Sunday, March 31, 2013

Finally, up comes the flora

Yesterday dawned bright and clear, with temperatures soaring into the low 60's. After this interminably long winter, with well below average temperatures and above average snowfall, it was quite nice to finally see the first botanical sparks of spring popping to life. So it was a treat to connect with John Howard, Susan Nash, and Daniel Boone and go exploring some of Adams County's best habitats, such as this prairie opening.

Daniel Boone poses by a White Cedar, Thuja occidentalis, that is probably far older than its size would suggest. Growth comes slow in a rocky opening such as this, and the tree is probably in excess of a century in age. Hard to see in the photo, but Dan's left hand touches a small Dwarf Hackberry, Celtis tenuifolia - just one of many rare plants that occur in habitats such as this.

Until this trip, I had seen only a handful of "wildflowers" in bloom in my tundra-like neck of the woods, and nearly all of those were weedy nonnatives. That changed with this foray. This shrub or treelet, the American Hazelnut, Corylus americana, flowers well in advance of leafout, and its pendant spikelets of male flowers are quite conspicuous and reveal the plants allegiance to the birch family. Far less noticable are the pistillate, or female, flowers. Look at the branch's tip in the photo's upper righthand corner - there it is, the tiny scarlet flower.

One of the woodlands that we explored had large rafts of this small parsley family member, the Harbinger-of-spring, Erigenia bulbosa. It is sometimes known by the equally apt name of Salt-and-pepper.

We stopped by a robust station of Snow Trillium, Trillium nivale - probably the largest population in Ohio. Most plants have up and down years, and this is a boom year for this stand of trillium. They were not yet peak, yet we saw many thousands of plants.

One of spring's faithful harbingers are the hepatica, and we saw scores of Sharp-lobed Hepatica, Hepatica acutiloba. I began to notice incredibly small beetles on hepatica several year ago, and now that my eye is attuned I see them on as many or more plants than not. This beetle belongs to the subfamily Nitidulinae of sap-feeding beetles (thanks Anthony Rodgers!), but we don't know the species. These beetles busily clamber about the anthers, plundering pollen, and must play a vital role in the life cycle of hepaticas.

A must-see spring spectacle in this neck of the woods is the mass blooming of Goldenstar, Erythronium rostratum, one of our rarest lilies. I was not optimistic that the plants would be above ground, given the lateness of the spring, but good ole Dan Boone was correct in his confidence and I'm glad that we stopped by. Goldenstar resembles the common, widespread Yellow Trout Lily, E. americanum, but its petals are held in a flat plane rather than being strongly recurved, and the tepals (they are not technically petals) have an orangish cast.

This rarity has a scattered and local distribution, with the Ohio station at its northern limits. Interestingly, I believe that this is the only native plant that was accidentally omitted from th Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada, that I discussed in this RECENT POST.

After a while, we ventured into open sandy habitats along the Ohio River in search of other plants. Lots of weedy nonnative chickweeds and mustards where tinting the otherwise barren fields, and sprinkled among them were these native American Field Pansies, Viola bicolor. Note the conspicuous purple nectar guides leading into the glowing yellow center of the flower - these colorful ornamentations are there to draw pollinating insects to the core of the flower.

Finally, we concluded with a stop to an interesting Ohio River sand terrace to seek one of our primary targets, the Little Whitlow-grass, Draba brachycarpa. To call this elfin mustard diminutive would be an understatement. The plant just to the left of the dime is in peak bloom; the smaller plant just to the left of that has already flowered and is setting fruit. These particular plants are not runts, but are about average in size. Little Whitlow-grass (not a grass of course; I'm unsure of the origins of this curious common name but suspect it originates from some Old World group of plants) is so small that you can't really spot them while standing upright.

A closeup of an inflorescence in the act of opening, with tightly closed purplish-red buds in the center. You could probably easily pile 100 of those miniature flowers on the dime in the previous photo. In spite of their tiny size, the flowers are frequently visited by a variety of little bees, flies and other early to emerge pollinators.

This Little Whitlow-grass has already set fruit. The oval pods are known as siliques (sil-eeks), which is specialized mustard terminology. They'll ripen in short order, and pepper the ground below with scores of dustlike seeds. If the conditions where the seed fell are suitable next year, up will pop more whitlow-grass, thus perpetuating the life cycle of this critically endangered (in Ohio) annual plant.

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6 comments:

Brent C. Kryda said...

It's amazing to see the cedars that far south and not in a bog or higher in elevation in the Appalachians. What special conditions are there that promotes their growth?

Regarding winter, I think that while it has gone on a bit too long, we all need to remember that it also got to a late start. Even up here in SE Michigan we had a few days in the 60's both in December and January, and even the larger snow dumps never stayed around for longer than a week because temperatures kept fluctuating up and down so much until the end of January. Last winter we did not even have much of one at all. Bring on the snow, it's good for the land.

the Native Plant Neophyte said...

Good info Jim. It's really nice to see the native spring flowers coming to life. On a cold wildflower walk here a couple of weeks ago we did get to examine Hazelnut blooms while waiting for the Woodcock "sky dance" to start. With the wildflowers now showing in your neck of the woods it won't be long before NW Ohio gets to experience it too. Cheers - Hal

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Brent, the Thuja grows on or immediately adjacent to calcareous limestone cliffs, in very thin soil. They also grow in these situations elsewhere in Ohio; relics from our glacial past, apparently.

jaredmizanin said...

Awesome. You just identified the plant I needed an ID for at KPWA yesterday...American Hazelnut.

Jim McCormac said...

I'll send the bill, Jared :-)

Gaia Gardener: said...

Hmmm. Your discussion of the Draba makes me determined to examine the ones that I have found around here more closely. I haven't noticed them blooming yet, but they should be starting any day now. (Maybe I'm just not looking hard enough.)