Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Desmodiums

In early September, setting out into the romantic, heterogeneous matrix of diverse woodland types that make it incumbent upon me to stay in Missouri, I remained in awe of the incredible diversity of woodlands which have been managed with fire simply for their highest and best use. Compare today's woodlands in the nice, frequently burned parts of the Niangua Basin to the original survey records from the 1840s and you'll see what the General Land Office Surveyors witnessed. They soaked their trousers to the knees walking through the thick tall grasses and wildflowers in the woodlands here.

Unfortunately, the GLO survey notes don't include plant lists. If they did, they'd likely be chocked with "Desmodium sp." all over the place. Known commonly as beggar's ticks, beggar's lice, stick tights, or less commonly as tick trefoils, the Desmodiums are those darling little pink flowering legumes with the seeds that stick to your dog's ear hair, pants legs, and most especially and rigorously fleece jackets. Small curved seeds, they're covered in dense hairs that allow them to attach fervently to one's clothes. It takes a knife to scrape them off twill pants, and forget about picking them off fleece. It's a lost cause. Fresh desmodium seeds are pretty tasty--pick them off your clothes and squeeze out the ecru seed into your teeth for a nice treat. (A good way to pass time in outdoor meetings, picking seeds off your clothes and eating them.)

Missouri is home to around 20 species of Desmodiums. Many of them are loyal to managed woodlands, and are often prolific in recently burned woodlands. At the end of the burn cycle, say, around year 5, the Desmodiums taper off, waiting for a fire to trickle through the area again. High quality woodlands can harbor many species in small, localized areas, while degraded systems tend to be populated by one or two dominant species (namely D. paniculatum var. dillenii, which even grows naturally in my urban yard [though managed with fire]).

While the flowers of the Desmodiums are remarkably similar, the vegetative differences are marked and quite distinctive. When first learning Ozark woodland plants, I made horribly crude sketches (because I can't draw) of the Desmodiums with the diagnostic characteristics highly exaggerated, much like the early Etruscan art from the Naples region--the Etruscans valued hands, and hands are hard to draw, so each person was painted with five fingered paddles for hands. One Desmodium has a notably long petiole (D. marilandicum), and D. nudiflorum sends up a flowering stalk from the base. D. glutinosum is a piece of cake to identify, what with the leaves all in a whirl at the top of the stalk. While there are quite a few Desmodium species in Missouri, they're much easier to key out than the Lespedezas (je pense). Don't waste your time trying to learn the very non-illustrative common names since they really don't help much (I just learned tonight that D. rotundifolium is called dollarleaf? I'll never remember it, and I doubt kids learning botany have ever even seen the namesake silver dollar coin).

From a tiny tract of nice woodlands hemmed in by roads, some of the Desmodiums I found by stepping out of my Honda last week:

Sunday, September 26, 2010


According to the casual survey of some of my favorite winemakers in the Ozarks, the future looks bright for the 2010 vintage of Missouri's Norton! Big, supple grapes, the Vitis aestivalis cross is currently being harvested by hand in Missouri. The folks around St. James never even had to irrigate their grapes this season and some vintners are waiting until the very last minute to harvest their Nortons for a higher Brix factor. I was fortunate to sample the first crush out of the fermentation vat at one winery, my glass filled with vibrant fruit, seeds, and skins. Lovely, raw Norton. I probably won't taste the '10 Norton again until 2015.

The Ozark Highlands of Missouri and Arkansas are playing host this week to the esteemed Norton Wine Travelers from South Carolina. Classy folks, well-educated, big readers, musically prolific, the Norton Wine Travelers will be in the St. James region and around Springfield during the week and around St. Louis somewhere around the weekend. Make sure there's a fresh bottle on the tasting bar....

Friday, September 17, 2010

Oh, mercy mercy me

And we wonder why our native freshwater mussel populations in Ozark rivers are tanking. Add insult to injury with motorboats, fescue pasture up to the edge of the riverbank and increased urbanization in the watershed, not to exclude massive ranch style houses on the shoreline, and you end up with a horribly damaged river system.
St. Louis saved this river once before, but now it's not even defensible and it's dying with a whimper.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

You're out there, somewhere

Driving back from the fall meeting of the Missouri Native Plant Society last night, I couldn't stop thinking about the activity report from the Kansas City Chapter representative. Each of us took turns telling the rest of the society members what the different chapters were up to these days. Some chapters had late summer potlucks, others had garden tours of local native plantings, some had outings to nearby natural areas, and the Kansas City chapter did it all--they met for outings, picnics, and meetings more often than I call my own beloved mother.

So I started to think of the dedication the Kansas City chapter members have to native plants, and the camaraderie that comes along with membership in the Missouri Native Plant Society. The society is made of a wonderful mix of people, some are great botanists, others, like myself, native plant enthusiasts, but they all share a fondness of Missouri's natural history. Aside from the statewide chapter, there are local chapters, including two in the Ozarks-- one covering the Springfield area, and the other in the central Ozarks, with meetings held in West Plains and scheduled outings taking place throughout the Ozarks. If you ever wanted to learn more about native plants or just looking for a community, these are groups you should become involved with. New members are always welcome!

I encourage you to visit the NPS website, and seek out a local chapter. The statewide chapter outing to the Kansas City area took place this weekend, but local chapters have fieldtrips and meetings planned throughout the fall. The Ozarks Chapter will be offering a talk on invasive plants by an instructor from Missouri State on Sept. 21 at 6:30 pm at the West Plains MDC office.

Poke around the website, contact a local chapter representative, and join in on the fun!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Stripping the light fantastic

The perfect combination of wet weather followed by drying periods allowed for growing season fires on glades recently. Verging on wildfire conditions, August was a bust for burning off glades in much of the Ozarks, but the rains associated with the recent Gulf hurricanes came in just in time.

Growing season burns on glades after a 2 inch rain event do not result in a slicked off, clean, blackened landscape, but one with a patchy mosaic of burned and unburned vegetation.

With warm and sunny days on the horizon, the little singed tufts of little bluestem will likely sprout anew, and a handful of early spring wildflowers may return on the scene in these areas. The diversity of a fire regime--varying the season, intensity and frequency of fire implementation--remains one of the most important facets of emulating natural disturbance factors necessary to restore healthy, viable ecosystems.

Knowing that a little fire on a healthy landscape in early September will have positive implications for next spring's bloom cycles, that mimicking the very natural processes that gave rise to the heterogeneous mix of native vegetation will positively impact the entire system (however fragmented it is now) is a very good thing.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Wilderness Month

From a fellow wilderness enthusiast comes this proclamation from the White House declaring September 2010 as Wilderness Month. Backpacking in this clement weather is incredible, but please be mindful of feral hogs in Bell and black bears on Hercules Glade...
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release August 31, 2010
- - - - - - -
For centuries, the American spirit of exploration and discovery has led us to experience the majesty of our Nation's wilderness. From raging rivers to serene prairies, from mountain peaks slicing the skyline to forests teeming with life, our Nation's landscapes have provided wonder, inspiration, and strength to all Americans. Many sites continue to hold historical, cultural, and religious significance for Indian tribes, the original stewards of this continent. We must continue to preserve and protect these scenic places and the life that inhabits them so they may be rediscovered and appreciated by generations to come.
As we celebrate America's abundance of diverse lands, remarkable wildlife, and untamed beauty during National Wilderness Month, we also look back on our rich history of conservation. It was over 100 years ago that President Theodore Roosevelt marveled at the stark grandeur of the Grand Canyon and declared, "the ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it." Since that time, administrations have worked across party lines to defend America's breathtaking natural sites. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act in 1964, and many Presidents have since added new places to this great network of protected lands so that millions of acres of forests, monuments, and parks will be preserved for our children and grandchildren.
Following in the footsteps of my predecessors, I signed the Omnibus Public Land Management Act last year to restore and protect more of our cherished wild spaces. In April of this year, I established the America's Great Outdoors Initiative to develop a community-based 21st century conservation agenda that can also spur job creation in the tourism and recreation industries. My Administration will continue to work closely with our State, local, and tribal partners to connect Americans with the great outdoors.
This month, we renew our pledge to build upon the legacy of our forebears. Together, we must ensure that future generations can experience the tranquility and grandeur of America's natural places. As we resolve to meet this responsibility, let us also reflect on the ways in which our lives have been enriched by the gift of the American wilderness.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim September 2010 as National Wilderness Month. I invite all Americans to visit and enjoy our wilderness areas, to learn about their vast history, and to aid in the protection of our precious national treasures.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this
thirty-first day of August, in the year of our Lord two thousand ten, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-fifth.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Late summer's bloomin' onion

Scattered throughout the Ozarks on dry, rocky glades these days are the pale purple blooms of wild onion (Allium stellatum). Members of the lily family, they are one of nine species of wild onions in Missouri. Like the rest of the family, A. stellatum grows from a bulb. On average, the flowering stalk reaches 1 ft. tall.

A similar summer blooming fall onion is often mistaken for the more common A. stellatum. A. cernuum tends to bloom a little earlier, and while both species can have arching or "hooked" aerial stems, the perianth of A. cernuum is bell-shaped, while that of A. stellatum is "broadly spreading."

The bulb of this plant is edible, and the leaves emit a strong onion fragrance. The thin leaves die back when the flowering stalk appears. Wild onion has only recently begun blooming, along with some of the other glade goldenrods. Several species of Liatris are still in bloom alongside the wild onions and the fading Rudbeckia missouriensis, providing nectar to all those monarchs that are on the scene these days. The tall and brilliant yellow flowers of Solidago speciosa can be seen on glades, too, one of the earlier blooming goldenrods that begin to usher in the flowering periods of those wonderful and ubiquitous fall blooming composites.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

To restore instead of create

Frankly, there is no one besides the author of The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri himself who can so effectively and succintly capture the intricate workings of Missouri's native ecosystems with the written word. Many have tried, and many more--like myself--have failed to cover all the bases, to not only describe the facets of a natural community that we see, but to deftly, and in 200 words or fewer, to explain the disturbance factors and natural history that gave rise to our rich natural heritage. "I know a natural community when I see it" doesn't really cut mustard, does it.

Nevertheless, because I am well aware of my own shortcomings as a technical writer, I offer a few paragraphs from the book, a few short words that answer the question, both briefly yet comprehensively, "what is a wetland?"

Wetlands are natural communities resulting from saturation by surface or groundwater, which create hydric soil conditions favoring the development of hydrophytic vegetation. Wetland soils are characterized by anaerobic conditions during the growing season due to water inundation. Wetland ecosystems typically have a wealth of biological diversity and biogeochemical cycles quite different from uplands.

Plants and animals living in wetland natural communities have evolved specific physiological and behavioral adaptations to deal with fluctuating water levels and flooded conditions. Missouri's wetlands include some of its most diverse and productive ecosystems. Nearly half of Missouri's vascular plant species are associated with wetlands. Hydric soils typically support obligate wetland plants....

Six abiotic factors influence wetland plant composition and structure: hydroperiod, soil, climate, fire, water chemistry, and hydrological regime. Hydrology is of paramount importance to the functioning of wetlands....Missouri wetlands are subdivided into four major systems: riverine; sinkhole ponds; groundwater seepage; and springs and spring branches based upon the dominant hydrology and landforms in which the wetlands occur. These major systems reflect differences in the genesis of and the physical and hydrologic differences between individual wetland communities.

So, in these brief snippets of text from the book, we can gather that wetlands are complex systems that cannot be created overnight. Considering that in the Ozarks we have hundreds of acres of channelized and otherwise destroyed fens, springs and spring branches which were altered to create water sources for homesteads, development in watersheds that impedes natural flooding cycles, and countless other human-caused impairments to Ozark wetlands, one would have hope that in this age of promoting natural ecosystems, some of these past alterations would be corrected. Everyone likes a good wetland restoration project!

Functioning wetlands that serve all forms of wetland flora and fauna cannot be created in the middle of an old field with a bulldozer blade. Japanese stiltgrass likes this sort of soil disturbance, as does sericea and other well-known invasive plants. The Ozark Highlands are rich with damaged fens and riverine systems in need of restoration. Go there to do the work to serve entire ecosystems, not the middle of a fescue and sericea-filled pasture that will never contribute much but a tire rut filled with water for breeding American toads.