief and rock structure typical of the Ozark Highlands. But six miles away as a crow flies my neighborhood rests on clay-based loess deposited during the last glacial retreat, a feature that causes regular flooding of every single basement throughout Columbia.

So, I've been to Molly's woods regularly since December. I've seen the spring ephemerals, rich displays of pinks and blues, come and go. In March and April, diversity is highest along the moist bottoms and in the streambanks. I've watched summer move in as bush honeysuckle and Asian daylilies, both escaped from cultivation, choke out any semblance of native plant diversity expressed in early spring. The glades here have stable populations of shooting star, a delicate cliff-loving plant that almost resembles an orchid when in flower each May. Managers burn the grasslands here almost annually, but the woods would really benefit from a nice hot crown fire.

To add insult to injury, these woods have a distinctive browse line from the woodland floor to 5 feet up each tree, indicating a serious deer overpopulation problem. Hog wire fences interrupt the landscape, serving as a testament to the grazing history which is evidenced in the thick stands of cedars in the woodlands. But Molly likes the leaf litter, the creekbed, the desmodium seeds that stick to her white fur, the open character of the third, maybe fourth-growth woods. So when I find cool plants here, it's genuine lagniappe rather than something to be expected.

Years ago, on a trip to Wisconsin's Devil's Lake State Park outside of Baraboo (home of the Ringling Bros. circus!), I saw my first Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora). Poking out of oak leaf litter in mid-August was a stark white stalk ending in elegant flowers that I had only seen in wildflower books. Lacking chlorophyll, unable to photosynthesize, Indian pipe is saprophytic, gaining all of its nutrients from mushrooms in the Russulaceae family. Actually, Indian pipes are mycoheterotrophs (it's just like Introduction to Greek! Pronounce every syllable slowly, drag the accent back to the antepenult), gaining nutrients from mushrooms that thrive on the roots of trees. Because Indian pipes ever vicariously depend on photosynthesis, they can live in thick, dense woodlands and forests where light seldom (if ever) reaches the floor. Uncommon, Indian pipes sprout up in early fall woods after their host mushrooms have had a chance to thrive. Stepping off the trail as Molly took her leave, we found a small colony of Indian pipes poking through the white oak leaf litter. I tied her to a small maple tree while I admired the intricacies of this curious, delicate plant whose starkness was interrupted by small black flecks.

Moving on at a fast clip, ready to retreat to the kind confines of my local tennis-watching joint, we came into a big patch of asters and goldenrods, usual suspects for dry woodlands, but great indicators of early fall nonetheless. Nestled among a big pile of leaves, Botrychium biternatum poked out, my first fall fern, a relative to the spring Botrychium virginianum. Moving along, ever slowly, my eyes interested in the understory, we encounter Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) all along the streambank, in full bloom. Other rangy, early fall wildflowers were here, too, attracting a host of butterflies and beetles.

Before hoisting my little dog back into the furry passenger's seat, I managed to collect almost 50 pictures, all acquired while Molly moseyed ahead, slowly staying on the trail with her leash dragging behind her, waiting for a squirrel to jump out of the woods. She never gained a fast clip and didn't mind being tied up while I looked over asters and goldenrods, those lovely harbingers of fall. Molly's woods are pretty beat up, but if you look hard enough, you'll find something there, some semblance of what the woods may have included before the abuse. I've seen Ozark woods respond very well to rigorous fire regimes and thinning projects. Perhaps the Ozarks and her outer borders are as resilient as they possibly can be after 100 years of abuse.

1 comment:

Ted said...

I had never seen Indian pipes - until last weekend, when I found a numerous little clumps in the deep woods of Trail of Tears. What a treat!