Saturday, April 29, 2017

Searching for Slipper Orchids in the Ozarks

Stepping out of the car on a chilly and cloudy morning this week, I could see the green-up in the understory. Lots of wildflowers in bloom and lots of perennials like rattlesnake master all coming up through the burned landscape. It's been several years since I've seen this population of yellow lady slipper orchids, a super charismatic plant but one that the deer love. With a burgeoning deer population, our slipper orchid population dwindled to the point of potential extinction, so we installed large 16 ft. cattle panels to create an exclosure to see if the plants would come up inside versus outside the exclosure. For the past three years, the orchids haven't come up at all, or, they've come up but been browsed off by hungry deer before we could detect them.

Yellow lady slipper orchids are not particularly rare, but they are loyal to intact soil profiles and are generally associated with high quality natural communities. On my hike this week, we sauntered into super high quality habitat, one free of exotic species and with intact soils and a suite of other native plants. The steep slope was a nightmare to navigate in my lousy running shoes, but between the large populations of goldenseal and other moist, mesic-loving species, I was able to traverse the hillside without causing ecological damage. Step by step, don't step on plants.

We counted 34 stems this week, an increase of 34 stems from last year when we couldn't document a single plant. These lovely orchids are particularly favored by deer, which may account for the low stem counts in years' past. While I still think there are too many deer in this location, seeing so many slipper orchids is a sign that maybe the deer are on the run or lower in density than I previously thought. Spotlight counts are showing low numbers, as well. With deer populations increasing across Missouri, we need to consider that this population's low count may be erratic. It's nice to see the slipper orchids again, and their appearance correlates to the low deer density of the spotlight counts and browse surveys. Is it coincident?

Nevertheless, it was great to visit a high quality natural community to verify a population of a rare plant. Aside from the slipper orchids we also documented black and white warblers, Louisiana waterthrush, and common yellowthroat warblers. Visiting nice natural systems is always a treat, a visit to invariably see many more species than I was hoping to see. This week was not unlike the rest.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

10 Years of Norton: Stone Hill's Vertical Tasting

About a year ago, my lovely friends from South Carolina, the Norton Wine Travelers, sent me an email and copied fellow Norton enthusiasts from Nebraska inviting us to the 2017 Norton Vertical Tasting Dinner at Stone Hill Winery in Hermann. I had never formally met the couple from Nebraska, and I had only visited the Norton Wine Travelers in person once or twice before though we're frequent correspondents. We all "met" through Catch Wine, a fun website where one can write reviews of local wineries. The Norton Wine Travelers, who are also magnolia scholars and collectors, contacted me years ago after reading my lengthy reviews of Missouri Nortons. With the couple from Nebraska and other Norton fans, the International Norton Wine Society was formed. Our friendship formed because we appreciate Norton. This is not a secret to anyone who knows me.

And so, Saturday, April 8 rolled around and we descended on Hermann along with other magnolia friends and wine enthusiasts from California who were a little unfamiliar with this outstanding grape. While I was working, they all explored the Hermann area's wine country and collected wine. Lots of wine. One may not be aware of this, but South Carolina, very unlike Missouri, is not known for producing supple, palatable dry wines, so trips to Missouri often result in cellar-stocking purchases. They are true ambassadors of the Norton grape; they keep the registry of all the Norton producers and give such fun reviews. They've even shared with me examples from premier Virginia wineries, Texas wineries and too many other to count. At this point, I still prefer many Missouri Nortons over all the others.

The evening of the tasting, we walked up that steep hill to Stone Hill from the city park where the NWTs had set up their camper for the week. Lovely appetizers and Stone Hill's terrific sparkling Blanc du Blanc circulated. I finally met the charming Nebraska couple whose reviews I had read, while showering them with my compliments to Nebraska's wines which I first discovered on my way to Jackson Hole in 2008. As the sun set on the vineyard, we moved inside to be greeted with large farmhouse tables with ten perfectly polished Reidel Norton glasses, all with three ounces of ten years of Norton vintages. At the base of the glass, they had written the year with a small Sharpie marker. "Pong. Pong. Pong" went the glasses while folks surreptitiously began tasting all of this delicious wine while the emcee for the night talked about Norton, the history of Stone Hill Winery, and Missouri wine. It's hard to be quiet when ten crystal glasses are resting next to one another but, you really want to start tasting.

We all had a sheet before us with winemaker's notes on each vintage. 2007, the hard frost year that turned the woodland canopy to black leaves in April, was "leaner in style than the 2008, perhaps more Bordeaux-like with a complex mix of fruit, oak and hints of pencil shavings and dried herbs." Yes, each vintage had its own lengthy descriptors and space for personal notes. Interestingly, lined up side by side, one could note obvious differences in color through the years; the 2007 was a brick red while the barrel tasting of 2015 resembled a Beaujolais Nouveau. My favorite, hands down, was the 2012 vintage, the drought year, a "vintage like no other...producing the softest, lowest acid Norton ever, showing ripe blackberry and cassis with sweet oak notes and ripe tannins." If I could afford it, I would have picked up a case of the 2012. Which brings me to the cynical comment overheard at my table: "I think I see what's going on. They serve a fancy dinner, a lot of wine and a vertical tasting as a way to unload their older vintages."

Yes, maybe the evening was ultimately designed to make money, make lots of money off of Norton enthusiasts, but it was a delicious meal, full of fabulous wine, and the best part was the camaraderie with the society members. And that 2001 vintage served with dinner.

If you've never perused Catch Wine, settle in and be prepared for a treat. You'll learn that a lot of folks are still smitten with sweet wine, but the dry drinkers offer lengthy reviews of wineries. Once while scrolling through the reviews to map a route through Oklahoma, I read an hysterical review of a winery-alpaca operation where the unsuspecting winery guests were being strong-armed into buying not wine, but alpaca. It made for a great story, but the winery had closed so I couldn't visit. Join in on the fun, and when you see that lovely rhododendron photo, you'll know you're reading the review of quite possibly the most knowledgeable Norton enthusiast, the founder of the Norton Wine Society and cherished friend.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Spring comes to the Ozarks

Despite the past week's downright gloomy and cold weather, it's difficult to stay indoors when I know spring wildflowers are in bloom. On March 9, I noted my first-of-the-year blooming hoary puccoon, a flower that normally doesn't bloom until mid-April. However, it was on a glade we burned in January so those warm February days certainly tricked it to come up early.

Morel season and the spring peeper chorus are well underway. Too, areas rich with bush honeysuckle are particularly striking, but in a bad way. This allelopathic exotic shrub is taking over the state, mostly in urban areas but could easily escape into more rural settings. And it simply ruins the spring wildflower display. Without the bright, leaf-off canopy of early spring, socked in under honeysuckle which greens up before everything else, the delicate white petals of anemones and bloodroot have no chance.

Bluebells started blooming a couple of weeks ago, definitely among my favorite of the spring wildflowers. And Dutchman's breeches are coming on strong this week. It's no surprise that many of us are out of the office on a routine basis at this time of year. I have my eyes peeled for the springtime bee that feeds on spring beauty, out for a short time during the bloom cycle then back underground until next spring. The fleeting nature of spring in the Ozarks makes it imperative to get out, hike around, and marvel at these diverse floral displays.