Friday, March 30, 2012
Stress levels have been unusually high lately, so rather than depend on raw carrots and hummus for a meal after a nice jaunt on a glade, I decided to check out what the town of Warsaw offered. If you've never taken the side road to Main Street in Downtown Warsaw, I recommend it. A revitalized downtown with barber shops, coffee shops, restaurants, a karaoke bar, a functioning Rexall Drug, banks, antique shops await, but most notable is the second Missouri outpost of one of my favorite stops in rural Missouri: Common Ground Cafe. This organic foods cafe specializes in healthful sandwiches, coffee drinks, yerba mate, homemade desserts like sweet potato pound cake (mmmm...), and a welcoming atmosphere of kind and gentle folks. I've stopped at Weaubleau's Common Ground on numerous occasions (I think they're planning to reopen soon?) to pick up terrific yerba mate, organic produce, coffee (of course), and treats for the long drive east. The outpost in Warsaw is beautifully appointed in the original late 1800s building, situated among the rest of the early 1900s buildings that make downtown Warsaw so charming and inviting.
I adore Common Ground (what with the poster advertising an acoustic jam series; "we'll make the toast, you bring the jam"), but I needed more than a great sandwich that day. Oh, the glade with Draba cuneifolia and the beautiful layer of thatch didn't upset me at all--it's nice to see how far a glade has advanced in the phases of restoration after 30 years of management. In the early days of ecosystem restoration, bare soil with scattered grasses and low C value forbs dominated. There is no bare soil visible there today. Hooray for recovery of a horribly abused glade, one that probably hosted livestock for many years. There's hope for the future and all that. But I desperately needed the primary food combination that helps combat my elevated stress levels even better than a fast 4 mile run: I needed fish and wine. I needed fish and wine. Everything is fine if I have fish and wine.
"Well, there's a Mexican place I hear is good, a terrific barbeque restaurant, the organic place downtown, and if you want something nice and fancy like a steak, there's Benton House," offered the concierge. Most steak restaurants also offer a slab of fish on the menu. Most steak restaurants offer a wine list and a mediocre salad. To Benton House...
Located in a nearby neighborhood off the highway, Benton House is actually a ranch home built probably in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Benton House is, well, a middle class house with vinyl siding and low ceilings. I think I dined in the den where the family who lived there before watched a lot of television.
Benton House offers a diverse surf and turf menu, a truncated wine list with one cabernet (Beaulieu Vineyards, which I would never buy in a store, but sort of respected for their role in early Napa viticulture and for sticking it out through prohibition. It was fine, nothing I would buy in a store, but it was a fresh bottle and okay enough, even though I generally stay far away from California wines). Iceberg lettuce salad, buttery zucchini, and well prepared salmon (tasted like sockeye), but the best part of the meal was the entire loaf of homemade wheat bread. I've been a vegetarian for many years now, only eating fish when my stress levels escalate to a level that I can't see straight enough to drive safely, and I've given up bread and wheat-based food since December in an effort to lose this stupid (stress-related) extra weight. All proverbial bets off at Benton House where I inhaled fish, wine, and 1/3 a loaf of wheat bread.
Thursday morning, I stopped back in at Common Ground for one of their homemade Yerba Mate Green energy bars, a tasty blend of yerba mate and whole grains, and wished I could have spent a longer while in downtown Warsaw, maybe even picked up some antique hand embroidery at the little shop, but I knew I had to enter the fray again, at least girded with fish, wine and the good vibes from Common Ground.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
I never find morels unless I'm not looking for them. Sunday afternoon, during our daily walk through my backyard (burned in November 2011 and for the past four years at different times of the year), once a monoculture of bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper, I was excited to see Carex davisii sprout up like proverbial gangbusters this year. "You're not going to believe it," Doug remarked while standing several steps away from me. "It's not a rabbit," (which we both want in the yard) "it's better." He pointed to a tall morel coming out of the blackened landscape. Oh, I love the long plant list for my urban flatwoods, and it's exciting to see interesting beetles (like that cute swamp milkweed beetle who showed up last year), snakes, birds, mosses, and all the other biota that find their way to my yard. But a morel? I spend ample time in the woods each spring and never find morels. But there it was, in my yard! (pictured, right) Today, we found two more back there in close proximity, which increases the chances they have the potential to spread...if the ground is suitable for habitation.
But yesterday was a bust. I went through hill and vale in interesting (burned historically, not lately) sandstone Ozark woodlands, an area complete with terrific rock outcrops and wood rat middens, spring wildflowers, mayapples galore, blooming dogwood, but no morels. I really don't lose sleep over my inability to find morels, and I don't resent the annual emails from a colleague boasting a haul of over 400 individual mushrooms in the course of a week. (I just guess he's lucky, he knows his spots, and surely he shares with people he cares about). A farmer's market stand on Saturday sold morels for 12$ a pint. Gorgeous mushrooms, but isn't finding them in the woods and seeing the suite of April wildflowers most of the fun?
Sunday, March 25, 2012
Areas converted to lawns in Missouri can often harbor a suite of spring wildflowers, many of which never reach a height greater than 1 cm. Lawn wildflowers, most of them native to Europe, have adapted to living in these settings in America, and are well suited to living in consort with their primary disturbance factor: the lawn mower. These short little plants are abundant when found, with the spread of seed occurring with each mowing event. Lawns can actually be pretty diverse places--not like a high quality natural community, but a community nonetheless.
With the rampant spread of bush honeysuckle, many of our urban nature areas now lack even the flush of spring ephemerals which once grew in some of the most damaged natural communities. Little spots of woodlots that exist in neighborhoods--places where kids could build forts and play hide and seek--are wracked with bush honeysuckle. In urban areas like mine, nature is ceasing to exist in these areas once protected for "green space." It's not because of more and more development, but exotic species encroachment. With bush honeysuckle on the landscape, lawns in St. Louis can harbor greater species richness than the local trail system through the woods. It's sad that nature is so devastatingly damaged these days, so take biodiversity where you can find it.
Only a couple of the lawn plants are actually native to Missouri, but these little exotic weeds are seldom if ever found in Missouri's in tact natural communities. They remain loyal to lawns.
Jagged chickweed, Holosteum umbellatum: Also found on roadsides, Holosteum has a brief flowering period. In the 1963 Flora of Missouri, Steyermark reported that it was first documented in Missouri in 1950 in Washington Co. one mile south of Caledonia. Now established in southern and central Missouri, and north to St. Louis and Columbia. Introduced from Europe, jagged chickweed, according to Steyermark, is “like other spring annuals, often occuring in dense masses at the time of flowering. Eventually this species undoubtedly should spread over the greater portions of the state as detailed highway collecting will probably reveal."
Vernal whitlow grass, Draba verna : In 1963, this draba was found in 17 scattered counties. Introduced from Europe and Asia and today found in lawns, crop fields, fallow fields, pastures, roadsides, and disturbed areas throughout the state.
Little bluets, Houstonia minima: [Lousy photo, I know. I had better places to be than in the lawn next to the parking lot that day...] Blooming from January through April. Steyermark reports that it grows on "prairies, pastures, fallow fields, flood plains, rocky ledges and glades of sandstone, chert, granite. This is the commonest of the small bluets found in the spring, occurring in abundance and often making carpets of purple blue in grassy open places," like lawns.
Speedwells, namely Veronica polita: At Augusta Winery, I saw my first of the year blooming Veronica. Lots of Veronica species in Missouri, and while I didn't key this one out, I think it's V. polita. Note the low-growing habit of this plant; even a weedeater won't impact its flowering.
Here's a long list of some of the more common yard plants, not including the grasses that have also moved in to colonize yards that aren't treated with herbicide. Botany in your own front yard...
Yard flowers (not including many grasses)
Pimpernel Anagallis arvensis (tiny red flowers)
Lady’s thumb Polygonum persicaria
Jagged chickweed Holosteum umbellatum
Chickweed Stellaria media
Mouse-ear chickweed Cerastium species(as many as six species)
Small-flowered crowfoot Ranunculus abortivus
Early buttercup Ranunculus fascicularis (Ozarks primarily-cherty ground)
Whitlow grass Draba brachycarpa and D. verna
Peppergrass Lepidium virginianum
Low hop clover Trifolium campestre
Yellow wood sorrel Oxalis stricta
Milk spurge Chamaesyce supina (especially sidewalk and driveway cracks)
Johnny-jump-up Viola rafinesquii
Bindweed Convolvulus arvensis
Henbit Lamium amplexicaule
Purple henbit L. purpureum
Plantain Plantago lanceolata
Tiny bluets Houstonia minima
Dwarf fleabane Erigeron divaricatus
Common dandelion Taraxacum officinale
Bedstraw Galium virgatum
Neckweed Veronica peregrine
Speedwell V. polita
Thyme-leaved sandwort Arenaria serpyllifolia
Other natives in southern Ozarks
False garlic Nothoscordum bivalve (also found on dolomite glades)
Thursday, March 22, 2012
We stepped out of the fire-mediated woodlands and glades, both rich with buttercups and phlox, the glades covered in blooming bird's foot violets, we stepped down the limestone slab steps and into the moist protected forest system of a collapsed cave. Spring wildflowers steal the show in the Niangua Basin's uncommon true forests. In this part of the Ozarks, the only areas that don't burn regularly can't burn, areas restricted to ancient sinkholes harboring glacial relicts, the protected steep north facing coves with bluebells and bloodroot, the areas that were once underground.
So we entered the collapsed cave to find the whole suite of wildflowers: anemones carpeting a slope, the leaves of Hydrophyllum appendiculatum, Dutchman's breeches, pale corydalis, and of course, the requisite bottoms full of bluebells. These uncommon areas harbor Dirca palustris, enormous basswoods and sugar maples, these areas do not see fire. They didn't historically, and they don't today. The primary disturbance factors in forested areas are wind storms, ice storms, heavy snow events--these disturbances, rather than resulting in a slicked off landscape like a burned woodland, cause in tact forests to typically possess downed logs, perfect for mesic-loving salamanders like the little four toed salamander (restricted to sinkholes in the Niangua Basin).
My colleague charged ahead as I focused my almost-dead 100$ camera on a lovely patch of Dutchmans breeches. He settled on a mossy downed maple that's been there since the windstorm of 04, and peered over the bed of bluebells as the water dripped off the former cave roof and onto a series of boulders covered in walking ferns. The forest here is so very unlike the rest of the area, and just on the ridge outside of the forest stands a gnarled (fire-loving) post oak averaging 300 years old. The diversity of the landscape here is remarkable.
When I arrived at the sitting log, my colleague stood up to walk towards the bluebells and muttered "what is that....what is that..." Just past the bluebells, one pale corydalis poked through a thick mat of green vining vegetation. A Dutchman's breeches could be seen nearby, but the whole area past the bluebells was covered in a thick mat of a Veronica, a lawn weed, but we didn't know which one it was.
Away from the new Yatskievych Flora of Missouri, hours later we discovered that the dense mat of vegetation smothering the spring wildflower display was Veronica hederifolia, ivy leaf speedwell, not documented in Missouri in the 1963 Flora. This little exotic lawn weed is actually allelopathic, and is becoming troublesome in not only America but in China as well. Many of the species of Veronica seem to remain loyal to lawns, mowed areas, yards, but this one is in an ancient forest setting and causing serious problems.
We alerted the folks in charge here who went out the next day on a hand pulling exercise, the best way to treat this relatively new-to-Missouri exotic species. Speculation regarding its source population continued through dinner: on the terrace above the bottoms filled with wildflowers is a wildly popular footpath. Thousands of folks from urban areas like St. Louis visit this trail. Seeds from a hiking boot that had stomped through a yard or another compromised area could have quite easily traveled downslope into the lowest reaches of the forest.
Natural landscapes of high integrity are becoming less common in Missouri than even 7 years ago. Bush honeysuckle has run amok through closed canopy woodlands and forests. Miscanthus has compromised glades in the White River Hills country. Oh, and the list continues. I truly believe that if you have a healthy ecosystem, one that hasn't been damaged by grazing, logging, other forms of land abuse, and the proper disturbance factors are employed, high quality sites are resilient with native vegetation so thick that exotic species can't take hold. But the threats are great, ever burgeoning, and with the continued fragmentation and development at natural area borders, with exotic species vectors increasing, one must be vigilant. Constantly. Even on a casual walk through the woods to look for spring wildflowers in hopes of a false morel.
Saturday, March 17, 2012
The mad dash is on to see the spring ephemerals before the successive weeks of 76 to 80 degree temperatures encourage the oaks and hickories to leaf out and the delicate early wildflowers to burn up completely. One Missouri Native Plant Society chapter has cancelled the spring wildflower walks in April, aware that the bloom cycles are tracking two to three weeks early....
Thursday, March 15, 2012
When we lived together as a family, my parents ate very healthful and well-prepared meals. Even though both of my parents worked full time jobs as elementary and middle school teachers for over thirty years (and repeated that they would pay me a full time wage to NOT be a teacher when I grew up...), we always ate dinner together and always had a hot breakfast and packed school lunches with little notes and cards reminding us that we were good kids, well-loved and all that. My mother's an outstanding cook, and so is my dad. When you live in Louisiana with all that fresh seafood and a year-long growing season for produce, it's difficult to be a bad cook. My standards for good food are pretty high because of this. My father grew up with a mother who couldn't cook well at all, who would serve Depression-era food in the 1940s: lima beans and peanut butter, bacon fat and rancid meat, food that always gave my mother food poisoning when she went to his house for supper. I earnestly believe that it was my mother's cooking skills that initially attracted my dad to my mom, that and her first chair status on flute. She could really rock the flute in college band.
Anyway, we always had good meals together as a family. If my mom wasn't home to cook, Mabel, our maid, would cook supper for us (usually really unhealthy soul food cooked in bacon fat and no life left in the vegetables as they had stewed in butter and chicken stock for hours and hours on end). Mabel, the wonderful woman who taught me my first words, how to brush my teeth, how to tie my shoes, was a master of fried chicken and fried fish. (One time she fed me fried gar, much to my mother's horror. "She ate GAR?!" We didn't eat gar in my family. It was like eating raccoon or something.) Anyway, I guess it's been surprising to find that my parents, now in their 70s, have, in recent years, forgotten their cooking skills and the lessons of eating well-balanced meals. It is not uncommon to call my mother and learn that her diet for the entire day has included: "I had a Payday, and a cappuccino, oh, and chocolate covered cherries..." by 7pm. And she wonders why she always feels like hell.
Both of my parents are really unhealthy and I can't do anything about it from Missouri. Oh, I try, I complain, I encourage, I ship food, but my parents are as stubborn as their spawn. After having dealt with both parents visiting Missouri separately in the course of two weeks, after having fed them properly and showing them just how easy it is to eat healthfully, I decided to focus on my own eating habits.
In one year, I have gained a lot of weight. Oh, most of it is stress-related, granted, but a lot of my 6 pounds is due to field work. In one year, I have grown from a size 2 to a size 6--still in the normal weight range at 105, according to the FDA, but my clothes are tight, and that's unacceptable. I spend several nights a week in the field foraging for vegetarian suppers and often depend on my field food for dinner: an oatmeal raisin Clif bar, peanuts, a banana. It's better than a Payday and a cappuccino from a gas station, but not by much.
As I prepare for a very long, fun, exciting field season visiting all of the units that burned during fire season 2011-12, I plan to seek out restaurants in the Ozarks that can offer healthful vegetarian meals in order that I may depend less on food out of my pockets like smoked almonds and dried cranberries for a meal. I'll also need to find lodging with treadmills that work properly (unlike the one in the Niangua Basin that won't allow the runner to run faster than a 9 minute mile. I could get that workout just walking in the store shopping for produce ...), and I may find myself eating poached eggs and dry wheat toast for every dinner at breakfast places to avoid the overcooked vegetables and meat products. Well, it's an adventure, and one that will hopefully result in getting back down to 98 lbs. as I launch into the old as dirt age of 40 come September. The metabolism slows, I hear, and I refuse to be an overweight desk worker who can't hoof it up a hill because of my extra five pounds.
Sunday, March 11, 2012
I don't know when the trend of listing food and wine pairings on the back of wine bottle labels began, but I've never really paid attention to the suggested pairings. I suspect it all started with the rise of Robert Mondavi in the 1980s, the age when American winemakers were welcome to bring their craft into the American home following a long love affair with Bordeaux. Grab an American cabernet off the shelf at the grocery store and it will instruct the buyer on what he or she should eat with the wine. I don't abide by all of that "white wine with fish" and "red wine with steak." Heck, I drink Walla Walla cabernet out of a steel canister with fig Newtons on Ozark river float trips. I worry that non-wine drinkers will feel pigeonholed into eating a certain food with a certain wine rather than enjoying the experience of growing their palette. I really worry about that.
A handful of Missouri winemakers include on their labels what food to pair with their wine, as well. The most commonly encountered is "Norton with steak," a pretty typical sort of pairing, a hearty meal with a big hearty wine. I drink Norton with Thai curry, with kale frittata, with every vegetarian food I eat. But leave it to the fine folks at Augusta Winery to pair their outstanding dry wines with the most appropriate foods that highlighted the nuances of their award winning wines.
Forty wineries into the Missouri Wine Passport Program, I was invited to ask 9 friends to join me at a Missouri winery for a complimentary food and wine pairing. I had a list of a few wineries I wanted to visit, and Augusta was at the top. For the past month, I've corresponded with the charming manager there, Jessica, to decide on which wines to taste, and if any food allergies needed to be addressed before ginning up a food pairing menu. Augusta is known for their Norton, for their dry wines in general. Their grapevines are perched on a hilltop so they seldom suffer some of the challenging weather events that impact vines in the Ozark valleys. Their 07 Norton, the vintage that almost doesn't exist in most of Missouri because of the devastating April hard freeze, won the honor of being among the top 7 local wines in America in a recent taste test. (Since that time, Augusta has sold out of the 07 vintage, but still has an awesome 08 and a Norton Reserve available)
Dry wines only, please, all reds and a Traminette (the Missouri version of Gewurtztraminer, highly variable between wineries and always very interesting). We all descended on the Owl's Nest restaurant (located across the street from the Augusta tasting room) in the mid afternoon. The tables were well appointed with water bottles, four large pours of wine, and a small tray of food. We were being coached by the sweet manager there who, by the end of the event, had to shout over my garrulous fellow botanists and college friends from Louisiana. "The port is to be paired with the raspberry-dark chocolate truffle!" she yelled to be heard over all of us laughing...
Paired with small bites of mozzarella with jalapeno, a smidgen of romaine lettuce and a baguette, the Traminette was first on the list: bright acidity, floral nose, like bees in a lilac bush. Several of us tasted the wine and then tasted the wine again with the food to discover how the food enhanced the wine. The creaminess of the cheese brought out the smooth finish of the highly floral dry white wine. The tasting continued with smoked almonds paired with a Norton-Chambourcin blend, and smoked gouda-roast beef paired with Norton. If you haven't tried Norton with a smoked gouda, I urge you to do so. The smokiness of the Norton- part toasted Missouri white oak, part foxy native grape- really comes out with smoked gouda.
Well-researched food and wine pairings like yesterday's at Augusta Winery proves the science behind all those labels promoting certain foods with certain wines. I'll still drink Norton on float trips with Triscuits and $3 cheddar cheese, and will continue to send out dark chocolates with Norton port as gifts because they work so well together. As of yesterday afternoon, I am 17 winery visits away from a wine pairing dinner for four at the winery of my choice. I do hope Augusta is on the list.
Thursday, March 08, 2012
Grand is the day walking through a recently burned high quality landscape knowing that I will return there shortly for long, long days of vegetation sampling! Little sprouts of stickery rattlesnake master poked up through the black ground, and I found one very early blooming hoary puccoon, partly smashed under a hunk of chert but blooming nonetheless. Sampling season begins in late May, giving the deep rooted perennial fall-blooming plants a chance to spring new vegetation. By late May, a suite of tiny little late winter blooming plants take on the appearance of a single blade of straw with, hopefully, a seedhead left behind to make keying easier.
Now is the time for the little late winter guys to come up and bloom for their very abbreviated flowering cycle. It's exciting to run into the first Cardamine pensylvanica in bloom, even if its found first in overgrown, abandoned city lots. But the winter annuals (so called because the seeds germinate the following autumn after flowering in the previous late winter and therefore overwinter as little basal rosettes) have begun to bloom on limestone and dolomite glades throughout the Ozark Highlands. These plants are adapted to remain small in size, some the height of an upright dime, in order that they may remain close to the warm ground during our typically cold late winter days.
The smallest Brassica in Missouri, Leavenworthia uniflora (CC value 7), sends up a tiny little white flower from a sweet dark green rosette that measures about the size of my thumb. Leavenworthia is not as common on the landscape as some of the other spring blooming Brassicas, but it is locally abundant in the White River Hills. You'll find Leavenworthia at home on burned glades and by the thousands in parking lots in Branson. It particularly thrives on balds, barrens, such as the glade systems in White River country. By late May, expect a threadlike piece of straw with a hint of a seedpod (but it's a 7 so it can jack up the Mean C of the quadrat).
Draba cuneifolia (CC value 5) is at home also on limestone and dolomite glades, but also on roadsides, what Steyermark called "waste places" and railroad rights of way. Steyermark remarked in the 1963 Flora in his customary conversational way, "this species is a good one for rock gardens if planted from seed..." and, I feel certain his wife Cora did just that. Draba is actually well recognizable by late May, what with the telltale Brassica seedhead blasted out and paper thin.
Arenaria patula (CC value 7) actually doesn't bloom until late March, early April in most of the Missouri Ozarks. A. patula can be found on limestone, dolomite, rare chert glades and even the last remaining overgrazed and totally beat up sandstone glades in the Ozarks. Unlike Arenaria stricta, which can grow in thick mats and bloom in May, A. patula sends thin hairlike stems upon which heavy white flowers bloom. In a late May sampling plot, imagine a tumbleweed stuck in among the thick, verdant green of grasses, sedges and forbs. I didn't know this plant until 5 years ago when I clipped the thin multibranching seedless stalk in my clipboard to bring back to my colleague who identified it immediately. And now I can, too.
Lovely line drawings of these sweet winter plants from USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 2: 149.
Monday, March 05, 2012
Very strong southwest winds will overspread the region starting tonight, persisting through the day Tuesday. Wind gusts of 50 MPH will be possible in some areas on Tuesday. These winds will make travel difficult on area roadways, especially for those driving high profile vehicles. In addition, outdoor items like lawn furniture, trashcans, and any unsecured debris from recent storms will be susceptible to the effects of the wind. A Wind Advisory is in effect starting Tuesday morning.
The combination of the strong wind gusts and a dry airmass is expected to result in significant to extreme fire weather conditions across the region on Tuesday. This will be a very dangerous situation, as any fires started on Tuesday will exhibit explosive and uncontrolled growth and behavior. A Red Flag Warning has been issued for the region for Tuesday.