Saturday, May 29, 2010

Potato, apple, turnip, whatever

While I'm not great at Missouri botany, I'm abysmal with common names of Missouri plants. Perhaps because common names are so capricious, seldom based in the botanical nomenclature that was so carefully chosen to describe most plants many years ago, I just haven't taken the time to learn all of the variations on a theme of common names of plants in the Ozarks. (Of course, leave taxonomists in charge for an afternoon and they'll quickly create pseudo-Latin names that have no basis whatsoever in Linnean nomenclature or recognizable Greek and Latin roots...)

So when I ran into a healthy, blooming Psoralea esculenta in the western Ozarks recently and my fieldmate asked what it's "real name" was, I dug deep to call forth, hesitantly, "prairie turnip." Or prairie artichoke? Or maybe wild potato. Or jiggleywig. I just reiterated "Psoralea esculenta" and told her to call it whatever she wanted to call it, but to take note of it because this legume is not too common in the Ozarks anymore. Though historically, it was.

Psoralea esculenta grows on limestone prairies, glades, and in limestone-dolomite woodlands in the western Ozark Highlands and Osage Plains. Fire dependent, as are most of our legumes in Missouri, prairie turnip/potato of the prairie/white apple/breadfruit?/and so forth served as a food source to Native Americans who dug the tuber to eat for its nutritive properties. Evidently, you can grind the root to make flour, as well. So common was this plant that when early French settlers came to far reaches the western Ozarks where prairie intergrades with woodlands, they named a river after it--Pomme de Terre, Apple of the Earth.

This highly flammable part of the Ozarks, characterized by super dry woodlands packed to the gills with Indian grass and gnarly, stunted post oaks (with an average canopy height of 60 ft.), harbors several prairie species that seldom appear in other parts of the Ozarks. Ecologically, the area is true Cross Timbers country, with fires moving across vast, open prairie through wide open savanna with orchard grown post oaks punctuating the landscape and then racing through nice open woodlands. Settlers in Cross Timbers land regularly wet their trousers to the knee from walking through all the tall grass.

Prairie species are out still there, holding their own on frequently burned glades and in well managed woodlands. Call them what you will, but without fire, our very cultural relicts of ancient, biodiverse landscapes that once sustained entire races will disappear.

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