Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Field day

Nothing beats a freshly burned landscape for wildflower viewing in April. When you manage properly for biodiversity, viable populations of conservative species respond.

Unfortunately, deer flock like hooved locusts to burned woodlands and have the keen ability to sniff out ice cream plants and clip them to a nub just as they did Tradescantia virginiana (shorter than ohiensis, taller than ozarkana), false hellebore, several stems of Cypripedium parviflorum , lots of shagbark hickory...

Turtles are out, and one of the most locally abundant orchids are in bloom now, spring coral root which shoots up like a beech drop (though not on beech) in dry mesic woodlands throughout the Ozarks. Corallorhiza wisteriana just loves fire, as do I.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Trio of shooting stars

If your spring wildflower hike takes you to places in the Ozarks with steep dolomite, limestone or sandstone cliffs, you won't have to look too closely to find the stunning flowers of shooting stars clamboring out of moist, seepy crevices.

The most common shooting star in the Ozarks is found primarily on dolomite; Dodecatheon meadia can be seen on shady north-facing slopes, along cliff faces, and in tallgrass prairies of the Osage Plains. The bases of the midrib and petiole are tinged with deep red, and flowers range from stark white to the palest pink. Columbines are in bloom around the same time, and also found on dolomite cliff faces in the Ozarks. (Sorry for the lousy photo)

In the western Ozark border, look on limestone cliffs for the more uncommon D. amethystinum (pictured on top). Primarily found in the northern reaches of the state affected by glaciation, this shooting star is common in Wisconsin's driftless areas. The differences between this one and D. meadia involve the leaf coloration (amethyst shooting star lacks the red pigment on the leaves) and the seedpods. The previous has thin-walled fruits which are "narrowly ellipsoid or conical." The more common species possesses thick-walled, ovoid or conical fruits. You can see the difference between the flowers in the photos.

Julian Steyermark discovered four distinct populations of D. amethystinum var. amethystinum, each one listed in his 1963 Flora of Missouri. For the past few years, folks have visited one of the Steyermark sites with loppers, Roundup, and thick gloves to remove any and all bush honeysuckle that grows in the general vicinity of this historic population. Bush honeysuckle is allelopathic, the roots exude a chemical that suppresses plants trying to grow around in the same area. This small, relictual population of amethyst shooting star averages 100-200 plants, and is completely surrounded by a hillside covered in bush honeysuckle, japanese honeysuckle, and wintercreeper. The site isn't defensible in the long run, but the population is holding it's own right now because of the annual efforts.

Sandstone cliffs. If you find yourself around sandstone cliffs this spring, look for a remarkably distinctive shooting star, D. Frenchii. The spathe-like leaves of this plant have a long petiole. I've never seen Frenchii, but was told that "you would know it when you see it. It just looks different" from the others.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


It has come to my attention while drinking coffee and stitching a red eye on a smallmouth bass that the chickadees have taken up residence in the wren box. Last spring's fire ran off the chickadees, and warbling house wrens moved in as soon as the smoke cleared. The doves called dibs on one cedar last week, and a robin is nesting in the other one. With the paucity of available nest sites in the area, I rushed to the hardware store to find a second wren box for the two house wrens frantically looking for their hut. There I encountered a horrible assortment of bird houses that look like cats, that look like tractors, or are so fanciful and loaded with geegaws that no normal bird would ever move in. Hooray for a table saw, a drill, and these easy to follow plans on MDC's website. With minimal lumber and a one page PDF of plans from "Woodworking for Wildlife," city dwellers can quickly slap together nesting boxes in an hour before the wrens head out looking for cavities in the neighborhood's Bradford pears.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Even in those "mesic" conditions...

(Tonight I am reminded of a drubbing I took from an entomologist several years ago as I was preparing to burn a loess-glacial till woodland with scrappy beech trees running all the way upslope. "You'll kill the tulip poplars and beech! Don't you care?" Well, as all of us know, poplars and beech aren't supposed to be on dry, south facing slopes in southest Missouri, for crying out loud. They're there because of "changes in the population" and the subsequent fire suppression acts which created woodlands totally out of character with their historic character. So I burned those woodlands on April 12 that year, and topkilled all the dense thickets of little beech saplings that ran to the top of the hillside. My veg plots that year were rich, rich I say.) As we prepare for two beautiful days of rx fire, this came through the post, reiterating what Missouri's fire ecologists have known all along about our neighboring uplift:

4,000-year study supports use of prescribed burns in Southern Appalachians
DURHAM, N.C. – A new study reconstructing thousands of years of fire history in the southern Appalachians supports the use of prescribed fire, or controlled burns, as a tool to reduce the risk of wildfires, restore and maintain forest health and protect rare ecological communities in the region's forests.

Duke University researchers used radiocarbon analysis of 82 soil charcoal samples dating from 1977 to more than 4,000 years ago to reconstruct the fire history of a 25-acre site in the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina. Their study, the first of its kind, appears on the cover of the current issue of the peer-reviewed journal Ecology, published March 31.

"These are the first hard data showing that fires have occurred relatively frequently over much of the last 4,000 years and have played an important role in the health, composition and structure of southern Appalachian forest ecosystems," said Norman L. Christensen Jr., professor of ecology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. "Prior to this study, people presumed fire had long played an important role, but tree rings were the only available tool to study it, and they allowed us to look back only a few hundred years."

Analysis of soil charcoal samples demonstrated that fires became more frequent about 1,000 years ago. This coincides with the appearance of Mississippian Tradition Native Americans, who used fire to clear underbrush and improve habitat for hunting, Christensen said.

Fires became less frequent at the site about 250 years ago, following the demise of the Mississippian people and the arrival of European settlers, whose preferred tools for clearing land were the axe and saw, rather than the use of fire. Active fire suppression policies and increased landscape fragmentation during the last 75 years have further reduced fire frequency in the region, a trend reflected in the analysis of samples from the study site.

The relative absence of fire over the past 250 years has altered forest composition and structure significantly, Christensen said.

"The vegetation we see today in the region is very different from what was there thousands or even hundreds of years ago," he said. "Early explorers and settlers often described well-spaced woodlands with open grassy understories indicative of high-frequency, low-intensity fires, and a prevalence of fire-adapted species like oak, hickory and chestnut, with pitch pines and other (low-moisture) species on ridgetops. Today we find more species typical of moist ecosystems. They've moved out of the lower-elevation streamsides and coves, up the hillsides and onto the ridges."

The study was funded by the U.S. Forest Service. It was conducted at the Wine Spring Creek Ecosystem Management Area on the western slope of the Nantahala Mountains, at elevations between 1280 and 1430 meters.

Aside from historic and scientific interest, knowing more about pre-settlement fire regimes in the region may help forest managers today understand the likely responses of species to the increased use of prescribed fire for understory fuel management, Christensen said.

However, he cautioned that because of widespread changes that have occurred in the forests as a result of centuries of fire suppression and other human activities, as well as climatic changes, "prescribed burns may or may not behave similarly to fires that occurred in the past. Fires today likely would burn hotter and more intensely than fires did in the past.

"Also, although history tells us what could be restored, it doesn't tell us what should be restored," he added. "That depends on which species, habitats and ecosystem services we wish to conserve."

The study was co-authored by Kurt A. Fesenmyer, a former student of Christiansen who is now a geographic information systems (GIS) specialist with Trout Unlimited in Boise, Idaho.

Christensen is working now to develop more sophisticated tools that will allow him to analyze the microscopic anatomy of soil charcoal samples – including one dating back more than 10,500 years that was collected at the Wine Spring Creek site but excluded from the current study. This analysis, he hopes, will allow him to identify the species of plant the samples come from, and the intensity and behavior of the fires that created them.

For all the detractors of fire on tulip poplars in southeast Missouri.

"Reconstructing Holocene fire history in a southern Appalachian forest using soil charcoal," Kurt A. Fesenmyer and Norman L. Christensen Jr., Ecology, March 2010.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Spring, in earnest

(In Missouri, we should all remember days like this one when, in December, the sun disappears for weeks on end.) A remarkably perfect weather day ushering in the growing season, just ideal for long distance biking, hiking through nice woodlands, turning your sticky clay into malleable soil (with heaps and mounds of compost, manure, and leaf mold).

Beautiful bags of tender loose leaf lettuce are available at farmer's markets now. My clothes dried in ONE day on the line near the chinquapin oak; my neighbor's socks (pictured) dried in four hours. (NB: it takes three days for one pair of jeans to
dry in December).

Molly's bed, packed with daffodils, Christmas fern, trillium and Jack-in-the-pulpit has started blooming--no substitute for my deeply missed little dog, but pretty. I have flats of arugula, Russian kale, and sweet pea seedlings that popped up earlier this week. But the wildflowers, the stunning display of Ozark wildflowers this spring makes all of those weeks with snowpack and bare soil seem like a world away.