Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The search is on


At the joint meeting of the Arkansas and Missouri Native Plant Societies last month, Missourians were saddened to learn that with the recent discovery of an Arkansas population of Missouri bladderpod, our own cherished Ozark Highlands no longer have an endemic. Every plant native to Missouri's Ozarks can be found in Arkansas. Granted, population densities vary between states, such that plants rare to Arkansas are abundant in Missouri and vice versa. But unlike Missouri's somewhat fragmented Ozarks, the highlands in Arkansas stretch for thousands of uninterrupted acres. That Arkansas doesn't have a Branson, a Springfield, or hundreds of other little towns chopping up contiguous woodlands likely accounts (at least in part) for the species richness.

Some of the Missourians on the fieldtrip were jealous of the preponderance of sandstone outcroppings and benches in Arkansas, a substrate which affords a varied plant community rare to Missouri. The fine folks from Arkansas countered with envy over our abundant dolomite, chert and limestone, all rather uncommon in Arkansas. Jealousy aside, our society members were treated to a fieldtrip to see sandstone benches awash in the delicate pink blooms of Claytonia ozarkensis. Well, it was a cloudy day, so the flowers weren't open.


Over 50 years ago, sandstone outcroppings in Jefferson Co., Missouri supported a population of Claytonia ozarkensis. The plant hasn't been seen in Missouri since then. Inspired by the fieldtrip to see it in Arkansas, a cadre of the state's best botanists brought together a search party to scour Jefferson Co. in hopes of finding the sweet little plant again in Missouri. So, once again, I spent the day with incredible ecologists, a brilliant bryologist (one who studies bryophytes) and botanists tromping through the lovely LaBarque Creek watershed. We spent the day walking deep canyons, running into a vast array of ferns and interesting geology, checking any and every little outcropping in the dry/dry mesic sandstone woodlands in hopes of finding the spoon-shaped leaves of Claytonia.


The flower is almost identical to that of the extremely common Claytonia virginiana (which carpets the lawn up the street), but the leaves and growth habit of C. ozarkensis is truly unique. Because it grows between shelves of sandstone, its reproductive phenology must adapt. The plant performs a sort of negative phototropism to deposit seeds; the stems bearing ripe seedheads turn inwards towards the rock rather than allowing the seeds to fall to the ground. (A hearty thanks to the USFS for sharing the photos)

So, we didn't find it this week. The organizer of the trip (one who rediscovered a newsworthy plant recently)remained dubious that we would find it in Missouri. Our sandstone structures just aren't the same as they are in Arkansas. Nevertheless, a few other possible sites are on the docket for next week.

Why, you may ask, am I writing about a failed attempt to locate a spring wildflower? Frankly, I don't know who reads this, but maybe some fine Missourian out there knows of property with sandstone (don't waste your time looking at the LaMotte series...) that just might harbor a population. If so, there's no cash reward upon discovery, but the sheer pleasure and joy such a find would bring to the protectors of our biodiversity is priceless.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Along the Jack's Fork


Somewhere between abandoning my graduate career, loafing in New Orleans, and venturing into a vocation for which I was academically unprepared, I made a great series of decisions. So great, in fact, that they allowed me to spend the past two days on my favorite river with Missouri's leading natural historian, an expert paddler, fire builder, and botanist. Somewhere along the circuitous path I took to get here, I took the high road and ended up parking on that proverbial Cloud #9 this week.

In February, I wrote about the populations of glacial relicts found on the north facing cliffs of the Jack's Fork River, plants found nowhere else in Missouri. I guess I've been obsessing over them for the past few months, waiting for the rivers to recede a little and for spring green up to make these special plants visible. I've floated past them before, not realizing where they grew. Every canoe trip in the Ozark Highlands is special to me, so each one is designated a theme. This one was undoubtedly the "Glacial Relict Tour." My trusty fellow paddler knew exactly where these plants were located: moist seepy limestone/dolomite cliffs about 8 miles into the 23 mile float. False bugbane (Trautvettaria caroliniensis, pictured) wasn't in flower yet, but its wet leaves provided testament to the cool, moist climate that has allowed it to thrive in this one place for millions of years since the Pleistocene. Others, like a campanula that (according to my colleague) "grows like a weed in Minnesota," was perched so high on the cliff that we couldn't see it. We found no trace of others, perhaps due to the same raging flood waters that seriously knocked back the delicate Southern maiden hair fern population, hanging dessicated on the moist cliff face.

Since the 12 inch rain in March (followed by another 5 inches in April), the Jack's Fork River has changed its character since the last time I saw it. The high water mark, as evidenced by the debris in trees and shrubs, was at least 15 feet higher than the current level. We encountered huge piles of debris, trees literally peeled back from the banks, rootwads waiting for an inexperienced paddler to go crashing into their deep dark hollows, eroded shorelines, gravel deposits where before was exposed bedrock. We saw only one snake the whole time, whereas in the past, one can see at least 30 Northern watersnakes and water moccasins on this river. We assumed the flood likely impacted the populations, but hopefully, we're wrong...

Over our three day adventure, there was little discussion about work. Pressing questions involved favorite Star Trek episodes, which gravel bar to stop on for a wine and cheese break, and how to stop the spread of the exotic garlic mustard from completely ruining the woodland fabric of the adjacent woods. It was truly remarkable to share my time on the river with those who could name every plant that I couldn't, who could identify the different dolomites, limestones and sandstones, who also appreciated the riparian corridors carpeted in bluebells and who (hopefully) didn't judge me as I childishly threw big handfuls of oak leaves into the fledgling fire just to watch as they positively impacted flame lengths.

As the float trip came to a close around the final bluff near Alley Spring, the late afternoon sun sent long shadows through the stately white oak-dominated dry mesic chert woodlands.
All awash in dogwoods, redbuds and bluebells, I found the Jack's Fork riparian zones so captivating that I didn't want to leave them. So emotionally spent from days immersed in the exquisite Ozark waterway learning natural history and swimming in pristine waters, I quietly wept for a few moments upon seeing the vast stretches of woodlands and bluffs from the high road that we could see from the river. Yes, Ozark woodlands are in spring bloom now and they couldn't be more lovely.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

My beloved dry chert woodlands


I've spent the past week immersed in the Niangua River Hills region of the Central Ozark Highlands. An area rich with dolomite glades, karst topography and my cherished dry and dry-mesic chert woodlands, the Niangua River Hills hold a dear place in my heart. I cut my teeth on Missouri's woodlands here, learning all of the plants from my first Missouri boss, Larry (whom I still address as "boss"), a devotee of the landscape. I think he's only 27 now, but he has actively managed his own private dry chert woodlands with prescribed fire every 3-5 years since he was 20. (He has separated his property into 3 named woodland burn units: one after his dog, Maverick, one after the main hollow, and the other named after his daughter).

It's been a great week out here: A big raging fire, bright enough to embroider by, made with wet wood by a master of fire. An uncustomarily well-behaved dog companion in Molly who didn't push me out of the sleeping bag.
Good, rich campfire coffee. A thick bed of white oak leaves to sleep on (I'll wager 5 years' worth? This area desperately needs a good burn). And, the coup de grace, the first morels of the season, found only yards away from my tent.


But it dawned on me earlier today as I was combing through my 200+ pictures of dry chert woodlands from every angle that all of these recent photos of winter woods might not inspire the same awe in my fair readers as they do in me. When you see these sepia-tinted pictures of open woodlands in winter dormancy, do you see the topography? The relief? The ancient sedimentary layers deposited on the Ordovician bedrock? The dolomite outcroppings so intricately associated with chert woodlands? Do you see a landscape? As spring crept through the area in the course of four days, I watched as dogwoods bloomed, as a common dry chert woodland sedge (Carex albicans var. albicans) transformed from its flowering structure to fruit, as my favorite phlox (divaricata) opened up, and as the first flush of green moved into the understory. Utterly breathtaking.


Out of my enormous collection of pictures from the past few days, I'm sharing Rose verbena (Glandularia canadense), Wild sweet William (Phlox divaricata), a little dolomite creekbed, from which Molly drank, and the final picture of a dry chert woodland in its winter glory. Spring has reached the Ozarks, reigning in another lovely season for this dynamic, cherished landscape.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

White River Hills


Within the first 24 hours of my residency in Columbia, I joined the local gym. Barring the past painful couple of weeks while recovering from a nerve-wracking injury, I went to the gym everyday since I joined, trying to rebuild what I had lost while living in southeast Missouri (that landscape without hills, physical challenges or even good bike routes). I knew I needed to be in shape to work in the Ozark Highlands; I definitely knew that I did not want to be considered an office-bound bureaucrat who couldn't keep up with fieldstaff as they scamper through the hills. So, I routinely set the treadmill at an incline, increasing the grade weekly, pushing myself to the point where I could track a mountain goat over the St. Francois Mountains, if the Ozarks had mountain goats.

It all paid off this week on my first visit to the southwestern White River Hills region of the Ozarks. Some of the steepest topography in Missouri is found here, with local relief averaging 300-800 feet. Nevertheless, I comfortably scampered up dissected hills to incredible vantage points overlooking Arkansas' Boston Mountains and never lost my breath (though fieldstaff remained several steps behind, red-faced and short of breath upon summit). Huzzah, I thought, I'm not an office-bound bureaucrat.

A distinctive limestone bench called the Burlington Escarpment separates the Salem Plateau from the Springfield Plateau in southwestern Missouri. It provides the northern border of the White River Hills, an area defined by steeply dissected wooded slopes, narrow valleys, glades (those dry, rocky, normally south facing slopes that harbor prairie species and few trees) and areas dominated by karst topography. The White River Hills represent Ordovician and Mississippian formations: on the eastern side, spring fed streams and creeks cut into the Ordovician dolomites and limestones, providing a gentle topography that includes caves, springs, seeps and other typical karst relationships. On the western side, cherty limestones of the Mississippian formation encourage the rather continuous band of glades and bald knobs, rich in warm season grasses and wildflowers, that wrap around the higher reaches of the steep hills.

A significant acreage of the White River Hills is publicly owned, allowing uninterrupted views of hills, valleys, glades and hollows. Plant diversity is high here, with large populations of Ozark endemics and several plants represented in the northern or western reaches of their range. In Barry Co., for example, the casual driver can witness the end of the North American range for shortleaf pine; small mixed pine-oak woodlands morph into oak-hickory woodlands and savannas within a matter of yards. My beloved Ozark least trillium, that exquisite flower I first saw in Arkansas, grows here in a couple of isolated populations. In fact, it was the Ozark least trillium that allowed me to test the theory I developed while living in southeast Missouri.

Unlike the White River Hills, southeast Missouri has been so greatly altered by agricultural practices and ditching exercises that only a handful of the native cypress swamp/sand prairie/oak woodland communities remain in tact. Because one can drive for over 100 miles and see nothing but corn and soybean fields- with nary even a fencerow of trees in sight- I believed that the lack of natural landscapes had a direct impact on the emotional and sociological well-being of the area's residents. They had, in fact, ruined their recreational hunting, fishing, hiking, exploring grounds. Economic development was relegated to the few farmers who consolidated into corporations, leaving an entire community impoverished, and, more importantly, with no semblance of the natural history that likely brought their ancestors to the area to begin with. Domestic violence rates were through the roof here. Barns, empty because small family farms no longer exist here, became the unwitting property of methamphetamine addicts.

Friday night adventures included driving a circuit from sad little town to sad little town, tossing beer cans out the window into the corn fields. In a community where no natural resources inspire protection of what semblance may remain, destruction and unhealthy living conditions abound. Diabetes rates were ridiculous here. Poverty levels in my county were Missouri's second highest. All the while, hunters complained that "...then one day, all the wildlife just vanished!" Hm. That moment coincided with the day the logging machinery denuded the last acre of stately oaks and the dipper dredge ditched off the last swamp, shunting water into the Mississippi River, leaving no room for amphiumas, cypress minnows or associated prized game fish.

But in the White River Hills, I discovered a local community that genuinely cherishes the very landscape in which they live. Waitstaff at the good restaurant in town, learning that I was from Columbia, asked if I came for the fishing. "I know a great spot," the owner tells me. He and the rest of the staff live there for the landscape, for the woodlands, for the quiet country life, for the trout fishing. While the owner wished more patrons knew what spring mix was or ordered wine (thereby forcing him to learn how to operate a wine key), he loved life in the White River Hills.

The following day, belly full of well-steamed asparagus and a mediocre pinot noir, we set out in an effort to find the Ozark least trillium in my own state. After badgering one of the citizens for the well-known location, we drove to a series of 1950s resort cottages just outside of town. One of two known populations exists here, but our guide couldn't tell us whether it was in flower or not. Nevertheless, we pulled into the cabin parking lot and came across a grizzled 50 year old woodworker working in the back shop. Barely looking up, he told us that he had heard "something" about "some rare plants" that he wasn't "supposed to mow over." Yep. We had found the spot.

My fearless leader reassured the woodworker that we could find the plants without his assistance if he pointed us in the general direction. No, we meant no harm to this rare population, we just wanted to see it. Within moments we found the first of hundreds, literally hundreds, of plants behind this small cabin development. We showed the smoking woodworker the plant, explained its significance, its rarity in Missouri, why it shouldn't be paved over (but mowing after it goes to seed isn't a bad idea). Within moments, the proprietors of the charming cabins pulled up and quickly bailed out of their truck, happy to see that, indeed, there were others who appreciated these truly exquisite plants.

Last year, a member of the Missouri Native Plant Society approached the cabin owners to explain the significance of their population. This small population is the one for which the variety of T. pusillum var. Ozarkanum is named. The highly esteemed Julian Steyermark, author of the Flora of Missouri, chose this very spot to name the plant. Genetic work has been done on this population. Annually, a handful of visitors descend on the area to take pictures and to make sure the population is being cared for. The owners, both kind, gentle folk, reassured us that they intend to preserve and protect their trillium population. They've been clearing brush from the understory to give the plant more room to spread in the degraded third growth oak-hickory-maple woodlands.

They wanted more from us. They wanted to know what they can do to help the rare population. They wanted to know more about Julian Steyermark. They wanted to know the natural history of the rare plant in their care. Leave it to my trusty leader to whip out his copy of the hefty Flora (which remains on my desk because it's too heavy for my backpack) and turn right to the page describing that very population. The landowners were happy, as were we, all of us able to gaze upon this exquisite blooming flower, one among hundreds, surviving in this compromised landscape.

The cabin owners promised to rope off the area, to not allow RVs to park anywhere near where Ozark least trillium grew. They wanted to, in fact, rename their business "something with 'Trillium' in the name," but, like me, they didn't want to call attention to the location. Part of me wanted to post the name and website of the landowners to help drum up business in an economically challenged area, but the other part of me didn't want people descending on the area with shovels in any attempts to collect these deep rooted plants (which seldom, if ever, survive transplanting). If you want to see them in bloom this year or next, write to me directly, let me know that your aim is good and true and that you will only take pictures, stay in the cabins, or that you'll tell the landowners that they are, in fact, doing a fine job of ecological stewardship for their relictual population...then I'll tell you how to get there.

So, while I posted a picture of the same plant a mere week ago, I'm posting another one. This one is from the White River Hills of Missouri rather than from the Lost Valley in Arkansas. My fearless leader pointed out that this picture speaks volumes. It represents the stalwart nature of the delicate species, that even though the land around it is totally disturbed (as evidenced by the surrounding population of white blooming chickweed and dead nettle), the Ozark least trillium thrives. This population has a protector. The rest of the unimpaired White River Hills do, too, in the form of state and federal agencies. Local citizens live in the area so they can fish, hunt, live around "woods." People I met in the White River Hills were very happy to see us, to see that others were taking note of their exquisite landscape and natural history. The folks of the White River Hills were kind, gentle souls who called me either M'am or honey, both terms I never once heard directed my way in other parts of Missouri.

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.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Truffling matter


Shortly after I acquired dart frogs (almost 6 years ago), I was sent home with a jar of fruit flies and a squirming mass of fat, white waxworms, described as “truffles” for dart frogs: “not a lot of nutritional content, but high in fat and highly desirable.” I dropped one of the thriving waxworms in the tank with Gromette, my yellow and black Dendrobates tinctoria. The active little frog bolted across the tank, lunged towards the worm, grabbed it with her right hand and, in a matter of seconds, crammed it into her blue-tongued mouth. The worm was almost as big as Gromette, which made the process of eating the worm require several moments of repeatedly opening and closing her mouth as she forced it down her throat. This process replayed itself with all of my other dart frogs, and even with Pepe, my Hyla ebraccata, an otherwise deliberate, slow little frog. Pepe’s waxworm attack was so uncustomarily expeditious that it truly warranted capturing on video.

So it came as no surprise when I discovered that deer truffles, an underground mushroom found beneath oak trees in the Ozark Highlands, provided little nutritional value to the large and small mammals who regularly scrape away the soil to find the delicacy. Actually, deer truffles (Elaphomyces granulatus) are not true truffles (chiefly of the genus Tuber), but they belong to the same family, the Ascomycetes. Members of this family are found underground growing on the roots of certain host trees. An easy way for a human to find them is to locate one of the two parasitic mushrooms whose fruiting structures appear above ground: Cordyceps capitata and Cordyceps ophioglossoides (pictured below). However, many mycologists recognize mammal scrapes and locate truffles that way. Recent research on roe deer scraping found that 68% of all scrapes revealed the fruiting bodies of deer truffles, throwing a complication in the theory of marking behavior.

Nutritional content of deer truffles is relatively high for mushrooms, with a nitrogen content of 80%. But the digestibility of that energy source in small mammals is low. Most of the nitrogenous energy is actually tied up in complex, relatively indigestible cell wall tissue and spores. The indigestibility of the spores allows deer truffles to spread as mice excrete the spores in their waste. Deer, on the other hand, only eat the thick outer tissue, leaving the spores behind.

When food sources are low, deer truffles remain an important food source which requires little effort to access, and even less in processing. By weight, deer truffles are 70% water. Their marginal nutritional value may account for the animal habits of eating small amounts of mushrooms of varying species each day to compensate for the differences in digestibility. Of course, everyone in the Ozarks has hopes that they'll stay away from this year's morels.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Ozark Wisdom

"Ally! Moles are in my bulb bed!" she yelled into my phone one day last week at work.
In the course of several years, my mother and I have built this really great flower bed in her front yard comprised of bulbs and perennials. She has almost 50 stargazer lilies (those big, bright, smelly ones), hundreds of daffodils (several varieties), crocuses, amaryllis, and the list goes on. She overplants with perennials like Lobelia cardinalis and a variety of penstemons. She lives in the Tertiary Uplands of Louisiana, an area characterized by pretty loamy clay based soils developed much later than the Ozark Highlands. Based on her description of the holes and tunnels, she didn't have moles in her yard, but the infinitely cuter pocket gophers, the primary food source for the federally listed Louisiana pine snake.

She doesn't want to kill them, she argues, but they "just CAN'T destroy the bulbs!" I've put in a lot of effort to convert my mother's yard from one dominated by annuals to a perennial/bulb-dominated landscape. Less stress on her ridiculously fragile back, more time for her to spend with her husband who is deep in the throes of Alzheimer's. So, I suggested live traps. Sherman traps. I don't know...it's what I've used to trap small mammals for surveys. But she had a good question: "so, what do I do when I catch one?" Uh... Relocation is a bad idea for any form of wildlife. I don't know. I'd look into it, I told her. In the meantime, I suggested, go to your local garden center, the nice one, and see what they do.

Leave it to the wisdom of the Ozarks. My mother called me tonight, ecstatic. Her problems have been solved! Apparently, she asked someone who was from the Ozarks what to do about pocket gophers. She was advised to do something I've never read in any wildlife management guides. Farmers in the Ozarks do this to get rid of gophers, moles or other undesirable root diggers:

Dig a hole next to the burrow site and pack Juicy Fruit gum sticks and crushed garlic in it.

Seriously, I thought my mother was telling me that someone had told this to her as a joke. No, not my mother...In any effort to save her bulb bed (her daughter with the live trap idea simply failed, giving her no place to relocate the critters), she asked my older sister to dig holes around her bulb bed and fill them with Juicy Fruit gum and garlic.

"Ally! They've moved! They're in the neutral ground now!" (In the Deep South, we have this ambiguous patch of ground between yard and street whose ownership is pretty unclear. The city kind of owns it, but the citizen takes care of it? Evidently, "neutral grounds" are strictly a Deep South thing...). Pleased with the result, allowing the pocket gophers to have the run of the neutral ground, she reminded me that she learned her best gardening lessons from people living in Missouri. It was meant as a compliment, but ironically, I learned everything I know from her.