Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Riddell's Goldenrod

Everyone should have a favorite goldenrod. I certainly do, and it is unequivocally Riddell's Goldenrod, Oligoneuron riddellii, a true star of the prairie.

A note before we move on: if you dabble in botany on any serious plane, you'll note that I use Oligoneuron as the genus - not good old Solidago, which is what you've likely learned. The large catch basin of Solidago has been sliced and diced, and a few "new" genera have spewed from the taxonomists' spout. Most of our species are still Solidago, but we've got to learn about Oligoneurons and Euthamias, too.

On my way up to Lakeside today, it was impossible to pass right by Caledonia Prairie and not stop by. This long, linear strip of unplowed virgin prairie sod is bookended by a set of railroad tracks and a country road. If left unmolested, and particularly if the soil is not disturbed, native prairie does a remarkable job of fending off invading plants that don't belong. Caledonia Prairie, although small, may be the best remaining example of the original vegetation of the once vast Sandusky Plains wet prairie.

Easily the most charismatic plants in this scene, a pair of Riddell's Goldenrod jut from the tangled snarl of prairie species. The big leaves down low, already fading to brown, are those of Prairie-dock, Silphium terebinthinaceum.

I have been on a quest to photograph goldenrods. I am to give a lecture on all of the wonderful attributes of their lot, both biological and aesthetic, at next year's Midwest Native Plant Conference. This is a fun assignment, as goldenrods are among the most interesting and valuable of our native flora.

And none of their rank can match Riddell's Goldenrod for glamorous panache. It's too bad more gardeners don't know of it, and more nurseries don't sell it. The inflorescence is a large dome-like affair filled with lemon-yellow elfin sunflowers. A happy, well-fed specimen can tower two feet or more; the blooms acting like a vegetative billboard to all pollinators passing by.

A mouthful of multisyllabic botanical jargon shall now tumble from my keyboard: conduplicately falcate. Those two words sum up the leaves, which are the coolest thing going in the goldenrod world. Conduplicate = folded longitudinally; in essence looking as of the leaf has been folded in half from stem to stern. Falcate = sickle shaped. Riddell's Goldenrod leaves have a graceful scimitar curve to them.

This species has major roots in Ohio, if you'll forgive my bad pun. The above is a photo of the original, or type, specimen callected by John Leonard Riddell in 1834 or thereabouts. The goldenrod is one of 98 or so vascular plants that were originally collected and described to science from Ohio. This type is housed at the New York Botanical Garden.

Riddell was living in my hometown, Worthington, and teaching medicine at the defunct Worthington College, when he discovered Riddell's Goldenrod growing in wet prairies somewhere west of Columbus. His point of discovery, which is termed a "type locality", is long obliterated as has been the case with so many plant and animal type localities. I sometimes rue that so many of our most interesting and diverse habitats were destroyed before I - and others - had a chance to see them.

Quite a character was John L. Riddell, and he packed a lot of living into a life truncated in his 58th year. He wore many hats - so broad were Riddell's interests that it scarcely seems possible that he could have dabbled in them all, let alone mastered most. Itinerant lecturer on the sciences; chemist; politician; numismatician; author; medical doctor; and of course botanist - these were some of the pursuits of Riddell.

In 1835 he published the awkwardly titled Synopsis of the Flora of the Western States, in which Riddell's Goldenrod was first published. I have a copy, and it is by turns both fascinating and depressing to page through. How cool it would have been to have lived in an era in which it was still possible to discover such remarkable, distinctive plants as Riddell's namesake goldenrod.

And how depressing to acknowledge that, in the short 174 years since Riddell published his flora, we've wiped out nearly all of the habitats where he collected his subjects.


Weedpicker Cheryl said...

Interesting to know the history, Jim. Who knew Riddell was from Ohio? (Besides you? :)

Those beautiful blooms were covered with butterflies last Sunday, making Claridon Prairie an extra cool place.

Wil said...

Very interesting. What are the chances of these prairie remnants being protected by the state for years to come? Is there funding at the state level to protect them or is it up to local groups to keep watch over them?
Thanks for the fascinating post.

Jana said...

I think this prairie remnant is owned by the railroad and overseen by the Marion Historical Society. I hope it will be preserved because it is a very special place.

Robin M said...

I'm a birder and my husband is a beekeeper and we both think goldenrod is beautiful. For him, it is food for his bees to make honey for the winter. It doesn't make the hive smell very good, though, phew! Love to see a whole field of it.