Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Rare, locally abundant


While combing through my personal library looking for my out of print Ferns of Arkansas, I came across a small, pocket-sized black and white field guide published in 1978 by the North Central Forest Experiment Station (US Forest Service) in Minneapolis. Rare Plants of the Ozark Plateau: A Field Identification Guide was in a discard pile at a rural library in the Ozarks many years ago now, so I bought it and the rest of the old natural history books for twenty five cents each. Late nights in my cabin I enjoyed reading early vegetational histories written in the 1930s-50s when botanists surmised that glades on cedars were a sign of “succession,” and that glades and prairies would, through time, become true forest. We’ve come so far in the field of ecology in Missouri that many of these early ecological concepts represent mere artifacts akin to Medieval metallurgy or Aristotle’s concepts of phrenology.

But the Rare Plants of the Ozark Plateau (Roedner, Hamilton, and Evans) is chocked full of plants still listed and tracked by the Natural Heritage Database, a program established in the very early 1980s by author and botanical illustrator Paul Nelson. In this 1978 field guide, plants such as Eriogonum longifolium, Habenaria peramoena, Mead’s milkweed, and Queen of the Prairie are listed as rare in the Ozarks—-today, they’re still tracked by Heritage, and still uncommon on a larger landscape scale, restricted by habitat type or disturbance factors. In the case of Mead’s milkweed, the best place for conservation is on the St. Francois Mountains (if the deer population is kept in check). However, several of the rare Ozark plants in the book such as Liatris mucronata and Trelease’s larkspur are more common today than they were in 1978 thanks to an active ecosystem restoration program in Missouri. Fens, glades, woodlands, none of these areas were under active fire management in 1978; the fire program didn’t begin in Missouri’s woodlands, fens and glades until 1983 when Paul Nelson lit the first match on a nice tract of woods in Niangua country (much to the consternation of other agencies and local fire districts).

In this nice field guide, each plant listing includes a “possible locations” entry. Julian Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri (1963) included occurrence maps for each species, the result of an inordinate amount of fieldwork and herbarium studies. Plants restricted in Missouri to the White River Hills, for example, are listed in the field guide with possible locations of “Stone, Taney, Barry, and Ozark Counties.” But if a botanist visited the glades of the White River Hills in 1978, it is likely that they would not find thriving populations of these plants. In 1978, following 80 years of open grazing by domestic livestock, the glades in what we now call “glades country” were full of cedars, cedars so thick in some places it remains amazing that glade vegetation could hang on for so long without light. (Of course, many glade plants are deep rooted perennials with ancient rootstocks.)

Today, visit the glades in the White River Hills with active ecosystem restoration programs in place (and without too much abuse from grazing), and you’ll find some of these rare plants from the field guide are common in the matrix. Bush’s poppy mallow, known from wooded slopes in the White River Hills, is still quite rare today, likely due to the lack of fire in the woodlands surrounding glade complexes.

Move up towards Greene Co. on the Springfield Plain where the limestone glades harbor Missouri bladderpod populations (called “flurries”), and you’ll find a similar situation—-managed glades in and around Greene Co. have large populations of bladderpod with thousands of plants. But leave the natural range of bladderpod in Missouri and they disappear altogether. Today, certain plants rare in the Ozarks are locally abundant in certain areas of the Ozarks such as the the case with the restricted ranges of the bladderpod glades, Jefferson Co. glades (think Fremont's leather flower) and White River Hills' associates. Conversely, there are many plants in the 1978 field guide I’ve never even heard of, much less encountered them in a quadrat. I wonder how many have been extirpated from Missouri either from suppression of natural processes, development, grazing? Thirty four years later, this compact field identification guide with beautiful line drawings remains a valuable document of our state's natural heritage, one worth much more than a quarter.

5 comments:

A.L. Gibson said...

great post, Allison! it's incredible to think about how static and yet dynamic ecosystems and plants can be when looking back in time at historical texts. many of the same observations you made on Missouri hold true in Ohio as well, albeit in slightly different arrangements/species composition obviously. myself and some prominent midwest botanist friends are planning a trip down to Missouri sometime in late May to see Asclepias meadii as well check out the ozark/cedar glade flora!

Allison Vaughn said...

Excellent! Let me know where you plan on going and I can tell you the sweet spots. Wouldn't want you to waste your time in overgrazed crap. The cedars are a relict of overgrazing, so the best chances of seeing high quality glades are visiting those places without cedars. Are you meeting up with Justin Thomas? I could give you a lot of pointers and I normally don't publish locales but if you let me know what region you're headed towards, I can tell you the best places for high quality landscape types. I can also tell you what to avoid...

paul nelson said...

Just letting you know that I might be the first person who has read your blog from Punta canta in the Dominican Republic. Great birding here. Can´t wait for the spring flora to emerge in ozark woodlands.

Nathan said...

I really enjoyed this post. Beautifully done. I don't don't anywhere else I would see the words fen, bladderpod, Aristotle, metallurgy and matrix in one place!

Allison Vaughn said...

Yes, great birding in the Dominican Republic! I bet you saw wood thrush, prairie warblers, chats, all the guys I love to see in May in Missouri. When I lived in Santa Bani in 1990, I had a resident red eyed vireo outside of my shack. I had never seen one in Louisiana, and thought they were the most energetic birds I had ever seen--I heard them mostly, high up in the palm canopy surrounded by deciduous woods spared from the hurricane, but when I saw one with that red eye, I was hooked. I would learn the birds of Dominican Republic. It sort of took (a sort of) lot of time away from my learning of Spanish...(but could still talk to the Haitians in Creole!) I still don't know Spanish.