Wednesday, October 09, 2013

October Way South

Way down southeast, in the farthest reaches of the Central Plateau, rest some of the driest woods in the state. This is true savanna country here, though hardly any high quality savanna is left, having all been converted to pasturelands and fescue. On two bluebird days this week I set out to flag firelines in some of this curious country that is dotted with glades (mostly choked in cedars) and misnamed “prairies.” In fact, several of these “prairies” I visited are actual savannas off of which the old growth post oaks have been cleared. It’s true that the Ozarks once harbored true prairie before the age of extraction began, but down here, according to all the land survey notes from the 1840s, fire tolerant post oaks and blackjack oaks dotted the landscape at regular intervals, all surrounded by tall warm season grasses and forbs commonly found in Arkansas and Louisiana.

The glades in the southern part of the Central Plateau are largely degraded, but a pretty conservative little Dalea grows there and on chert rubble roadsides. The Natural Heritage Database still tracks Dalea gattengeri because of its rarity in Missouri; down there, on a roadside glade, there were literally hundreds of plants, distinctively different from D. purpurea with a sprawling habit and much longer flowering heads.

My fireline flagging exercise brought me to some pretty high quality woods, considering they haven’t seen fire in at least 50 years. When I come out of the woods covered from head to foot in at least 6 species of Desmodium seeds (sticktights), I can assume the woods haven’t had a long grazing history or a bad deer problem, since the legumes tend to be ice cream plants for grazing and browsing. Where breaks in the canopy exist in this ultra-dry chert woods, Lespedeza hirta, all of the woodland asters, and big bluestem grow, hinting at what this area will look like after a few fires and maybe some small brush removal.

Among the Missouri life-list plants in the woods, two were darling yellow composites. Helianthus silphioides, a tall rangy sunflower, was still in bloom this week. Julian Steyermark noted about this southeast Ozarks plant “I have grown this species in northern Illinois in my wildflower preserve for many years and it has done well in any open sunny situation.” I look forward to revisiting these woods after a few fires to see how it populates the woods. The ovate, blunt-tipped leaves are the signature for this pretty sunflower. The other was Silphium asteriscus, typically large for its genus. However, the toothed leaves are quite distinct for a silphium. This is another plant that is relatively common in the Arkansas border counties in the Ozarks. With the amount of fire-suppressed big bluestem hanging on waiting for fire, and the 3-5 ft. tall forbs that are found throughout the woods here, I suspect in ten years when I visit this site on a dewy morning, I’ll need rainy weather clothes to stay dry.

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