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.


Anonymous said...

paw paws fully ripe in Douglas County.

Allison Vaughn said...

Not in Pulaski or Camden! Last year's birthday float was on the Jack's Fork. Lots of ripe pawpaws at Jam Up Cave then. They're so darned tasty.