Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Levity for the year's end

I stepped on Ozark soil once in the past 10 days and it was in Arkansas at a gas station so it doesn't count. I know that post oak savanna country in the Western Ozarks received 4 inches of snow recently (allowing for helicopter deer counts if we can find a helicopter and a pilot on the same day). I've heard that some of the rivers in the southern part of the Ozarks were really high last week after the walloping rain and wind event (the same event that knocked down the 450-ish year old state co-champion bur oak I featured several times here when I lived in the Southeast Missouri Lowlands--sad, sad day). Otherwise, I've been woefully out of touch with Missouri and engaged with Louisiana at the height of satsuma season. On average, I've eaten 10 satsumas every day trying to conserve them for the long winter ahead in Missouri.

Having only moments ago opened Christmas presents sent forth from Oregon, I decided to share a gift we received. I won't post pictures of the awesome hot pink knee socks with polka dots that I intend to wear to work with a knee length black skirt/black sweater and gaudy orange vintage brooch from Salvation Army. Nor will I post the classy Eileen West nightgowns (because I suspect Carolyn couldn't decide on one so she bought both as a compromise), but from a charming hand-bound booklet covered in a William Morris inspired print of Indian elephants marching around a navy blue field, I'll post jokes. The inscription to the booklet reads:

We could not locate the old Elephant Jokes [Elephants, Grapes and Pickles, c. 1960s sometime] book around the house which we wanted to send to you as a stocking stuffer. At a used book website, a copy was priced at $44. So, in place of that, we in great cheapness compiled our own selection of these silly jokes. -Christmas 2009

Of the 65 jokes they carefully typed in for us, I couldn't choose favorites because they're all so silly and absurd. Everyone likes jokes, right? And no one wants to read about the biodiversity crisis when Christmas trees are still gleaming bright with C7 bulbs and handmade ornaments from 1978.

Q: Why do ducks have webbed feet?
A: To stamp out forest fires.

Q: Why do elephants have flat feet?
A: To stamp out burning ducks.

Q: Why do giraffes have long necks?
A: For spitting on burning elephants.

Q: How do you keep an elephant from charging?
A: Take away his credit card.

Q: Why do elephants paint their toes yellow?
A: So they can hide upside down in the custard.

Q: What is black, yellow, and dangerous?
A: Sharks in custard. That's why the elephants paint their feet yellow.

Q: How do you shoot a blue elephant?
A: With a blue elephant gun.

Q: How do you shoot a yellow elephant?
A: There's no such thing as a yellow elephant.

Q: How do you shoot a red elephant?
A: Hold his trunk shut until he turns blue, then shoot with the blue elephant gun.

Q: What is gray, has four legs, and a trunk?
A: A mouse going on a vacation.

Q: How many elephants will fit in a VW Beetle?
A: Four: two in the front, two in the back.

Q: How many giraffes will fit in a VW Beetle?
A: None. It's full of elephants.

Q: How can you tell if an elephant has been in your refrigerator?
A: Footprints in the Jell-O.

Q: How can you tell if there are two elephants in your refrigerator?
A: You can hear giggling when the light goes out.

Q: How do you know there are three elephants in your refrigerator?
A: You can't close the door.

Q: How do you know there are four elephants in your refrigerator?
A: There's an empty VW Beetle outside.

Q: How do you get an elephant into the refrigerator?
1. Open door.
2. Insert elephant.
3. Close door.

Q: Why are there so many elephants running around free in the jungle?
A: The refrigerator isn't large enough to hold them all.

Q: Why do elephants paint their toenails red, blue, green, orange, yellow, and brown?
A: So they can hide in a bag of M&Ms.

Q: How did the pygmy break his back?
A: He tried to carry a bag of M&Ms home from the store.

Q: How do you get an elephant on top of an oak tree?
A: Stand him on an acorn and wait fifty years.

Q: What if you don't want to wait fifty years?
A: Parachute him from an airplane.

Q: Why isn't it safe to climb oak trees between one and two in the afternoon?
A: Because that is when the elephants practice their parachute jumping.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Growing Army of Santas

Sad to admit, I drive Hwy. 63 from Columbia into the Ozarks more times a week than I eat apples. Ever since my discovery last December of a veritable army of plastic Santas and Snowmen located in the vast mown lawn of sprawling one story house outside of Vienna, I've been obsessed with these statues that require one light bulb for illumination. Last January, I noted the passing of the Vienna Santa lawn with a heavy sigh--Christmas is over, no more long hours baking for others, no more garland over my home's lovely arches, no more severe destruction of my kitchen while making Christmas candy for gifts. One week the Santas were standing sentry in the lawn, and the next week they vanished. Bleak midwinter sets in.

But they're back! The Santas are out again, and this year, there are more, many more Santas and Snowmen and candy canes and lights! Drive a couple of miles north of Vienna and you'll see it, too, the jolliest house in all the Ozark Highlands!

While I've always really cherished Christmas time, the nights spent writing long winded cards to people I never see anymore, baking cookies for the neighbors whose names I don't know, wearing red and green together because even though they're opposite on the color wheel, you can get away with it in December, I've grown sentimental towards Christmas since moving here. Here, of course, is away from friends, family, a piano, parties in the Faubourg Marigny, Meyer lemons and satsumas and outstanding Reveillon meals that last until 2 am.

So, I've thought about the Santa Army in Vienna all year.

Back in February, I attended a conference with 200 people I had never met before. I sat down with a plate of cheese slices, an egg that was intended as garnish on a salad of iceberg lettuce, and a heap of carrots right next to someone who didn't look like he would bother me while I ate. I guess I asked this unassuming chap where he was from, and when he volunteered "Vienna," I grabbed him by the shoulders and asked him frantically, "tell me about the house with all the Santas!"

He couldn't offer much in the way of information but that the local newspaper (it's a very old newspaper with a really strange name that I can't remember tonight...) once ran an article about the family with all the Santas. According to the second hand account of the guy who grew up in Vienna but lives in Osage Beach now, and who probably didn't read the article with the same fervor that I would have, the family "collects statues, and every year, people give them more. It started out as a way to commemorate their children: one Santa for each kid, but the Santas just kept coming..." The result is really delightful. I especially appreciate this year's alignment of about 8 Santas, all standing guard over the rest of the herd.

But it's not just about Christmas at this house. During October, the same yard hosted about 20 large single-lightbulb-illuminated pumpkins, jack-o'-lanterns, and black cats. There may have been a smiling ghost in the mix.

My year long desire to meet this family remains in place. I'd feel awkward and rude introducing myself to a Christmas house without pumpkin bread or divinity, and every time I'm driving through town I'm due somewhere north or south at a given time. So, now, entrenched in my mind is a mythology of a charming retired couple who probably have Fostoria candy dishes with cinnamon disks and those big recliners covered in taupe velour and a space for a remote control, a chair perfect for an old man to lean back and visit about spring turkey season or what's wrong with this country or maybe the meaning behind this charming collection of Santas that makes me smile every time I crawl through Vienna.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Green in winter

Stepping down into the ancient, moist sinkhole, I felt like an elf--or a hobbit or a dwarf or some other little woodland creature usually portrayed as living under a bright red Russula mushroom amidst ferns, mosses and bright orange salamanders. Enormous ferns draped the hillsides, offering a dramatic difference from the brown leaves/yellow grass landscape I had spent the whole morning walking through. Even now, in the cold, harsh, short days of December, mesic and dry mesic woodlands harbor thriving populations of brilliant green ferns.

Of the most commonly encountered, Christmas fern (Polystichum achrosticoides) takes the prize for the most charismatic. Found throughout the Ozarks near creek beds, in sinkholes, in the uplands where even slightly mesic soils exist, Christmas fern stands out like a giant among the leaf litter. Big, strapping evergreen fronds lie close to the ground during winter; the base of the plant is typically ringed with desiccating fronds, but during the growing season, new growth is erect, averaging 2 ft. tall. Because the leaves are so leathery and thick, the older, brown fronds persist all winter next to the green fronds.

According to Steyermark's Flora of Missouri, "pioneers used the leaves [of Christmas ferns] for making Christmas wreaths." Imagine that! There weren't enough cedars to go around for Christmas greenery in the late 1800s. Settlers resorted to fern fronds for Christmas greenery. And now we can hack down all the cedars we want for Christmas trees (and wreaths, and garland, and for kindling for backyard fires) without anyone even noticing! [Thanks, overgrazing livestock and 80+ years of fire suppression. And, thanks trashed out roadside for my stunning Christmas tree.]

Check out moist woodland rocky slopes, sandstone outcroppings and other acidic soils in the Eastern Ozarks to search for marginal shield fern (Dryopteris marginalis). In Missouri, this is the most common species of the genus Dryopteris, and can be found throughout the Ozarks and Ozark Border Divisions. I've seen it on igneous and sandstone, and not once on dolomite.

I stumbled across another Dryopteris in the Ozarks recently, D. goldiana, Goldie's fern. Known from a mere seven counties in Missouri, Goldie's fern is uncommon in the Ozarks. Missouri represents the southwestern edge of the range of this species, though Goldie's fern may have been more common here before the last glacial retreat. One of the few glacial relicts we still have in the Ozarks, Goldie's fern populations aren't very well known and should remain protected. As I told one fan of any and all rare and endangered species (I think he kept a checklist), do you have to see it to know it's there? Or is it good enough to just know it's there and being protected? He wanted to SEE it. Never mind conservation of the site, he wanted to stamp his footprints all around the plant. Probably wanted to steal a specimen. I didn't tell him where it was. D. marginalis is lovely, too, and you can find it in full, fresh green foliage right now in the Ozarks.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Textbook example, II

So, if you've ever wondered what a dry mesic bottomland forest looks like in the Ozarks, here it is:

According to my esteemed colleague, the distinct characteristics are rather specific:

Main characters: losing stream; rapidly drained; soils dry to dry-mesic but subject to flash floods. Get this. Usually no discernable stream in many. Its hard to find good ones because of all the shitty pastures upstream-hence why there's a good quality DMBF along White's Creek as there's no development in that watershed and it directly enters the Eleven Point River.

And since there were so many questions about this, I've reposted Paul Nelson's answer to all of you here:
Ok Scott, Allison, Travis and Ted. I must succumb to answering all, with a disclaimer that we might never know the complete truth. Ted. The terms "forest" and "woodland" can have many different meanings depending on the context. But for my purposes, woodlands are specifically described as a certain type of natural community distinct from forest. Allison is right; I hope you have the book. Scott. Your observations of Wildhorse Creek west of Big Spring is right on. That is the country that typically loses most rainfall that filters and percolates through porous substrate through cracks and caves eventually emerging at Big Spring (and other springs). I could just as easily taken the photo there instead of Whites Creek in Irish or Big Barren Creek elsewhere on the Eleven Point Ranger District. You are also correct that to some degree of severity, nearly every stream and river in Missouri now contains sediment overburden, the cause which is post European settlement overgrazing, land clearing, poor silvicultural practices (sorry for the politics) and overburning followed by abandonment of now degraded and worn out woodlands. And I'm not familiar with Logan Creek. Oh, and Allison you know that most every "forest" at some time in history will burn, even if every 50 to 500 years, but the point is despite an occasional fire, their structure is multi-layered.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Autumn's Grape Fern

Long winter shadows set in at 3:40 p.m. that day, shadows impending sunset only 8 hours after I woke up. I spent the whole day outside on Wednesday, planting more daffodil bulbs, spreading leaf mold and compost everywhere, trying to gain as much sunlight-derived Vitamin D as possible. But merely being outside isn’t enough. My thrice weekly visits to the woods, even trashed out woods, seem to be integral to my health and well being. So I zipped across the ever-sprawling town and the complex network of late afternoon traffic to woodlands that likely haven’t burned in 80 years and are now under siege by a burgeoning deer population.

But grape leaf ferns (genus Botrychium) are out right now, harbingers of late autumn so I set out to find one before the deer ate it. I was a hair late as some woodland creature already took a bite out of the persistent deep green blade.

Four species of Botrychium can be found in Missouri’s woodlands throughout the year. B. virginianum is a delicate spring fern, popping up in mid-May throughout the Ozarks. B. biternatum is restricted to the Southeast Missouri Lowlands, and can be found during the fall next to the most common of the grape ferns, pictured, Botrychium dissectum var. obliquum. The elegant and deeply dissected B. dissectum var. dissectum grows in the eastern Ozarks, though remains somewhat uncommon. But B. dissectum var. obliquum is pretty common in low woods, ravines, cherty uplands, and grows in unburned sites with deer problems (so that must mean it's all over the Ozarks, she grumbles).

The grape leaf ferns all have a similar shape, each one sending up a triangular leaf-like blade. All but B. virginianum remain visible for months, even through winter. This is the time of year that you also might find a fruiting branch attached to the triangular grape fern leaf. This fruiting branch contains tiny round Pacman-like sporangia all crowded on what would otherwise have been a leaf. Most are a bit smaller than BB's. These Pacmen sporangia break open and release spores that produce new fern plants elsewhere. Some Botrychium species produce two triangular fronds side by side. My colleague swears that he once observed one frond of var. dissectum growing immediately next to one frond of var. obliquum. But were they from the same root structure? He refused to dig them up to find out.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Springfield's Gem of India

Rare are the occasions when I have the chance to eat great curry in the Ozark Highlands. Until last week, every opportunity has involved my camp stove, my green enamelware pot, red lentils (because they cook faster than any other lentil), a gravel bar, and a little orange-stained Ziploc bag filled with my own spice blend of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, turmeric, garam masala, cayenne, asoefetida, fenugreek, and so forth.

But flip through the Springfield phone book's restaurant section and you'll find pages and pages of great authentic names for Vietnamese, Indian, Korean, and Thai food restaurants. Landing in Springfield at the end of a remarkably long and brutal workweek, I knew I wanted nothing more than vegetables and brown rice with some sort of non-animal protein source (and a decent wine list). The mind-boggling long list of ethnic restaurants on major thoroughfares near the hotel reminded me of the time Alyssa visited me in a fancy New Orleans hotel: when she walked into the lobby of the Meridien, she looked around at the gilded panels and chandeliers and said nothing more than "GAH!" followed by my country mouse response of "look at all them lights!" Of course, we both lived in New Orleans for many, many years, but our recent years of exile in Missouri and Idaho made it all seem so glamorous and Big City.

So that night, I learned that Springfield has the kabal on ethnic food in the Ozark Highlands. With no recommendations except that of my concierge who said of all of the Vietnamese and Indian restaurants I named "they're all good, so I've heard," I gravitated towards the regal sounding name of Gem of India. (My favorite Indian place in New Orleans was the now-defunct Shalimar (...Rue Madison?), equally glamorous, and a great lunch buffet. Killer saag paneer-stuffed mushrooms, good wine list).

Gem of India is a stately place, an old school restaurant with high back seats, cloth napkins, Indian waistaff in white oxfords. Outstanding Northern Indian fare, the Navrattan korma, pakoras, wine list were precisely what I wanted that night but the long, thorough, and capable menu including paneer thrown into every sort of sauce imaginable made me wish I lived closer. The restaurant is hosting their 7th Annual Diwali on November 7th, promising great food, Punjabi folk dancers, belly dancers, and an Indian DJ! Non-stop from 11am-midnight.
The trick now is to find enough intact native landscapes to warrant spending time in and around Springfield so I can try out some of those plentiful Vietnamese restaurants. Columbia's lone Vietnamese place is great, of course, but Springfield has upwards of 20 Vietnamese, countless Indian, and several representatives of every other ethnicity whose food I like to eat. It doesn't seem fair.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


Now that the asters are in bloom/She has a bowl of asters in her room/And twists one in her fingers while she talks. Not really, because I don't like all the achenes spilling out on my bedside table....

Last year, the botany world was handed a list of very long names that were designed to replace the simple names assigned to the plants of the genus Aster. I haven't memorized the list because all of the data processing programs I use recognize the earlier nomenclature and because I'm lazy when it comes to performing actions that have no immediate impact on ecosystem restoration or my health. Memorizing new plant names when I know the old plant names falls into a category of actions I'd like to perform but won't until I have to. My colleagues continue to use the old Steyermark '63 names for these lovely plants (and probably all the rest of the Missouri flora that were renamed, as well), so I will too, I guess, until I break my leg or something, forced to stay in bed long enough to memorize plant names. (For what it's worth, I pitched the emailed list of new names for herpetofauna that were announced this year because I don't know who sent them and on what authority animals like spring peepers were renamed. So I'll wait until I receive an official notice with my herpetologist's signature at the bottom telling me that I must accept the new taxonomic names or I will go to jail if I don't.)

But, in honor of the charming Aster cordiformis that I discovered in my backyard under the laundry line this morning, a few asters you, too, may encounter on your fall hikes in the woodlands of the Ozark Highlands, pictures not necessarily adjacent to their names. I don't think any of these darling plants are aware that they've been renamed, nor do I think the new nomenclature changes a thing about them, their life histories or their status on lists of conservative or weedy plants, but it allows for pedantic folks to trot out the new names so they can chastise me publicly.

In chert woodlands all over the Ozarks, Aster patens, A. anomalus (pictured right) and A. turbinellus are in bloom right now. Brilliant purple blooms, you can tell the difference between the species quite easily from the leaves: A. patens leaves are simple lobes, almost fully perfoliate; A. turbinellus leaves are thin lanceolate leaves, widely spaced; A. anomalus leaves --similar to A. azureus-- possess a heart shaped basal leaf but the bracts are curled.

Check out the uncommon high quality upland flatwoods and you'll be hard pressed to find any aster but A. turbinellus hanging out with Agalinis tenuifolia and that pretty fine grass, Agrostis perennans.

Head towards White River Hills country and you'll find the state's stronghold population of A. linariifolius , listed as uncommon in the Ozark Highlands, it's a dominant plant even in unburned, crummy woods down there. A gorgeous plant with tall stalks and bright purple ray flowers, the leaves look remarkably like rosemary, stiff and rigid though scentless.

Even degraded old fields and roadsides will host pretty populations of A. pilosus, about as conservative as bush honeysuckle in Missouri. It's still a charming little aster whose white flowers resemble in size A. lateriflorus, found all over my backyard in Columbia.

If you're floating down the Jack's Fork anytime soon, you may run into A. furcatus clinging to the side of the cliffs, right next to various ferns and liverworts. Riverbanks, too, host populations of A. cordiformis and another species whose leaves resemble A. ericoides, but whose name I can't recall.

If you're only recently cutting your teeth on plants of the genus Aster, I wish you well. They're not the easiest plants to learn, as many of them resemble one another, but now is the time to head out to your local woodlands with a key and start figuring them out. Pretty soon, the flowers will be history and the delicate, fuzzy seeds will break away from the plants with even the slightest wind.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bacteria prevail

Another uplifting article from Eurekalert! essentially letting us know that it doesn't matter how much you wash your produce, it's still going to be swimming in bacteria. Better boost your gut flora before eating that mesclun mix....

Light, photosynthesis help bacteria invade fresh produce

Exposure to light and possibly photosynthesis itself could be helping disease-causing bacteria to be internalized by lettuce leaves, making them impervious to washing, according to research published in the October issue of the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

Salmonella enterica is a common cause of foodborne gastroenteritis, with an estimated number of 1 to 3 million human cases per year in the United States. Fresh produce is increasingly being implicated as a source of infection. One of the largest foodborne outbreaks in recent history, the Salmonella St. Paul outbreak in 2008 which sickened over 1,400 people, was associated with tomatoes and jalapeno peppers.

Previous studies of foodborne pathogens on produce have found that the bacteria do not only attach to the surface of fresh produce but find their way below the surface of the skin through pores called stomata where they can hide from and resist washing and food sanitizers.

In the study, researchers from the Agricultural Research Organization at the Volcani Center in Israel and Tel-Aviv University examined the role that light and photosynthesis might play on the ability of salmonella bacteria to infiltrate lettuce leaves via stomata. Sterile iceberg lettuce leaves were exposed to bacteria either in the light, in the dark, or in the dark after 30 minutes of exposure to light. Incubation in the light or preexposure to light resulted in aggregation of bacteria around open stomata and invasion into the inner leaf tissue. In contrast, incubation in the dark resulted in a scattered attachment pattern and very little internalization.

The researchers believe that the increased propensity for internalization in the light may be due to several factors. First, in the absence of light plants enter a period of dormancy, where stomata are closed and no photosynthesis takes place. In the light, the stomata are open. Additional findings also suggest that the bacteria are attracted to the open stomata by the nutrients produced during photosynthesis which are not present in the dark.

"The elucidation of the mechanism by which Salmonella invades intact leaves has important implications for both pre- and postharvest handling of lettuce and probably other leafy vegetables. The capacity to inhibit internalization should limit bacterial colonization to the phylloplane and consequently might enhance the effectiveness of surface sanitizers," say the researchers.


Applied and Environmental Microbiology is a publication of the American Society for Microbiology. The American Society for Microbiology, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is the largest single life science association, with 40,000 members worldwide. Its members work in educational, research, industrial, and government settings on issues such as the environment, the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, laboratory and diagnostic medicine, and food and water safety.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wolf spiders

Rare are the occasions that I intentionally camp in degraded, unburned woodlands in the Ozark Highlands. At the beginning of my birthday month, however, I found myself camping on gravel bars and streambanks of the upper Gasconade, Niangua, Current and other rivers surrounded on both sides of each river by crummy woods in rather desperate need of fire. Each night of riverbank camping I gathered kindling for my long-lived fires of punky sycamore and was treated to the bright glowing eyes of wolf spiders, more species than I could count, hunkering down in the thick layer of leaves. (Spider populations, by the way, totally out of context, increasing to unnatural levels due to a lack of fire.)

Strap on a headlamp and head into the millions of acres of unburned woodlands in the Ozark Highlands and you'll see them, too, little green and yellow lights staring at you out of the leaf litter, compound eyes on the many species of spiders, all immobilized by the brilliant light of your headlamp. Glow worms are out too, actually, flat little segmented larvae of fireflies pulsing light as they, too, hunker down in the leaf litter.

I don't really understand the fear of spiders. Some of Missouri's finest ecologists are quite frightened by these little creatures who really aren't out to kill or maim ecologists. I don't keep house very well at all because I'm never home, so I allow cellar, tunnel and wolf spiders spiders to have their way in my corners and basement; they keep my rogue walking fruit flies (cultured for my dart frogs, not that I live in squalor...) in check. I help tarantulas across the road each October, gently allowing them to crawl up my arm while I walk them across to the next glade. I've had several tarantulas try, in vain, to spin webs around my forearms, an act which I've taken as high praise for my gentle handling.

But as all of you, my three readers [not counting my baby sister], know, I'm not an entomologist--though I tangentially know Ted, the most astute entomologist, rabid cyclist, and all around cool guy in the Midwest. If the pictures I post tonight are not of spiders, I think he'll tell me (very gently and with a giggle).

While gravel bar camping during the initial stages of my birthday month, I ran across a rather large wolf spider of the genus Hogna (pictured, right). Admittedly, I have never seen a wolf spider so large. Using the headlamp, several other wolf spider species availed themselves to me over the course of the week, none of them wanting to attack me or bite me (of course). One made off with a sliver of yellow onion that I had cut up for beans and rice, comparatively a small spider rushing off the table with a huge chunk of onion. Wolf spiders, though they can grow rather large, are pretty harmless. The worst bite by one of these spiders resembles a bee sting: no necrotic tissue (like a brown recluse bite can cause), no huge black widow welts left behind. They're really a quite harmless, highly diverse group of spiders, really charming and furry. See for yourself--pull out your headlamp from your caving gear and check out your local -likely unburned- woods. Look closely for the glistening of compound spider eyes!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Botany from the front of a canoe

In fire-starved woodlands of the traditionally fire-mediated Ozark Highlands, struggling populations of native vegetation sometimes remain visible-- a sprig of big bluestem here, an Aster turbinellus there. By using those relict plant populations as a guide, it’s fairly simple to determine whether you’re in a true forest (uncommon in most of the Ozarks except in Current River country) or a degraded closed woodland in need of fire. The presence or absence of certain plants can play a role in determining landscape types. For example, Aster patens and Silene regia are good, solid woodland plants, appearing in nice woodlands and woodland edges. One is unlikely to find, say, wild ginger or hydrangea in a dry woodland, as both plants require more moisture, commonly found in forests or on the more mesic side of a dry-mesic woodland.

But in the Ozark Highlands, if you find yourself in the front seat of the canoe (the position that serves as the all-important lookout for snags and big rocks and can be just as effective at determining steering position as the rear, despite what the guy in the rear says), you may find yourself surrounded by a whole host of plants that you won't find elsewhere, plants restricted to riverbank natural communities in the Ozark Highlands. If it's not enough to find distinctive plant populations, if you can see the chert gravel through the water and gnarly old cedars clinging to the bluffs, you may be on an Ozark river. Having spent my whole birthday week floating and camping (over and over and over) on two distinct Ozark rivers in two very distinct regions of the Highlands, a common theme occurred, a host of lovely riverbank plants that you won't find in a woodland or on a glade or in any other native landscape in the same quantities as you'll find them there.

Standing out in brilliant red among every other growing thing, cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) was in full bloom last week, literally lining the streambanks with tall, red spikes of flowers. Mixed in among the cardinal flowers are mist flowers (Eupatorium coelestinum), a pale purple version of the common bonesets blooming in crummy woods throughout the Ozarks in September. One of the many species of dodder is in bloom now, wrapping their eerie orange stems around streambank water willows and everything else they can cover.

Of the sedges growing along Ozark riverbanks, Carex haydeni stands out, thick clumps growing along the riverbank for mile after sluggish autumn float mile.

The pawpaws are still hard as rocks these days; I never found a ripe one on roughly 40 miles of riverfrontage, though I found several that animals had tried gnawing into but abandoning the fruit in the end. But on the upper Gasconade, I found the treasure trove of Heteranthera populations.

Tall, rangy populations of the fall yellow flowering Verbesina draped over the riparian corridor, mobbed by yellow butterflies that resembled (in form) the cabbage whites.

The fall blooming Phlox appeared after a few miles deep into the float trips, unseen in the early or late miles.
Vernonia crinita and its' bright purple blooms are out in force now, and the common Hibiscus lasiocarpus can be seen in full flower on riverbanks now.

Of course, you know you're on an Ozark river when you see the steeply eroded streambanks resulting from years of grazing, timber harvest, and mismanagement of the adacent uplands. Or, worse still, when you're 10 miles into your float and you come across mile after mile of foul cyanobacteria blooming in the water from all the cows on the banks and standing in your once-pristine Ozark river. Jump off rocks and rope swings are no longer very much fun, but it makes you grateful for all the great plants that are still there, despite the abuse.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Stage 1: St. James and Environs

(For the one or two people I don't know who may stumble across this page in search of, say, "Aster patens" or "U Road," a quick note about the role of the following post--unintended for my four or five loyal readers who already know me well: I'm really picky about wine. I'm really picky about everything I eat and drink, actually, and it's no fault of the wineries I visit that they produce sweet junk that I won't taste. I think merlot is gross and sticky sweet and I won't get near it. My grail wine is a solid Oregon pinot noir--big, complex, buttery, oaky, a wine as interesting as the Willamette Valley landscape itself. Nevertheless, my opinion of wine is just that, my opinion. But to each his or her own, drink what you want, that's cool, but I'm setting out this fall into the Ozarks to find truly great wine made with Norton grapes and aged in our fine, stately Quercus alba. I really dig hearty red wine and have been known to go into places in and around Eminence after a three day float and ask rather seriously if I could "perhaps see a wine list." Oh, I recognize it's a little silly, looking for great wine in tiny town restaurants in the Ozark Highlands, but we have some great wineries here--some well known, one great one hardly even signed off County Road 1000 (there really is one, a CR 1000). I've learned that Ozark wineries are responsible for some of the state's best wine, so my quest for a great Norton isn't so silly after all, and maybe one day soon I can go into River Rat's off the Current River and find a Westphalia Cabernet Franc on the menu to accompany my pizza.)

Not too long ago, I was slightly excoriated for ginning up a list of crayfish present in the ditches and sloughs at my former job site. A few years ago, I went out every day for a few days a week in the spring with turkey necks and Louisiana-made crayfish nets to sample crayfish. It was really as simple as that. I wasn't planning on publishing my crayfish survey, or even writing a full scale report. My boss just wanted a list of crayfish, so I surveyed the waterways, keyed out some crayfish, and sent my boss a list of what I found. He probably said, "huh, cool" upon receipt and shelved the list. Two years later, I was called out, asked over and over about my methodology, about the process, are there GPS points where I found each animal? What was I hoping to gain with my survey? Did I submit a full report to the state? Did I have vouchers? I explained -much to the dismay of my caller- that I went out, I don't know, in May? I had some turkey necks, some spare time, some crayfish nets...just to see what was out there. I interpreted the steely silence on the other end of my phone for what it was.

So, I'll try to outline a really simple "methodology" for my survey of super dry red wines produced in the Ozark Highlands American Viticulture Area: For starters, I don't like driving on weekends because I commute a long distance during the work week. While it's possible to set out on a Friday and visit each winery in the Ozarks that produces a capable Norton and Chambourcin in the course of three days, I really don't like driving and the stillness associated with it. Hence, I don't know much about the well-regarded and plentiful wineries around Ste. Genevieve (3 hours or more from Columbia) or even the new ones that slope westwards off the Ozark dome towards the Osage Plains that I'm curious about because I know the soils of that region pretty well (no direct route from Columbia; approx. 3.5 hours drive).

Rather than following highways or bedrock type, I've designated regions that will be explored every couple of weeks this fall based on my desire to drive and availability of Nortons. Like other wine-producing states, Missouri has designated "wine trails" that course through the state, small collections of wineries that can be explored in an afternoon, conveniently located near one another. I learned today that these wine trails are not determined by landform, growing conditions, or even the Missouri Grape and Wine Board.

We actually have four designated Missouri Wine Trails: The Missouri River region (a sort of okay region of not great-too sweet wine and few wineries); Hermann (exceptional); Route du Vin (around the lovely Ste. Genevieve area); and Ozark Mountain Region Trail (located over on the western edge in an area I wouldn't call mountainous, though great wineries). But these wine trails exist because the wineries in these regions worked together to come up with a name for their area (not based on land types like in Oregon), and because they plan similar events such as food pairing tastings or newly released wine tasting weekends. Ironically, one of Missouri's oldest wine-producing regions, an area with several nice wineries and the motherlode of grape vines, doesn't have it's own wine trail. Again, no fault of the state, but of the wineries who haven't really collaborated.

Having floated Ozark rivers for the past week and spent the night camping on the Gasconade last night, I decided that our first venture would be into the nearby St. James region, the land of grape stands (4M Vineyards), solid Nortons, and historic post oak savanna country. While most of this former open woodland-savanna landscape has been converted to the trashy but ubiquitous Eupatorium altissimum-fescue-cattle natural community type, that charming little city park with the sandstone glade that I want to burn exists here, too. Thousands of acres of restorable woodlands just waiting for a fire program can be found in this area. But winding through the acres and acres of grape vines and overstocked dense woodlands, one would be hard pressed to find an intact landscape or even one worth photographing for a sense of place, but for the beautiful low, undulating acres of grape vines.

Two of the region's most popular vineyards are located in St. James on I-44: St. James Winery boasts healthy sales of their sweet stuff statewide, but their Norton is outstanding (especially the 2005 vintage, which you can find discounted for some reason). I've stopped into their winery before, maybe five years ago, and fell for their Norton, though couldn't afford a bottle thanks to my 8$/hr. job. So I skipped St. James today, but drove a little further down the service road to Meramec Vineyards.

A charming little bistro, outdoor seating, a bocce court and a well-lit, tastefully appointed tasting room are housed in an older building surrounded by zinnias and trellised grape vines. It's all very bright and cheery inside Meramec Vineyards. Unlike St. James Winery who distributes their product all over the state, Meramec Vineyard wines can only be found at one grocery store in St. Louis, online, and at the I-44 winery.

My tasting consisted of the only three wines characterized as "dry reds"--two Nortons and a blend that the barrister called "like a merlot." And like a merlot, this one was way too sweet and boring for my taste (but people who like merlot would probably like it). The Nortons, on the other hand, aged in French oak barrels instead of Missouri white oak for some reason, were rather distinctive and unlike any other Norton I've met. Meramec Vineyards' Nortons were so vastly distinctive from other Nortons that I began drowning the poor, dear barrister in no fewer than 20 questions, with only one or two he could answer. Their 2004 Norton was reminiscent of a 2002 Taurino Salice Salentino--elegant, tasting like a Stargazer lily smells, not as brambly as the 2005. I don't know why they use French oak barrels, but their Nortons are really quite nice. I bought a bottle of the 2004, commented on the charming labels for all the sweet junk, and set out for winery #2.

Continue north on Hwy. B out of St. James, make a right on Co. Rd. 1000. Follow 1000 for several miles until U Road, where you'll make a left. Keep your eyes peeled for a very small vertical white board on a mailbox with tiny black letters written on it that say "Heinrichshaus." Make a right on the adjacent gravel road, pass through restorable woodlands with Aster patens, Aster turbinellus, and sprigs of big bluestem breaking through the leaf litter, and you'll end up at a tiny brown house with chairs scattered outside. Heinrichshaus Winery
has operated in the area for 30 years, specializing in very serious dry wines. Press the button on the walkie talkie provided on the door and wait a few minutes for a darling German man with brilliant eyes wearing an old straw hat, a stately German shepherd by his side, to invite you in.

I felt like I was back in Tivoli, maybe on the outskirts of Bologna, as I ducked into his dark and dank tasting room.

The walls of Heinrichshaus Winery are lined with dusty wine bottles housing elegant medals, early Missouri wine campaign posters, botanical drawings of grapes from the early 1900s--one frame housing two plates, one of the Norton grape, the other of the Cynthiana grape, thus negating all of the claims that "Norton and Cynthiana are the same grape." A proclamation created by one of Heinrichshaus Winery's long time customers rests on his shelves; years ago, Heinrich was crowned "King of Chambourcin," a fine, fine designation that encouraged me to stop looking around his little building and start tasting his wines. Walking back to the table, I noticed his lovely old, dark, scratched, worn hardwood floors bore signs of repeated foot traffic that stand testament to his 30 successful years in the wine making business.

As Heinrich situated himself behind the tasting table, he explained to me that he only makes dry wines because "that's how wine is supposed to be made." I walked behind the table and hugged his sturdy, yet trim, frame. So I didn't have to tell him "I'll only try your dry wines" because that's all he makes. He added that he only uses Missouri white oak barrels, and he'll use them over and over again. "Oaking is overrated," he told me. I countered with a line my colleague once told me over a hearty Norton, "green white oak never tasted so good."

Before stopping in the St. James Tourism Information Center for my map of the area's wineries, I had never heard of Heinrichshaus Winery. I've never seen his wines in stores, never seen a sign for the winery, never even heard it mentioned by fellow dry red wine lovers. As he poured the first taste of a 2006 Chambourcin, his charming labels tastefully drawn by his late wife, he explained that he subsists strictly on return visitors to his winery and online sales. I couldn't believe it. For 30 years, folks in and around St. James have patronized him so frequently that he's never had a problem selling his wine and staying in business (and I always thought folks in Missouri preferred all that sweet junk that everyone makes). Unlike other wineries, Heinrichshaus Winery doesn't charge as much for his dry wines--his 2005 Cynthiana and 2006 Chambourcin? Under 10$. His blend, named Prairie Rouge (possibly after the area's now defunct savanna landscape) costs a mere $12. He doesn't operate a fancy winery restaurant, he doesn't spend money on marketing, and his wines are among the nicest I've had in Missouri. Friends and family members will regularly receive Heinrichshaus wines for Christmas, and you, too, can buy his wine online here or at his little brown house.

The cloudy afternoon was young, despite the lengthy conversation at Heinrichshaus, and it dawned on me that I hadn't eaten anything all day but two s'mores over a stick fire for breakfast. Surely one of the other wineries around St. James sold food, so we set out south on Highway 8 towards Steelville in search of more dry reds and cheese.

For a couple of years now, I've seen Peaceful Bend Vineyard's wines on sale at the Osage Beach HyVee. Their blends are named after Ozark creeks and streams: Yadkin Creek, Huzzah Valley, Meramec, and so forth. The cheerful winery barn with brightly painted walls and pale hardwood flooring hosts a handful of tables, a cooler with cheese, sausage and crackers for sale, a little merchandise, and a long wooden tasting bar. Regulars traipsed through all day, camping outside with snacks and wine, spending the afternoon under the white oaks. There's a great vibe down there, situated as they are in hilly woodlands near the floating locus of the Ozarks.

I tasted their three dry reds, the Meramec, Norton, and Forche Renault. Still a little sweet for my taste, we settled on a bottle of the fun, lighter red, the Forche Renault. A blast of cherries and a smooth oaky finish traveled well with the round of Gouda and wheat crackers they sell inside. It's a charming place, but if you don't like cats, don't sit near the railing outside; the two winery cats really lived up to my overarching negative opinion of cats in general (an animal I rather despise for their impacts to wildlife): these two paw at you with their claws extended and mew for food. And if you ignore them to pet the wonderful three Labrador retrievers who sit quietly and kindly at your feet? The cats will hiss and scratch the dogs. I'd like to imagine I met the cats on a bad day, but these two really solidified my long held anti-cat bias.

And so, heading north into Rolla with six bottles of exquisite wine for my rack, we stopped into Panera for decaf coffee. There, I ran into a well-traveled engineer who works for the same outfit I work for. When he overheard me mention to the barista that I had visited the wineries in the area, he asked if I made it out to Sibyl's (St. James' fancy restaurant) and Heinrichshaus Winery. I explained that yes, I went to Sibyl's earlier this year and found the winery today. He threw up his hands, knocked back his head and said I was welcome to go back to Columbia now, because "you've seen everything there is to see here."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Look, here come the grapes!

How can you tell the difference between a grape and an elephant?
"Grapes are purple."

What did Tarzan say when he saw the elephants coming over the hill?
"Look, here come the elephants!"

What did Charles de Gaulle say when he saw the elephants coming over the hill?
"Voila les elephants!"

What did Tarzan's Jane say when she saw the elephants coming over the hill?
"Look, here come the grapes!" (Jane was color blind.)

Drive I-44 around St. James these days and you'll see them, too, the grape stands stocked with fresh Concords and homemade grape jelly, maybe grape pies on a good day. We're amidst grape harvest in the Ozark Highlands, and thanks to the wet summer we've had, the Concords have never been juicier. Rumor holds (I heard the whisper myself!) that next week, the same vendors around 4-M Vineyards will be selling the classy Norton grapes for personal wine making enterprises. Oh, this is all very interesting and exciting, though I have yet to call the coopers in Lebanon to find out if I can buy a Barbie-sized white oak barrel for aging my own Norton. I think I know what they'll say...after they laugh.

Visit dry chert woodlands throughout the Ozarks, especially those that have seen fire in recent years, and try the little but super sweet native summer grape, Vitis aestivalis, a staple in burned woodlands. Folks in the Ozarks traditionally harvest these wild grapes for jelly-making, as it's darned near impossible to find decent grapes in grocery stores. Wildlife appreciate summer grapes, too. In mid-June, roughly two months before the grapes were ripe, I watched two yellow-breasted chats completely denude a few unripe clusters from vines all tangled up in oak sprouts and sassafras.

Missouri hosts over 6 wild grape species, from the riverbank variety (V. rupestris) which grows profusely on gravel bars in the St. Francois Mountains, to winter grape (V. cinerea), whose fruits aren't ripe until late fall, months after anyone cares about making jelly.

When I lived in southeast Missouri, I helped out with the grape harvest at the region's best winery (River Ridge). I stayed close by the men in charge of the vineyard those days, asking multiple questions about tending grapes in Missouri. I learned so much about viticulture in Missouri that I was a little flummoxed when they gave me money for my efforts that afternoon.

I no longer live near good wineries, but in the next few weeks, in celebration of my birthday, I will be visiting little known wineries in the Ozark Highlands on an official Norton Tasting Tour. If anyone's making pinot noir or cabernet franc, I'll try those, too. This is scientific research, you know, so I'll publish my findings.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Thursday: St. James to Jeff City

What a fun route! Cyclists will pass a few vineyards where quiet folks sell amazing freshly harvested Concords out of little clapboard huts with Grapes! painted on the side. They'll go through some pretty hilly terrain tomorrow, through the Gasconade River Hills, ending up in the beautiful (but sort of vacant) downtown Jefferson City. Maybe, at that point, someone will explain to our new governor that this is an event that really should be funded by the state....

Monday, September 07, 2009

Cavendish in the house.

And Djokovic streaming on my computer. Live US Open night matches here. Tour of Missouri Stage maps here. Who really has time for work in times like these?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Fall garden time!

According to the fine, knowledgeable folks at Wilson's Garden Store here in Columbia, fall gardening "hasn't really caught on" in this part of the state. The tanned gardener told this to me after I told him about fall gardening in New Orleans, a litany of food I could grow in a tiny patch of land until December. The list included okra, cilantro, fennel, black eyed peas, just about anything but tomatoes. So the Wilson's gardener doled my seeds into little brown paper bags and labeled them by weight (as though I had more than a 50x50 plot of sunny ground). I probably now have enough seeds for an actual farm.

Those of you who set out your summer garden as late as I did (on account of my dog's health), you're only now seeing large yields: cucumbers hiding beneath the stippled leaves, green tomatoes weighing down your plants, green jalapenos galore. I harvested a single green bean yesterday.

But now is the time to set out pumpkins (for baking, not ready for Halloween), lima beans, spinach, lettuces, squash, green beans, Swiss chard, and probably countless other plants whose growing season in Missouri I'm only now learning about. More warm weather to come, and enough sun to produce at least a few things to eat before the first killing frost. For those of you who regularly plant food crops in the fall, feel free to add to my woefully small list.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Chinese Mystery Snail

Oh, great, another aquatic exotic species is finding Ozark streams to be a perfectly fine place to take up residence these days. Known from the pet trade, the "Chinese mystery snail" has been identified from the Niangua River recently. Significantly larger than the gilled snails that traditionally inhabit our rivers, this population may have been dumped from an aquarium into the river. No one really knows exactly the impact populations of this snail will have on native species, but, like those crummy little bait clams of the genus Curbicula, they're not supposed to be here. If you find them in the Niangua or other Missouri river, MDC suggests removing them. I guess that means throw them into your red mesh Stream Team trash bag and toss them into the Dumpster after your float....

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

In honor of milkweeds, corrected

It's a little bittersweet, no, downright sad (to two people who have always lived around the natural world) to hear exclaimed from my backyard in Columbia, "oh my god! We actually have a butterfly in the yard!"

I don't live in or near those fancy neighborhoods full of showy pollinator gardens and unmanaged green spaces all covered in rangy common wildflowers, but sweet little bees like my yard, and the nighttime chorus of katydids and cicadas can be deafening. I won't whine about how many butterflies flock to my mother's yard, to DeLaSoil, my community garden in New Orleans, or even to the 50x50 plot of random favored-by-me Missouri prairie wildflowers I crammed into the gumbo soils of southeast Missouri....strictly for the purpose of attracting pollinators for me to look at. But I haven't seen a butterfly in my yard all year, so seeing the single monarch nectaring on my now 12 foot tall blooming Silphium reminded me that the annual monarch migration must be underway these days. I counted 4, 8, upwards of 15 flitting past my driver's side window during my hot and sticky 43.5 minute commute to work today. More monarchs on Hwy. 63 than in my quiet and neglected little neighborhood full of blooming annual "weeds."

I don't know if the rich, varied landscapes within the Ozark Highlands support thriving populations of monarchs, but within the glades, woodlands and unmanaged anthropogenic old fields, several species of milkweeds, the sole host plant to monarch butterflies, thrive from April through September. I've been fortunate to catch several milkweeds in bloom this year, though I haven't seen a single monarch nectaring on the vibrant and curiously shaped flowers. And, moreover, out of the hundreds of milkweed plants I've seen this year, I haven't seen leaves decimated by big, fat monarch caterpillars.

Nevertheless, a brief guide to some of the more common milkweeds in Missouri's Ozark Highlands, beginning in spring in the woodlands:
Asclepias quadrifolia, pale pink blooms droop from the delicate stalks in mid-May, sharing the space with Jack-in-the-pulpits and mayapples. The four leaves are arranged in a whorl near the bloom. This one is similar in color to A. perennis, restricted in Missouri to the wet-mesic bottomland woodlands of southeast Missouri, a plant so elegant I swoon when I see it.

Around early June, the sturdy blooms of A. viridis open up on limestone and some dolomite glades. Possibly the most rugged of the milkweeds, the blooms of this one are persistent, lasting well into early July. I don't know my ants, but someone out there does: this photo was taken at Valley View Glades, if that helps with provenance.

Rather common in Missouri, A. purpurascens appears in open woodlands, in old fields, and in woodland edges. Down in the Elk River Hills, this milkweed was mobbed by Great spangled fritillaries and Hesperidii. Populations of A. purpurascens are declining throughout the range, though populations in Missouri seem to be stable. Like the rest of the milkweeds, and, well, plants in general, this one needs light to grow. Many of our woodlands in Missouri receive at least enough light for this plant to live.

The hallmark plant of butterfly gardens, A. tuberosa, also known from old fields, roadsides, prairies, glades and woodland edges. The brilliant orange flowers last almost all summer, providing a nectar source for countless species of pollinators.

Another glade species, A. verticillata has fine, stiff leaves and blooms that can be found today in shady regions of limestone woodlands. Similar in appearance to A. stenophylla, this one is more commonly encountered throughout the Ozarks.

And finally, found on glades and in moist woodlands in White River-Elk River Hillls country (and Shannon Co.), climbing milkweed (Matelea baldwyniana), not an Asclepias, but in the same family. A special thanks to the nice young man who corrected me gently this morning, in a manner most unlike my mean colleague.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Late summer moves in

How did that happen? One day, not that long ago, I was crouching down in the sandy soils of the Elk River Hills to look at bloodroot poking through the leaf litter. This week, in the blink of an eye, I met two goldenrods in bloom (S. gattengeri, S. drummondii), two beautiful harbingers of fall. Every week during the growing season, just as fire season comes to a close, I spend at least one, usually three, sometimes four days a week in the woodlands and glades of Missouri's Ozark Highlands. With the clement temperatures and excessive rain this spring, the growing season has been nothing short of explosive. Blooms have persisted longer than usual on certain plants, while others, like my beloved Buchnera americana, came up for a brief blue showing in late June, the plant quickly turning black despite all the rain. But the long summer days are coming to a close, and there's an urgency now to stay outside in tank tops and hats as much as humanly possible.

Running through plant lists of my favorite places, I'm hard pressed to think of late-late summer bloomers other than the goldenrods, asters and orchids of the genus Spiranthes. Even my own backyard, with its healthy stand of 10-12 foot tall Silphium perfoliatum and ground cover of Tovara virginiana is in full bloom already (pictured, S. laciniata). So, by my birthday in September, my yard will look like a jungle of strapping brown stems and leaves with a dense carpet of blooming asters. And on dolomite glades in September? There's downy gentian, that pretty wild onion, some asters...not so grim, after all.

But dolomite glades and managed-with-fire open woodlands are the place to be right now for blooming wildflowers: several species of Liatris, Silphium terebinthinaceum, S. lacinata, Rudbeckia missouriensis, and some of the danged goldenrods whose brilliant yellow blooms remind me that seasons change without my permission.

So, I'm going home. I'm headed to Louisiana for a while where summer lasts 10 months and you can grow food every day of the year. But it's too early to shake the muscadine grapes into your canoe with a stick from the black waters of the bayou.