Sunday, October 27, 2013

Missouri Wines meet Autumn

In early September, I overheard a lot of grumbling in my beer-loving town about the early release of pumpkin ales in grocery stores. September, of course, is the time of year for apple and pear ciders, not pumpkin beer made with cinnamon and cloves. The same argument against Halloween candy displays in July and Christmas decorations in October also applied to pumpkin beer this year. However, there are so many fans of pumpkin beer that I suspect large breweries will continue their early release in the future. (Columbia's Flatbranch Pub and Brewery, however, is holding out on their wildly popular pumpkin beer, waiting for the traditional Halloween release which results in long lines of folks with empty growlers at the bar for a couple of days before they sell out.)

If you've visited a Missouri winery in the past month or so, you may have been treated to charming displays of pumpkins, blooming mums, haybales, those traditional fall settings that start sprouting in late September when the nighttime temperatures dip into the 50s. If you've been to the Ozarks' Hemman Winery in Brazeau or Wenwood Farm Winery near Bland in the past few weeks, visitors have tasted pumpkin wine, the first of the seasonal wines that Missouri wineries offer each fall. Wenwood Farm's pumpkin pie wine is made with wine grapes, pumpkin, and spices (heavy on the cinnamon), reminiscent of a mulled Vignoles made with Aspen mulling spices.

St. James Winery recently released their sweet cranberry wine in time for Thanksgiving, and should release their 2013 Nouveau, a blend similar to Beaujolais Nouveau, in early November. Now that it is almost November, wineries have already started marketing their Christmas-themed wines. Ste. Genevieve Winery makes a delicious spiced plum wine and wineries throughout the Ozarks are featuring crock pots of mulled wine usually made with one of their sweeter wine offerings. The seasonal wines tend to sell pretty quickly, so I recommend taking a leisurely drive through a fall colors tour of the Ozarks and snatch up these interesting Missouri wines before they disappear like the yellow leaves on sugar maples.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Weather Forecast of a Persimmon

Persimmon trees are truly laden with ripe berries this year, so much so that in lawn settings, fallen persimmons are creating their own pudding of decay as they rot on the ground. I have been fortunate to collect several bags of persimmons this year, adding them to pumpkin cookies and to my little pots of Greek yogurt. Perhaps the abundant fruit this year is a related response to last year’s drought, and abundant as persimmons are, branches are bending ever slightly towards the ground waiting for relief of fruit drop.

I couldn’t find persimmons last year, so I failed to check the winter weather forecast by slicing a seed in half and examining the cutlery shape. Until recently, I didn’t realize this tradition of cutting into a persimmon seed to look for the shape of a spoon, a fork or a knife was Ozark-based, but according to several sources, it is. Tradition holds that if a split seed exhibits a spoon, the winter will include significant snowfall of heavy, wet snow. If it is resembles a fork, expect powdery, light snow and mild winter weather conditions. If the cut seed shows a knife, we can expect winter to be icy with brisk winds.

This year, with all of the persimmons availing themselves in the northern reaches of the Ozarks, I've cut into several seeds to find a spoon. Repeatedly, a spoon, a forecast of heavy, wet snow for the winter months. While this forecast bodes well for aerial censuses of deer across the landscape, heavy, wet snow is not a great forecast for much needed prescribed fire. 2012 was a wash with the politicization of prescribed fire and wildfire threat, so hopefully this fall will be clement enough and filled with fall days that fall within prescription for fire. The Ozarks are behind schedule, and a forecast of heavy, wet snow is really not what I had hoped to see in the persimmon seed. While I like to put faith in folklore, I hope this time that the forecast is wrong.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Aster-rific

Autumn has moved in with such a peculiar pace. Fall color is truly hit-or-miss in the Ozarks this year with some areas of maples in full yellow-red brilliance while in other parts of the state, green leaves persist on most trees except the hickories and walnuts which have already dropped theirs. Seed ticks are starting to disappear (or at least aren't as horrific as they were in early September). Fall hiking through biodiverse woodlands and glades is an absolute delight with all the asters and goldenrods in incredibly robust bloom, sassafras and aromatic sumac are stunning right now in the understory, and the days are crisp and sunny. The asters, I hope so many of these species are being used in horticultural settings for their almost manufactured but native beauty.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Fall Float

The crisp, clear days have ushered in several consecutive weeks of Bermuda shorts, long sleeved t-shirts and sandals, not cold enough for closed toe shoes but not hot enough for short sleeves. With just a hint of fall color moving in, especially on the sumacs and black hickories, this week was the perfect time of year to take a float trip. However, many float outfitters are closed now with the shutdown in place, and the days are shorter so finding a nice stretch of river near home was a challenge. I didn't succeed in that challenge.

Instead, I went to a river I know, a river I love, actually, but on a downstream stretch I hadn't visited before. I had a feeling the area was impaired by grazing livestock but I didn't quite know the degree to which the river had been trashed by cattle. I learned very quickly from the frothy mess and heavy sediment load that I had just rented a canoe to paddle 7.5 miles on a cattle stream. A sunny 75 degree day on a river beats a day inside regardless of the quality, but with my stitches still healing from surgery, I knew immediately that bodily contact with this waterway was out of the question for fear of major infection from a serious e. coli saturation.

I wasn't being histrionic in my fear of stepping foot in a cattle stream, evidenced by the suite of cows we discovered defecating directly into the river. Eroded streambanks were prevalent, and very little native vegetation existed on this stretch of Ozark stream. Sorry, no photos of cardinal flower or even Carex haydenii, but we did see an osprey, some eagles, herons and wood ducks. I just don't think it would be an Ozark stream without them. It's really sad, actually, how impaired this waterway is further downstream from the spring branch, which is why it is still amazingly bizarre that anyone would think that grazing cattle anywhere near a natural waterway is a good idea.

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.