Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas Fern

All along the creek bank, the snow crunched with every step. Winter walks in the woods provide such a great chance to see wintering birds, to find antler sheds, and to note the topography and texture of the Ozark Highlands. The khaki landscape still holds on to a few splashes of green in our multitude of mosses and lichens, and an abundance of overwintering ferns. While there are a few ferns in Missouri that remain green in winter, one of the most commonly encountered is Christmas fern (Polystichum achrosticoides), and it takes my prize for the most charismatic.

Christmas fern stands out like a giant among the leaf litter in wooded settings. Big, strapping evergreen fronds lie close to the ground during winter; the base of the plant is typically ringed with desiccating fronds, but during the growing season, new growth is erect, averaging 2 ft. tall. Because the leaves are so leathery and thick, the older, brown fronds persist all winter next to the green fronds. According to Julian Steyermark's Flora of Missouri, "pioneers used the leaves [of Christmas ferns] for making Christmas wreaths." There may not have been enough cedars to go around for Christmas greenery in the early 1800s, so settlers resorted to fern fronds for Christmas greenery. Today, we can hack down all the cedars we want for Christmas trees (and wreaths, and garland, and for kindling for backyard fires) without even making a dent in the cedar population in the Ozarks.

Check out moist woodland rocky slopes, sandstone outcroppings and other acidic soils in the Eastern Ozarks to search for marginal shield fern (Dryopteris marginalis). In Missouri, this is the most common species of the genus Dryopteris, and can be found throughout the Ozarks and Ozark Border Divisions in wooded settings, another fern that remains green through early winter. I've seen it on igneous and sandstone, and not once on dolomite.(Special thanks to RC for the lovely fern in snow photo)

It won't be long before the days creep longer and the first leaves of Hepatica poke through the matted down leaves and Harbinger of Spring pops up. Winter is so quiet in the woods these days with the early morning stillness broken by flocks of bluebirds sunning on the cedars.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Santa's Army is out!

The wonderful house of Christmas cheer in Vienna has pulled out the stops once again this year, filling their large lawn with brightly lit Santas, snowmen, and the Holy Family. I managed to find the best cedar Christmas tree this year with one solid trunk and no bagworms. Unfortunately, it was 12 ft. tall, so I had to knock off 2 ft. from the base so it wouldn't bend at my 10 ft. ceilings. In honor of my mother who died a year ago today, I will embark on making Christmas candy, her mother's famous date loaf, her fudge, her divinity (only when the humidity is really low). I have bags of pecans from her house and her candy recipe books. Gently into the deep, dark winter nights to wish cheer and happiness to all.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

On Gunter Sandstone

Amidst the extensive tracts of dry chert woodlands and dolomite glades in the northern reaches of the Niangua River Basin rest small inclusions where the sandstone layer expresses itself. Typical for many sandstone glades in Missouri, the Gunther glade here is in the bottoms, associated with a stream characterized by slabs of sandstone and sparse vegetation. But even in winter at least one sandstone element was visible, the lovely lumpy fern, Cheilanthes lanosa, tucked into a boulder.

Also in this area are classic examples of restorable Gunther sandstone woodlands with massive old growth chinquapin oaks surrounded by cedars and a doghair stand of red oaks, relicts of fire suppression and grazing. But the large sandstone boulders make the area truly scenic. During the summer, large populations of fame flower dot the glades in little pockets where soil still exists on the slabs, and Spiranthes tuberosa can be found in the moist areas of the woodlands. It has been suggested that in the same region exists one of the longest caves in Gunther sandstone in the state, home to thousands of grotto salamanders.

In 1983, ecologists Paul Nelson and Doug Ladd published their first iteration of a glade map of Missouri using various imagery and sensing techniques. They originally found only a handful of sandstone glades in Missouri, but with our 2010-2013 glade mapping project coming to a close, the number of sandstone glades in Missouri has increased by over 1,000% from the 1983 publication with the bulk of them around Hermann and the Pennsylvanian channel sandstone region in the western part of the Ozarks. On this Gunther glade, the remains of this plant stumped us all:

Sandstone communities in Missouri are interesting places with a suite of plants restricted to them, including the federally listed Geocarpon minimum. The spring wildflowers associated with sandstone glades are lovely, curious little things that take advantage of the spring rains and then desiccate as the hot, dry summer moves in.

Friday, December 06, 2013


The first big snow event of the season occurred yesterday, making driving conditions poor at best. Check the Missouri Department of Transportation Travelers Map here before you set out to see if your route has been cleared....