Wednesday, February 23, 2011


For the fifth year running, the event known as Flora-Quest is back and better than ever. Held in the heart of the vast woodlands of Ohio's Shawnee State Forest, this is hands-down one of the most rewarding immersions into natural history that one could ask for. "F-Q" takes place over the weekend of April 29 to May 1 - a time when Shawnee is lush with growth, full of birds, and lots of other interesting fauna.

If you've not been to Ohio or have spent little time here, and love natural history, I really encourage you to consider attending F-Q. There are very few places in the eastern U.S. that can rival Shawnee State Forest and vicinity in terms of sheer plant diversity, rare species, great honking globs of butterflies, and over 100 breeding bird species, most in big numbers.

The event is organized to the nth degree and run flawlessly, and it's not like you'll be stuffed in some drafty tent - unless you want to be. Base camp is the wonderful lodge at Shawnee State Park, which is as nice as about any hotel, with a restaurant, and bar! Plus, there'll be Luna moths stuck to the side of the building when you emerge in the morning, and you'll be able to hear Cerulean Warblers singing from your room.

Plants are the focus of Flora-Quest; Exhibit A above. There are ten "Quests", each led by a pair of extremely knowledgeable botanists/naturalists who know the region like the back of their hand. The group above is clambering around an old, remote cemetery that is carpeted with Indian-paintbrush, Castilleja coccinea, in spring. Each Quest has a subfocus, such as birds, aquatic life, geology, etc. Come on mine, for instance, and I will guarantee you will see MANY birds.

Thus, Flora-Quest is really a fabulous hands-on workshop in ecology, taught by people who really know their stuff and are good at conveying that knowledge to others. After the field trips are over at day's end, it's either party central at the lodge or we can head out and look for Whip-poor-wills, scads of cool amphibians such as Mountain Chorus Frogs, and possibly even a Bobcat or Bigfoot.

Since Year One, there has been a mascot plant for every F-Q, and I'll share those as each is telling in regards to the sensational diversity of flora in and around Shawnee. This one is the threatened Wherry's Catchfly, Silene caroliniana ssp. wherryi. It grows on barren shaley slopes under oaks, and the profusion of brilliant pink blooms on an otherwise stark forest floor makes one rub one's eyes and blink, so striking is the effect.

Our largest and showiest violet is this, the Birdfoot Violet, Viola pedata. It liberally festoons dry rocky banks, and we'll see lots of the stuff. It is one of the violets that feeds the caterpillars of the striking Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly, which occurs in such profusion in Shawnee that it can be mind-numbing.

Everyone loves an orchid, and we'll see some cool ones. This is Large Yellow Lady's-slipper, Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens. An impossibly good looking plant, it often inspires otherwise normal people to prostrate themselves to better admire its charms. Large bumblebees - quite fuzzy! - provide pollination services.

An arguably cooler orchid yet is the Pink Lady's-slipper, Cypripedium acaule. We know of spots where this and the yellow slipper grow nearly hand in hand. There are colonies of the pink that number into the dozens. This species, to me, has an almost surreal alien quality, bursting as it does from from an otherwise flowerless carpet of oak leaf litter. Had I nothing better to do, I could plop down in a patch of these pink slippers and stare at them for quite some time - and sometimes do, anyway.

And this year's Flora-Quest official plant is the utterly smashing Dwarf Iris, Iris verna. It's our smallest and rarest iris - listed as threatened in Ohio - and the only one that grows high and dry on upland ridges. Shawnee State Forest is really the only good place to see it in Ohio, and if you come, see it you will.

Here's part of the group from a few years ago. A good time was had by all, and I guarantee everyone upped their botanical IQ by at least a few points.

If you want to start spring with a bang, sign on to Flora-Quest soon. Spaces are limited, to keep field trips down to a level that ensures great leader to participant ratios, so check in soon.

All of the details are RIGHT HERE. Hope to see you there!


Robin Robinson said...

This is great! As an amatuer naturalist here in Maine, I'm often looking for info on wild plants, trees, fungus, flowers, etc. I can use all the resources I can get and this is a good one. Even though we are in different agricultural zones, it's helpful.
One of the wild catchflies which we have here is Flos-cu-culi, also known as Ragged Robin, which certainly works for me!

Jim McCormac said...

Hi Robin,

Come to Flora-Quest sometime - we'd love to have you! I'll bet Lychnis flos-cuculi is a cool one, but I've never seen it. There are only two records in Ohio; it for whatever reason is much more established up your way.