Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An interesting bluff

Not so long ago, I received a call from old friend Bob Harter, one of this region's premier prairie experts. The conversation hooked its way around to an interesting site that Bob had brought to light about a decade ago; a set of massive shale bluffs overlooking the upper end of Alum Creek reservoir. Among other things, Bob had found one of Ohio's very few stations for the endangered Gattinger's foxglove, Agalinis gattingeri, along the summit of these bluffs.

I hadn't been to this spot for a number of years, so we made plans to meet up and have a look at the place, and on a very rainy day we did just that.

Towering embankments of shale occur along the upper end of Alum Creek. Along the reservoir, the lower reaches of the bluffs are flooded but further upstream one can find some largely intact examples. The summits of these bluffs are quite dry and rather acid and support black oak, Quercus velutina, and other semi-xerophytes (plants of dry places). The rare Gattinger's foxglove grows at this very site, and a careless photographer taking a stumble could find himself tumbling roughly into the cold waters far below.

The foxglove was nearly past flowering, and given that and the rain, none of my photos came out well enough to publish without causing myself undue embarrassment. Perhaps I can make my way back here next season and do better.

But there are other plants of great interest to be had at the Alum Bluffs, including this jaw-dropper of a goldenrod which is arguably the flashiest of its lot. It is showy goldenrod, Solidago speciosa, and even the most jaded of botanical literati would be forced to turn an eye in its direction. Showy goldenrod is one of the wandlike group of goldenrods, so labeled because their inflorescences (flower spikes) are cylindrical and resemble candles or wands.

No shrinking violet, the showy goldenrod - a robust plant can tower four feet skyward and the stem launches from a pad of large leaves that form a conspicuous rosette.

The thick sprays of lemony flowers are, well, showy, and the overall effect of this plant is spectacular. Prairie nurseries, recognizing the showy goldenrod's charms, have long tamed the plant and it is readily available in the trade.

Showy goldenrod is by no means common in Ohio, having only been collected in 14 of our 88 counties. It no longer occurs in many former haunts, and has a strong affinity for prairies and more or less unmolested dry open woods.

Growing with the goldenrod is a plant that I could cast a vote for in the category of "best dressed aster". It is the sensational smooth aster, Symphyotrichum laeve, and together with the brilliant yellow spires of the goldenrod, this was a very colorful bluff that Bob and I traversed.

The flowers of smooth aster are colored in perhaps the most remarkable shade of purplish-blue to be found in the plant world. If you are a photographer, it is hard to tear one's self away. I wanted to probe every angle and nuance with my lens, but the rain eventually drove me back to the car. Even the foliage is of interest, as the plant sports rather thick rubbery leaves that are smooth and quite pleasing to the touch.

There is an understandable urge to possess botanical stars such as these two species, and as long as they are not harvested from the wild, having native plants in the yardscape is extremely positive for the environment. The word "green" is now one of the most abused, tortured, twisted and misapplied words in the "environmental" lexicon, but planting native plants really is green in every sense of the word.

I'll use this as an opportunity to ask you to mark your calendars for July 27-29, 2012, which are the dates for the Midwest Native Plant Conference in Dayton, Ohio. There, you shall be able to find and purchase smooth aster and scores of other natives from reputable vendors.


Anonymous said...

My 2 favorite fall prairie species in the same post! I've been trying to grow some more from seed of the few specimens of each we have in our prairie. They bloom so late, I have to remind myself to check for mature seed in November. Both look great right now.
For wet areas, Purple-stemmed Aster and Riddell's Goldenrod give much the same show

Jim McCormac said...

Glad I happened to pick your favs, Brian! I agree, the two plants that you mention are equally awesome.