Botany Road Trip: Spring 2008

Every spring I like to take a botanical road trip. Last spring my buddy Brad from Michigan came down and we took a southern tour. Due to a computer malfunction, I was unable to show my slides of the trip at the annual Botany Slide Show Extravaganza this winter. So, being compelled to salvage the usefulness of my slides from the trip, I put together the following.

The trip started right here in Dent County with a visit to Big Glade at Indian Trails State Forest.

Big Glade had received a solid burn earlier in the spring. The tender green tips of summer grasses and sedges were just breaking dormancy and lending a green buzz to the chert strewn dolomite shelves of this spectacular natural area. As it was early yet, few plants were flowering. Here are two fun ones:

Castilleja coccinea (yellow form) is one of my favorites. This hemiparasite is common on glades, but rarely abundant.

This is Silene caroliniana var. wherryi. In Missouri, it is only known from a cluster of counties in the central Ozarks. This variety also has disjunct populations in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama and North Carolina. It differs from other varieties in lacking glandular pubescence within the inflorescence.

From Big Glade we headed south to a chunk of National Forest near Birch Tree. Our quarry….the state imperiled/globally vulnerable Ozark Wake Robin (Trillium pusillum var. ozarkanum).

We were surprised to find this beauty blooming in profusion along the road ditch. A thunderstorm was riding down our backs, so we didn’t stay long. That being said, there wasn’t much else to see here. The wind in our faces, we headed to Bona Glade for a glimpse at the federally threatened Geocarpon minimum.

Like POWs traversing a landmine field, we watched every step. We were growing more discouraged with every Geocarpon-less acre and a good hour went by before we found the treasure. We safely tip-toed around the populations of this little gem and got some decent photos. While Geocarpon was the main attraction, I was struck by the range of color and texture this extensive sandstone glade offers.

The reds and oranges of the rock mixed with the greens, grays and yellows of the mosses and lichens commingled with the deep blue of a crisp spring day.

Noticing that Lichen Glade (another sandstone glade) was nearby, we loaded up and headed out. I had wanted to visit this site for years in order to find and photo Selenia aurea. Eyes wide the second we left the parking area, we stared intently at the ground. Had we looked up, we would have seen the glade was practically carpeted with a yellow so rich it would make a number two pencil bow its lead in shame. It was a profusion of Selenia aurea.

The beauty of this yellow halo was only match by the purple haze aglow on the west facing slope of the glade.

This violet symphony beneath the bursting buds of widely spaced Post Oak trees was composed of thousands of Collinsia violacea blooms being back-lit by the setting sun.

Feeling warm from the glow of a day’s glade hopping, we drove into the night and camped at Roaring River State Park. Tip: when camping on cold spring nights, make sure you actually pack the tent and not the bag that looks like the tent but is actually a screen canopy for a picnic table.

Over morning coffee, I contemplated what was colder, last night’s windchill or the look in Brad’s eyes. I consoled myself with the belief that the vista from Chute Ridge Glade that morning bought some forgiveness.

If it didn’t, the small population of Trillium viridescens might have.

There is a section along Chute Ridge Glade dominated with an overstory of Quercus muehlenbergii and Fraxinus quadrangulata. The understory is dominated by high quality mesic woods species such as Echinacea purpurea, Elymus glaucus and Hydrastis canadensis. This Dry Mesic Limestone/Dolomite Woodland community seems to be suffering from overzealous clearing and burning. It is as though it is being interpreted as an overgrown portion of the glade rather than a community within the glade. I fear such homogenous micromanagement and a drive to achieve 100% black during prescribed fires might be doing more harm than good here. Then again, what do I know?

From here we jumped into the truck and headed for the border. Our first stop was to see the Ozark Spring Beauty well inside the Natural State that is Arkansas.

The few scattered populations of this species in the Ozarks were long thought to be disjuncts of the common eastern Carolina Spring Beauty (C. caroliniana). A recent monograph of the genus demonstrated, without doubt, that this is a distinct species. I believe it is an Ozark endemic. Subsequent searches of historic population locations in Missouri have come up empty.

Next we had a date with shale barrens in the Ouachita Mountains.

The white flowers in this photo are of Valerianella nuttallii. It is a shale obligate and a Ouachita endemic.

Here is a close-up. We witnessed many other fabulous plants in the shale barrens, but it was too windy for decent photographs. This is the very site for the newly discovered species Sabatia arkansana that was all the rage a few years ago. I would strongly recommend a visit to these treasures. They were very unique in both vegetative structure and composition.

A short hike into the forests of the Ouachita Mountains led us to the next prize; Cypripedium kentuckiense.

This plant pretty much made the trip for Brad and me. Noted Arkansas nature photographer Craig Fraiser, led us to the population that consisted of a few hundred stems. Kentucky Ladyslipper was split out of the Yellow Ladyslipper complex in the mid-1980’s and described as a new species. It differs in having a pale yellow slipper with a much larger opening. The habitat and habit are both dramatically different as well. Living plants barely resemble Yellow Ladyslippper, but pressed plants can lose the characters that differentiate the two species (especially habit and habitat). This is a great example of how field knowledge is crucial to taxonomy; a fact that is increasingly ignored as organismal biology is abandoned by universities throughout the nation.

High on great plant finds, we ventured further south. Morning found us in Texarkana, Texas. Our destination was extreme southwest Arkansas, but we were so close to Texas it would have been rude not to stop by for a few minutes. Once we were back in Arkansas, we stopped at Miller County Sandhills. The site touts 21 state listed plant species. As the name implies the area is dominated by deep sandy soils and corresponding xerophytic species. This is the first time that Brad and I really noticed a major shift in the vegetation. We could certainly taste the southern influence and we recognized very few species, which to a field botanist can be quite exhilarating but also very frustrating. Two members of the Euphorbiaceae proved to be the most interesting and strange plants at the site.

This is Cnidoscolus texanus. It took us hours to identify this thing, because its large funnelform flowers were unlike any Euphorb we had ever seen. The milky sap and a wild guess finally got us an identification.

Compared to this photo of Stillingia sylvatica in full bloom you really get a feel for the range of morphological variation in this crazy family.

On our third day we crossed into Louisiana. We had three goals for the Pelican State; 1) find Penstemon murrayanus, 2) eat a meat pie in Natchitoches and 3) get our feet wet in Cooter’s Bog.

Here is Penstemon murrayanus. It is my favorite photograph from the trip. This species is ranked S1 in Louisiana and S2 in Arkansas and Oklahoma. Evidently it is also rare in Texas. We found it growing along some weedy railroad tracks surrounded by extensive ORV trails. It seems to have an interesting autecology, but darn if I can find anything about it. Online there is an abundance of sites referring to its use as a hummingbird plant. This plus the brilliant red of the flowers has made it a favorite of the well intentioned but rather myopic “native” plant trade.

That night we feasted on meat pies in the gorgeous and historic town of Natchitoches. Don’t try to pronounce it. You have to be born there to pull it off.

The next morning, and an hour or two south of Natchitoches we found Cooter’s Bog.

Cooter’s Bog is neither Cooter’s nor a bog. This preserve, as part of the Kisatchie National Forest, belongs to the tax paying American public. It isn’t a bog if you define a bog as ombrotrophic (wet from direct precipitation and surface run-off) and a fen as minerotrophic (wet from groundwater discharge). Rainwater from the surrounding Long Leaf Pine stands percolates through deep sandy soils until it hits a clay layer. Where shallow valleys have eroded down to the clay layer, water, following the path of least resistance, emits from the ground. Even though it is acidic, it is a fen. In these nutrient deficient soils you find common carnivorous bog genera like Pinguicula (Butterworts), Drosera (Sundews), Utricularia (Bladderworts) and Sarracenia (Pitcher Plants). We saw and relished in examples of each, as well as many other fascinating taxa.

Here is a fine example of Sarracenia alata pitchers and flowers. Clumps of this amazing plant were scattered throughout Cooter’s Bog. This species rounded out a trip we took several years ago to Florida where we saw five other species. I have now seen six of the roughly 11 species in North America.

While we would have stayed for days or pushed on into Texas, the pull of real life and its burdens dragged us homeward, leaving us with only a taste of deeply southern flora. The end of a road trip always evokes a hint of melancholy in me. Like the song “The Last Fandango” or the end of “The Breakfast Club”; a satisfaction that is measured most by the degree to which you don’t want it to end. We vowed to return someday. I’ll let you know when we do.


  1. Wonderful photos and story. That photo of Bona Glade is simply wonderful - I'll have to make a visit to that place. Lichen and Chute Glades have been favorites of mine for many years. And that photo of Cypripedium kentuckiense - wow!

    Can you elaborate for this good entomologist but bad botanist what you mean by "myopic native plant trade"?


  2. Thanks Ted. We wanted to visit Wildcat Glades in Joplin to round out the collection of glades by adding the chert element, but ran out of time that day.

    I refer to the native plant trade as "myopic" more for what it fails to do than anything it does. For example, native plant nurserys in Arkansas sell P. murrayanus throughout the state as a native species, though it only occurs in two southern counties. This sort of edge of range species crossing a political boundary scenario sets up a "state native" concept rather than an ecoregional one. This occurs primarily because it is a charasmatic plant that the industry can sell, and secondarily because it is native. This is horticulture not ecology. Roadside plantings of native species throughout the Ozarks are usually prairie seed mixes that often include species that are not native to the Ozarks and almost never native genotypes (MODOT gets a lot of seed from Wisconsin and Minnesota)because the state buys from the least expensive producer. This is economics, not ecology. The trade serves as the primary resource for restoration activities which are limited by what the seed trade produces. If you want to restore native quality to a degraded wetland, the only species you have to choose from are charasmtic plants like Queen of the Prairie and Riddel's Goldenrod. Rarely can they provide seeds of the workhorse generalists that are often less fascinating and beautiful but are the backbone of a functioning plant community. Again, horticulture and economics over ecology. The worst part, to a purist like myself, is that this is all sold to the public as "ecologically sound". Granted, it is better than Honeysuckle bushes and Fescue, but better only by a matter of degrees. Lastly, I feel that native plants in residential and commercial landscaping are no more ecologically relevant than exotics. Urban areas are so blitzed at this point that one Royal Catchfly per block of neighborhood is never going to bring the bison back. That being said, my house is landscaped with natives, but because I like them not because they are fulfilling and ecological function. Bottomline, I don't think that incorporating native species into the artificial selection practices of the horticulture trade is the right approach and it distracts from more ecologically feesible solutions to habitat loss. Anyway, that is my unpopular opinion on the matter. Sorry for the rant.

  3. Wow, great pictures of the CPs. I absolutely love growing carnivorous plants, though I do so indoors so far.

  4. I wished I could have joined the two of you on this trip before I saw the photos... now I'm just mad at myself that I couldn't find a way to fit it in. Amazing photos, matched only by the commentary. The Collinsia violacea landscape shot is breathtaking, and Trillium pusillum var. ozarkanum is quite a beauty. But who couldn't love Geocarpon minimum!?

    When in Florida several years ago, I saw Cnidoscolus urens v. stimulosus, most affectionately known as "finger rot" due to the stinging sensation one gets from touching it. Did you actually break a leaf to see the white sap on Cnidoscolus texanus? You guys are crazy.

    Regarding your rant in response to Ted's comment, I mostly agree. The only place I don't totally agree is where you state that the natives you use to landscape your property don't fulfill an (any?) ecological function. I'd be interested to hear Ted's thoughts on this as an entomologist, but from personal experience when we lived near downtown South Bend, planting natives brought a variety of native insects that were not in our yard when the landscaping consisted of exotics. Doug Tallamy from University of Delaware has written a book entitled Bringing Nature Home, in which he discusses the ecological benefits of landscaping with natives. I've seen him speak twice and have been impressed by his research, which shows that the diversity and richness of native insects increases dramatically with the use of native plants as compared to non-native plants. These insects in turn attract native birds. This is no replacement for the natural systems that once existed, and this is very different and magnitudes away from being as ecologically beneficial as large-scale landscape restoration, but you and I trying to protect our natural areas is only going so far. Until we face the issue that overpopulation is leading to most, if not all, of our societal and ecological problems including raping our natural resources and destroying our natural areas, these islands of native plants and associated native fauna in a landscaped suburban backyard may be all that we have. Okay, there's my rant. That being said, I totally agree that "native" should have an ecoregional, not a political, definition. And I totally agree that native plantings, including "restorations," lack the "workhorse generalists" that are so important. We've got a lot of work to do.

    So where and when is the trip this year? I've got to join you this time!

  5. We dared not touch the leaves or stem of Cnidoscolus. We noticed the milky sap upon plucking a flower for dissection.

    On some level, I agree with your comments regarding native plants in the horticultural industry. However, I firmly believe that even if every home and office in any given urban area used natives in their landscaping, the ecological function of the landscape is not improved. The sheer fact that there are houses and humans and streets and dogs and cats, and so on, detracts from the intention of the effort. Now, if the intention is to simply draw a few of the remaining native insects and birds to your yard so you can admire them before they go extinct, then I'm all for it, but I can't place it under the umbrella of ecological significance.

    I'm not sure where the trip is this year. I am leaning toward a hunt for rare Trillium in southern Appalachia. As always, the trips are greatly improved by your presence. Let's talk.

  6. Wonderful commentary from both Scott and Justin - thanks for illuminating some things about the native plant trade that I was unaware of, or simply had not thought about.

    I certainly agree that native plantings in urban/suburban areas cannot replace functioning ecosystems, but I think Scott's point about native plants supporting native insects is valid, in that they can actually help to augment insects populations in some situations - it depends if the plant serves as a developmental host for the insect. Butterfly gardens, while the most popular form of 'native landscaping' among urbanites, probably provides the least benefit, in that the plants are serving only as nectaring hosts for the adults, who had to develop on other plants that probably were not utilized in native gardens. There are a whole host of other, less charismatic insects that feed on many of the plants used in native gardens - any increase in their available hosts will benefit their populations. The effects are probably synergized as the overall level of native plantings is increased (or the level of disturbance to native ecosystems is decreased) due to interactions between the different trophic levels (herbivores, predators, parasites, etc.). Again, not to say this can replace the native systems, but I do believe there is not only benefit, but an increasing level of benefit as the scope and variety of native plantings is expanded.

    Anyway, great post and fascinating commentary.


  7. Justin-Came across your post on Cnidoscolus via google. I posted an entry on my blog ( about bull nettle a couple of days ago. Unfortunately, this plant is all too common here in the western part of north-central Texas. I think you have a great blog and have you on my blogroll. --Rick

  8. Hi Rick,

    Thanks for the encouragement! I just got back from a Trillium hunt in Alabama. I'll definately check out your blog!


  9. your pictures are beautiful <3

  10. Oooh~ Those were some beautiful flowers you shot there, and it makes me wanna go there for our next road trip. Man, those field filled with the Collinsia violacea reminds me of the colorful visuals of cherry blossom trees in Japan.


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