Sunday, March 29, 2009

Spring in the Ozarks

Under today's bluebird skies, the gleaming sun melted the last patches of snow in woodlands throughout the western Ozarks. Last night's snow event, our first northeastern winter storm this season, possibly represented the final blast of snow and sleet we'll see for many months. My white daffodils and brilliant purple violets are unscathed, though splashed with a little mud from the heavy rains that fell earlier in the day. Spring wildflower season begins in earnest this week with warm temperatures coaxing delicate pink, white and yellow flowers out of the saturated, mineral rich, rocky Ozark soils.

Some of the most common spring wildflowers are also some of the most elegant and lovely flowers you'll encounter all year. See below the fine illustrations of the state's leading ecologist, Paul Nelson, who invariably creates images with a rapidograph as pretty as the flowers themselves.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica): Decidedly common, even springing up in lawns, spring beauty can be found in open woodlands, usually in large colonies. I find them wherever I find mayapples.

Rue anemone (Anemonella thalictroides): Found mostly in uplands, in well drained dry rocky soils, this diminuitive wildflower blooms well into June.

False rue anemone (Isopyrum biternatum): Every year, it's the same drill: grab the wildflower guide and relearn the differences between rue anemone and false rue anemone. On a basic level, unlike rue anemone which tends to grow singly in dry uplands, this plant grows in large colonies in moist stream bottoms. The leaflets are more deeply dissected in false rue anemone, and flowers are on stalks above the leaves rather than perched right on top of the little (and less dissected) leaves.

White trout lily (Erythronium albidum): Several years ago, I set fire to the outskirts of a moist hollow loaded with blooming trout lilies. It was a difficult move, torching literally hundreds of the exquisite spring wildflower, but I threw fire over them for the greater good of the ecosystem. I took pictures of the wide, flat plain covered in these flowers before I slung my torch along the edge of the burnline. I couldn't look. I didn't want to see melting flowers. When I went back the following spring, the large colony was there, but joined by four other species, long smothered by 50 years worth of leaf litter. White trout lily can be found in lowlands, along streambanks, in moist woodlands.

Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria): When I first moved to the Ozarks in late March, 2003, I grabbed the fine, glossy Missouri Wildflowers and studied it every night, trying to learn the Ozarks' abundant spring wildflowers before I saw them in the field. I never dreamed as a child, fascinated as I was with Rudbeckia species, that I would ever see a wildflower as graceful as this one. Intricate, pale pink flowers hang pendant from a barely perceptible stem, leaves like ferns, Dutchman's breeches continues to be a wildflower I intentionally seek every April. Look for it in moist woodlands growing among spring beauty, pretty mosses, and trout lilies.

Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata , orCardamine concatenata?): Blooming early in the season, toothwort can be found in most woodlands in Missouri, despite active management or neglect. I found a large colony growing in an old disturbed lot full of honeysuckle in the middle of a developed neighborhood in Rolla. Regardless, the simple, white, cross-shaped flowers that appear each March in Missouri's woodlands usher in spring.

Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia): Not a very showy flower, but a common one in dry chert woodlands. Look for small colonies of these in drier uplands. Find them on the right day and you'll actually see the beads of brilliant yellow pollen on top of the white fuzzy flowers.

Pale corydalis (Corydalis flavula): Another common wildflower not dependent on active management, this one can be found in most creek valleys and at the base of bluffs.

Rose verbena (Glandularia canadense): Brilliant purple(ish)-magenta flower, commonly seen on glades and open woodland edges with ample light. Rose verbena is also commonly found on roadcuts, in areas usually dominated by dolomite. A star of the dolomite glade, this wildflower began blooming in the Niangua Basin last week.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Elk River Hills

The Elk River Hills, located in the far southwest corner of the Ozarks, rest entirely within the Elk River drainage basin. Three large creeks (pictured: Big Sugar)converge to become the Elk River, a wide, shallow, chert bottom river that feeds into the Arkansas River system.

Cherty limestones dominate here, perched on top of beds of shale. Deep valleys cut through Devonian limestones to Ordovician Jefferson City-Cotter dolomite below. Glades and savannas were once common in Elk River country, but now most of the area is second-growth mixed oak closed woodlands. Glades here are in need of cedar clearing projects.
Before heading to the woods, I stopped in the town square of Pineville and found a lovely old storefront with original pressed tin finishes. The lowlands associated with Big Sugar Creek are largely in pasture now, but some bottomlands remain wooded in dense second or third growth stands.

The Elk River Hills is the only location in Missouri for Virginia whitlow grass (Paronychia virginica var. scoparia) and the chert pebble snail.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

For Paul, Ted and Justin

I know I'm supposed to be excited about pink and white spring wildflowers poking out of the cherty Ozark soils, but I didn't see enough snow this year and I'm not ready for the manic schedules that spring ephemerals command. More importantly, however, I want to see more acres burned before spring green up. I'd like another 700 burned in the central Ozarks before April 15, please. I'd like 680 in the Elk River Hills before April 7, as well, but a nice, hot, stand-replacing crown fire there. Knock out the rest of the glades in the western Ozarks on March days when the woods won't burn so we can see the sumptuous Viola pedata against a blackened landscape, if that's okay.

Because the three of you are such great botanists, I'm taking the lead of Ted and offering up a few pictures taken from a 75 degree skip day in January for a winter plant game. I love the quiet nature of the winter landscape where you can walk unbothered by not knowing a Panicum. Of course, if I was as talented a botanist as any of you--all of whom don't have to schlep Steyermark into the field--I'd probably be exceedingly more excited for spring. I love hepaticas and bloodroots and the rest, but I hit the wall on so many sedges and grasses without their flowers that the growing season (sometimes, occasionally) seems like really hard work. I'll suck it up. It makes life worth living, really, but winter is just easier. Nevertheless, I promise a pretty blushing Claytonia soon. And Ted, the red thing with four legs is for you....though you'll probably tell me it actually has 8 legs and breathes fire. I realize these will be easy for you all, but I can't remember for the life of me what the one is that looks like beech drops. So, thanks in advance.
The bonus picture on my winter botany quiz is a landscape. It's in the Missouri Ozark Highlands, but where? And, has it ever been burned?

Saturday, March 07, 2009

On less than an acre

Two things made my heart rate increase that day: a gas stove and the gnarly old growth chinquapin oak. Five days after I had accepted a job working for the Ozarks out of a grim brown and gray office, I decided to move to a nearby town. I never even considered living where I worked, despite the commute and the environmental toll commuting would have. I'd dealt with lousy living conditions in Missouri for several years already. I ruined my saute pans on electric stoves. I burned 100 batches of Hollandaise, roux and beurre blanc on electric stoves. I never had curbside recycling in Missouri (a very bad thing for someone who consumes lots of wine, olive oil and New Yorker magazines). I never had a gym, a grocery store to walk to, a viable downtown, proximity to a store that sold bulk spices like garam masala and anise.

So, that early November afternoon I drove north to check out a rental property listed on Craig's List. Heading out of a thriving downtown towards the neighborhood, most of the homes were constructed between 1910-1960. A lot of them are decked out in boring white siding, though some nice brick Craftsmans are still around. Lots of big oak trees, customary in old towns in Missouri, dot the landscape here. In fact, many of the town's original witness trees still stand tall on the main roads, 200-300 year old monster oaks and hickories, an occasional maple.

The rental property was located on a less-traveled side street from a main thoroughfare. A few rundown homes, many of them needing paint jobs, some clearly abandoned properties lined the street. Loose trash in the street. But there it was, just as it appeared online: a bright yellow Craftsman (1932) with an archway and a big pin oak in the front yard. There was trash in the front yard, some lousy catalpas, a terribly misplaced cedar, a vain attempt at a garden and this atrocious lawn ornament made from car parts and acrylic paints to resemble an elephant. The landlady recently moved to San Francisco and had rented her cute little (National Register) house to some schlub who never put up window treatments and managed to scar the white walls with his bike tires.

I liked the hardwood floors. I liked the archways, reminiscent of my childhood friend Heather's Craftsman. I liked the high ceilings. I liked that the gym was 5 blocks away, downtown was 6 blocks away, the grocery store was across the street from the gym, the library and the bike trails were 4 blocks away. The gas stove clinched it. The square footage was pretty low (700), but I had lived in an enormous 3 bedroom house that cost a small fortune to heat and cool. I wore sweaters inside and I felt really guilty using the dishwasher there.

During the screening process, the landlady's friend learned that I worked in ecology, so she quickly wanted to show me the backyard. As we stepped through (what Missourians call) the mudroom, I saw the backyard through the original lead-based windows: an enormous chinquapin oak, a pin oak, lots of smaller trees--ash, catalpa, cedars, maples, and obviously no management at all for at least a summer. Beneath the canopy was tall, rangy brown Aster pilosus and Aster turbinellus stalks setting seed, polygonums, Tovara virginiana filling in the sides, lots of sedges. There was no grass to mow, just weedy native plants. By the time I had stomped through the yard in my black tights and short black skirt, I was covered in sticky Teucrium and Desmodium seeds. As I made my way to the house to tell the landlady's friend that I was, indeed, ready to sign a lease for a year, to put to use that wonderful gas stove, I vowed to burn the backyard.

Shortly after moving in, we built a nice fire pit, lined with bricks and surrounded by my nice white Adirondack chair and cheap collapsible lawn chairs. The next door neighbors, an art professor and waiter, built raging bonfires next door with all the available windfall, so I followed suit. I mentioned my bonfires to my colleagues who also live here. They told me that fires can only be held in your yard if you're a. cooking with them or b. performing religious ceremonies over them. (For a while I always had a bag of marshmallows on standby.) No one has ever said anything about my backyard fires, neither the fire department, the neighbors, nor the police. If no one was bothered by the campfires that occasionally sent smoke out onto the street, I didn't think they would be bothered by a raging ring head fire performed for ecological purposes. After all, our parks and recreation department has burned more acres this year in town than the Mark Twain National Forest.

Small patches of daffodils and crocuses grow intermittently in the backyard. Dominated by very common sedges which spread easily with mowing, the backyard was a lush carpet of plants I never felt deserved management by mowing: lots of weedy annuals, lots of asters, some goldenrods, Ageratum, violets, two species of Eupatorium, Geranium maculatum in big bunches. Historically, this area hosted fire-mediated prairie and woodlands, very open post and chinquapin oak woodlands and upland flatwoods which were located on areas with a clay fragipan layer (like in my backyard). I've dealt with the fragipan layer that causes flooding in the basement by creating a small drainage that meanders around the house to drain off the excess water. On the opposite side of drainage, in the laughingly small designated "ecological stewardship management" area, water stands, thus supporting a healthy sedge layer and water-loving annuals. Clearly, the backyard hasn't been terribly altered in the 87 years since the house was built. One grass species grows in my yard: Leersia virginica. No fescue, no bluegrass, no Bermuda. But I imagine it hasn't seen fire in 150 years.

Nevertheless, I don't believe in mowing. I think it's an awful waste of resources: big stretches of fescue in front of sprawling brown and white ranch style houses with crummy ornamental trees like Bradford pears planted in lousy rows. The perfectly manicured lawn can't have grass growing around the base of the trees, so any existing trees are totally stressed out by weedeater whips to get those 20 blades of grass that look so out of place at the trunk. But why mow that big expanse? Why waste the petrol? The energy? The time? And what do you gain from mowing it? It's one thing to play croquet or badminton on a freshly mown lawn, but I have never seen a single wicket in the Ozarks. Mowing is preposterously wasteful on so many levels and I simply refuse to do it. It's the only thing I'm religious about. Well, and running...I'm religious about running. So I'd manage my vegetation with fire. The city never complained about my bonfires, after all, and who knows what would come up in the backyard afterwards. I have a red card and lots of wildland fire training, if anyone asked. I've set thousands of acres on fire. What's a backyard?

And so, as leaf fall occurred last year, we decided to put in lines that would protect all the structures in the neighborhood, lines that would leave out of the fire the big stack of beautiful curing firewood that rested directly behind the house. I thought a simple ring-head fire would take care of it: I'd drip fire around the perimeter of the backyard and let it burn to the center, just like it does in the woodlands and prairies in the Ozarks. A hitch: half the yard is covered in wintercreeper, a non-native ornamental invasive plant that stays green year-round.

We heaped old cedar branches and piles of leaves on top of the wintercreeper. The Tovara and sedges burned quickly, but once the fire hit the wintercreeper, it went out. The fuel we heaped on top of it burned nicely, very hot. But there it was, standing out on the landscape--an awful groundcover planted by some unassuming homeowner many years ago. The fire ended after about an hour of trickling all over the yard. Maybe it's because people on my block are on the run from the law, maybe they deal drugs or just don't want to call attention to their own actions, but no one even came over to see what was going on, why a huge plume of smoke was rising from my backyard. The guy with the woodpile works for parks and rec, and he just wished me luck with dealing with the wintercreeper.

When we apply fire in the Ozarks, we always have a desired condition in mind. Why burn? Do you want a backing fire to move slowly down a slope to really knock back the sassafras? Do you want a low intensity, light surface fire to merely allow some light to the woodland floor? Do you want a raging, hot crown fire to replace the canopy? My desired condition, considering that my tiny backyard would not contribute to the greater goals of conservation in the Bonne Femme Karst region, was to restore (as best as could be expected in a major city) native flora by removing leaf litter and to knock back the junky woody species that have grown up since the house was essentially abandoned for the past few years. Scorch heights on redbuds and hackberries were pretty high; the chinquapin and smaller pin oaks were unscathed by the fire. But after the fire was over, the wintercreeper was still green.

This town takes its green spaces very seriously. Unfortunately, with the interruption of the natural processes that historically maintained the woodlands in the area and the lack of active management, exotics like bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper have moved into hundreds of acres. Drive through St. Louis and you'll see what we have to look forward to: a complete conversion of native woodlands to fire intolerant trees surrounded by exotics. But nothing grows under bush honeysuckle, so once the existing trees die, there won't be any to replace them. I didn't want this conversion to happen in the yard where I spend my weekend mornings drinking coffee and reading books over a small stick fire. The bush honeysuckle has been eradicated -for now- from the yard. And a week after the fire, I returned this morning to see that the wintercreeper had succumbed to the heat of the fire. Yellowed leaves and brown, dead twigs were all that remained of the burned wintercreeper. Like the thousands of oak and sassafras sprouts I've burned in my career, I managed to at least top-kill the wintercreeper. Exotics are tough, and if the native flora doesn't sprout up soon, I'm sure the wintercreeper will send out more deep green tendrils and purple-green leaves from its extensive root structure.

In the meantime, I'm excited to see what comes up this year. The sedges have started greening out already, as have the crocuses and heirloom daffodils, all planted many years ago. I'm not expecting high floristic quality index plants to spring up all over the yard (though it would be cool). I'd like plants native to flatwoods and open woodlands to come back, please, and since this town has given me almost everything else I could want in a city, maybe it will deliver.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


During winter months throughout the Ozark Highlands on north facing slopes, in cool, moist hollows, in more mesic sites with ever-elegant white oaks, and certainly in the rare bands of true forest of the region, richly-hued mosses punctuate the otherwise bare, chert-chocked soils. Primeval, ancient plants, mosses belong to a group of non-vascular (lacking xylem and phloem) plants called bryophytes (Division Bryophyta). While many folks are aware that vascular plant diversity is extremely high in the Ozarks (900 species recorded from a single state park in the St. Francois Mountains), lesser known may be the status of our bryophyte diversity. Include little seepy areas all over the carbonate rock-dominated Ozarks and you end up with an enormous list like the latest report to come across my desk: 90 pages of bryophytes identified in a single season's survey in my personal favorite 5,000 acres of fire-mediated woodlands in the Niangua Basin.

It's instinctual to crouch down in moist areas to feel mosses, to rub the palms of my hands over them, to finger the spore-producing structures as they spring back with the gentlest touch. Mossy areas of Ozark woodlands are usually primeval places, rich with ferns, salamanders hunkered down under rocks, spring ephemeral wildflowers, morels. While they represent a remarkably primitive life form, the natural history of mosses is--to me and not to you, probably--complex. In fact, at this point in my early education of bryophytes, were I to explain how they reproduce, hold water, and spread their colonies, I'd have to use about ten words I'd have to define parenthetically. I'm utterly fascinated by mosses, but I don't know my mosses. I photograph them repeatedly, but can only sometimes, rarely key them to genus. I can pick out a Polytrichum, a Thuidium, some Sphagnum, mainly because I use these in my dart frog tanks.

It took me a while to understand fern biology and to learn my Missouri ferns (though still looking forward to Pilularia americana in Dent Co.!). In the process, I learned wonderful new vocabulary words. (Months ago, I asked my colleague to illustrate my favorite fern for me: Woodsia obtusa. We had a hard time finding a good, live specimen for him to work from, so he chuckled at the challenge and offered, "I could just illustrate the indusia breaking open while attached to a Taco Bell cup in a sewer, piled up in a batch of maple leaves. Or just the sporangia. Yes, an illustration of your favorite fern's sporangia. Or the sporangia attached to a Canada goose's foot while flying over a golf course." We laughed at the promise of illustrations, though only several years ago I would have offered a blank stare: indusia? sporangia? Likewise a math joke heard earlier tonight in the kitchen while making Thai food: "What's purple and commutes? An abelian grape.")

Ferns, like mosses, recall grand, untrammelled places like certain parts of Oregon, New Zealand (where the largest Polytrichium moss exists), Maine. In the Ozarks, mesic woodlands possess a wide range of mosses and ferns; but if the woodlands are dominated by mosses and certain ferns, places where ground flora tends to be depauperate or characterized by Carex pennsylvanica and little else, these two groups of plants may indicate past grazing pressures. As livestock decimated the rest of the herbaceous layer, they left behind mosses, ferns and a handful of sedges. But in the right context, in ancient sinkholes, creekbanks, on dolomite ledges, in mesic conditions, moss and fern diversity is very high throughout the Ozark Highlands.

Unfortunately, there are only a few non-vascular plant experts in Missouri I can pester for tutorials. The leading scholar, the bryologist extraordinaire, Nels Holmberg is a brilliant botanist and a gentle, patient man (who owns border collies and sheep), not at all afraid of sharing his knowledge or stomping through wooly woods collecting seed ticks on his trousers, mosses and liverworts in his plant press. If I wasn't embarrassed by my lack of knowledge, I'd send him all of my moss pictures and ask him for identification help. (He'd likely sit down with me and a microscope to teach me how to key them out, instructing me on morphology rather than simply giving me the answers) But instead, when it comes to mosses, I'm behaving like so many mediocre botanists in the state who offer plant lists without proper identification, plant lists full of "unknown grass," "Desmodium sp.," and "Carex sp."...plant lists that belong in the rubbish heap, really.

So before I explain moss reproduction cycles and life history, I should understand the natural history better in order that the terminology makes sense to me (and thus to readers unfamiliar with bryophytes). Bryophytes are fascinating and diverse plants.

Meanwhile, pictures taken throughout the Ozarks on various substrates, from Mississippian limestones to ancient igneous domes. One is from a sinkhole pond in Ripley Co., others from the St. Francois Knobs and Basins, a couple from the White River Hills, and one from a very rare chert glade. Of course, just as I welcome mycological identification skills, I'll accept any positive identification on these images (comma Nels or Justin/Dana). Anything other than my current documentation: a moss. Post scriptum! Thanks to Justin, Missouri's best botanist, who offers identification because he's so awesome and great. Scroll down through the comments for a key. Justin's great. His blog can be seen on the side of the screen, the writings of an engaging botanist. Brilliant guy.