Monday, August 30, 2010

Southern Monkshood

I've never wanted for blog material. The following recounts an adventure of a few weekends past, in which I managed to relocate one of the rarest, coolest plants in Ohio. Yesterday, a crew of botanists and myself discovered a very different type of rare plant in a totally dissimilar habitat. Common denominator? Both are very hard to get to. A good rule of thumb for finding rare plants: Take the path of GREATEST resistance. I'll try and get to the other story soon.

Morning mist trails over pristine Scioto Brush Creek in southern Ohio. This stream is, arguably, the finest waterway left in Ohio, from a biological perspective. Not only is its watershed still forested and intact, thus keeping the water quality high, its path is an ancient one. Apparently carved by scouring associated with the prehistoric Teays River, the Scioto Brush Creek was a conduit for Appalachian plants to migrate northward. There are several plants that grow along its banks found nowhere else north of the Ohio River, or elsewhere in Ohio.

On a hot August day in 1993, Stanley Stine and myself were wading up the middle of Scioto Brush Creek in a remote part of Scioto County. Trudging up the stream was the easiest route to take, as we wanted to explore gravel bars and muddy banks for rare plants, as some monumental finds had been along the creek recently. Foremost among them was Appalachian Spiraea, Spiraea virginiana, a Federally threatened plant that Stan had found.

As we sloshed upstream, a faint bolt of blue caught our eyes, nearly simultaneously. Knowing it was something good - the search image just didn't register - we splashed over to the steep, muddy banks.

And there it was - Southern Monkshood, Aconitum uncinatum, the first record north of the Ohio River and one of the northernmost stations yet discovered. It was growing where a rare, beautiful plant ought to grow - in a hard to reach locale along a wild river, in association with a large cast of interesting botanical players.

When I worked my way along Scioto Brush Creek a few weekends ago, I wondered if I would be able to relocate the plant. I had about two hours to do it, before it would be time to head off to meet up with some others. Even though I remembered the site well, it was a touch on the early side for the monkshood to be in bloom. If it was, it's still possible to overlook brightly flowered and distinctive plants in a place like this, especially if they are few in number.

Therefore, I was pleased to glance at the shady steep bank, and see a faint purplish glimmer. Cool - 17 years later, and the monkshood was still there. No real surprise, that - Southern Monkshood has probably been persisting along Scioto Brush Creek before Homo sapiens split from the ancestral apes, and if we don't manage to destroy this gem of a stream, it'll probably be there long after we're gone.

Like other Aconitum buttercups, this one is smashing. The pale lavender flowers are capped with a domelike corolla, lending the flower the appearance of a robed monk's hood, hence the common name. While Southern Monkshood resembles the Northern Monkshood, A. noveboracensis, that I recently saw and blogged about, there are important differences.

Southern Monkshood blooms later, entering flower about the time that its northern counterpart has finished blooming. It also has a lax, trailing habit quite unlike the upright posture of the other, and there are structural flower and vegetative differences between the two. Finally, the habitats for each are different as night and day. While Northern grows in the decomposed sand in the shadow of sandstone cliffs, Southern thrives in the rich regularly inundated alluvial soils of stream banks and terraces.

The leaves of Southern Monkshood are deeply cleft and quite showy. They are affixed to long trailing stems that sprawl along the ground or clamber weakly over nearby plants. The shoot above comes from a plant growing at the summit of a 15 foot tall and nearly vertical muddy bank. Making photos and admiring the plant up close was a hazardous affair, and meant clinging to small saplings while trying to dig my heels into the viscous mud to avoid a rapid plunge down into the stream.

While I generally want everyone to see interesting flora and fauna - after all, people don't care much about things they don't get to know - I am still glad that there are things that are far from the oft-trod path and not readily accessible. And admiring Southern Monkshood, at least at this location, is not an easy jaunt.

The mapped distribution of Southern Monkshood in Ohio, courtesy the USDA Plant Database. The map is wrong, and needs corrected.

There was a prior record for Southern Monkshood in Ohio, in Hocking County, which is the place highlighted on this map. And it was one of the first things I thought about when Stan and I laid eyes on the true Southern Monkshood along Scioto Brush Creek when we found it in 1993.

Apparently the botanists who found the Hocking County monkshood hadn't had direct experience with Southern Monkshood, and in large measure because it was south of the glacial boundary, assumed the Hocking County plants must be Southern. Details of the population were even published in the botanical journal Castanea. Soon after the discovery of the real Southern Monkshood, the correct identity of the Hocking County plants was proven, but the mistake apparently still persists here and there.

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