Showing posts from 2009

Festuca paradoxa and why we know we know nothing

The mention of fescue often brings to mind tough, stringy, silica-laden strands of grass being pulverized by the broad molars of cattle, cudding its way through the four steamy stomachs of the beast only to be expelled in a watery, brownish-green ooze of hot acrid defecation upon an overgrazed, cracked and sore, field that once harbored an intricate assemblage of native organisms but that is now reduced to a monoculture of fescue. Or at least it does to me. But there are good fescues in the world. Ones whose histories are not synonymous with the death knell of Midwestern natural systems. Folks with a remedial knowledge of Midwestern natural communities are aware of Festuca subverticillata (Nodding Fescue); a native species commonly found in woodlands and forests of decent remnant natural integrity. Others might be surprised to know there is another native fescue in our midst. I am writing, of course, of Festuca paradoxa.

Festuca paradoxa resembles F. subverticillata in gross morphology…

The Board

One of the best classes I took as an undergraduate was Plant Taxonomy. Not just because I drool over the topic, but because the professor, Dr. Robin Kennedy, taught it with great enthusiasm. She also developed a wonderful structure for the class; lab and lecture. Our exams were a mix of live and pressed plant specimens that we had to identify by their visible characters. We were also given lists of characters to which we had to match families. For example, what family has tetradynamous stamens? Why, Brassicaceae, of course. We covered over 60 families of vascular plants over the semester and the mental organization of information for all these families, their characters, associated terminology and their floral formulae was mind melting. However, we were given a tool.

In the first lab session we were handed a manila file folder which we placed on a light board and upon it we traced a series of rows and columns. Each column was given a heading like “United Carpels” or “Zygomorphic”. As t…

Arthraxon hispidus

Earlier this year, September 14th to be exact, while driving a gravel road through a section of the Mark Twain National Forest I noticed a dramatic change in the structure of the roadside vegetation. My brain instantly weighed my desire to stop and investigate against my need to get some real work done. Before I could make up my mind, my foot hit the brake. It always does.

What I had seen was a large colony of grass that superficially resembled Microstegium vimineum in overall stature and habit. However, the inflorescences more closely resembled Bothriochloa bladhii.

Luckily, I had my copy of "Steyermark’s Flora of Missouri" (Yaskievych 1999) riding shotgun. A quick run through the keys gave the name Arthraxon hispidus.

I had heard of this grass before, though I had never seen it. It occurs rather sporadically throughout the eastern U.S. and is more common in the southeast (Kaufman and Kaufman 2007). Vegetatively, it is readily identified by its clasping leaves (similar to Di…

Pic Picks 2009

Now that the growing season has ended and the 2009 Botany Slideshow Extravaganza is over, I thought I would post some of my favorite photos from the year. The lack of labels or narrative is intentional. If you want a name, hover your cursor over the image and look for the name within the file name. Enjoy!

Rash Doctors

Many of the botanists of yore were primarily medical doctors by profession. Examples include such greats as Asa Gray, George Engelmann, John Torrey and to some extent Carolus Linnaeus himself. If modern doctors had such affection for our wild flora, perhaps I wouldn’t cringe when I commonly hear of people in the Midwest diagnosed with Poison Oak or Poison Sumac rash. To them, I usually reply with some cynically derived question regarding the geographical location of their encounter with the offender. If they have been diagnosed with Poison Oak I ask, “have you been in the forests, woodlands or swamps of the southern states lately?”. My Poison Sumac inquiry is more specific. “Have you been in a high quality wetland community lately?”, I say.

Most folks eye me queerly and retort “no, I was doing yard work” or “whatever do you mean”. The bait being taken, I explain that Poison Ivy is a much more likely explanation for their dermal discomfort; especially for those living outside the range …

Vitaceae Seedlings; A Mystery No More

Sampling plants in quadrats is a challenging endeavor. It requires a taste for botany in its most raw and primitive state. Plants encountered in quadrats are almost always sterile and range from newborn seedlings to the withered remains of plants that may have senesced earlier in the year; and everything green in between. The field botanist spends countless hours in a growing season on his knees, head buried in vegetation, straining to use a hand lens at ground level in order to examine such subtleties as the red calluses on the teeth of Ceanothus americanus seedlings or the length of the ligule that separates Andropogon virginicus from Andropogon scoparius (Schizachyrium lacks taxonomic credibility when applied to Little Bluestem).
All this with the discomfort and sometimes fear that ticks, chiggers, horseflies, deerflies, yellow jackets, mosquitoes, gnats, spiders, snakes, falling limbs, storms, poison-ivy, heat and meth-heads illicit all around you. You know you have reached th…


Lactuca hirsuta is one of the most under detected species of vascular plants in the Midwest. There I said it. It is completely off the radar for most folks, yet I see it with considerable frequency, at least here in the Ozarks. The USDA Plants website shows that it occurs in most every state northeast of Texas (north to MN and east to Maine and GA) yet it is listed from shockingly few counties in these states. I don’t know how this creature has escaped detection. Perhaps its anomalous distribution stems for the common precept that Lactuca canadensis can be distinguished from other Lactuca by the salmon/orange sap color. While this it true, one must then distinguish Lactuca hirsuta which also possesses this quality. This is easily done since L. hirsuta, as the name implies, is hirsute and L. canadensis is glabrous (disclaimer: some specimens of L. canadensis can be very slightly pubescent and some L. hirsuta can be sparsely pubescent but the vast majority are clear-cut).

Here is …

A Sabatia Induced Rant

In Richard Manning’s book “Grassland”, he wrote the following:

I once heard a story of a man who had perfect recall, so he could never carry on a conversation. He had to live in isolation because the merest stimulus, the merest sentence from outside his own head would recall everything. All the information in his head would come tumbling forth in a great rush, and he would be crushed by the pain of seeing.
I imagine that must be what it is like sometimes to be a botanist. I have been afield with many of them, and they are different, almost invariably quiet, distant. Undeniably, they see something different from what I see, as if the knowledge of the plants lifts a veil. The whole of it is there in the plants to be read, the full soul of a place, its life and the abuses of its life, the creation’s intentions and the manifest violation of those intentions. Botanists are our shamans.

While this is clearly a romantic notion, there is some truth to it. Most botanists I know often reminisce ab…

Argyrochosma dealbata

While running transects across the grassy ledges and shelves of Hercules Glades Wilderness in Taney County Missouri, I paused to wipe the accumulation of sweat and juniper needles from my brow. As my heart rate approached conditionally normal, given the heat, my eyes focused on a tiny patch of bluish vegetation clinging to the otherwise salt and pepper fa├žade of the sun and lichen aged limestone rock; the jutting and ever dissolving bones of the Ozarks. I leaned in.

Puzzled, I looked around the ledge and discovered eight more small clumps of this little fern. I am accustomed to seen Cheilanthes feei on such rocks in such habitat, but this was strikingly different. In fact, Chelanthes feei was growing on the same ledge some 24 inches away and made for apt comparison. Hot blood squeezed through my brain and I was surprised when the name Notholaena dealbata surfaced; a fern I had only seen on glades along the Blue River in Kansas City. A quick cruise through several cold blooded refer…

Silphium asteriscus

I truly enjoy the genus Silphium. It has an exciting yet strangely cohesive range of morphological variation. From humble colonies of S. integrifolium to the stoic and lofty stems of S. laciniatum, from the cool, rough texture of S. terebinthinaceum to the dense flocculence of S. mohrii (see below), they never fail to please.

Here is a veiny crowd pleaser; the leaf of Silphium compositum from northern Alabama.

In the Ozarks Highlands of Missouri, I annually anticipate the lemony blooms of S. asteriscus that begin dazzling the understory of our acid upland woodlands soon after the summer solstice.

Silphium asteriscus (Starry Rosinweed, if you must) occurs throughout the southern United States in acidic woodlands. When young, it produces a basal rosette of ovate to lanceolate leaves. When it bolts to flower, the leaves are alternate along the stem, as opposed to S. integrifolium which is opposite leaved (and which never produces a basal rosette).

In spite of the dramatic range in morph…

The Oddly Bearable Heat of Hercules Glades Wilderness

A foggy sunrise over the balds and ridges of Hercules Glades Wilderness in southwestern Missouri has been my companion for most mornings the past two weeks.

Temperatures have been starting in the low 70’s at sunrise and accelerating from there to the mid and upper 90’s by noon. The high humidity and lack of anything resembling a breeze has forced me to wake at 4am and have my quadrat buried deep in the dewy glade grasses by first light. By noon, I haul myself, an ever present load of ticks, and my near empty gallon jug of water a good mile to the nearest refugium where I reestablish a safe body temperature and stifle the heat induced randomness of my thoughts; thoughts that make one believe in the hallucinations induced by such spiritual paraphernalia as the Native American sweat lodge.

Such thoughts were in my head yesterday morning when I glanced up from my vegetation sampling to see a 200 pound black bear walking broadside, watching me from no more than 60 feet away. I have always ha…