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!

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