Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Saving a Steyermark Site

In Julian Steyermark's landmark Flora of Missouri (1963), bush honeysuckle had not been documented from Missouri. His Flora is not only a beautifully curated catalogue of flora in Missouri with dichotomous keys, but a walk through the state with a botanist in tow. He offers opinions on changes to the landscape (especially the installation of reservoirs which he particularly despised for all the destruction they caused to bottomland hardwood systems) as well as a snapshot from the late 1950s and 1960s of where certain plants exist in the state. I've made it a point to visit a lot of Steyermark sites since moving to Missouri, to see if the plants and ecosystems he describes in his Flora still persist in today's highly altered and damaged landscape. He gives directions to old railroad right-of-way prairies (the one outside of St. James on B road is still intact), to rare plant sites with latitude and longitude details, and to some of the only sites where certain exotics had naturalized, a ground zero, as it were.

One of the four Steyermark locations for Dodecatheon amethystinum is on a bluff around the Osage River country. I visited the site to see this spectacular shooting star in 2003. In 2003, I sent a letter to the folks in charge of this land that they needed to treat the sporadic population of bush honeysuckle before it destroyed the woods and cliff where the shooting stars live. Alas, my letter fell on deaf ears, as usual, and today, the whole area is a monoculture of bush honeysuckle with a few Penstemon pallidus plants hanging on for dear life where breaks in the honeysuckle exist.

Well, the area is a monoculture of bush honeysuckle except where the shooting stars are clinging for dear life in a thriving population of over 500 individual D. amethystinum plants. Since 2008, every mid-April, I visit the site with loppers, my trusty Felco 6 clippers, and a spray bottle of Tordon to pull, cut, and stump treat bush honeysuckle from the area surrounding this significant population. Because the Steyermark site is on a super steep slope, I hold on to a sapling, pull a handful, cut and stump treat the larger ones, and throw them all over my shoulders with the roots in tact into the bottomlands of the Osage River.

Every year, there's more bush honeysuckle, and every year, I have to return to more pressing issues before I'm finished clearing off the whole hillside. Today, I had help in my venture! We pulled a lot, cut and stump treated a lot, and we were treated to my FOY black racer and box turtle as well as over 100 blooming shooting stars, surrounded by mosses, Claytonia, fragile fern and other nice closed woodland/forest spring wildflowers that have all been extirpated from the rest of the site since the bush honeysuckle invasion began. This shooting star site, while on one hillside, contains two populations on the same hillside. I seldom make it to the second site, so today when we arrived there so I could show my colleague that yes, there are more of these stunning flowers, we were met with vastly matured bush honeysuckle. I had already developed blisters from pulling and cutting, so he went out there, out on a cliff, to cut a truly obnoxiously large bush honeysuckle that I've never been able to reach since 2008. A lot of sawing with my Felco clippers and Tordon on a trunk that required a handsaw:

It saddens me every year to think what would happen to all of these rare shooting stars if I personally didn't go out there to do anything about the bush honeysuckle. Now I have a partner in the game who is as dedicated as I am (and who didn't get blisters as quickly as I did...), but what happens when we aren't in Missouri? How do you engage people to care about such things as our fragile natural history that is disappearing at an alarming rate due to exotic species invasion, lack of fire, development, and other anthropogenic forces? I'd love for someone to start managing all of the Steyermark railroad prairies on the Central Plateau, but who's going to do that besides the passer by who throws his cigarette butt out the window during nice fire conditions? Even that isn't sustainable--if wildfire on an abandoned right of way threatens homes or other structures, those railroad prairies will be mowed, sprayed or paved over to remove that threat. Oh, it's issues like these that keep me up at night and have instigated such stress levels that I've gained an abhorrent 10 lbs in two years. But we have the shooting stars for another year. More photos! Including the box turtle and a fuzzy photo of a racer flicking his tongue at me!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Not all ecosystems are restorable.

"Do no harm," a key component of the Hippocratic Oath and a phrase that should be the mantra of folks engaging in ecosystem restoration projects in highly damaged systems in the Ozark Highlands. Alas, I don't think it is, especially considering the state of the "glade restoration" area I visited this week and numerous other projects throughout the region.

Out in the dry upland ridges of the Western Ozarks, where the plains meet the wooded hills, large pockets of limestone glades exist. On good examples of these glades, the ones that aren't surrounded by hog wire fencing and that still have a soil structure, one may find cool plants like Mentzelia and Polanisia, restricted in Missouri to this section of the Ozarks. Because this ground out here isn't very arable, it was heavily grazed for the past 200 years following European settlement. It's hard to find good examples of high quality natural communities in most of the Ozarks, areas which have been restored to the best quality they can exist within, but it's really difficult to find high quality limestone glades that still have a soil structure, a key component which serves as the base for a heterogeneous matrix of perennial grasses and forbs.

As part of the glade mapping project, I've field verified numerous complexes of glades in the Ozarks. I've seen glades totally destroyed by present day grazing, I've seen dense thickets of cedars with absolutely no remnant vegetation to recolonize were those cedars to be removed, and I've seen hundreds of glades like the one I visited this past week: grazed to hell, probably used as a hog lot. But it was at this glade where folks determined they should remove the cedars to see if anything would respond to the light availability.

This glade has no soil left on it from the years of extractive use. No remnant vegetation existed before the restoration project began, no hope for recolonization by warm season grasses that are so integral to building up the soil layer. In the past few months, crews have removed approximately 50 cedar trees and dragged them across the already damaged soil layer, which has caused scraping of what little soil had been formed by cedar duff. The day I visited, the "glade" looked like this:

Oh, rose verbena is a perfectly pretty plant when it's nestled among other native wildflowers and grasses in it's natural setting. But this explosion, resembling a planting at a botanical garden, is highly unnatural. Roadsides are awash now in rose verbena; it's a scraped soil-loving plant, able to spread and adapt to our flooded shorelines along Missouri's man-made reservoirs where the soil has been removed. This area, which was mapped as a glade in the glade mapping project, is so totally destroyed that even after all the cedars are removed (preferably by heaping and burning on site rather than dragging them across the glade), it will only be colonized by weedy annuals like Descurainia pinnata and maybe some Draba. Not all glades will respond well to cedar removal, especially if you're not using fire and instead hauling the cedars off site for some private enterprise which causes more soil disturbance. Sometimes, it's better for the landscape to leave the cedars. At least they're cover for chickadees.

Cut bait. If you try your hand at restoring a small patch of land and nothing comes up vegetatively for several years, stop cutting. Do the work in other areas that haven't been used as a hog lot for 100 years. Why waste the efforts of cedar removal for no return? It's the same story with woodland restoration projects I've visited in the past few years. Folks will cut down some trees to allow for more light to the understory, send some fire through, and the whole area grows up in oak bushes, a sure sign that the area had been grazed to hell. I was once asked recently what to do with all those oak bushes: cut and stump treat? continue burning through them? Oak brush and nothing else in the understory generally indicates a long grazing history, so even if they're cut and stump treated with Tordon, there won't be much else coming up. Bare soil. Grazing has been so detrimental to Missouri's native ecosystems that thousands if not millions of acres of them are unrestorable. Cut bait. Do the work where it will matter in ecosystems without a long grazing history.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The morels are back!

I'm a renter in a mixed race, low income neighborhood. I love where I live not only for the proximity to a farmer's market, grocery store, hardware store, watering hole and my gym, but because the home was built in 1932 and is on the Historic Register for being a small Craftsman bungalow with no modern alterations. Before my landlady bought the property, it was owned by a little old lady who took great care of her "garden," which was a wooly yard with no lawn grass (thankfully) and with wild geraniums, a dying elm, daffodils and a Chinquapin oak that exists as a witness tree in the GLO survey records from 1842.

Since I moved here in December 07, I've been burning the yard, and Doug has been taking out all of the exotics, a truly time consuming process to eradicate bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper from a pretty well abandoned urban setting. But in the past few years, we've seen a resurgence of native flora associated with upland flatwoods in the area: Penstemon tubaeflorus, Tradescantia ohiensis, Geranium maculatum, Aster drummondii, about ten species of sedges, and while realizing that none of these plants are rare, per se, in a downtown setting, these plants don't exist in most lawns. So we keep burning and keep vigilant watch on the exotics. I add to my plant list every year.

Last year, following a November burn in the back part of the property that houses a sad mature elm tree that continually sends out little sprouts from its trunk and primary branches, Doug found 12 morels. We didn't pick them and eat them, but followed the guidelines set forth by an esteemed Missouri mycologist to help to propagate them in the area. Farming morels isn't easy, but we thought we'd give it a shot.

Today, following a nice 65 degree afternoon, Doug found over 20 morels located outside of the general area we found them in last year. November burn, no exotics, and morels showed up. They're pretty immature now, but this year we may actually saute a couple in garlic and butter and eat them. It's exciting to have rewarding restoration -however small in scale- events occur, like when the Wilson's warbler set up shop in my redbuds last year. The morels are a nice "thank you" from the yard.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Life list and FOY

Walking into the beautifully burned woodlands down in Elk River country, the farthest one can go in the Missouri Ozark Highlands where you have to drive into Arkansas for a vegetarian meal without people smoking cigarettes all around you, I heard my first of the year ovenbird. And then a black and white warbler. A blue gray gnatcatcher. An Eastern towhee. A loggerhead shrike. And so forth for a long 48 species list of birds encountered on Saturday's fieldtrip. Migration is on, and folks in my neck of the woods are gearing up for May 11, the annual North American Migratory Bird Count. By May 11, especially if we have a little storm the day before, we may be able to pick up Connecticut warblers in the woods, but it may still be a little early.

It is an uncommon and great experience to visit burned woods in southwest Missouri--far out of my day trip range--with a cadre of botanists and birders in tow. We walked as slowly as any other botanist would at the first signs of spring in uncommon woods. When the same group assembled last April and we visited the Niangua Basin area, a .75 mile hike took us four hours. It's not because we're old and frail, but because everyone has to take photos of the same plant, discussions about taxonomy, more photo taking, and everyone has to have an intimate moment with said plant. Because spring has come late even to Elk River Hills, we walked at a fast clip for the last mile, but slowing down in the creek bottoms rich with spring ephemerals and curious plants, several species I had never met before.

If I spent more time in the Arkansas Ozark Mountains, I would likely have known these fascinating species that are restricted in Missouri (for the most part) to the southern counties (esp. the White River/Elk River country), but I don't spend a lot of time in Arkansas, so I didn't know the plants. Among the highlights of the day was meeting a less restricted species, known from throughout the Ozark Highlands, the powdery cloak fern (Argyrochosma dealbata) wedged into a tight crevice on a limestone boulder hanging out with with a deer browsed Woodsia obtusa: It reminded me of a Cheilanthes, and I love the deeply dissected fronds, the white powder on the underside of the frond and the tell-tale black stem. This is a very neat fern and I hope to find it again when I can identify it on my own. I normally don't have to ask folks to spell out Latin and Greek words for me (what with that worthless degree of mine), but A. dealbata was a tough one. I had to write it down to pronounce it myself.

In the dry chert woods, up in the uplands and steep slopes that characterize this neck of the woods, we encountered a lot of vegetative structures of Coreopsis palmata, Carex albicans var. albicans, usual suspects for dry chert woods. One Vicia, however, caught the eye of one of the botanists in the group. In the 1930s, outside of Noel, Missouri (stone's throw from Jane, where we were stationed), one historic record exists of Vicia minutiflora with the description "found in dry rocky woods." We were in the driest and rockiest woods around, and we found a Vicia but not in flower. A record for the site exists for V. caroliniana, but to relocate V. minutiflora known only from this historic record would have been terrific. I may have to go back down there in coming weeks to look for it again and hope it's in flower. Steyermark's illustrations show fine bristle tips on minutiflora versus the smooth tipped caroliniana, so vegetatively it should be easy to key out. (Unless Steyermark's illustrations were off base...)Alas, we didn't know this plant was on the unofficial Search For list until after we were well out of the woods.

Down in the creek bottoms, down in Hambrich Hollow, a primary tributary to Big Sugar Creek, we encountered lushness, green, false rue anemones carpeting the understory. It was here that we stumbled upon a stickery bugbear whom none of my small staggered group knew. Others were well behind us looking at the Ozark chinquapins that are so prevalent here, and others were high tailing it out of the woods for lunch. One of our brave group reached down to touch it, stinging hairs piercing his hand. Urtica chamaedryoides, a nettle, stood in large clumps around bellworts and sweet little spring wildflowers. I had never seen it before, and neither had the rest of my small group. Take plenty of photos of one of those stinging nettles and we'll ask the rest of the group back at the parking lot.Yup, U. chamaedryoides, a tracked species, common only in White River-Elk River Hills. Steyermark writes about this species that the known locations along the White River "have now been destroyed by the impoundment of Table Rock Dam." Steyermark really hated the Table Rock Dam for all the destruction of the White River country. Read his entry on Cladrastis or glade plants down there. It always comes back to how horrible Table Rock Dam is. I tend to agree with him, alas.

We're so fortunate in the Missouri Ozark Highlands to have such a great diversity of trilliums. I didn't see Ozark Least Trillium on this trip (though I stay at the cabins with the Cora Steyermark population outside of Cassville), but I met a new one: Trillium viridescens, today a clean species. Down in the bottoms, we found the first one in full bloom. This is another southwest Missouri species with a disjunct population up in Jefferson County, another glade-dolomite woodland dominated area.

Yes, it's fun to be in the woods with like-minded folks, and always a reminder that there's always something fun to discover for someone who has only lived in Missouri full-time since December 2005, part time since April 13, 2003. The spring dash is upon us!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

April Delayed

One year ago today, I groused about the early spring, how mid-April 2012 was reminiscent of mid-May in previous years. The wildflower season began in February last year with the first sign of blooming witch hazel occurring in December. It wasn't just in the Ozark Highlands that spring came early, but in 2013, the opposite has happened in the Ozarks. By mid-April, the serviceberry flowers are usually long gone, and dogwoods and redbuds should be opening in time for all those dogwood spring festivals that happen annually in Missouri in mid-April. Unlike last year, the serviceberry in the Central and Western Ozarks burst into bloom only last week, about two to three weeks later than usual. And it's not just the serviceberry that's off schedule.

Heading to the southernmost part of the Ozarks, down in the Elk River Hills where you have to cross into Arkansas for coffee, the landscape after a not-too-hot November burn looked like this yesterday:

We found a number of spring ephemerals in bloom and some of the vegetative characteristics of the long lived perennial forbs like Coreopsis palmata and Monarda bradburiana, a couple of the plants that make this landscape so rich, but even as far as the Arkansas border, trees are barely even developing buds. While this situation made for a fast hike through the dry chert woods in the uplands to reach the moist bottoms where the false rue anemones and buttercups were in bloom, it made me a little grateful that even though I spent days in Louisiana last week, I didn't miss spring in the Ozarks.

See here for a post I wrote in 2011 with links to line illustrations of some of the more common spring wildflowers to brush up after a very long winter. And see below for some images from an April 13 hike. See! The ginger hasn't even started blooming yet!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Have you been to the Ouachitas?

It has come to my attention in recent months that there is discussion among the field of landscape ecologists that fire might not be so great for shortleaf pine regeneration. At least in the short term. I have listened to several folks discuss the issue of pine regeneration in fire-mediated systems, which all pine woodlands are, as they've all adapted to frequent, low intensity fires through a millenia. But the issue that has been raised which has incidentally raised my personal hackles comes from the concept of pine regeneration from the standpoint of a timber production model.

Frankly, if one is interested in restoring a pine-bluestem woodland with all the associated pine woodland understory components like little bluestem, and the faunal communities that come along with a short fire return interval, you'll have to burn every 2 to 3 years if you're dealing with a pine woodland out of context with its historic character. In Arkansas, in the Ouachitas, and in scattered parts of Missouri around Ste. Genevieve, certain land managers have done a fine job (based on Missouri woodland restoration models) of restoring the understory and the canopy of their pine-bluestem woodlands to bring back that grass-forb dominated mix. Send fire through oak leaf litter and the fire kills everything, including pines, but a flashy fire through grass-forb mix runs quickly through the area not even leaving a scar. Looking at Arkansas, the land of shortleaf pine restoration, and at the nice restored woods outside of Ste. Gen, where pine regeneration occurs in fire mediated systems, the Ouachitas generate lots of KV funds because of their regeneration, and they burn those same profitable woodlands on a 2 to 3 year rotation, sometimes annually. So why is Missouri resistant to prescribed fire in pine woodlands on a largescale basis?

I can't speak to the economics as well as others, but from an ecological standpoint, I can ask the question of those promoting a ten year or longer fire free interval for the regeneration of pine woodlands: Have you been to Hawn? Have you been to the Ouachitas? Have you seen pine regeneration in these woodlands with a developed grass-forb mix? Fire moves differently through dense, thick oak leaf litter than it does through the flashy fuels of little bluestem, Aster patens, Aster turbinellus, Gillenia, and other woodland forbs.

I confess that it has been a little challenging listening to esteemed speakers talk about the necessity of long term fire free intervals in an effort to restore pine woodlands. I realize I'm not a published academician, at least not in this field, but from long term experience and anecdotal evidence, as well as 25 years of rx fire in pine woodlands in Arkansas and 30 years of rx fire in Missouri, I will pronounce that pine regeneration occurs on its own once the grass-forb structure is restored first and foremost, and as fire moves through a restored pine woodland system such as at Hawn. Pine regeneration occurs in spades, and without a ten year fire free interval. Take fire away from the woodlands at Hawn or the Ouachitas and you'll be busting through oak brush for twenty years. Keep up the fire. Fire through oak litter is much hotter and destructive than fire through restored systems that have a thick grass-forb structure.