Friday, September 30, 2011

The First of the Last Spiranthes Orchids

Conditions must have been just perfect for Spiranthes orchids this year at Blue Jay Barrens. They’ve been noticeable all summer. Now we’re moving into fall and the latest blooming species has begun to open its flowers. Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses, Spiranthes magnicamporum, may be the last of the Spiranthes to perform, but its display has got to be the grandest of them all.

The flowers look like the creation of a confectionary artist. The petals appear to be so fragile that a light touch might leave them bruised and mangled.

Actually, they are tough little flowers that withstand wind, storms, heat or cold without showing any wear. I’ve watched them come unscathed through some violent weather extremes. Autumn is their time and they are adapted to handle anything a Southern Ohio autumn can deliver.

This will be an impressive flower spike if it manages to straighten up. I think the question mark shape is an intentional taught aimed at the difficulties I sometimes have identifying the Spiranthes plants that I encounter. Several of the Spiranthes species are quite variable in their physical characteristics and can be difficult to properly identify. Spiranthes magnicamporum is one that I’ve never had a problem with. I guess I’ve spent enough time looking at it that I’ve come to know its appearance as one of an old friend. There’s also the fact that this species produces a powerful fragrance that can’t be missed.

Spiranthes magnicamporum thrives in some pretty inhospitable soils. Thin, rocky soil over limestone bedrock seems to suit it best.

The name may be Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses, but the area in which they grow doesn’t resemble the Great Plains. This area had a pretty heavy cedar cover until it was cleared in 2004. It was the following year that I found the Spiranthes magnicamporum. I know the orchids were here prior to the clearing, but the shady conditions may have kept them from flowering freely. If weather conditions are suitable, I’ll clear some more cedars from the remainder of this opening during the winter. Maybe I’ll be seeing twice as many flowering plants next season.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wild Grapes - Post Consumption

When I earlier discussed the abundance of wild grapes ripening at Blue Jay Barrens, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before the local wildlife began consuming them. Here’s unmistakable evidence of a hearty meal of grapes. I guess some animal found them to be an irresistible attractant.

Some of the fruits appear to be almost intact. Apparently, there was more swallowing than chewing activity on the part of this diner. It’s interesting what a superficial job many animals do of digesting their food. Their digestive systems seem designed to break down and absorb the most easily obtained materials and then pass the rest on through.

That doesn’t mean it goes to waste. A multitude of creatures are at the ready to take advantage of materials expelled by other animals. A bath in digestive juices breaks down many compounds into simpler forms that are more easily utilized. Many species are dependent on manure as a food source and would perish if it weren’t available. A species with a highly efficient digestive process would deprive others of a much needed food supply.

We don’t want to overlook the seeds that resided within the grapes. A long emersion in digestive acids might destroy their viability. A little acid sketching of the seed coat however, makes those seeds ready to germinate and produce new plants. That pile of grape waste was dropped into this small grove of trees. At present, no grape vines grow here. There’s now the potential for a mass of vines to make their home in the canopies of these trees.

Is the grove of trees destined to become a grape vine thicket? It’s possible, but the seeds are far from secure. There are still the vagaries of weather and soil conditions that the seeds must endure. That many seeds all germinating in the same place will create a fierce competition for growing space that could end in the death of all seedlings. There are also additional seed predators that may find the grape seeds a suitable meal. Just above the pile is a cozy squirrel nest. I bet a handful of grape seeds would make a nice winter snack for a hungry squirrel.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Problem Weed in Pot

I had this idea that I could get ahead of the weed infestation in my winter annual pot by spraying when the weeds first appeared in the fall. This pot remained consistently plant free until about a week ago. That’s when I noticed a flush of green as things began to germinate. I decided to wait a few days to allow the plants to become more identifiable before spraying with herbicide.

The primary undesirable plant was chickweed, which is easily eliminated by a weak solution of glyphosate. A closer examination revealed a problem with my well thought out plans. I could see plants in the mix that were definitely not weeds. Spraying was removed from my list of weed control options.

This is Draba cuneifolia, a small winter annual that will grow through the winter and flower sometime early next April. At least I’m assuming it to be Draba cuneifolia. It’s hard to identify the Drabas when they’re this young. The only other option is Draba reptans, but that species usually germinates a little later in the fall and doesn’t reach this size until late winter. Either way, this is one of the uncommon Draba species that I’m trying to cultivate in this pot.

I persuaded President Lincoln to enter the frame for a size comparison to illustrate the tiny size of these seedlings. I took the time to weed this small space using a pair of tweezers, so things were clear enough to see the Drabas. At this stage, these are very fragile plants that are easily damaged, so it’s a rather delicate operation to remove weeds without compromising the integrity of the Draba root system. During the next few months they’ll have to withstand heavy rains, deep snow and freezing temperatures. It’s amazing that any survive the ordeal.

There are still a lot of weeds left to destroy in this pot. I may have to modify some tiny tools to make the weeding process a bit easier. I wonder if this is what’s meant by micromanagement.

Leavenworthia uniflora, another uncommon native winter annual, is also actively growing in the pot. Leavenworthia are a little more robust that the Drabas, but they’re still awfully small. Soil in this pot mimics as closely as possible the conditions found on the barren sites where these plants normally grow. That means there should be some Draba and Leavenworthia germinating out in the barrens. I’ve been looking, but I’ve yet to find any. The problem is that, even though I try to harvest as much of this seed as possible, the concentration of plants and the amount of seed falling to the soil within the pots is probably hundreds of times greater than what is found in any of the natural barren openings. You would need to search thousands of square feet of barren areas to find the same number of plants growing in this one pot. What I’m trying to convey is the difficulty of finding plants this small out in a natural field.

I guess I’ll just have to take part of a nice sunny day and tweeze the weeds out of this pot. I’m trying to produce enough seed so that next year I can plant a Draba/Leavenworthia bed. I should probably get the soil for that bed in place right away so I can get an early start on weed control. Tweezing weeds out of an 18 inch diameter pot is bad enough. I certainly don’t want to do the same thing to 30 or 40 square feet of bed.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Crested Pygmy Grasshopper

I love finding interesting little insects that I’ve never before seen. This is the Crested Pygmy Grasshopper, Nomotettix cristatus. This tiny little fellow measured just over a quarter of an inch in total length. It’s not too difficult to determine where the common name came from. It’s obviously a grasshopper, one quarter of an inch is definitely pygmy in the grasshopper world, and that ridge running from head to tail can certainly be described as a crest.

Besides being tiny, this grasshopper has some excellent camouflage going for it. If I hadn’t been crawling along the ground with my nose close to the soil, I would have missed it altogether. Actually, I wasn’t even looking for insects. I was trying to see what seeds might be germinating at this time of year. As I stared at a little patch of bare ground, the grasshopper crawled out of a clump of grass. Morning temperatures were cold, so I don’t think it was in any shape to jump. It sat quietly while I got my camera into place.

I was amazed at being able to get enough shots to show all of the primary characteristics necessary to properly identify this species. It only took a couple of minutes to run this specimen through Helfer’s key and produce a species name. I was a bit concerned when the first couplet asked about the number of antenna segments, but I found them easy enough to count in a couple of my images. My normal luck is to get good shots of every part of an insect except the one detail that would allow me to begin the journey to a proper identification. So I not only had the joy of observing such a handsome little grasshopper, I had the satisfaction of learning its name.

This would be a wonderful species to observe in a terrarium setting. There seems to be very little life history information on this species and I would really like to know more about how it interacts with its environment. They are said to eat algae and decomposing plant material found on the soil surface. It doesn’t sound like they have the potential to become plant pests. I think I’ll search out a couple of these guys next summer and let them live in a nice indoor, artificial environment where I can keep a close watch on them.

Just when I began moving in for some really close shots, the grasshopper leapt away. The spot where it had been resting was in a little patch of sunlight and it had warmed itself enough to put its powerful legs into action. The departure occurred between shots, at a time when my view screen was still displaying the previous photo. I heard a little snap as it left, but have no clear idea of the direction or distance of the jump. I waved my hands above the surrounding area in hopes of making the pygmy grasshopper show itself, but was unsuccessful in my attempts. The encounter was over and I crawled on to see what else I could find.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Coral Fungi

One of my favorite fungi has shown itself in abundance this year. Blue Jay Barrens hosts several types of coral fungi, but they always seem to appear in scattered small clumps. This year, one species of coral fungus is producing large colonies.

I believe this is White Coral, Ramariopsis kunzei. There are several species that have a similar appearance, but this one grows in the ground while the others live within dead wood. When I ID a fungus, the best I can do is check physical characteristics and habitat. When the descriptions go into details about spore shape and spore surface texture, I’m at a loss.

If I’ve made a proper identification, then we’re looking at an edible species. I’m not sure it would be worth losing the fantastic vision of this fungus in order to eat it. In the mushroom guides, the edibility scale seems to start at the top with choice and then proceed downward through excellent and good before it reaches edible. Does this mean that edible is less than good? I think I would rather consume mushrooms from the choice end of the scale.

The basic shape of each stalk is similar, but the clumps vary greatly in size and configuration. A spider has webbed this clump to make a spiky fortress. It reminds me of the thicket around Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

I most often find coral fungi growing at the base of hills in the darkest of the cedar thickets. If any place is going to stay cool and moist, it’s a location like this.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Tractor Invasion

I found the large prairie being overrun with tractors. I guess it wasn’t a great threat, but it did get me thinking about a time in the past when tractors were used for plowing, planting and harvesting this field. Before that it would have been mule power. It makes me wonder what would have been here if the land had remained undisturbed during the last 200 years.

Though they were abundant, these tractors were pretty well behaved. They look like part of a pajama pattern. I’m sure you know what it really is.

I’m beginning to wonder if my perception is off. First I mistake a bit of the local flora for a discarded volleyball and now I spot a bit of trash in the prairie and think it’s an expanding batch of milkweed seeds.

It’s just 2011 balloon number 4. The rain of discarded helium balloons has remained fairly constant for the last 25 years. I guess ceremonial balloon releases are not impacted by changes in the economy. There are several local children who would have been thrilled at a tractor themed birthday party. Perhaps that’s where this came from. Was this a single balloon that escaped the grip of a child or was it part of a mass release? I guess the lesson being taught is that it’s OK to litter as long as the trash is being thrown into the sky and not directly onto the ground.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Giant Puffball

I was working along the road when I glanced up the bank and saw what I thought was some trash just across the fence. My first thought was a partially deflated volleyball, but it also had the look of an old bleach jug. When my work was finished I went up to have a look.

It turned out not to be trash of any sort. It may have had the look and size of a volleyball, but the whole mass was the fruiting body of a large fungus. I had found a wonderful specimen of Giant Puffball, Calvatia gigantea.

Giant Puffballs are common at Blue Jay Barrens, but their size is generally closer to that of a softball. My size ten Jungle Boots are exactly 12 inches from heel to toe, so they come in handy for impromptu measurements. I was trying to figure out how my puffball compared to the one Cheryl saw, but I don’t have a boot to binocular conversion table.

The skin looks much like a cured animal hide and can be quite tough. Giant Puffballs have an excellent taste, but it’s the soft interior that’s consumed. The skin is peeled and discarded.

There was a second puffball nearby. This one had a hard time expanding beneath a mat of vines. A specimen of this size can produce many billions of spores that can get into the air currents and circle the globe. It’s interesting that so many fungi, whose spores have the ability to follow the jet stream and end up anywhere in the northern hemisphere, have definite ranges in which they are found. I guess some species have such specific conditions necessary for the spores to begin development that only limited areas of the globe can offer the necessary environment. It’s still amazing to think that the spore that began this fungus may have traveled around the world before coming to rest in this field.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Clay Slip

I noticed that the shale in this section of stream bank was decomposing much more rapidly than any of the other exposed sections. Cracks have actually formed near the top of the exposed face. This indicates a major shift of material downward toward the creek. I haven’t seen any of the other shale outcrops behave in this manner.

Instead of standard stream bank erosion, there is a slip in progress here. A slip is a condition where a mass of soil moves downhill as a single unit, as opposed to erosion where soil is stripped away only from the exposed surface. No amount of vegetative cover or root mass is going to stop a slip. As seen here, the soil just slides out from under the plants.

Plants that began life high up the bank, end up at the bottom. This Ironwood will eventually be washed on downstream. There’s a chance it could lodge somewhere and reestablish in a new location. This is another example of how plants colonize new areas.

As the toe of the slip moves into the creek channel, normal stream bank erosion carries it away. This cycle will continue until the slipping hillside stabilizes.

I was still puzzled by the rapid formation of the slip. There are larger areas of exposed shale that stand almost vertically against the creek and show no signs of slipping. The appearance of this shale bed is no different than any other.

A more physical examination shed some light on the occurrence. My thumbnail could easily carve a depression in the sample. The entire bank is composed of compressed clay in layers identical to the shale formations. Given enough geologic time, this clay could have become shale. As it is now, the clay has the look of shale, but not the strength. There’s no telling how large this pocket of clay could be. The slip could eventually reach far up the hillside. I know it won’t go to the top of the hill, because limestone takes over somewhere between here and there. I’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Erosion Self Healing

There are several other sites that shared a similar erosion problem as that of the tire dump. These areas are healing in a more natural fashion. This process takes a while and the landscape will retain the irregular features of the erosion sites. More conventional methods of vegetating eroded areas would not fit in with my goal to achieve a population of native plants whose origins are all from this property.

The point of active erosion still exists, but its progression across the landscape has been halted and no eroded soil leaves the site. Most of the vegetation in the foreground has established itself in the past 25 years.

The eroded face is transitioning from a vertical wall to a stable slope. Soil that crumbles from the top, is caught at the bottom. Roots from the grass cover atop the cut help hold the developing slope in place.

The once bare area below the cut now supports a healthy vegetative cover. It’s been fun to watch these areas fill with common plants and more recently support some of the rare species at Blue Jay Barrens.

There are several acres of this type of situation at Blue Jay Barrens. On my first visit to this field, I was shocked by the amount of bare soil. This was at a time before I had learned anything about barrens, prairies or their associated rare plants. Fortunately, purchase of this property put us in a situation where mortgage payments and other expenses were using up our money as fast as we earned it, so I couldn’t afford to do any of the traditional erosion control methods recommended at the time. A winning Super Lotto ticket could have put an end to Blue Jay Barrens before it ever began. However, a winning ticket now shouldn’t cause any problems.

Some areas are just too shallow to bedrock to support any lush growth. Many native annuals take advantage of the reduced competition on these rocky sites.

There are always setbacks. A few years ago, cattle from a neighboring farm took a self-guided walking tour of Blue Jay Barrens and chose to congregate here and trample the vegetation into oblivion. They gave their attention to several places, but this spot is having the most difficult recovery. I don’t know why they did this. Maybe they were just out playing Bison and decided to create a couple of buffalo wallows.

Deer also have ways of disrupting the healing process. They have made a trail down the bank that now carries a concentrated flow of water from the field above. I could easily block their trail, but they would just move over and create a new trail on a different bank.

Maybe there really is something miraculous involved with the recovery of this field. If the grass can grow out of solid rock, it can grow anywhere.