Wednesday, February 08, 2012
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.
Posted by Allison Vaughn at 5:55 PM