Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ozark witch hazel

Every year, the Missouri Department of Conservation publishes a lovely, posh calendar full of exquisite photos taken by some of the state's best photographers: close up images of a solid pink katydid known from our southwestern prairies; big, sweeping views of the St. Francois Mountains; a marbled salamander coiled around her eggs, all incredible images of Missouri's natural history. Each day on the calendar corresponds to a certain natural event. So, for example, Ozark least trillium starts blooming in early April, while morels pop up two weeks later. Prairie chickens start "booming" from their leks in early March and white oak acorns start falling in the Ozarks in late October.

When I first moved to the Ozarks for my $5.27/hr. job, the natural events calendar represented the only ornamentation on the walls of the maintenance shed I lived in. Wanting to learn as much as possible about natural history in the Ozark Highlands, I consulted the calendar daily for events that I wanted to witness for myself. If I wanted to catch Dutchmen's breeches in bloom, I knew that I would seek out a mesic woodland that week to find it. The calendar instructed me that spring peepers started chorusing in March, but I noticed that they began their deafening calling in the sewerage lagoon across from the shed a couple of weeks before the calendar said they would begin. I noticed spotted salamander eggs in the same lagoon 3 weeks before the calendar said they would begin laying eggs. But the calendar remained a good guide.

I tracked bloom cycles of wildflowers both on the calendar and in a raggedy yellow Field Notes booklet, often noting spring ephemerals bloomed earlier than the calendar instructed. Same with migratory bird occurrences, the first time I saw coachwhips basking on a glade, the first blades of little bluestem in the woodlands after a fire. And of course I tracked morels, whose populations depend not on a calendar but on rain cycles and occurrences of subsequent warm days. I spent every day outside that year in awe of the Ozarks. The natural events calendar was a great learning tool when I first moved here. I depended on it and planned travels around bloom cycles of plants not found in the Niangua Basin where I lived.

In 2004, the following year (living in the same maintenance shed), I was up for the game once again. I picked up a calendar, but was disappointed to learn that the daily information was exactly the same as the year before. No new shrub bloom cycles, no information on the arrivals of black and white warblers, no new natural history events that I didn't witness the year before. Further, editors didn't account for the two week time difference on almost every event that occurred in 2003. If I depended on the calendar rather than my own fieldwork, I would have missed blood root in bloom and just seen the oddly shaped leaf among the oak litter. I realize, of course, that the calendar is a guide, a planning document, not a sacred text. The natural world isn't so kind as to abide by our calendar system. Nevertheless, the exquisite photography and fun facts in the calendar covered the hole in the wall that the deer mice were using that year.

So I've never seen the pink katydid that represents summer months in the calendar every other year. I've also missed out on the rare lichens of the St. Francois Mountains pictured there. I've certainly never seen the astonishing Greer Spring on a foggy morning like some lucky photographer has. But this week, despite the gnarly weather warnings, I hope to rectify a glaring omission in my searches for natural history events noted by the MDC calendar. I've been here for a few years now, but I've never seen Ozark witch hazel in bloom. The calendar said it blooms in January, the Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri says it blooms in January, so I'm going out in January to look for a flower.

Located in every county in Missouri's Ozark Highlands (except the Niangua Basin), Ozark witch hazel is a large shrub that grows along gravel bars and rocky streambeds. The leaves are rather non-descript, resembling the exotic hibiscus Rose of Sharon that grows in urban areas. A common plant of gravel bars, Ozark witch hazel has likely figured in my kindling piles when camping on the Jack's Fork, but I've never really noticed the plant (a fault of my own, not the shrub's).

But the flowers! Ozark witch hazel begins to bloom in mid-January every year, sending out elegant, brilliant yellow and orange tinged fringes which fall out of a deep orange center. The flowers only have four slender petals, and they grow in clusters along the stem. I imagine a large grouping of these shrubs will be as inspiring as a woodland filled with blooming spicebush--an otherwise brown landscape dotted with patches of yellow flowers. Unlike spicebush which blooms in April, Ozark witch hazel blooms even when there's snow on the ground.

Julian Steyermark, author of the Flora of Missouri, speculated that plant associations of Ozark witch hazel, fringe tree, and yellow wood (common in the White River Hills) indicate the establishment of plant associations in the Ozark Highlands during the Tertiary Period, much earlier than the Pleistocene Epoch. According to Yatskievych's fine Steyermark's Flora of Missouri, populations of Ozark witch hazel and these other woody species were relics of a "more continuous distribution of eastern deciduous forests in the region."

Last February, following the big ice storm, I set out into the St. Francois Mountains in search of this pretty little shrub. I was told by a colleague who lives there that I -once again- missed the bloom period (though this knowledge didn't stop me from stomping through snowy riverbanks to look for it anyway). The national champion Ozark witch hazel can be found at the base of Taum Sauk Mountain, several miles from my destination this week, and populations are common along the river systems there. So I'm going out two weeks earlier than last year in hopes of capturing the same astonishingly beautiful images of this flower that I've seen in the MDC calendar (I'd like snow on the ground, too.). Meanwhile, enjoy the remarkable stippled illustration by the esteemed Paul Nelson, who manages to capture the elegance and delicate nature of every plant he draws.

(Image from the Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri, by Don Kurz, 1997)


John said...

(Another satisfying post. I really enjoy your blog.)

Whenever I think of witch hazel my mind funnels my attention to a wintery day on the Ozark Trail near Braddock Lake in the southeast corner of Douglas County. I accompanied Margo and Peggy as they worked to complete their last trek for a guidebook on the trail. We had camped aside Braddock Lake the night before under a canopy of dotted stars that begged for new lines to be drawn with celestial figures from our current century. I think I found Nemo that night. We imagined so many new constellations.

The next morning we hit the trail under blue skies that erased the stars and frigid cold that iced the borders of the lake. As we entered Tabor Creek past walnut trees, winged elms and grandfathers-beard moss I almost missed the patch of yellow-green blooms until I took in my first deep breath-- it was the most solitary smell I've had in winter, a scent that defines that trip to this day: witch hazel.

Along Tabor Creek it bloomed everywhere. Once seen it couldn't be missed. Once the scent connected with its flowery image I was engulfed in a panorama of of scent and sight that I won't ever forget.

In the depths of winter the scent and sight of witch hazel will always remind me that spring is near, that nature strives bloom eternal, and that hope is for greener days is just weeks away. This and the sound of chorus frogs gets me through the shortest days of the year.

I'll always remember Tabor Creek in February. I hope you have a great "witch hazel" hunt of your own, with wintery scents that last a lifetime.

Allison Vaughn said...

What a great recollection! (And thanks for reading...I think I'm up to about 4 readers now!) Isn't it spectacular to be in the winter landscape? I was at Sam A Baker following that ice storm last year and it was nothing short of magical. Not a soul outside that weekend. I'm really hoping I find it this week. I'll cup my hands around the flowers and breathe deeply for you.

William said...

Hi Allison,

I also wanted to take the opportunity to let you know how much I have enjoyed your blog. I've been visiting you regularly for close to two years now and this post is a prime example of why I keep waiting for your latest topics. I hope to get out this weekend (St. Francis Mountains) and try my hand at finding a few of these guys in bloom.

So, you have a reader in St. Louis. I often take a day/weekend trip to new and favorite places in the southern half of the state for hiking, photography, birding , practicing my plant, fungi & insect ID, etc. So, no, not all visitors from St. Louis come to foul the setting of the Current and Jacks Fork with aluminum cans, vomit and noise pollution (I'm sure I find them just as disagreeable as you do).

Also, I have been enjoying the discussion on "wilderness areas". I am somewhat new in educating myself on the concept of officially designated wilderness. I am trying to visit everyone of them in Missouri. I was hoping you could answer a couple of questions if you don't mind.

1) Am I correct in the assumption that absolutely no human disturbance may take place in a wilderness area, even obvious land management practices that benefit ecosystem stability/diversity? What happens, happens. Can/should changes be made in the law so that this may be possible or would this be too close to "opening the floodgates" to activities that may not be desirable/responsible?

2) Do you have any information on the status/chance that the new MWC proposed areas have in becoming officially designated wilderness areas?

Thanks again for your blog, Allison. You're one of a kind for this type of thing in the Ozarks.

Bill Duncan

Allison Vaughn said...

Thanks, Bill. Some of Missouri's greatest leaders in conservation are from St. Louis!
I can answer the first question, but the ones about the seven sensitive areas I'm not an authority on the status of those. I know there is some pretty serious consternation surrounding an area at Cedar Creek and one at Lower Rock Creek, but that's all I can say...
On wilderness and human activity: The goal of the 1964 Wilderness Act was to protect large stretches of land where "man is a visitor who does not remain," and where the landscape is "largely shaped by the hand of nature" rather than human manipulation. Wilderness designation protects land from, for example, being logged, but mining activities can take place in some WAs out west (which is more destructive, I think). Signs of human disturbance like old roadbeds exist in many WAs, which clearly shows the imprint of man's work, but these are incorporated into the fabric of existing condition of wilderness. So, say there's a 1910 Ozark cabin at Paddy Creek. Do you tear it down because it shows signs of human inhabitation? No, the cabin is assimilated into the wilderness character. However, and you may notice this in Missouri's WAs since you're stomping through them these days, managers are not going to install bridges along trails, handrails, pit latrines, etc. Considering that eastern WAs show many more signs of human habitation than the ones out west, old logging roads in particular are simply abandoned in the hopes of recovering from years of use. But the presence of one or two doesn't detract from the wilderness character of the whole landscape. Secondly, wilderness management condones the use of natural processes to shape the land. Fire is a common tool (especially down in the Buffalo River areas. Ponca Wilderness Area is a great example of how fire adapted communities can exist in a designated wilderness), but in order to preserve the natural character of the land, some vegetative manipulation must be employed in some cases. When this is the case, wilderness management -under great debate- may condone the use of hand tools---CCC era cross cut saws are preferred. Cuts are very deliberate and not as noticeable as lots of quick chainsaw cuts. The goal in wilderness management is to preserve the natural character of the land while maintaining a wilderness character. In the case of Missouri's wilderness where large bands of glades are present, cedar clearing exercises with cross cut saws MAY in some cases take place in order to maintain the natural character of the land, but fire is the preferred method. My own personal thoughts on the matter is that cedar invasion indirectly shows the impact of man--relicts of overgrazing and natural fire suppression, both having occurred since European settlement--and to bring back the natural state of the land, the true wilderness character, *in some instances* where the natural quality of the entire landscape is at risk cedar management should occur. However, fire is a great tool for cedar removal and with repeated fires, you can kill whole stretches of them. It takes dedicated land managers, deliberate fire regimes, and frankly, we don't have many stalwart land managers in Missouri--as many of our degraded landscapes attest. Does that help? Check out for a whole website dedicated to wilderness management. It's a fascinating site...

William said...

Thanks, Allison. This did help. Having spent a lot of time in glades in WA's and other areas, I have noticed an abundance of encroaching cedars. I'm glad there are at least a few people like you in the state trying your best to conduct managed burns. It's obviously a necessity. I am working with others currently to conduct small prairie burns in a few places within St. Louis Co and discovering how complicated an endeavor this can be.

I also wanted to recommend a book I picked up reccently, "Unspoiled Beauty, A Personal Guide to Missouri Wilderness" by Charles Farmer. I'm pretty sure you know of it if not read it.

Anyway, it was nice meeting you, Allison.

Allison Vaughn said...

Good job on working on prairie restoration in St. Louis Co! St. Louis was the first "prairie city" and if you look at pre-European settlement records, the St. Louis region was covered in prairie with little bands of deep forest near the waterways, open woodlands scattered around. Prairie was dominant. And, of course, you're in the containment zone where doing prescribed burns is virtually forbidden due to the particulates it releases (which isn't even comparable to all the carbon spewing from traffic on I-270 on any workday). Keep up the good work--I bet we know a lot of the same people...