Sunday, April 3, 2011

Annual Early Mustard Expedition

Yesterday marked the third annual foray into the depths of Adams County, in search of our earliest-blooming plants. Which, in many cases, are mustards. Really, really small little mustards. Hence, the event's name: The Annual Adams County Ohio Lilliputian Mustard Expedition, or TAACOLME, as it has become widely known in the popular literature. This year, we had the biggest crowd of seekers yet, and many of them can be seen in the above photo. Hundreds of other enthusiasts had to be turned away due to space limits, rumor has it.

Our 2011 expedition featured at least five other bloggers of natural history, in addition to your narrator. Each of them will have compelling photos and stories and you should investigate Janet Creamer's Indy Parks Nature Blog, Heather of the Hills, Red and the Peanut, Nature Remains, and Weedpicker's Journal. This field above caught our attention for two main reasons, one of them non-mustard and therefore not to be discussed at this time. This little jewel is the mustard that lured us into the weed-choked Ohio River floodplain crop field: Virginia Winged Rockcress, Sibara virginica. And it looks every bit the weed, I know, and most farmers/gardeners would quickly blast it into submission with Roundup. But it is a native plant, with southern Ohio at its northern limits. Like so many mustards, native or not, Sibara requires disturbance. The shape of those tiny rosette leaves is distinctive. The sausage-looking pods are the fruit, which in mustards are termed siliques (sil-eeks).
High on our list was a visit to a particularly alluring cedar glade prairie. This site is on dolomitic limestone with a sparse casting of soil over top, and it harbors some quite rare mustards. This one is the rare (for Ohio) Michaux's Gladecress, Leavenworthia uniflora. The entire plant could easily fit on a quarter. Unfortunately, it was quite overcast when we visited and thus the flowers are not fully expanded. When prodded by sunlight the blooms expand to an almost disproportionately large size, their gleaming white petals contrasting with the lemon-yellow flower center.

Things are a bit behind this year, and the other two major mustard rarities in the prairie were still stuck in the rosette stage. This one is, I believe, Carolina Whitlow-grass, Draba reptans, and Wedge-leaved Whitlow-grass, D. cuneifolia, was also present but no further along.

Tiny though they may be, little mustards can exert a powerful pull on otherwise normal people, as seen here. You'd think the paparazzi have surrounded an elfin Lady Gaga here, but no - it is by far the rarest mustard that we encountered on this fine day. Each and all were suitable thrilled by the encounter, and cameras bristled.

This is it - the object of their attention. Little Whitlow-grass, Draba brachycarpa, is incredibly rare, and the little cemetery where we saw it may be the only remaining Ohio population. The cemetery is sited on an old sand deposit of the Ohio River, and most such places have been destroyed. Some of the plants that occurred naturally on these massive sand deposits have become quite rare as a result. A number of other rarities grow with the Little Whitlow-grass, including our only native cactus, Prickly-pear, Opuntia humifusa.

Many of the Little Whitlow-grass plants had already passed into fruit. There isn't much to one of these things - a giant specimen might tower an inch high, and they're so small as to be nearly impossible to see while standing upright.

I found Ohio's second site for Little Whitlow-grass 15 years or so ago, in another Ohio River cemetery, this one in Lawrence County. That place was much better manicured than the Adams County cemetery and that works against the mustard, which requires barren sandy ground free of competition. Planting thick cloaks of turf grass spells doom for the mustard, and most all of the other native plants that live in such places. I haven't been to the Lawrence County whitlow-grass site for many years and don't know if it still persists.


Andrew Lane Gibson said...

Sounds like you guys had a great time! Sorry I couldn't make it down for the gathering; there's never enough time to fit everything into one's schedule :/

Heather said...

Oh, what a fun time it was! Thanks again for the invitation, Jim - it was well worth the drive. And thanks to all that time spent looking at different mustards, I can begin to get a handle on some of the mustards growing right in my own woods and neighborhood!

Kelly said...

...I had so much fun! Thanks for including me. Now I'm trying to assimilate everything I learned. What a beautiful, tiny world...glad I was introduced to it!

Jim McCormac said...

Sorry you missed the foray, Andrew, but there'll be others.

Glad Heather and Kelly made it, and great coverage on your blogs!

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