There are so many questions in field ecology. And there are those of us that obsess over the answers. We obsess because the questions gnaw at our psyches, needle the tender pink concavities of our brains, and boil up hot lava plumes of dissatisfaction as we dig deeper into the pleasure of nature study. They haunt us the way any puzzle haunts any person, only amplified. Instead of a word jumble over morning coffee, field ecologists face vast expanses of dead and living landscapes that have been scattered, smothered, covered, chunked, diced, peppered, capped and topped (not unlike Waffle House hash browns) across millions of years of ecological transition and evolutionary time. They have cooked into a steamy stew of wondrously bewildering patterns, pseudopatterns, and near trends. Good field ecologists savor their thick saucy sweetness.
Science, as a social function, thrives on questions. It is a progressive endeavor. In my estimation, the best field ecologists are those thirsty with questions. They are also almost always field botanists. I attribute this to several factors; 1) ecology is the study of energy flow; 2) photosynthesis is the sole source of all energy that enters terrestrial ecosystems (and the vast majority of aquatic ecosystems); 3) the structure and composition of botanical communities dictate the structure and function of all subordinate (in terms of energy flow) forms of life. Thus, the more intimately one knows a flora, the more insight one has into the past states, current condition and ultimate potential of a given area. I can’t state strongly enough that this type of knowledge is paramount to wise use and sound management.
On a side note, this is also the reason I get squeamish this time of year as I see the flurry of summer job postings for “seasonal botanists”, in stark contrast to the complete absence of “professional botanist” jobs. No, it appears the conservation field is now defining "botanists" as an undergraduate student looking for an intern-like position who also has a penchant for thumbing their way through a Newcomb’s guide or equivalent. Once they’ve gotten their summer of wildflower romping out of their system they’re ready for more technocratic endeavors like manning ARC-GIS machines or computer modeling; no doubt drawing on the vast ecological wisdom a single season in the field has garnered them. And while the maps and models fly around with perpetually inbred logic, and they are ushered into other dubiously titled positions, there remain no professional avenues for the truly seasoned botanists; those driven by ecological or botanical phenomenology: the study of real systems and real organisms in real time.
Which brings us to Juncus brachyphyllus. Between 1922 and 1974 Juncus brachyphyllus was documented by collections at least 28 times in Missouri (based on current Flora of Missouri Project database at tropicos.org). Because no verified collections had been made since 1974, it was added to the state list of species of conservation concern as State Historic (SH), which isn’t too far a jump from State Extripated.
As a die-hard Juncus fan, I began looking for Juncus brachyphyllus in the early 2000’s as I botanized and/or sampled the prairies of southwest Missouri. I must have decapitated several hundred innocent Juncus dudleyi and J. interior in order to investigate the nature of their septa; the key-based character needed to distinguish J. brachyphyllus from these two similar species. As the keys read, the septa of J. brachyphyllus are complete and fully divide the ovary into three distinct locules, whereas the septa of J. dudleyi and J. interior are incomplete (not connected in the center); thus while the capsules are technically tricarpellate in all three, they are unilocular in the latter two.
One day in 2013 my search for a rediscovery of Juncus brachyphyllus in Missouri ended. I was conducting a botanical survey for a private landowner in Hickory County. I had just gotten to the site and was talking to the landowner when about 20 feet away I saw a Juncus inflorescence sticking up in the grass. Instantly I knew it was different. It was taller than the ubiquitous J. dudleyi. It had a thicker stem. It had a more condensed inflorescence that was distinctly cinnamon brown. I attempted to politely and simultaneously uphold my end of the conversation and contain my excitement as I slid closer to the plant that I already knew was going to be J. brachyphyllus. It was.
The very next morning I had business on Golden Prairie where I had been working earlier in the week. No sooner had I stepped out of the truck, when I spotted a stem of J. brachyphyllus. That’s two modern collections in two days! Since then I’ve been on twenty or more prairies in the Unglaciated Prairie Natural Division and at each of them I have found healthy populations of J. brachyphyllus without even trying. The “state historic” hypothesis, though functionally useful for raising awareness, was completely false. Sadly, the only thing historic was our ability to recognize this common member of our prairie flora.
Juncus brachyphyllus is a prairie species. Its complete range is prairie. So imagine my confusion when I also began finding it in the Ozarks. Everyone knows there is no prairie in the Ozarks, right? There are glades (edaphic prairies), there are historically open woodlands and savannas, but prairies? Okay, there are small prairie properties like Tingler Prairie near West Plains but that is it. All right, there are rumors of very large historic prairies like Lanes Prairie in Maries County. And sure, there are large prairie stretches with highly conservative prairie flora all along the I-44 corridor from Springfield to Pacific; all along highways 68, 32 and 19 radiating from Salem where Schoolcraft noted extensive prairies; all along highway 60 from Springfield to Mountain View or just about any highway or road in the broad upland zones of the entire Springfield and Salem Plateaus. And, okay, maybe Paul Nelson did mention in the Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri (1987, 2005 and 2010) that there were scattered prairies of just about every prairie type that occurs in Missouri in the Ozarks and that they consisted of 100 to 1000 acre patches. And if you really think about it, I guess Schroeder (1981), a mere 35 years ago, did well document via land survey notes large prairie stretches in the Ozarks. But there are NO prairies. Besides Tingler Prairie, they did not exist nor do they exist in the minds of most professionals in the field today. We never talk about them. There is no active project to document, survey or secure them. The public certainly is oblivious. So while they may have existed, they may as well never have.
It's kind of sad. On one hand we have a plant that the professionals charged with protecting couldn’t identify (myself included) and on the other an entire community type (actually several types) that is completely off the radar on an ecoregional scale. What is even sadder is that these seemingly non-existent Ozark Prairies were/are phenomenal! They were unlike any other prairie expression in terms of structure and composition at all scales (community, population and genetic). I’ve actually walked on a few of these remnants and have marveled at combinations unseen elsewhere, as species characteristic of Ozark woodlands intermingle with classic prairie notoriety. Here are some photos of them in situ.
Delphinium carolinianum, unlike D. virescens which is more often associated with the Tallgrass Prairie ecoregion, is mostly found on limestone glades in the Ozarks. However, this photo was taken in an Ozark prairie remnant on soils derived from Roubidoux Sandstone. The population only consisted of a half dozen stems.
Desmodium sessilifolium is a common species of prairie inside and outside the Ozarks. It is one of the more disturbance tolerant species and thereby serves as a decent indicator of prairie influence.
Gymnopogon ambiguus is an odd duck. Primarily a grass of the Coastal Plain it likely sneaked into the Ozark prairies during the hypsithermal.
Helianthus occidentalis was likely a common element of Ozark prairies especially given the often dry sandy soils of Ozark uplands.
Helianthus x cinereus is a hybrid between the last and the next species. Because hybridization has a functional role in many communities, this is a wonderful thing to see in the Ozarks.
Helianthus mollis is a classic Tallgrass prairie species that does not occur on glades in the Ozarks. Its presence is highly indicative of remnant prairie.
Juncus brachycarpus is not a hardcore prairie species, but its prevalence in Ozark prairies as well as Tallgrass prairies to the west is interesting and fun.
Liatris hirsuta is commonly considered an Ozark woodland species. But its geographical distribution actually indicates that it is a species of the east central Tallgrass Ecoregion with a range extension into the western Ozarks. Since most of the Ozark prairies are gone or overgrown, the perception of it as a woodland species is likely derived more from displacement than historic relevance.
Monarda bradburiana is primarily a woodland species, but it fits right into smaller Ozark prairie remnants. It makes one wonder just how much prairie blood is coursing through its veins.
Andropogon ternarius is another species that seems to have been more common in Ozark prairies in Missouri than in our actual prairies.
Platanthera lacera is one of the weedier of the prairie orchid ilk, but, like in bigger prairies to the west and north, it is quite at home in the Ozark prairies.
Polygala incarnata is one of several species that occur in shallow sandy soils of prairies in southwest Missouri. It does the same in Ozark prairies.
Orbexilum pedunculatum is equally at home in Ozark woodlands, Tallgrass prairies and prairies of the Ozarks. It is another one of these species that if you learned it in the Ozarks you think of as a woodland species, but if you learned it in prairies you think of it as a prairie species. Both are right. I feel this type of interface between the two ecotones is what makes Ozark prairies so specieal.
Prunus munsoniana forms wonderful mounded thickets in prairie country and offers habitat heterogeneity and tasty plums for wildlife. Its range seems to overlay the Ozark prairie zone very well.
Andropogon scoparius (not Schizachyrium; a taxonomically useless moniker). You couldn't cry "prairie" without it. Like in Tallgrass prairie, it is/was a matrix species in Ozark prairie.
Escaped fire gave this remnant another breath of life. This is part of a patchy network of roughly 80 acres in Dent County that may represent one of the largest remnant Ozark prairies. Because no one is conserving or even investigating Ozark prairies, we have no idea of their current extent or condition; a fact that finds me staring at the ceiling on many a sleepless night.
The areas surrounding the few remnants I've seen consist of large fescue fields with odd jigsaw puzzled borders of tree line. I do not believe that these jigsaw puzzle borders are a coincidence. I suspect they represent historic prairie woodland interfaces. If only we had more time, more resources, more people with the requisite aptitude and fervor for natural community protection and restoration we might save some shining examples of this wholly unique clash between prairie and Ozark histories; this living example of explosive biological dynamism. Perhaps the first step is just getting people to see, in the hope that in seeing they will understand. And sometimes understanding is all we can ask for.