Saturday, October 13, 2012

Last call for fen flora

About a week ago, a post complete with a photo of one of our most beautiful wildflowers came across the Facebook airwaves, courtesy of Andrew Gibson. He had just visited an interesting and off the beaten path little fen, and made some of his characteristically stunning images of its rare flora. Check Andrew's blog, The Natural Treasures of Ohio - it's loaded with great stuff.

Andrew's photo reminded me of the 90-acre Betsch Fen; a place that I had not visited in well over a decade, and only once ever. I would think about it a lot, as the fen lies near U.S. 23, which is a major north-south conduit that I often travel when headed to points south. When I saw Andrew's beautiful photo of fringed gentian in full bloom, I knew it was time to finally carve out another trek into Betsch Fen. Last Saturday was the day, and a pictorial essay of the trip follows.

Betsch Fen, which is owned by the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, is near Blackwater Road. This small stream is the road's namesake: Blackwater Creek. Getting to the fen is a slight bit of an ordeal, and involves traversing some scruffy woods that are largely free of beaten paths, and crossing this creek.

We emerge into the fen proper, easily identified by the lack of woody plants, the dominance of sedges, and were you there, the spongy wet soil underneath your feet. Fens are fed by artesian springs percolating from the limestone bedrock, and remain in a constant state of saturation. Ones like this are really prairie fens, and have an abundance of plants that are typically associated with prairies. Betsch Fen sits in the midst of the former Pickaway Plains, a long linear prairie that once stretched from Circleville south into Ross County along the Scioto River. Virtually the whole thing has fallen to plow and other development; Betsch Fen is one of the best intact remnants.

Immediately upon entering the fen, I spotted the brilliant magenta blossoms of Purple Foxglove, Agalinis purpurea. This member of the massive Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae) is one of our showiest plants, and not an especially common one either. It is largely confined to high quality sites such as fens and prairies.

The tall ragged spikes of Canada Burnet, Sanguisorba canadensis, quickly catch the eye as one slogs into the fen meadow. This is another rare plant (for Ohio), as is nearly everything we shall see on this foray. Burnet is in the Rose Family (Rosaceae), although it bears slight resemblance to your rose bushes. A hale and hearty specimen growing in rich soil, as these were, can tower to head high.

The luminescent purple flowers of Purple Swamp Aster, Symphyotrichum puniceum (Sim-fee-oh-tri-kum / pew-nee-see-um), provide a shocking bolt of color against the browning sedges and grasses of the fen. It is one of several asters that like their feet wet, and thrive in the harsh growing conditions of a fen.

The stems of Purple Swamp Aster are rough stalks indeed. covered as they are in stiff whitish hairs. In the varied terminology of Botanospeak, these hairs are termed hispid - one of many words to describe some type of hairiness. There are over 30 species of asters in Ohio, and they come with some identification challenges. Keeping up with the nomenclature can be equally challenging. This species was not long ago known as Aster puniceus, until it and most of its allies were placed in the tongue-twisting genus Symphyotrichum. Purple Swamp Aster has also been cleaved into two species, the other being Symphotrichum firmum, although not all authorities accept that split. I do.

Ah, but who cares what the propellerheads are calling this thing! The real beauty of any decent aster is in the flower, and what a flower bedecks the Purple Swamp Aster! These plants can grow taller than a large man, and their inflorescences are filled with these showy little blooms. The lavender rays burst from the yellow star that forms the hub of the flower, and the colorful complexity is striking.

Peering out over the meadow, I couldn't help but to notice the numerous flat-topped clusters of one of our namesake plants, the Ohio Goldenrod, Oligoneuron ohioense. This plant was first collected and described to science from what must have been a very similar prairie fen about 40 miles to the north, near Columbus. When John Leonard Riddell first stumbled into this plant, in the 1830's, such habitats would have been commonplace in Ohio's prairie regions. Not anymore - 98% of our peatlands have been destroyed, according to THIS PAPER. Consequently, Ohio Goldenrod and many of its fen or bog vegetative allies have become quite scarce, too.

Ohio Goldenrod is large and robust, and distinctive in its flat-topped flower arrangement. When fresh, as this specimen is, the mass of tiny blooms forms a stunning lemon-yellow congregation. There are several identifiable plants in the backdrop, and they're all rare too.

I was pleased to find numerous specimens of our latest orchid to hold flower, the Nodding Ladies'-tresses, Spiranthes cernua. Its little spires are often hidden among overtopping plants, but the pure whiteness of the blooms will eventually catch one's eye.

The flowers are botanical confections that appear to have been molded from sugar grains upon close inspection. Although tiny, the flowers are architecturally complex and worthy of close examination.

Finally, here grows my primary target - the King of Fen Flora! It's necessary to bide one's time to go hunting for this one, as it waits until most plants have crumbled back to the soil before exploding into cobalt glory. We could just call them gentians, and be done with it, but of course that's not good enough. They are Lesser Fringed Gentian, Gentianopsis procera, and I cringe slightly when placing the "Lesser" as an antecedent to the common name. There is absolutely nothing lesser about this plant, but to be fair, there is a closely related species that is even greater.

Fringed Gentians don't poke their stems above ground until late in the growing season, and don't build sufficient momentum to flower until October. There were hundreds of the plants in this fen, and it would not be unlikely to find a few stragglers still holding flowers into November.

Few things are as good-looking as a fringed gentian flower. The ragged petals appear to have been cut from fine blue silk by dull scissors, but the tattered margins add considerably to the overall look. They are a photographers dream. Camera in hand, and battery charged, I found myself taking dozens of images, constantly searching for the best composition.

You or I are not the only ones to succumb to the lure of the gentian:

William Cullen Bryant

Thou blossom bright with autumn dew,
And colored with the heaven’s own blue,
That openest when the quiet light
Succeeds the keen and frosty night.

Thou comest not when violets lean
O’er wandering brooks and springs unseen,
Or columbines, in purple dressed,
Nod o’er the ground-bird’s hidden nest.

Thou waitest late and com’st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frosts and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end.

Then doth thy sweet and quiet eye
Look through its fringes to the sky,
Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.

I would that thus, when I shall see
The hour of death draw near to me,
Hope, blossoming within my heart,
May look to heaven as I depart.


Andrew Lane Gibson said...

Great post, Jim! Glad you found time to check the place out for yourself and get reacquainted with its beauty and fall flora!

Sharkbytes said...

My grandmother used to read me that poem, but I've never seen the flower. I have seen Gentiana quiquefolia though