Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Minima, -us, -um

Out in the Western Ozark Highlands, out in Cross Timbers country where the post oaks average 50 ft. in canopy height, Pennsylvanian-era channel sandstones express themselves. Missouri is not a sandstone-dominated state like Arkansas, as the Ozark Highlands here are predominantly comprised of dolomite, limestone and igneous. However, there are certain areas of significant sandstone expression, such as in the Cross Timbers region where the Ozarks meet the prairies of the Osage Plains.

I continue to plug away at the glade mapping project with my colleague who has recently discovered that Missouri actually has thousands of acres, several miles of sandstone glades with the motherlode of them in the far western reaches of the Ozarks. Using data from the Natural Heritage Database (created by the same colleague in the 1980s) it was surmised that largescale sandstone glades really didn't exist in Missouri. Using the technology at hand and field verification, we have discovered that no Element of Occurrence Records (EOR) exist in the Heritage Database for literally hundreds of acres of sandstone glades in Missouri. Most of these sandstone glades are on private lands, and a significant portion of them are currently being heavily grazed and are therefore destroyed, but our discovery of a 5,000 acre tract of dry sandstone woodland-glade complex without cows and of "questionable ownership" (according to the neighbor) is actually worthy of Missouri Natural Area designation. Of course, that designation won't happen in my lifetime, but if someone hands me enough money to buy land, this tract would be on my radar as it's been handed around to several investors and lots of absentee landlords who have essentially mothballed the property and, through benign neglect, protected it. Gnarled post oaks, only a recent cedar invasion, and a seriously thick thatch layer of warm season grasses and rich soil with Polytrichum mosses forming a matrix to help hold water in the spring and winter. This is Geocarpon minimum country, that federally endangered plant loyal to sandstone glades, a plant about the size of a dime. I suspect there are thousands of G. minimum plants out here without a single EOR since none of these sandstone glades have ever been recorded to the Heritage Database, and I don't know if any ecologists have ever really explored out there.

On these sandstone glades, I witnessed my first of the year spring ephemerals, those short lived plants that exist primarily in seed form after their two week or three week-long bloom cycles. Among them were plants I had never seen before- life list plants- because sandstone glades were so uncommon and the sandstone glades I'm aware of are so heavily abused by grazing that I've simply never seen these diminutive plants. In graduate school, while working in Vergil's farm in Italy, if I didn't know a plant's taxonomic name, I would make one up until I learned the real name from my professor. Hairy? Hispidus. Yellow flower? Lutea. Tiny flower? Minima. Back then I dreamed in Ancient Greek. I couldn't speak Italian very well but I was fluent in Latin, so I tried to flub my way by speaking pigeon Italian through a Latin filter. Or I'd speak French. Or Classical Greek (yes, getting through at Patras to board the Hovercraft to the islands only knowing Classical Greek must have been really challenging to the porters and the folks behind the ticket counter. Imagine if someone showed up at McDonald's and started speaking Old English. It's like that.) Binomial nomenclature made sense to me thanks to Linnaeus. So, today on these sandstone glade-woodland complexes, I didn't know the names of two of these plants and that really bothered me, so I described them taxonomically until I could find out what they were.

These tiny little sandstone-loving plants exist in an extreme climate with a perched water table in the spring thanks to that impervious sandstone bedrock layer, but a virtually xeric landscape in summer months. The first spring ephemeral I found out there was Draba brachycarpa, a sweet little mustard with hairier leaves that walk up a stalk as compared to D. cuneifolia with little hairy basal leaves, a plant pretty loyal to limestone and dolomite glades. I kept walking carefully over this fragile ecosystem until I found this deeply dissected basal rosette of Selenia aurea mixed among the the little Houstonia minima flowers of a deep blue. Keep on walking and find S. aurea in flower, a small Brassica that exhibits a massive seedpod after flowering.

Walk slowly through sandstone glades in the spring and you'll find Selaginella rupestris, another good sandstone glade endemic. We looked for G. minimum in the appropriate spots, but I think it was too early for it. The highlight of the day besides tromping through an incredible sandstone glade-woodland complex was meeting for the first time Saxifraga texana, another sandstone glade endemic I have only seen in illustrations. This beautiful, sturdy little saxifrage has a very hairy stem, a basal rosette, and waxy white flowers with a distinct pink and yellow hue to them. A truly lovely flower.

The only sandstone glades I had been on previously had been really destroyed by grazing and were dominated by lichens and mosses with absolutely no grass-forb structure left in the wake. The visit to this private land was astonishing not only for the area the glade and woodland complex covered, but by how in tact it was. Cross the fence onto the neighbor's property, the neighbor who gave us leave to visit this high quality system and you'll see a remarkable difference. It remains unthinkable to me that anyone would allow for cattle grazing on native ecosystems considering the detrimental and lasting impacts such a practice has on our fragile systems which have been damaged almost beyond repair by the exact same process.

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