Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve a natural wonder of flora and fauna
August 29, 2021
The hot, muggy dog days of early August is the time to visit prairies. Flowering is at its peak, and these relicts of our diverse botanical past can be stunning.
One of my favorite Ohio prairies is Chaparral State Nature Preserve in Adams County. It’s just west of the county seat, West Union.
I made a trip there on a suitably scorching day, Aug. 5. Tolerating the heat and humidity was a small price to pay for the spectacular floral show. The prairie was a riot of color, and I was not the only admirer. Word has increasingly spread about this botanical hotspot, and many visitors stopped by that day.
Perhaps most striking was the towering purple spires of spiked blazing-star (Liatris spicata). The club-like inflorescences can rise several feet, and are irresistible to monarch butterflies. Many of these migratory insects were working the prairie, and the blazing-star was their drug of choice. Enrichening the display were a number of white-flowered forms.
Gargantuan flowering stalks of prairie-dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) loomed over their lesser botanical brethren. These giant sunflowers can rise to eight feet or more, and the lemony-yellow flowers are major pollinator magnets. Numerous American goldfinches gamboled about, eagerly awaiting the ripening of the seeds. Once they ripen, the “wild canaries" will swarm them and quickly devour the crop.
In places an odd parsley, rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium), was dominant. Its spherical clusters of small white flowers attracted legions of insects: tiny native bees, wasps of many stripes, and myriad interesting beetles. Hairstreak butterflies — the warblers of the Lepidopteran world — are smitten with rattlesnake-master flowers. I saw both coral and red-banded hairstreaks getting nectar fixes.
Less conspicuous but perhaps of greater interest to botanists were two Ohio rarities: bluehearts (Buchnera americana) and pink milkwort (Polygala incarnata). The former can be overshadowed by larger plants, but its gorgeous bluish-purple flowers are the rival of any of its vegetative comrades. Bluehearts is a hemi-parasite — it augers its roots into those of surrounding plants, and taps some if its nutrition from these hosts.
It takes a keen eye to spot pink milkwort. A whopper might rise to six inches in height. Growing in the driest most sun-baked barrens, the milkwort’s tiny flowers would be measured in millimeters. True to the name, the Lilliputian blooms are a pleasing shade of coral-pink.
Tremendous botanical diversity drives exceptional animal diversity, and Chaparral was buzzing with insects working the flowers. As always, and an important part of the food web, insect predators thinned the herd. Crab spiders and ambush bugs blended with the flowers, ready to pounce on hapless pollinators. Despite all the flattering flower poetry, a flower is a potential deathtrap — a showy land of booby traps and landmines.
King of the predatory insects were giant “cannibal fly” robber flies. The peregrine falcons of the fly world, these jumbos take down the largest bumblebees and wasps, and have even been recorded taking hummingbirds.
The Division of Natural Areas and Preserves of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources acquired Chaparral Prairie about three decades ago. Then, the prairie was cloaked in red cedar and other woody plants. Open prairie was reduced to tiny fragments. Years of well-conceived management and lots of hard work have wrought wonders.
Mark your calendar for a visit to Chaparral Prairie next summer. Even though the loop trail is under a mile in length, it sometimes takes hours to hike given all the interesting occupants, both floral and faunal.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.