Much of last week was devoted to working with the national meeting of the Botanical Society of America, which held their annual get-together in Columbus, Ohio. The event attracted about 1,000 attendees from all corners of America, and well beyond. Those of us involved in conservation often lament the seeming lack of recruitment of new blood, but there were plenty of of younger people at this botanical conference, which was nice to see.
Last Tuesday, I popped downtown to the Hyatt, site of the conference, and delivered a talk about Ohio's natural history, featuring many of the Buckeye State's best remaining places. On Thursday, I helped to lead a field trip to three of west-central Ohio's premier natural areas: Cedar Bog, Gallagher Fen State Nature Preserve, and the subject of this post, Pearl King Savanna.
Prior to European settlement, savannas such as Pearl King would have dotted the Darby Plains. A savanna (not "Savannah"; that's a city in Georgia) is an open grove of trees underlain by herbaceous vegetation. In the case of Darby Plains savannas, the ground cover is a rich mixture of prairie plants. The trees are mostly oaks and hickories. Fire was, and is, an important factor in maintaining savanna plant communities. Regular scorchings eliminate non-savanna woody plant invaders, and encourage the specialized prairie grasses and other forbs that dominate the understory. The thick-barked oaks and hickories are impervious to the flames.
Franklin County Metroparks was able to acquire the site, ensuring that Pearl King lasts long into the future. We've had a good bit of luck with savannas of late, as Ohio's other great example, the Daughmer Savanna in Crawford County, was acquired by the Crawford County Park District last year.
The mammoth oaks and hickories in Pearl King have been around a long time, and many of them are probably nearing the end of their life cycles as living standing timber. The giant white oak in the foreground of the above photo toppled not long ago, and this tree probably dropped from its parent tree as an acorn before the American Revolution took place. Coring has revealed that some of Pearl King's colossal oaks are in the neighborhood of 350 years of age.
David Kriska of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History stands in a soft wispy sea of what is now one of our rarest prairie grasses, the prairie dropseed, Sporobolus heterlepis. He is looking at an even rarer Ohio plant, the plains frostweed, Crocanthemum (formerly Helianthemum) bicknellii.
Tony Reznicek of the University of Michigan was along on this foray, and he glanced down at one point to notice this rather undistinguished grass, well past its prime. It is weak speargrass, Poa languida, another rare Ohio plant and insofar as I know a new record for Pearl King.
Those of us interested in the conservation of Ohio's last great places can be grateful indeed that fabulous prairie remnants such as Pearl King Savanna are in good hands.