Monday, May 31, 2010

Great Lakes Oak Savannas

I've spent most of the last week in the sandy soil oak savannas of northwest Indiana and northwest Ohio. Here are a few photos from my recent travels.

The photograph above is typical of the east-west oriented dune and swale (also called swell and swale) formations in northwest Indiana. This topography is the result of glacial Lake Michigan slowly retreating after an outlet formed in the Valparaiso Moraine that had previously served as the southern boundary of the lake. The dunes (or swell) are characterized by savanna and sand prairie; the swales consist of shrub swamps and emergent marshes. I was in this part of the state last week to complete surveys for federally endangered Karner Blue Butterflies.

The flora in the Oak Openings region of northwest Ohio bares a striking resemblance to that of northwest Indiana, though this region lacks the higher dunes and organized swell and swale pattern found in northwest Indiana. The Oak Openings region formed as glacial Lake Warren receeded after the last ice age. The resulting plant communities consist of sand prairie, savanna, and wet prairie. Disturbances including fire, natural hydrological fluctuations, and impacts from macrofauna kept these plant communities from undergoing succession and becoming forests. Today, we lack the macrofauna and instead have to rely on bulldozers and ATVs to create disturbances necessary to keep the wet sand flats like that shown below from undergoing succession. Areas like this harbor numerous rare plants found nowhere else in the state. I was in the Oak Openings region for the Michigan Botanical Club's annual spring foray.

Lupinus perennis ssp. perennis var. occidentalis (Wild Lupine, below) is blooming right now and is a common component in the sand prairies and oak savannas. This species is found throughout the Great Lakes states and along the east coast of the United States.

Often, Lupinus perennis ssp. perennis var. occidentalis is found in association with Lithospermum caroliniense var. croceum (Carolina Puccoon), as in the photograph below. Lithospermum caroliniense var. croceum is known from a large area through North America ranging from Ontario to Colorado to Arakansas to New York.

Another species of dry sandy soils in prairies, savannas, fields, and sand blowouts is Asclepias amplexicaulis (Clasping Milkweed), shown below. Plants of this species that I saw in northwest Indiana had not yet begun to flower when I saw them last week; however, this plant in the Oak Openings had begun to bloom. Asclepias amplexicaulis is known from most of the eastern half of North America.

In sand blowouts in northwest Indiana, I came across Hudsonia tomentosa (Woolly Beachheather, below). This species, known from most of the northeastern half of North America, is considered threatened in Indiana and extirpated from Ohio. Throughout its range, Hudsonia tomentosa grows in beaches, pine woods, and barrens, and on sand hills.

Lastly, in an oak savanna at Kitty Todd Nature Preserve, we saw Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens (Greater Yellow Lady's Slipper, below). Although it is known from most of North America, Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens is a species of concern in many states, and always provides a thrill. You can find this showy orchid in a variety of habitats including forest, savanna, prairie, and fen.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Land of Flowers 5

Asimina angustifolia
This pawpaw was growing in a very sandy soil in a sunny powerline corridor in Madison County. It was a frequent low-growing shrub. I imagine that the gopher tortoises like the fruit.

Campanula floridana
This flower was frequent in the under-grazed sections of the cattle pastures in Okeechobee County.

Kalmia hirsuta
Hairy Wicky was growing in a wetland right on the county line between Madison and Lafayette County.

Passiflora incarnata
This passionflower was growing in the same sandy, sunny powerline corridor as the pawpaw in Madison County.

Richardia grandiflora
This attractive weed was growing along the shoulder of a highway in Martin County.

Ruellia caroliniensis
This wild petunia was growing along the margins of wetlands in Levy County.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Land of Flowers 4

This is a post designed to be a plant quiz for Scott, but any other help would be appreciated. I'll try and give as much information as I can. Even tips to a genus are useful. Some identified or half identified flowers were thrown in for good measure.
This attractive flower was growing in the dry sand and sunny banks of Lake Okeechobee. It was completely prostrate. I think it might be Tribulus cistoides or Punctureweed.

This interesting flower was growing in saturated soil in wetlands and in upland areas within a sunny power corridor in Levy County. It might be Aletris obovata, which would fit the reported Florida distribution.

Polygala cymosa
I had not seen this before, but I recognized it as a Polygala. It was growing on the edge of a Cypress swamp in Levy County.

I thought it was cool to see a Sabatia with 7 petals. All of the ones around it had the standard five.

Spiranthes praecox
Tony found this orchid species in the power corridor in Levy County.

Rain Garden, Rain Barrel, and Softening Our Footprint

Many of us who were green when green wasn’t cool are surprised and delighted to experience the sea change in society’s attitude toward conservation. Some of the ideas seem misguided but it's a start. Even TV and radio commercials for businesses like Home Depot mention taking care of the planet. Meijer has teamed up with The Nature Conservancy to avoid selling invasives in the garden center, and energy-efficient lighting is becoming the norm. The list goes on. We now have electric cars and hybrids that are stylish! Recycling is no longer nerdy, and people who drive electric cars look pretty darn cool. Those who still use 6000 horsepower racing engines to get groceries look… not so cool.

Little things that we do to soften our footprint on the earth can have a significant effect if we sustain them over the years, teach them to our children and others, and if more and more people make the effort. Here are some things my wife and I do at our house to go easy on Earth, our favorite planet.

Rain Garden: Water from the roof goes to a rain garden in the back yard instead of a storm drain, where it can gradually seep into the soil. Wetland plants take up water and hopefully break down pollutants. In autumn, some of the detritus from herbaceous plants is mulched into the vegetable garden.

Brick Runnel: Made from scavenged street paving bricks, this porous paving system carries rain water from downspouts to the rain garden. It works beautifully and is fun to watch from a nearby window during a hard rain!

Rain Barrel: We catch rain water for use throughout the yard. The used plastic barrel was purchased for six bucks and I installed a valve near the base where a garden hose can be connected. The valve is a few inches above the base to avoid sediment. At the top we have a circular frame made from reclaimed wood to which is attached hardware cloth (wire mesh) to keep out detritus and window screen to prevent mosquito breeding. The downspout runs behind and underneath the barrel (see photo), and a wooden “diverter” allows water to be diverted into the barrel when necessary. When the diverter is placed in the ‘up’ position, water bypasses the barrel, goes onto the brick runnel and into the rain garden. If the diverter is down and the barrel gets full, an overflow hose (made from an old shopvac hose) sends the water down to the runnel. Scavenged concrete blocks elevate the barrel and allow the downspout to run underneath it. The barrel isn’t too attractive looking, so this year I plan to build a wooden latticework of reclaimed wood and allow a native vine (perhaps Clematis virginiana, Virgin’s Bower) to climb on it. In addition to concealing the barrel, it will provide shade to keep the water cool.

In winter, the diverter is removed and the hole in the downspout is covered with a split piece of downspout held in place with two zip ties. No big deal. The barrel is stored in the garage.

Food: This is what our meals look like. Mixed fresh and frozen vegetables (sodium and fat free) are cooked in a pressure cooker with a variety of sodium-free seasonings. After the pot comes up to pressure in about 5 minutes, it only has to cook another 5 minutes. We use a collapsible metal thing with holes in it to keep the veggies up out of the water at the bottom, and by filling the pot full there are enough veggies to last all week as side dishes. Very little energy is used for this. The fish and chicken that we eat cooks quickly too, but it is cooked fresh every time.

Compost: We have a large vegetable garden which has not seen fertilizer, herbicide, or pesticide in the 17 years we’ve lived here. Instead of a compost heap, we bury kitchen midden and assorted yard detritus right in the ground, all year. Corn cobs are buried very deep to prevent squirrels digging them up. We produce a bucket full of rich organic kitchen midden every week (apple cores, carrot shavings, potato peels, banana peels, orange and grapefruit peels and other assorted food scrap), and burying this in mid winter can be a challenge. So in late fall we dig a series of bucket-sized holes in the garden and pile up the soil right next to them. No matter how frozen the ground, we can dump the bucket and almost always bust loose a large clod of soil to put on top. When that doesn’t work, a bunch of snow will cover it until the next thaw. The sun’s warmth in March and April gets the soil biota going, and by the time we’re ready to turn the soil, it’s just that, soil, with no trace of food scraps, with the exception of the most recent few batches. We have enough sand in our soil that it doesn’t turn to a sticky gumbo – most garden plants like well drained soil. If you have clay this method of composting might not be suitable for garden plants.

Tilling the Garden: After a long winter of reading, writing, and grading papers I tend to be severely out of shape, and meaningful exercise is needed and wanted. I till the garden with a shovel, one spadeful at a time. Turn it over, chop it up, and when a large area is done, rake it out with a garden rake. The workout is strenuous and thorough over the course of a week or two; no fossil fuels are consumed, and the only carbon pumped into the atmosphere is from my own respiration etc., not counting the bare soil carbon loss. It’s a good feeling.

Landscaping: Our landscaping is mostly North American native plants and scavenged materials. The plants are grown from seed and cuttings, and rescued from sites about to be destroyed. We absolutely NEVER use treated lumber for anything. It is shocking to see a children’s jungle gym playground made from that stuff. It’s poisonous and carcinogenic. And unlike a lot of people, we do not mow the grass three times a week. We mow when it needs mowing, and since we don’t fertilize, it doesn’t need mowing very often. By increasing the size of native plant areas, the lawn has been reduced by 30 or 40 percent in the last ten years, and this trend will gradually continue.

Dicentra spectabilis, Bleeding Heart (Fumariaceae), very easy to spread by root division.

Resource Recycling… is exactly what nature does so well. Curbside pickup makes it easy for us to recycle a lot of household waste, and reclaimed materials are used whenever possible. We have an area along the edge of the yard beneath spruce trees where raked leaves, limbs and branches go to rot. When rich soil is needed, we get it there, not from the store.

We are fortunate to live in a town where limbs and branches are collected and ground up for mulch, which is given away free to town residents. They also compost grass clippings and leaves, so rich soil is always available in large amounts. You just have to pick out the occasional radiator hose or milk carton.

Reclaimed Materials: I have built all of the furniture and cabinetry in our house from reclaimed lumber. An example is shown here. The table legs are made from oak 4x4 industrial blocking that washed up on the beach at Lake Michigan during a storm.

In addition, we replaced our old, inefficient windows with good ones from Crestline (made in Wisconsin, ordered through Menards) and my son and I did the work ourselves. Nice, wide window sills were made from reclaimed red oak - good stuff. Two of the windows had sliders that were slightly warped and the company sent new ones right away, free of charge, and didn't want the others returned. I used them to make cold frames for the garden with scavenged rigid foam insulation. They work very well and protect seedlings through many sub-freezing nights in spring. They almost always have to be propped open during the day or the plants will overheat.
Laundry: We do a lot of laundry, and all but the filthiest is washed in cold water. This saves natural gas, puts less carbon into the atmosphere, and saves money. And we only take cold showers…...ok, that might be an exaggeration.

Solar and Wind Powered Clothes Dryer: Finally, after teaching industrial design and drafting for years, I have brought together all of my experience to develop an invention that could save large amounts of electricity, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. I am introducing the KB2010 Solar and Wind Powered Clothes Dryer, guaranteed to work on sunny days, and I plan to sell it for the amazing low price of just 75 dollars plus shipping and handling. See illustration below of this amazing invention in action, and let me know right away if you would like to purchase one.

On a more serious note, can you believe that hanging laundry on a clothesline is against the law in thousands of “communities” in the US? Incredible. These are the same places where it’s against the law to raise the hood of your car. It would be difficult to live and flourish in such a place.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Land of Flowers 3

I think I should make a disclaimer similarly to another writer, "All identifications guaranteed wrong, or your money back." Here is my best shot, using google and plants database. Feel more than free to add corrections. I have tons of flower pictures from Florida, but very little time at the end of the day to process them. Asclepias lanceolata
This milkweed was growing in a sunny, wetland setting in Citrus County, FL. It had opposite, linear leaves. And very striking flowers. My little Indiana-educated mind only knew of Butterfly Weed for Orange Asclepias.
Clematis baldwinii
These funny little flowers were growing in a dry, sandy soil in Levy County, FL. To be more accurate, the fruits were funny-looking, the flowers just looked like an upstanding clematis. It was cool to see a non-viny Clematis.
Cnidosculus urens
This is a very common, weedy flower throughout Florida. I never reached down to touch it, or I would have learned it's common name very easily. I always think Laportea or Urtica whenever someone says 'Stinging Nettle', but I can make room. I had better pictures of the Cnidosculus, but I liked the Gulf Frittilary underwings.
Erythrina herbacea
This Fabaceous flower is very striking and looks like it belongs in a tropical greenhouse. I hear that it gets tall, but everyone we have seen (and it doesn't seem rare at all) is under 4 feet.
Euphorbia heterophylla
We were walking down the side of a highway in Martin County, FL, when I looked down and saw this Poinsettia. It used to be called Poinsettia at one point. I know they have to live somewhere, but it is crazy to see a native Poinsettia growing wild. They seemed to either like disturbance, or just the conditions on the side of the highway.
Mimosa microphylla
From highway speed, these flowers looked like wrong clover. Closer and slower, they are remarkable flowers. They seem to prefer right-of-ways.
Sacoila lanceolata
I kind of liked having this in Spiranthes, not the least because I can remember Spiranthes, but I can see that it is a bit different than the others. We saw several of these in Okeechobee County, FL, all in cattle pastures that weren't too heavily grazed. It is very tall (maybe 18" or so) and showy, and can be spotted while driving.

A Parasitic Plant... How About That!

Plants are pretty darn amazing. The vast majority of them have green foliage as a result of having chlorophyll. Chlorophyll absorbs light, and the plants then use this light to convert water and carbon dioxide to sugar (for their use) and oxygen (released from the plant as a by-product, but pretty important to us). If that's not impressive enough, consider this... there are plants that lack chlorophyll. So how do these plants obtain the energy they need to grow and reproduce? One way would be to steal nourishment from other plants, and that's just what Conopholis americana (known as Squaw Root, Cancer Root, and Bear Corn) does.

As you can see in the photograph above, no part of these plants is green, and the leaves consist simply of brown scales. The roots of Cancer Root are parasitic on the roots of Quercus spp. (oaks) and sometimes Fagus grandifolia (American Beech), providing the plant with water, nutrients, sugar, and starches from the host plant. This parasitic relationship is said to result in the formation of large, round knobs on the roots of the host tree (perhaps leading to the common name Cancer Root).

If you reside in eastern North America, check an oak woods near you to see if you can find this odd parasitic plant springing up from amonst the oak duff.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Purple Twayblade

As I was sampling my property last fall, I came across leaves and fruiting stalks of Purple Twayblade (Liparis liliifolia). Today, I was able to find some of the plants in bloom.

Liparis liliifolia grows in mesic forests, savannas, pine woods, and abandoned fields throughout much of eastern North America. It requires some type of disturbance such as fire or windthrown trees, as too much shade can be detrimental to populations of this species.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Why Druids Dread Derechos

I like big trees...I cannot lie. So, I decided to make my near-annual pilgrimage with Ariel and her parents to one of southwestern Lower Michigan's finest natural areas, the alluring and beautiful yet Grimmsian Russ Forest, also known as Newton Woods, located near Marcellus in rural Cass County. I first visited the site in the mid-1990s after learning of its existence in Tom Power's Natural Michigan: A Nature Lover's Guide to 228 Attractions, a work that also introduced me to land trusts and the realization that there were organizations dedicated to locating and protecting natural features in Michigan. Heady and heartening. Russ Forest is perhaps best known to local naturalists for its enormous tulip-poplars, or tuliptrees (Liriodendron tulipifera) which can be found scattered throughout the old-growth hardwood forest that is in part protected as a national natural landmark by Michigan State University. One of these ancient specimens, a former Michigan "state champion," was toppled in a 1984 storm. Park lore states this gargantuan spire was 225' tall, although recent work by big tree investigators at estimate the fallen tree was between 130-140' tall, impressive but well short of the sign's audacious claim, and well short of the 170-180' that the species can attain in the protected cove forests of Smoky Mountains National Park. Although the former state champion was history, I was awe-struck by another massive bole on my first visit to Russ Forest, a nearby tulip-poplar that was supposedly 300 years old and 185' in height. Recent more accurate measurements of this tree indicate a height around 134', impressive, but hardly the dimensions of a Michigan sequoia in the Magnolia family.

In 2008, 12 or 13 years after my first visit to Russ Forest, I noticed that a portion of the grand tulip-poplar's lower trunk had rotted away. This was likely in part due to compaction of the great tree's roots over the years by awestruck visitors (myself included) lured to the base of the tree to appreciate its scale up close. I knew the old tree was not long for the world, and this may be my last opportunity to see it penetrate the already appreciable canopy of old-growth beeches, red oak, and sugar maple.

April 18, 2010 brought me back to Russ Forest, primarily to enjoy its incredible display of spring wildflowers, including two species that are largely restricted to southwestern Lower Michigan, blue-eyed mary (Collinsia verna) and wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum). Both species were in full flower, two weeks earlier than is typical due to record-setting early to mid-April heat. After spending time enjoying the wildflowers and trying out my new digital SLR and macro lens on the "lesser" plants in the ancient forest, I turned my attention to the big trees, and walked the trails to the southern portion of the forest, where the towering giant resided. On entering this stand of old-growth trees, the sights of freshly cut trunk segments and the scene of uprooted trees were cause for concern. As we approached the giant tulip-poplar, its forked, slingshot-like upper branches failed to materialize above the canopy. In its stead was a gaping canopy gap and a tangle of uprooted, toppled timber. After climbing over, sliding across, and ducking under the fallen trunks of ancient beeches in the area, we finally found "the tree." In a twist of fate and a middle finger to the inevitable, the twisted, towering ent was not felled directly by powerful winds, but instead fell victim to lesser trees that lost their bearings in a wicked derecho and crashed across the wounded elder's trunk. An energetic spring storm on the evening of April 5, 2010 cut across southwestern Lower Michigan and did what three previous centuries' storms could not: take down the "living relative" of the former state champion, and remove yet another living heir to the House of Liriodendron at Russ Forest.

While an understanding of canopy gap dynamics is central to any course in forest ecology, I am still saddened by the plight of this tree and other big trees on our landscape, trees that escaped the lumberman's ax, the farmer's plow, and the developer's asphalt and bluegrass, trees that have stood sentinel to centuries of change, witnesses to the conversion of the biological landscape to an anthropogenic-technological landscape that bleeds these remnants slow deaths due to the pernicious effects of fragmentation.

I am happy to have stood under this tree and admired its grandeur, and I hope my memories will add a few more decades of growth rings to its slumbering trunk. Godspeed, your majesty.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Ozark and Ouachita Highlights

Some of you knew that Justin Thomas, Brad Slaughter, Doug Ladd, and I took a spring botany trip to the Ozarks and Ouachitas in late April 2010, and I'd promised that I would post photos both here and at Through Handlens and Binoculars. Below are some of the highlights from our trip.

Our journey certainly started out on the right foot as we visited Victoria Glade near St. Louis on our way to the Ozarks. The highlight at this location was Clematis fremontii, shown above. The genus name Clematis means "a climbing plant," however this species happens to be the only non-vine member of the genus that occurs in Missouri. This species was named in honor of the 19th century American explorer John Charles Fremont.

At Frog Hollow, a property owned in part by Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission Botanist Theo Witsell, we were delighted to see a couple of Cypripedium kentuckiense plants in bloom. This towering lady's slipper (up to 70 cm tall) dwarfs the other members of the genus that I've seen, and has the largest flower of any Cypripedium. The flowers are cream colored and the end of the "slipper" is blunt in shape.

Amsonia hubrichtii is nearly a Ouachita endemic, know from one Ozark county in Arkansas outside of the Ouachitas. It can be found growing on gravel bars and near creeks and streams. We saw three species of Amsonia on our journeys; this one was observed at Middle Fork Barrens Natural Area.

The identity of the species above, observed at Dry Lost Creek Glade in Bauxite Natural Areas, is still in question. It would key to Phemeranthus rugospermus, but Theo told us that this is a species new to science that is currently being described. There are several plant species that fit this bill in the Ouachitas. As Justin told us, the Ouachitas are geologically more similar to the Appalachians than they are to the Ozarks. It seems that the Ouachitas were once part of the Appalachian range, but the two ranges have since been geographically separated. This geographical and genetic separation has led to speciation occurring in the isolated Ouachitas. There are still many species new to science to be described in this part of the United States.

At Camp Road Shale Barrens, we saw Valerianella longiflora, shown above. The flowers of this cornsalad have a pinkish tinge and, as the Latin name implies, a long corolla tube. A species endemic to Arkansas and Olkahoma, Longtube Cornsalad grows in rocky glades and open woodlands. This was one of four species of Valerianella that we saw on our trip.

One of our target species in the open woodlands surrounding the Shut-in Mountain Fens in Shannon County, Missouri was Nemastylis geminiflora, pictured above. The flowers of this species open before noon and close before sundown. After leaving Shut-in Mountain, we stopped at a roadside glade and found more Prairie Pleatleaf, but the flowers had already closed as dusk was approaching. Nemastylis geminiflora is found in woodlands, prairies, glades, and pastures in the southern United States from Kansas and Texas to Tennessee and Alabama.

Justin and Brad had both seen Trillium pusillum var. ozarkanum before, but this was my first personal experience with this species. We found it near Winona, Missouri, growing more densely in the mowed roadside than in the surrounding forest. Ozark Wakerobin is only known to occur in five states: Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. As seen in the photo, the flowers of this species are on pedicels, placing it in subgenus Trillium (the sessile-flowered species are placed in subgenus Phyllantherum).

Astragalus crassycarpus var. trichocalyx was one of my target species on the trip, and I wasn't disappointed when we found it. Groundplum Milkvetch is found in the central United States from Illinois to Texas. The first part of the common name refers to the edible fruit that look like plums. This member of the family Fabaceae grows in glades, prairies, and rocky open woods. We found Buffalo Pea, as it is also known, at Spurgeon Hollow in the lower Ozarks of Missouri.

Another Astragalus that was on my trip wish list was Astragalus distortus var. engelmannii, shown above. This diminutive milkvetch grows on limestone and shale glades in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. We saw this species on shale barrens at Middle Fork Barrens Natural Area.

The genus Lonicera often gets a bad rap, and generally for good reason. With so many non-native and invasive species of honeysuckle choking out our woods, it's easy to despise the entire group of species. However, there are also native and very attractive honeysuckles around, and we saw two of them, both vines, on our trip. Above is Lonicera flava, and below is Lonicera sempervirens, both observed at several of the sites we visited. It amazes me that these species are not more commonly used as native landscaping plants.

We also saw four species of Tradescantia, including the widespread Bluejacket (Tradescantia ohiensis, not shown).

The spiderwort above, Tradescantia longipes, was one of my targets on the trip, and we found it in bloom in dry woods at Spurgeon Hollow. Wild Crocus, as it is known, is endemic to Missouri and Arkansas. Unlike most other members of the genus, the leaves of this Tradescantia are basal.

The spiderwort that we observed most frequently on our excursion was Tradescantia ernestiana, pictured above. Ernest's Spiderwort is known from the southcentral United States, from Texas to Alabama. We found it growing most commonly in wooded situations, often on ledges and bluffs, but occasionally also in open habitats and on roadsides.

Another of my target species on this trip, shown above, was Tradescantia hirsuticaulis, and we found it in bloom at Frog Hollow. The hirsute stem for which it is named is one of the characters used to distinguish Hairystem Spiderwort from similar species. This species grows on glades and in open woods from Oklahoma to South Carolina.

If you're not bored yet and want to see more photos and hear more about our trip, click here and here.