Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Upon Spring

"I think I saw something with legs jump under that rock," my colleague reported from a few steps behind me. I laughed a little, and waited to see what critter came out from under the dolomite shelf. I was there to realign trail placement, originally placed to cut directly across a fragile glade and through an equally fragile woodland, so I was there to find an alternative that wouldn't compromise the integrity of the native ecosystems. While we were there, a rabbit jumped out on top the boulder and waited for a few minutes before scampering off into the woods. Rabbits, animals with legs. It jumped.

Through the restoration project, I saw big burned out spots where staff burned green cedars (which is desirable), and little Ophioglossum engelmanii coming up in the burn pile black. Also in the burn pile was Draba cuneifolia, a little mustard with bright white flowers, usually encountered during vegetation sampling when it's a straw colored twig with Brassicaceae seedpods of paper thin sheaths left behind after spring flowering.

He knew I was looking for signs of life in the glade restoration project area. I noted wide expanses with beautiful visages, but not much floristically, at least not yet.

We're still in winter here in Mid-Missouri, with traces of snowpack from Jefferson City down to Current River country, but in the clear for most of Hwy. 19 eastwards. My Oregon friend who wants to see all of Missouri's trout lilies may be in luck this year since we're having a normal spring, late March-early April for even southern Missouri wildflowers. I haven't seen my first trout lilies, but I've seen lots of the little yard weeds like Veronica polita and Cardamine pensylvanica.

Soon will begin the mad dash to see all the Bloodroots, the Anemones, the fast flowering, brightly colored Celandine Poppies and Bluebells in the Eastern Ozarks. In the Current River Hills, I saw no hide nor hair of Hepatica, of any of the Anemones, of Claytonia. We're tracking 20 degrees below normal temperatures lately in the Ozarks which certainly has some impact on our wildflower season. It will come soon enough, those warm spring days, and with a fast and furious pace. I hope my sluggish winter self can keep up.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

March 23, 1983

It was thirty years ago today under bluebird skies and perfect prescribed fire conditions that Paul Nelson lit the first match on public lands ushering in what would become an institutionalized program of prescribed fire in woodlands. Ten years ago today, I arrived at the same site for an interview to work there, and spent the afternoon working a wildfire started by local citizens who deemed it a perfect burn day. Local fire departments and the state conservation agency were adamantly opposed to this prescribed fire event in 1983, "you'll make the natives restless," they surmised, but instead the only press that came out of it was positive--woods in Missouri are meant to burn, to put it simply, and reintroducing fire as a management tool is responsible, not derelict. Today, prescribed fire in woodlands is a widely accepted practice throughout the Midwest. It all started in the Niangua Basin 30 years ago today. Photos from the 1983 fire below, and a photo of what the same area looks like in April 2012.

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.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Winter Botany

I saw my first of the year blooming Cardamine pensylvanica in a powerline cut in the Current River Hills this week, little white flowers on a sumptuously green stalk. Temperatures are supposed to skyrocket into the lower 50s by the weekend, which will surely make all of this ice and snow melt away into the muddy ground. Meanwhile, wintering stalks of grasses and forbs are degrading quickly under all this precipitation, leaving only a whisper of their late fall structure.