Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Yellow flurries

Thousands of criss-crossing gray lines—some pencil thin, others as wide as Sharpie marks—covered my (ancient) baggy Gap khaki trousers from my ankles to my waist. Thick, opaque splotches of black mud and small chert rubble dotted my hemline and literally covered my fancy Merrill running shoes. Yesterday marked the first day that I donned my fun old lady hat for fieldwork, and altogether, the sight of me walking down the grim hallway at 4 pm caused my sweet secretary to stare and ask, loudly, “where on earth have you been all day? You’ve just ruined your pants…have you looked at yourself in the mirror?”

I spent the day walking through a burn unit filled with trashy little –burned, blackened- whips of locust, hickory and other old field associates; with every step through the 80 burned acres, I added more marks on my favorite trousers. Sweet Angela, feted today with flowers, candy, and a rain check for a fancy lunch (since I was way late for work), she asked me if I just “throw away” all my clothes “ruined” by fire. I don’t, of course, I just throw torch fuel-drenched jeans and blackened tshirts (and gym clothes worn for three weeks straight) into a heap on a lovely 18th century Persian rug in the hopes that they’ll magically find their way into the washer in a few months when I might need them. I don’t make my bed, either, and I never really clean my French press (all gummed up with oils from Louisiana-roasted beans). But I was surprised that Angela was shocked by this admission of never doing laundry, having noticed the state of my little seldom-used cubicle; a tornado must have traveled through it recently scattering field notes and old research papers on field sparrows.

A little while ago, I wrote about a largescale historic landscape restoration project recently initiated on 400 acres on the Springfield Plain. On this site, several “flurries” of Missouri bladderpod were discovered, populations of a federally threatened plant dependent on disturbance and a limestone substrate. The glades that host known bladderpod populations have been managed with fire every 3-5 years for almost 8 years now, and the populations are thriving. Having seen the response to a little active management, the brilliant historian in charge of the area decided to start managing the rest of the acres in his care with fire and thinning projects. We started this year with a February fire on 80 acres of (totally overgrazed, degraded) woodland and an old field that, according to survey records, was once post oak savanna. This area will never be a Natural Area, but we’re trying to at least gain what we can from the existing seedbank.

On Monday morning, I received a ridiculously enthusiastic call from the historian imploring me to stop what I was doing and drive to Greene Co. “You’ll never believe it. There are all these flowers—pink,purple…and the bladderpod is everywhere!” Oh, I had statistical analyses to go through in preparation for a bird survey, but he was so excited by the response of his two fires on the 80 acres and the bladderpod glade that I left that afternoon.

His bladderpod populations, tracked by the Natural Heritage Database, were everywhere. The telephone company installed lines two years ago here, disturbing a big swath of fescue traditionally managed with mowing. Rather than seeding the area with fescue, the historian threw out a big bag of native prairie seed mix gathered from little roadside remnant prairies on the Springfield Plain. He burned this area in September, and now it’s covered in blooming bladderpod. Same story for a little area dug up on the edge of a woodland for a trail: a little disturbance, fire at the right time of year, and bladderpod appears, blooming a brilliant yellow all over his site. Speculation holds that bladderpod populations were dependent on bison herds for disturbance; with the disappearance of bison and the interruption of fire regimes, the bladderpod disappeared. Over 61 sites have been actively managed for bladderpod in recent years, possibly establishing a very stable population in Missouri. Remove the threatened listing, and management may stop. The plant is restricted to a very small area, an area largely converted to agriculture on the Springfield Plain, and management of glades and woodlands that possess these populations also contribute to the larger conservation goals of the area. At the site I visited Tuesday, growing among the bladderpod were thriving populations of lemon mint monarda (Monarda citriodora) and Trelease’s larkspur (Delphinium treleasii?), both conservative species in Missouri.

I wanted to show the historian that I fully supported his restoration efforts, not just his protection of bladderpod populations, so I traveled all over his place, seeing for the first time wet weather springs coursing through a former prairie---12 in all!—and big bluestem growing in his woodlands. I was joined by several Dickies-clad morel hunters whom I greatly annoyed by stepping squarely on an enormous mushroom to peer down into the eyes of the year’s first three toed box turtle. I laughed, announcing that it was my first morel of the season, and my first turtle. I pocketed all 5 parts of the big mushroom I obliterated with my muddy foot, and vaguely started looking around for more, but grew distracted by all the sedges, the glade plants blooming on the woodland edge.

Bladderpod blooms following growing season burns. August burns benefit the plants greatly, and they allow managers to burn off glades without having to worry about fire in the woodlands. This year’s September fire on the glades trickled into the woodlands, and bladderpod responded. Missouri bladderpod grows prolifically at this site when managed with fire.

I finally left the little 400 acres, congratulating the historian on a job well done and promising him dedication of my time and effort towards his project. I went out in search of other bladderpod flurries to see what else grows in their midst. The motherlode, the crown jewel population of Missouri bladderpod exists outside of Willard at Rocky Barrens Natural Area. I was told to expect “thousands of plants,” though I had seen as many at my little historic site. Following detailed, live-from-Rolla instructions, I found myself walking onto a cool limestone glade complex covered in Trelease’s larkspur (not in bloom yet…of course. I’ll post pictures of that one), Carex crawei, thousands of wild hyacinths (not in bloom yet), but not a bladderpod in sight. Seems that the land managers burned this area in the spring, same time they burned the 80 acres at the site I just left.

I had seen a glade covered in blooming bladderpod and was duly impressed. I had seen bladderpod growing in a recently-opened woodland. I had seen a glade, woodland and old field burned in early spring that hosted larkspurs, rudbeckias, goldenrods and monarda, a complex that also holds populations of bladderpod, but didn’t see any bladderpod. The plants are still there, of course, but the managers decided against managing an ecosystem for a single species this year. They managed the glade for the sake of the glade, and the glade has responded. Mid-May promises a literal explosion of blooms on the hyacinths and larkspurs. Bluestem is thick here. If, in a few years, they decide to burn the same area in August or early September, Rocky Barrens will once again hold the crown for hosting the largest population of bladderpod. The population is fine in the Natural Area, just as it’s fine at the little historic site where it’s in gorgeous bloom all over the place. The historian felt better when I didn’t chastise him for burning one of his bladderpod glades in February, his glade now covered in hyacinth. Before I left, we talked about managing systems, about managing parts of the whole, and now he wants to burn the whole county to see what comes up.

Pictures! All from the historic site but the last one, which is of Rocky Barrens NA looking remarkably quiet right now, but the seedbank is just fine.


Nathan said...

Beautiful. I remember walking through Kisatchie Nat'l Forest after a burn and getting charcoal all over my jeans. It all came out in the wash, by the way.
The pile method may not work, but eventually, a washer might. . .

Oh, and you should see my office. Not quite a Kansas tornado, but a whole lot of twisted stacks and toppled books.

Scott Hamlet said...

I never wash my my Bialetti stove top espresso maker either. I do wash my fire clothes though. I wash them with my regular laundry so they all come out smelling diesel fresh. I've been traipsing around the unit we burned last week in my Merrells trying to the new off of them.

Glad to see you made it out to my old stomping grounds. I grew up a few miles west of Willard. Our backyard was a glade with many wet weather springs (including one in the crawlspace which didn't become active until after the foundation was poured for the house my parents built).

I'm sure you are aware of the National Phenology Network ( but I searched your blog and it didn't come up so just in case...check it out.

Reading your blog is like taking a class in Fire Ecology and inspires me.

Allison Vaughn said...

Excellent! Neat country out there. I wish there was more of it in decent shape. You know, I think I might just ask Paul to write more. He's so knowledgeable and has so much to teach people. He taught me everything I know about fire, even that trick of throwing lit matches into the woodlands when your driptorch runs empty. (So, wait, where's your burn unit? I should go. We burned that Elk River country yesterday, a very hot fire, likely inviting lots of negative responses that I'll get to deal with next week...)
The little springs on the prairies are really cool, especially when they flow unimpeded!

Allison Vaughn said...

Oh, Nathan, that's so encouraging. I always loved the idea that both of us-though good students-were kind of messy. I always thought that if my messy habits would make me a fraction as smart as you, I'd be doing myself a favor! You're great. Thanks for checking in...(and by the way, they burned some 3,000 acres at Kisatchie this year. They should burn more, but I won't push it.)
Hoping you're great...