Sunday, July 25, 2010


If you were disappointed by the spring morel harvest (no rain, slugs, all around bad weather for morels), set out this week for a bumper crop of chanterelles! They're all over the place in dry rocky woodlands in the Ozarks. These fall mushrooms impart a savory tinge to dishes, almost like roasted chicken, and the elegant texture of fresh mushrooms allows them to stand on their own in cream-based sauces.

If you harvest more than you can eat, chanterelles freeze well. The sad, expensive little desiccated chanterelles in cellophane offered by Melissa's of California (found at larger grocery stores in the Ozarks) don't hold a candle to the brilliant orange fresh mushrooms that are literally falling over themselves in our woodlands right now.

Try them lightly sauteed in olive oil, garlic and sea salt, then arranged on a pizza with fresh chard, tomatoes and big, strapping leaves of basil (or whatever your garden grows) and you won't think twice of all the morels that never showed up this spring.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Sticky heat

According to the frequently tared scales at my gym, I lost 5 pounds this week. No change in diet, no manic running, no magic pill, simply a loss of water weight. If I eat the cantaloupe in the refrigerator, I'll gain it back, I'm sure.

It's a little unfortunate that vegetation monitoring season ramps into gear in the heat of July, but I'm not complaining. I never grow tired of placing the three sided quadrat tool over a thick bed of warm season grass and forbs.

Veg monitoring in the Ozarks (at least in the places where I do my work) is as much fun as those marathon tennis matches Alyssa and I used to play in the heat of August in Louisiana. We'd set out in the morning for the courts and play for hours. Over and over and over, game after game. It's an addiction, playing tennis, and similarly is vegetation sampling. Even after I've lost a couple pounds of water weight, I can keep going. But just as I lack patience for tennis partners who don't take the game seriously-- you know, the people who send lob shots over the fence or onto the adjacent soccer court and laugh about it-- I grow antsy when the species count in my quadrats is really low. So I dig. I look for little burned out guys like the remaining sherds of Arennaria serpylifolia or a raggedy gray Scuttelaria patula that flowered months ago. It's truly an addiction.

Take the deer-infested woods from last week: inside the exclosure I averaged 14 species/quadrat. Outside the exclosure: two species, Geum canadense (a veritable ground cover) and thick mats of Diarrhena obovata, a very pretty grass, but not...exactly...what's supposed to be there in such dense stands. But really, it's the future of our woodlands if we don't do something about the deer problem--in a matter of years, we'll have a converted landscape, one covered in low quality grasses, sedges, certain weedy ferns (the ones that cows didn't eat), and a handful of forbs unpalatable to deer (like Geum). Sampling won't be as much fun when that happens, but when it does, I'll just spend all my time inside the exclosures, remembering what once was.

There's no way to manage the heat in the field. My friends don't even consider backpacking during summer months in Missouri. It takes fortitude, just as veg sampling does. My trusty lightweight Patagonia trousers clung to my sticky and tick-covered legs every day this week; I remained sopping wet for hours, and when my clothes dried, they smelled like vinegar from all the bacteria growing on them. But it's worth it. Glades are full of life right now, and woodlands are magical in the late afternoon when the sun slants in between the trees and you can see all the spiderwebs in front of you.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cimex, -icis +fuga

When, in 6th grade Latin Composition, the surly and hopelessly lazy (Izod pique knit collar flipped UP) Brian grumbled to my wonderful teacher "Latin's STUPID. No one uses Latin..." I recall turning to him and explaining that "you're just saying that because you don't underSTAND it, idiot. Guh." So endearing, I had a lot of friends in middle school. I still do, so many friends, especially my local Health Department's Weed Inspector who would really like me to brushhog my weeds ...weeds like Aster cordiformis, Carex davisii and the rest of the 68 woodland species that grow naturally on my single family lot in west central Columbia.

But knowing Latin and Greek has its perks in the world of casual botany in which I participate. There are easy names, like the hirtas and the luteas, quite a few hispida, -us, -um relatives. But then there are the fun names, like Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh.

Horace used the word cimex a few times in his writings, but not to mean bug=insect. It's actually used as a term "of reproach." Translated literally as "a bug," then coupled with fuga: to flee, or flight, it seems that the genus of this remarkably tall and lovely woodland plant has so fetid a fragrance as to attract specific beetles and other insects (or that insects flee it). Considering that when I've seen black cohosh in bloom, it's mobbed by insects of various orders, I'm going with the idea that the flower stalks smell so curious that the plant is appreciated by insects attracted to certain pungent smells. In one field guide, the smell was described as "fetid, almost medicinal." But it's really not that bad.

Black cohosh --long used in homeopathy to treat disorders pertaining to menopause, depression, menstrual issues-- grows throughout the Ozarks in dry, rocky woodlands. You'll likely see it on north and east facing slopes, roughly midslope, in dry mesic situations. Nowhere in literature does it mention the colonizing behaviour of this plant, but C. racemosa is rhizomatous and in situations where little else grows around it, the plant can form large colonies. In one overgrazed and now deer-infested woodland, an entire hillside was a monoculture of black cohosh.

While I certainly appreciate the laudatory medicinal properties of so many of our native plants, I do not condone collecting native plant material from native settings for these purposes. Root digging for plants of the genus Echinacea, for example, destroys glades and woodlands; digging up plants turns these fragile areas into barren wastelands with few plants but disturbance-loving Sporobolus neglectusand dense, overcrowded coneflowers rooted from the little pieces left behind during the digging exercise.

Last year, thousands of Scuttelaria lateriflora plants were harvested from the Ozarks for the medicinal trade. We simply don't have enough of our naturally occurring plants in native settings for this kind of intense harvest. And moss? For some reason, there's some market for native mosses. Hundreds of pounds of moss have been harvested illegally from our public lands in the Ozarks. Our damaged, ill-managed, and fragile landscapes can't recover from these intense extractive practices. 200 years ago they may have been able to heal quickly, but today, our natural landscapes are diminishing.

Check out the beautiful stalks of flowering black cohosh this month, look for the beetle that I only ever see on this flower, and if you buy the black cohosh remedy for hot flashes, make sure it's from a farmed or otherwise sustainable source.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Deer like Aster patens

I noticed it two years ago, a few months after a great fire season: heavy deer browse on good, conservative woodland plants. I started making a short list back then, just to prove a point that we were beginning to have a serious deer problem in some of Missouri's best tracts of woodlands. No one thought it was possible, a deer problem in the land of poaching and the thousands of contiguous acres of burned woodlands, nature's food plots galore. A few years ago, there were plenty of woods to go around, plenty of space for deer herds to browse gently to a degree that it wouldn't even be noticeable. But in three years, all that has changed. How could the deer population possibly explode in the lower Niangua Basin, of all places?

Leave it to changing land uses (development) and a changing demographic (fewer hunters, more vacationers) to impact biodiversity in the part of Missouri that attracted me here in the first place.

All summer it's felt like a losing battle. I'm documenting deer browse, collecting data from 15, 10 and 1 year old deer browse exclosures (my spell check always wants to change the word to "enclosure," like a deer trap) to compare to paired sets of equal sized areas marked with bare fenceposts. When I launced into this effort, I was warned that in the most extreme situations, deer so desperately want the plants inside the exclosure that they'll try to leap in, sometimes injuring themselves by ending up spread eagle on the chicken wire-cattle panel fencing. I'd have to deal with that somehow, me and my clipboard, mechanical pencil and Steyermark 63. So far, I haven't seen that happen and I hope I never do.

What I have seen has been gruesome enough. I've seen erect forbs turned into little shrubs with no chance of flowering. I've seen monocultures of Verbesina helianthoides in areas that once touted a plant list of over 252 species in the 1980s. Aster patens, Apocynum cannabium, and Solidago ulmifolia have been hit really hard by deer, and those are just the some of the plants that haven't been browsed to the indistinguishable nub. Poor Psoralea tenuifoliua. It doesn't have a chance in areas with a deer problem. I discovered one thick, fleshy leafless stalk in my comparison tract that had no leaves left, but a milky sap, which helped me key it to "a plant with a milky sap."

In deer-infested areas, I've seen that goat's rue runs wild at the expense of other woodland plants. Grasses are really enjoying the explosion of Missouri's deer herd: Brachyelectrum erectum and Bromus purgans stands are ultra-thick, almost fescue field-thick in some places. Ironically, scrolling through Etsy's catalog of "nature photography," I've seen countless photos of woodlands with an obvious deer browse line and an understory of nothing but ferns. The pictures, mostly taken in Eastern states, are full of green, yes, but they're not what they're titled; woods with deer problems are not a "Forest Primeval" nor a "Beautiful Woodland," just as an overgrazed Niawathe Prairie with nothing but S. graminifolia and fescue is not a Natural Area quality prairie.

Biodiversity doesn't have a chance with deer numbers as high as they are in Missouri. I'll have to really learn my sedges (which deer don't like) and maybe install cattle panel-chicken wire exclosures around every woodland with an average FQI of 4 or more. Orscheln's has a great price on cattle panels, by the way.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Caught in the act

Admittedly, I know very little about cicadas. I know a little about the emergence cycles and tried not to think about how many millions of the 13-year-cycle cicadas never emerged a couple of years ago following the last 10 years of rampant development in America.

I know that I am grateful that my well-established neighborhood is home to lots of big, old trees and hearty populations of katydids and cicadas. But for the rumbling of the car engine across the street, living in my unair-conditioned bungalow in summer months is much like camping. Of course, I recognize that the cicadas in my Columbia yard are surely not the same species as the cicadas in pine woodlands of Louisiana or even in the Ozarks, and that cicada experts like the talented Ted MacRae can tell all 16 Missouri species apart(because he himself discovered a couple new species living in Missouri last year). I doubt that the cicadas in my overdeveloped town are rare, endemic or anything like that. In fact, I suspect they're pretty common throughout cities, but I don't care about all of that, because their summer chorus is lovely, and it is always sad when November rolls around and the only song comes from a lonely cricket stuck in my basement.

Yesterday I checked in every few minutes as a cicada emerged from his little compact brown shell (surely called something else, something scientific-ish) attached to an ageratum in my frontyard. When I first found him, the wings hadn't unfurled yet, and they looked like the early stages of a Hen-of-the-woods mushroom: knobby, waxy, and thick.

Utterly fascinating. Just as I love watching my dart frogs molt (they look like little aliens eating their own skin, and so shiny afterwards), I was transfixed by the cicada. The translucent green wings finally fell open about 10 minutes later. The cicada stayed attached to the leaf for the rest of the afternoon. A remarkably elegant, infinitely beautiful creature.

Friday, July 09, 2010

07 Norton among the 7 Best

Augusta Winery's 07 Norton was featured recently on NBC's The Today Show as one of America's seven best regional wines. See the clip here, Matt Lauer enjoying a Missouri Norton. The 05 Augusta Norton is an outstanding vintage, and the 06 is aging in my rack, but the 07 was heralded as an affordable local wine, just as good as any small house European wine. (I hope it flies off their shelves and further popularizes the stately, under appreciated Norton grape.)
Visit the rolling hills around Augusta Winery, and taste Norton as it's meant to be tasted, from a stately Reidel Norton glass. It's just transformative.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

"a need for good management of Ozark glades"

Earlier this week, a colleague in Louisiana sent a scanned copy of the above brochure issued in 1970 by the USFS. In it, one can see White River Hills country, huge bands of dolomite glades, native grasslands grazed to the nub being used for forage. As of 2009, the Mark Twain National Forest wised up and listened to sage advice: the Mark Twain NF officially removed glades from the grazing allotment. Cows can graze in old bottomland fields (areas that offer no chance of restoration), but the glades now have a chance to recover from years of constant abuse. A major coup for biodiversity. As I've said before, some areas may never recover.

Unfortunately, a caption from the 1970 brochure could be taken from literature issued today. In 1970, "increasing consumer use of beef points out a need for good management of Ozark glades. A highly productive native grassland means fatter and healthier steers for market." While a plant-based diet is promoted in health magazines more than ever before, cheap protein (especially grass-finished or grass-fed beef) for export and local distribution still drives the market. So, today, our few remnant native grasslands in southwest Missouri-- those little postage stamp-sized refugia for prairie fringed orchids, crawfish frogs, Mead's milkweed and pink katydids-- remain places where the "increasing consumer use of beef" trumps biodiversity. Our "highly productive native grasslands" are suffering, and noisy ecologists can't do a thing about it.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Steak's Legacy

If you've visited a large or small-scale glade restoration project on public lands in the Ozark Highlands, you may have seen a sturdy interpretive panel on the trail that describes (in 150 words or less, two sentence paragraphs, written at an 8th grade reading level) the process of restoration taking place before you. I saw two of these signs in the past week, one in Ozark Co. around Ava, and the other in Cassville--both areas that possess the largest contiguous glade complexes in the state.

But the signs in front of the restoration areas (some strictly for demonstration, not for the conservation of largescale landscapes) only tell half the story of the demise of glades in Missouri. In fact, the signs in front of every other glade complex in the Ozarks say the same thing: "Lack of fire has encouraged the growth of Eastern red cedar on this glade," followed by "insert state or federal agency name here is working to restore this glade by removing the cedar trees and using prescribed fire to encourage the growth of grasses and wildflowers." According to the signs, the degradation of glades is tied only to lack of fire...but that's because it's the easy, non-controversial answer. Not once, not ever, have I seen an interpretive sign blame the real culprit behind cedar invasions on Ozark glades.

Yes, fire suppression is part of the problem, and removing cedars and implementing frequent fires can be part of the restoration solution, but the long history of livestock grazing on glades (and the subsequent irreversible damage from this process) has impacted native vegetation much more than the lack of fire.

Weave through the network of old logging roads around Ava, climbing ever higher to the ridgetops, and see the open landscape for yourself, those wide bands of glades that clambor down the hillsides, balds punctuated with cedars. Step onto one of those big glade complexes (over the three or four rusted barbed wire fences installed years ago to keep the cows on the glades) and witness patches of eroded soil, mounds of rubble, and a plant community composed of five, maybe ten plants, with an increasing population of cedars of all size classes. As domestic livestock continued to graze glades and woodlands throughout the Ozarks, native plant composition changed--preferential repeated grazing on forbs like purple and white prairie clovers and pale purple coneflowers and the exclusion of prairie dock and Houstonia nigricans has turned some glades into ecological deserts, all for the sake of growing protein. Cedars, capable of colonizing the thin and degraded soils left behind from livestock grazing, easily moved in to fill in the space.

High quality glades in the Ozarks, those rare areas with less intensive grazing histories, typically possess upwards of 50-60 species scattered throughout the acreage in a heterogenous matrix. Considering that cows (or sheep/goats/horses) likely grazed every acre in the Ozarks at some point in the past 200 years, it's difficult to wager how many species this natural community harbored historically, i.e., before livestock grazing began. While elk and bison helped shape Missouri's natural communities, domestic livestock damaged them.

The dissected woodlands in Ava Balds country weren't spared impacts of cattle grazing either. Look beyond the rusty fences in the creek bottoms for the stark contrast between heavily grazed and lightly grazed woodlands. The woodlands with bare soil and leaf litter where a grass-forb structure once existed, as evidenced by the opposite side of the fence.

But we shouldn't chalk up White River Hills' glades and woodlands as a lost cause. Through time, after cedar removal projects, prescribed fire, maybe some thinning, the soil builds up again and in some rare situations, a semblance of species richness can hopefully return. Unfortunately, large tracts of this landscape are damaged beyond repair and even the most earnest restoration efforts will result in a crop of warm season grasses and a handful of forbs unpalatable to cows. No restoration efforts can reverse the damage of intensive livestock grazing, yet cows remain part of the landscape in Missouri, and grazing, that process of extraction, invariably, continually, leads only to further degradation.
Patch-burn, my eye.