Friday, April 18, 2014

Early Spring on Daughmer Savanna

Of all the natural landscapes and ecosystems Ohio had to offer around the time of European settlement, none have seen the same systematic destruction and removal quite like our prairies.  Over 99% of Ohio's indigenous tall grass prairie has succumbed to the activities of man or the inevitable march of natural succession.  You thought over 90% of our state's wetlands being lost was bad, the prairies have statistically had it worse.  Originally representing nearly 5% of Ohio's vegetation at the time of settlement, these open, grass-dominated ecosystems are relatively new to Ohio from a geologic viewpoint and came into existence around 4000-8000 years ago during a shift to a warmer, drier climate.  This change disrupted and discouraged reforestation's northward advancement post-Wisconsin glaciation and allowed the western tall grass prairie to migrate east through Illinois, Indiana and into Ohio.  Gradually the climate returned to a more cool and wet cycle and forestation picked back up as the prairies were invaded and recolonized by the trees.

Considering how fast open grassland can revert to shrubs-saplings and on into young forest, we have to thank in large part the Native American tribes that lived in western/northern Ohio for keeping our prairies around.  They played a huge role in maintaining these grassland habitats with their frequent use of fire.  They realized wild game was more attracted to the lush new-growth of burned areas and the open environment made hunting them easier and more successful.  This led to a consistent fire regime that kept the woody invaders at bay and a key aspect to their livelihoods healthy and intact.  Naturally-occurring fires from the likes of lightning strikes did occur historically but hardly at the same interval and efficiency as the native people's.  Without their influence, I highly doubt any substantial tracts of prairie would have persisted up until the time of settlement.  I can only imagine what it must have been like to gaze out at an almost never-ending expanse of grasses and the occasional tree with herds of grazers like bison and elk spread out across its vastness, let alone seeing a hot and intense prairie fire speed across the ground with flames licking 15-20 feet into the sky.  Sigh...too many invaluable things have been lost to the sands of time.

The first pioneers found these open tracts of tall warm season grasses, occasional oaks and hickories, and colorful summer wildflowers to be quite formidable and were initially ignored for their lack of trees.  The early thought was any land that didn't support forest was infertile and not worth the time or effort to farm.  If only that assumption had never been questioned.  Once that mindset was reversed and the prairie's deep, rich black soil was bitten into by the steel plow and drained with tile, it wasn't long before it had all but disappeared and turned into modern prairie monocultures of corn, soybeans, and wheat.

Botanists Rick Gardner and Dan Boone walking through Daughmer Prairie in early spring

However, that less than 1% of indigenous prairie hanging around is still out there and few, if any place(s) are better and more representative than Daughmer Prairie Savanna state nature preserve in Crawford county. Daughmer occurs in the former grandeur of the Sandusky Plains that once sprawled out over 200,000 acres in north-central Ohio. Only 70 or so acres of the Sandusky Plains remain and nearly half of its vestiges reside in Daughmer Prairie.

The photos that accompany this post were taken in late March of 2012 during a visit by your blogger and good friends in Ohio's Division of Natural Areas and Preserves' chief botanist Rick Gardner and the oft-mentioned and brilliant Daniel Boone.  Spring came fast and early that year and I recall this day, despite the chilled and gloomy look of the landscape, being in the 80s and a sweat-inducer, which is something I was certainly not used to so early in the season.  The darkened skies may be still and silent in the photos but lightning and thunder was discharged out of the swirling and churning blackness during our foray into the savanna and it made for a very memorable and electric experience.

Early spring on Daughmer Prairie Savanna as a line of thunderstorms move in.

Daughmer isn't what you would label as a true-blue tall grass prairie ecosystem but rather a prairie savanna due to its host of numerous bur oak trees.  Savannas existed at the tension zones between the prairie and recolonizing forest as well as in areas where fire did enough to drive off most woody/shrubby invaders but left some of the more fire-resistant trees behind to grow and mature.  The bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is the classic and quintessential tree of Ohio's prairies and savannas with white oak (Q. alba), post oak (Q. stellata) and shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) the other common denizens.  In wet-saturated areas you might see more swamp white oak (Q. bicolor) while in the sandier, more xeric and acidic savanna (e.g. the Oak Openings) black oak (Q. velutina) dominate.

Dan standing with a mighty bur oak

Some of Daughmer Savanna's bur oaks approach and exceed three and four feet in diameter and have been aged to over 250 years old.  A few more than likely experienced a trial by fire as saplings during the last waning rounds of burns set by the Native Americans before their removal and/or demise at the hands of European settlement. Bur oak's thick, rigid bark can stand up to the fast but intensely hot grassland fires and often times boast scares as proof of their tenacity and brawn.  Without any significant competition from neighboring trees, oaks on the savannas grew stout and sprawled their limbs outward in a wide sweeping fashion, their leaves' photosynthesis factories humming along at peak.  Standing under these behemoths with the summer sun streaming through the emerald canopies and the robust scent of earth on the air is as refreshing a moment as exists in the natural world.

Seasonal wetlands and prairie potholes occur in parts of Daughmer and only add to the diversity of the site.

Despite looking and more-or-less being flat and unchanging as can be, Daughmer has a surprising variance in its hydrology.  On the more dry and well-drained soils you find a typical mixture of warm-season grasses such as big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) mixed with forbs and sedges such as the rare Eleocharis compressa and Carex bicknellii.  Moving into more moist-wet prairie finds an association of prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) or bluejoint (Calamogrostis canadensis) and muhly-grass (Muhlenbergia mexicana) pocketed with seasonal wetland sedge meadows and small prairie pothole marshes.  Looking out across its landscape and you wouldn't think a place with "only grass" could be home to such a diversity of plant and animal life.

Rick standing in the shadows of the approaching storm

Prairie savanna is not only incredibly rare in the state of Ohio but is considered a globally rare community as well, which makes protecting these places all the more important.  Thankfully, the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves recently purchased this plot of land to give it a much more secure and bright future.  Daughmer's soils have never been plowed and remain a virgin of its steel to this day, but was used extensively for grazing cattle and sheep in the past.  This led to an extirpation of many summer wildflower species and opened the door for non-native invasives like teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) to establish but was a small price to pay for keeping this gem around and impressively intact otherwise.

Daughmer was recently dedicated as a state nature preserve and is open to the public year-round.  I encourage anyone with an interest in our natural history and a desire for a small glimpse back into the past to pay it a visit regardless of the time of year.  You can find directions to the preserve HERE.

A point worth mentioning here is that when the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves bought this land, the money used was solely from DNAP's donated income tax check-off funds.  In other words, you, the citizens and nature-caring/conscious/loving/appreciating/etc. people of Ohio all came together to make this possible.  Since its inception in 1983, over $16 million dollars have been donated and used to protect our state's natural treasures!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Earth Laughs in Flowers

Ah, spring is finally upon us once more with its flush of life coming back into the world.  The last breath of winter's chill has finally withdrawn from our weary landscape, chased off by the sun's waxing strength and presence.  It has been a bit of a slow start to the season this time around but that has done little to quell the anticipation and excitement in your blogger for the reemergence of his wildflower friends.  Months of frozen daydreams and faithful patience have melted into reality and not a day too soon.

Amid the rain showers and intermittent sunshine of the past week, I made time to get out and about to see what early bloomers were up and ready to get reacquainted with my camera lens.  I was not disappointed in my endeavor as spring's early bounty of wildflowers was well underway in the right spots.

Harbinger-of-Spring (Erigenia bulbosa)

Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa) is one of the first out of the gate each March and makes for a charming if not dainty discovery in its rich mesic woodland home.

Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale)
Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale)






















Spring has not truly arrived for this botanist until he's laid eyes on the ephemeral snow trillium (Trillium nivale). Its beauty is nigh on unrivaled and seems an appropriate choice to help pack away the winter blues.

Round-lobed Hepatica (Anemone acutiloba)

Round-lobed hepatica (Anemone acutiloba) comes in a wide variety of color forms; from pure white to electric blue and everything in-between.  This patch happened to be a soft, yet striking shade of lavender.

Goldenstar Lily (Erythronium rostratum)
Goldenstar Lily (Erythronium rostratum)






















The goldenstar lily (Erythronium rostratum) is as beautiful as it is rare; which is to say "very" on both accounts. Only known from two populations in extreme southern Ohio, this seemingly auriferous wildflower only unfurls its tepals in the most abundant of sunshine.

Fibrous-rooted Sedge (Carex communis)

Those with a keen and careful eye might notice some of the woodland sedges coming to life this time of year, like the early-blooming fibrous-rooted sedge (Carex communis).  Their flowering culms have a beauty all their own, as long as you don't compare them to things like the aforementioned goldenstar lilies.

White Trout-lily (Erythronium albidum)
White Trout-lily (Erythronium albidum)






















I'm not sure what aspect of the white trout-lily (Erythronium albidum) I find more pleasing and visually-appealing: their drooping, delicate cream flowers or their thick, leathery leaves reminiscent of trout skin.  Perhaps it's just easiest to admit the whole plant is spectacular.

Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica)

They may be a dime a dozen in just about any forested landscape or fallow lawn but what would spring really be without a carpet of spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) fully opened under a sunny and blue April sky.

Leatherwood (Dirca palustris)
Leatherwood (Dirca palustris)






















As a purveyor in the botanically unique and unusual, few early bloomers come close to the leatherwood (Dirca palustris) in that respect.  This small shrub's fuzzy buds quickly swell come spring before peeling ack to reveal its clusters of trumpet-shaped flowers.

Pennywort (Obolaria virginica

The fleshy, succulent-like pennywort (Obolaria virginica) is an inconspicuous denizen of the forest floor and easily blends in among the residual leaf litter.  Its flowers can range from a purplish-blue to creamy white and are not what you'd first think of for a member of the gentian family (Gentianaceae).

Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum)
Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum)






















One of the most auspicious signs of spring is the mass emergence of wild leek (Allium tricoccum) leaves in rich woodlands throughout the state.  They won't flower until later in the summer under the shadows of a fully leafed out canopy but their fresh leaves can add some zest to any meal or act as a snack on the go, if you like onions that is.

It won't be too much longer before the newly minted spring season speeds up and gets into full swing with dozens more wildflowers coming into existence and dazzling the landscape with their diverse colors, shapes, and beauty once more.  That being said I hope to be there to capture it in the wild and replicate it on your computer monitors for your enjoyment.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Surprise Snow at Fort Hill State Memorial

This past Sunday saw your blogger and a few botanical buddies in Dan Boone, Duane Hook, and Solomon Gamboa (be sure to click Solomon's name and check out his own fantastic blog!) have an early morning rendezvous at Fort Hill State Memorial in the unglaciated foothills of southern Highland county.  With the weather forecast calling for mostly clear skies and temperatures in the fifties, we all went to bed the night before with dreams of a prototypical early spring foray into the spectacular mature mixed mesophytic forests, monstrous trees, and limestone gorge of arguably our state's finest natural area.  Instead my accompaniment and I awoke and arrived to a surprise late season snowfall that left a couple inches covering the ground and just about every branch, limb and twig.

Friends Dan Boone, Duane Hook, and Solomon Gamboa walking past some impressive tuliptrees atop the fort's plateau

After the long and arduous winter Mother Nature has taken its sweet time waking up from, it didn't come as much of a surprise we'd see the white stuff again.  We couldn't complain too much though as the surrounding scenery was accented so perfectly with the fresh powder.  Little did we know just how memorable and one-of-a-kind these particular couple inches of snow would end up being.

Expansive wetland and buttonbush swamp atop the fort's plateau (photo credit: Duane Hook)

Fort Hill's significance not only lies in its diverse and intact ecosystems but in its natural history as well.  Over 2,000 years ago a culture of Native Americans known today as the Hopewell constructed massive earthworks throughout this region of the state in the forms of mounds, geometric shapes, and hilltop earthworks.  These ancient peoples utilized Fort Hill's naturally-occurring flat ridge top and enclosed/encircled the rim with an earthen wall ranging from 6 to 15 feet in height and 30 feet wide at its base.  Its circumference measures an impressive 8,600+ feet; that's over a mile and half and must have taken a long, long time to form with such limited tools.

Enormous old-growth tuliptree
old-growth beech, tuliptree, and red oak






















We decided to get our blood pumping early and tackle the lung-buster of a jaunt to the top of the ridge some 400+ feet higher in elevation.  All along the upper slopes of the ridge and rim is an impressive display of old-growth tree specimens like red, white, and chestnut oaks; tuliptree; ash; and beech.  Photos on your computer screen could never even come close to relating the immensity and awe of some of the individual trees and deserve the respect of a physical visit.

Looking through the trees from the upper slopes of Fort Hill and out across the glaciated till plains

Fort Hill sits at the very edge of the Wisconsin glacier's southernmost advancement and as a result supplies some pretty spectacular views from its summit and upper slopes.  This particular view through the trees shows the flattened landscape of the till plains to the north and west.  Even 2,000 years later it's not hard to fathom what the indigenous cultures saw in Fort Hill in its intrinsic beauty and location.

White oaks among the snow
Early spring winter wonderland






















Our path along the upper stretches of the ridge eventually found us entering a corridor of forest that experienced an unbelievable combination of atmospheric conditions unlike anything I'd ever seen before, at least to such an eloquent extent.

Dan standing in a dreamscape world of snow and ice

Here it was nearly the last day of March with our mission to find some early spring wildflowers finally unfurling their much anticipated petals and you'd have sworn it was still ice-locked January.  Friends and acquaintances who know Dan personally will also know he's not the biggest fan of snow, especially after the winter Ohio just crawled out of but not even he could argue with the beauty and unbelievable artistic design of it all.

video

Even more so than the photos of leviathan tree specimens, the video above pales in comparison to the sight and experiences of the landscape itself but it's certainly better than leaving it purely up to your imagination. For some reason the quality of the video plummets once you enlarge the window so I would suggest keeping it at the size presented on the blog for the best results even if the frame is rather small.

Wild turkey tracks
Perfectly accumulated snow






















From the telltale sign of the unblemished snow on the trail and landscape, we were the first people to venture into Fort Hill that morning but we were far from the only signs of life.  Turkey tracks dotted the landscape in some parts with their signature three-toed footprints.

Duane walking towards the light...

Our hike started out under a uniformly gray and overcast sky but was quickly overrun with abundant sunshine that reflected off the snow in a brilliant fashion.  All four of us commented and agreed that none had ever seen an event or look quite like this before.  The surprises and rewards nature gives those who take the time to immerse themselves in her splendor is what has us come back time and time again.  By the time we were done with our four plus mile walkabout in the early afternoon, the temps had warmed into the upper forties and melted all the accumulated snow off the tree trunks and limbs and the most sun-exposed slopes.  In the few short hours this magical paradise of snow and ice existed, the four of us ended up being the only people to experience it and experience it we did.  I think I can speak for all of us that it will be something to fondly look back on for years and years to come.

Briar patch and snow equals art
What a brilliant blue sky!






















It's amazing how something as trivial as snow could turn a typically intimidating and immense brier patch of greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) into one of the most artistic designs and patterns I've ever personally witnessed. No flake was wasted as each one solidly stuck exactly where it fell and built up to create such splendid ice crystal sculptures.  Almost equally pleasing was the contrast of the sharp blue sky and the dazzling white virgin snow.

Limestone gorge along Baker Fork (photo credit: Duane Hook)

The ever-warming temperatures accelerated the steady drip-drip-drip of melting snow on top of our heads as we made our way out of the winter wonderland utopia and down into the limestone gorge of Baker Fork, a tributary of nearby Ohio Brush Creek.  The gorge's sheer dolomite cliff faces and bluffs are home to an assortment of rare and unusual plant species such as Sullivant's coolwort (Sullivantia sullivantii), Canada yew (Taxus canadensis), snow trillium (Trillium nivale), and the incredibly rare Canby's mountain-lover (Paxistima canbyi).

Stunted and gnarled red cedars and chinkapin oaks lining the rim and gorge's walls

Upon receding into the gorge's depths the soils turn to a sweet alkaline composition and allow for calcareous appreciating species like chinkapin oak, blue ash, and red cedar to dominate.  Some of the stunted and gnarled chinkapin oaks that cling to existence along the dolomite bluffs and cliff faces hardly look their age as trees only six to seven inches in diameter have been aged to a couple centuries old.

Canby's mountain-lover (Paxistima canbyi)
Thick, leathery, evergreen leaves of the Paxistima






















Fort Hill's most precious and rare botanical treasure also occurs on the thin-soild limestone bluffs of the gorge as the state endangered and uber-rarity Canby's mountain-lover (Paxistima canbyi).  This unusual member of the bittersweet family (Celastraceae) came to Ohio via the ancient northwest-flowing Teays River millions of years ago before its demise prior to the glacial events of the Pleistocene's ice ages.  The evergreen, trailing sub-shrub has continued to persist in relic tributary valleys of the Teays to this day where it's only known to occur here at Fort Hill and in a similar limestone bluff situation along another tributary of Ohio Brush Creek on the Edge of Appalachia further south.  Both populations are clonal colonies of great age and with any luck will continue to persist for the foreseeable future.

Your blogger photographing some snow-covered snow trillium along the gorge's bluffs  (photo credit: Duane Hook)

One of the biggest targets of our visit and hike was to see the early blooming and dainty snow trillium (Trillium nivale) known to grow in select spots along the gorge's bluffs.  True to their name, we found them in full flower despite the couple inches of overnight snow accumulated on top of them.

Snow trillium in the snow
Snow trillium (Trillium nivale)






















Countless millennia of evolution and adaptation has allowed these charming and tiny wildflowers to survive spring's unpredictable weather and late blasts of snow and low temperatures.  If a couple inches were to truly do them any harm these wonders would have disappeared eons ago and not lasted to our present day and be able to lift the spirits of a weary, winter-logged botanist.

Wild leek (Allium tricoccum) emerging from their winter slumber

If snow trillium was a treat for the eyes, then the tender, freshly-emerged wild leek (Allium tricoccum) leaves were the equivalence for our noses and taste buds.  They didn't seem to mind the temporary return of winter and hopefully didn't mind a few tiresome hikers nibbling at their tastiness either.

By the time we returned back to the parking lot most of the snow had melted away and left a scene far different than we arrived to four or five hours earlier.  It was hard to believe we were in the same spot but that's the nature of the season's last ephemeral snows.  I, for one am in no rush for any more frozen precipitation and look forward to spring continuing to unfold.

A special thanks to my friend Duane who kindly lent me a camera battery when mine was discovered to be dead (always check your charge the night before no matter how sure you are that you're ok) and also for generously letting me use a few of his excellent photographs in this post!  Thanks, Duane!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

OOS 10th Anniversary Conference in Shawnee State Forest

Spring has finally arrived and it's never too early (or late) to begin planning out how you want to spend it!  If you regularly read this blog then you have surely noticed how much time I spend in the hills and hollers of Ohio's southern-most counties of Adams and Scioto and it's no coincidence.  These two counties combine to be one of, if not the most biologically diverse area in our state and harbor many rare species of flora and fauna within.  From the limestone outcrops and cedar glades of the Edge of Appalachia preserve system to the continuous rolling forests of nearby Shawnee State Forest, you never know know what is in store for your eyes, ears, and cameras.

Shawnee State Forest in spring's full bloom

To coincide with extreme southern Ohio's dizzying diversity of plant and animal life come spring, the Ohio Ornithological Society has decided to return to the depths of Shawnee for its 10th annual conference on the weekend of April 25-27.  This phenomenal event draws birders, naturalists, and outdoor enthusiasts from all over the state and beyond to experience the luscious landscape of Shawnee and the Edge flush with returning migrating birds and spring wildflowers.  If the sound of this happens to peak your interest, and I think it might if you're still reading up to this point, then I suggest checking things out HERE and marking your calendars for the last weekend in April!

Prairie Warbler, just one of around 20 species of warbler in the area

Normally this time of year would have me plugging and encouraging readers to check out the acclaimed annual spring wildflower event Flora-Quest that takes place in Shawnee and on the Edge.  Due to the near simultaneous nature of the OOS event, Flora-Quest is doing something a bit different this May on the complete other end of state up along Lake Erie.  You can find more information HERE.

That being said, I am very happy and pleased to say that I will be reprising my role as a field trip leader/guide (usually for Flora-Quest) for the OOS event instead! My group will be out and about deep in the forests of Shawnee to see what birds and botany we can stir up.  No worries, while I know my birds better than most folks might assume a plant-geek would, we will have an accomplished and knowledgeable birder on hand in co-leader/guide Andy Jones.  To see an agenda for the programs and field trips click HERE.

Spring wildflowers waking up in a hanging prairie on the Edge

Hopefully we will see warmer temperatures finally arrive and stick around all April in order to have the typical menagerie of spring wildflowers coloring up the area's forests and prairies.  The combined botanical diversity of the Edge and Shawnee results in well over 1,000 native plant species and some plant assemblages seen nowhere else in the entire state.  The birding is on par with the plants too as over 100 species are known to nest here with rarities and curiosities like the Kentucky, Cerulean, and Worm-eating warbler, Chuck-will's-widow, blue grosbeak, red-headed woodpecker, and wild turkey calling the undulating hills of the "Little Smokies" home.

Fragrant blooms of a wild plum (Prunus spp.)

The conference is a wonderful collaboration on many people's parts from the field trips to the programs and presentations that go on throughout the weekend.  Honestly, the best thing about these kinds of events are the friends, camaraderie, and memories made over weekend with 200+ like-minded people who have a thirst and passion for the natural world.  I am looking forward to catching up with old friends and meeting new faces alike and encourage any of my readers to seek me out and personally introduce yourself!

Having done Flora-Quest for three consecutive years and spent countless days exploring the region from spring to fall, I think I can say with some authority just how mesmerizing this area of the state truly is.  I could not encourage anyone more to check out the event and website and seriously consider making yourself a participating member of what is sure to be one of the best weekends this spring!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Guide to the Trillium of Ohio

Ah, spring is finally upon us!  Soon the battered and defeated browns and drab yellows of winter will resurrect into vibrant emeralds and greens as new growth and life erupts back into the world.  It couldn't come a moment too soon either; not after the intensely bitter and snowy winter us Ohioans have been burdened with this year.

One of the most anticipated of spring's many bounties is the emergence and blooming of our woodland wildflowers. The natural world could not do a better job of rewarding winter-weary minds than with its magnificent displays of ephemerals that light up the forest understory come April and May.  One particular genus of spring wildflowers seems to get more attention than just about any other during this time period and you'd be hard pressed to make an argument against them.  Trilliums are the quintessential spring time wildflower and their long history of popularity and acclaim among their botanical and horticulutural admirers makes them the stuff of legends.

The eight species of Trillium native to Ohio (starting top left): T. nivale, T. grandiflorum, T. sessile, T. recurvatum,
T. erectum, T. undulatum, T. flexipes,
and T. cernuum.

Traditionally many botanists and taxonomists placed the Trillium genus into the large lily family (Liliaceae), but modern research and revised studies have shown them and a handful of their close relatives belong in their own family: Trilliaceae.  You can further break down the Trillium genus into two distinct subgenera: subgenus Trillium (the pedicellate trilliums) and subgenus Phyllantherum (the sessile trillium).  From an evolutionary standpoint the pedicellate trilliums are older and more primitive than their sessile trillium counterparts.

Members of the Trillium genus occur as herbs in the temperate forests of the Northern Hemisphere in both eastern Asia (about five or six taxa) and here in North America (40+ taxa).  Of the 40 or so species of trillium that are indigenous to North America, Ohio can claim eight of them as naturally-occurring in her soils around the time of European settlement.  This post will act as a guide to all eight species of our native trillium and help to separate them from one another and include other valuable information on their characteristics and life history.


The Pedicellate Trilliums: Subgenus Trillium

The pedicellate trilliums of the subgenus Trillium are separated from the sessile trilliums by the presence of a pedicel (stalk) at the base of the flower.  The size and length of the pedicel can vary greatly between species but is always present.  Pedicellate trilliums are more showy and diverse than their sessile counterparts with six of Ohio's eight species belonging to this subgenus.  Pedicellate trilliums also have flower petals that spread widely in a planer fashion and the stamens/ovary are clearly displayed.

Snow Trillium, Dwarf White Trillium (Trillium nivale)

Snow Trillium - Trillium nivale

Snow trillium or dwarf white trillium (T. nivale) is a true harbinger of spring for our state's flora and is one of the very first wildflowers to break dormancy in mid-late March.  This species is aptly named for its early bloom time potentially coinciding with a late season snowfall; its scientific epithet of nivale translates to "of the snows, snowy".  Sub-freezing temperatures and a coating of snow doesn't do much to hinder these dainty beauties!

Snow Trillium - Trillium nivale
How many snow trillium can you see?






















Occurrences of snow trillium are quite infrequent in Ohio and largely restricted to the west-central and southwestern portions of the state.  Its preferred habitat(s) in our state are areas of shallow, limestone-derived soils on wooded bluffs, stream/river terraces, and other wooded areas with exposed, weathered bedrock.  Public sites like Clifton Gorge state nature preserve, Fort Hill state memorial, and Stillwater Prairie Preserve in Miami county are excellent places to witness this rarity in early spring.

North American distribution of T. nivale (courtesy BONAP)

Snow trillium is largely a species of the Great Lakes region and Midwest and primarily follows the southern boundary of Pleistocene glaciation.  This is no surprise as throughout its range it occurs on alkaline glacial drift.


Large-flowered Trillium, Large White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)

Hillside ensconced in hundreds of large-flowered trillium

This next species of trillium has a special place in Ohio's heart as it has the distinction and honor of being our state's official wildflower.  The large-flowered trillium (T. grandiflorum) is the most common pedicellate trillium taxon to be found in Ohio and occurs in just about every, if not all 88 of our counties.  Under the right conditions they can grow into large, sprawling colonies that ensconce entire hillsides in hundreds of plants; something no other species of trillium can quite equal.

Large-flowered Trillium (T. grandiflorum)
Large-flowered Trillium (T. grandiflorum)






















Large-flowered trillium is another properly named plant as it is our largest trillium with flowers 3-4" in diameter and upwards of a foot and a half tall.  Its luscious, waxy white petals overlap and whorl together to conceal the ovary and encompass its golden anthers.  As the flowers age, their petals turn a varying intensity of pink to perhaps signal to pollinators they are too late to the party.  This species of trillium grows in a variety of rich mixed deciduous woodlands under a diversity of soil conditions.  This sense of habitat generalization is a large reason for its wide spread frequency throughout the state.

North American distribution of T. grandiflorum (courtesy BONAP)

This particular trillium is quite common throughout eastern North America and is most prevalent in the Great Lakes region, up into the Northeast, and down into the southern Appalachians.  Populations of this plant seem to reach their greatest potential in second-growth forests with a relatively low deer presence; this trillium is seasonal candy for the quadrupeds.


Red Trillium, Stinking Benjamin, Purple Trillium (Trillium erectum)

Hillside full of Red Trillium and Large-flowered Trillium

Some trillium species are as striking as they are malodorous and the red trillium (T. erectum) certainly falls into that category.  Red trillium also goes by the name of stinking benjamin for its aforementioned fetid aroma that is reminiscent of a wet dog to some.  Of the six pedicellate trillium indigenous to Ohio, this is our only species that exhibits blood red petals/flowers on an erect peduncle.

Red Trillium (Trillium erectum)
Red and white colored forms of T. erectum






















Red trillium is restricted to eastern Ohio and its largely unglaciated, acidic soil regimes where it occurs in humus-rich, cool, moist mixed deciduous/conifer forests; especially under hemlocks and in association with heath family members (Ericaceae).  It can also occur in swampier situations in woodlands and thickets as well as along streams and waterways in the northern part of its range.  In my experience, the sandstone hollows and gorges of the Hocking Hills region is the best place to see this species, including its white-colored form described/explained below.

Red variety (T. erectum var. erectum)
White variety (T. erectum var. album)






















Throughout its range, red trillium can occur both in its typical deep maroon color form (var. erectum) or in a white-colored scheme (var. album) that can range from green-yellow to cream-bright white.  This range of petal coloration can lead to some confusion between species, especially with drooping trillium (T. flexipes) which has a red and white color form as well.  In regards to red trillium, it's best to look at the color of the ovary: regardless of what color form you are seeing, T. erectum will always have a distinctly red/maroon ovary.  The petals are typically planer and not reflexed back like those of drooping trillium (T. flexipes) and have maroon to yellowish anthers to help with the ID as well.  T. erectum is known to hybridize with T. flexipes to make things even more difficult.

North American distribution of T. erectum (courtesy BONAP)

Red trillium is one of the most common species of its genus in the northeastern part of its distribution before it becomes more isolated/infrequent as its range continues into eastern Ohio and down through the southern Appalachians at higher elevations.


Drooping Trillium, Bent Trillium (Trillium flexipes)

Small colony of drooping trillium (Trillium flexipes

Next up is a rather widespread and potentially confusing species that can be mistaken for the previously discussed red trillium.  Drooping trillium (T. flexipes) can be found throughout the state but seems to do best in areas with corresponding limestone bedrock.  It grows in a variety of deciduous forest habitats but prefers rich, mesic slopes (where it can occur in large, sprawling colonies of hundreds upon hundreds of plants); stream/river terraces; and even alluvial soils of floodplains.  Its flowers are smaller than most other pedicellate trillium species in Ohio, but what they lack in size is made up for by its thick, waxy, textured petals and pronounced ovary.

White and red-colored form of drooping trillium
Forested hillside ensconced with drooping trillium






















Much like the aforementioned red trillium (T. erectum), drooping trillium (T. flexipes) can occur in its typical white-colored form (forma flexipes) and a dark red/maroon-colored form (forma walpolei).  Unlike in T. erectum where the atypical color form (white in its case) can be the dominate color form in a population, I've never seen the red-colored form of T. flexipes be anything but an occasional mix-in among a strong majority of the typical white-colored flowers.

White-colored form (T. flexipes f. flexipes)
Red-colored form (T. flexipes f. walpolei)






















Drooping trillium gets its common name from the flower's common practice of drooping or hanging below its three leaves on a long peduncle.  You may walk right past dozens of this trillium and think its solely in a vegetative state while its flower silently hides in the shade below.  In some rare cases you can find specimens of this species exhibiting flowers on an erect peduncle with flat/planer petals (predominately in the southern part of its range) but the color of the ovary can help distinguish it from T. erectum: drooping trillium's ovaries are always white or have a speckling/light hue of pink in them, even in the red-colored forms.

Drooping trillium can also easily be mistaken for the extremely similar nodding trillium (T. cernuum).  That will be discussed further on under the nodding trillium's dedicated section.

North American distribution of T. flexpies (courtesy BONAP)

Trillium flexipes is predominately a species of the Midwest and southern Great Lakes region with an extension south into the central lowlands of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama.


Nodding Trillium (Trillium cernuum)

Nodding Trillium (Trillium cernuum)

Of Ohio's eight species of native trillium, only one can no longer be found within her borders: nodding trillium (T. cernuum).  This species of the north was only officially recorded once in our state way back in 1879 in Lake County.  It hasn't been seen here since and is almost assuredly lost to the dusts of time.  T. cernuum is the most northern of all North America's trilliums and was likely naturally weening itself from the state by retreating north around the time of settlement, only to be exponentially rushed into extirpation by means of human development and anthropogenic-derived climate change.  

Due to this species' extirpation from our state, the photographs used in this blog are from plants found in the southern Adirondacks of upstate New York during a botanical excursion there late last spring.  Even there this species is starting to disappear from its familiar haunts; perhaps more evidence for this particular plant's sensitivity to a warming world?

Pair of nodding trillium in upstate New York
Closeup of the anthers and noticeable filaments






















Nodding trillium prefers cool, low, moist-swampy woodlands and grows along stream banks/terraces and the wet, shrubby margins of bogs as well.  Its white, waxy petals are strongly recurved and exhibit a large, white ovary much like the strikingly similar drooping trillium (T. flexipes).  The best way to differentiate between these two white flowered, drooping trilliums is by carefully examining the plant's filaments (string-like threads that attach anthers to base of ovary).  Looking at the photo above-right, you can clearly see the long filaments exerted out from the ovary/petals of the nodding trillium.  In drooping trillium (see photos further up) the filaments are much shorter and hidden while the anthers appear to be sessile and attached directly at the base of the ovary. Nodding trillium's anthers also tend to be a pinkish/purple color when laden with pollen while drooping trillium's are chiefly cream/white.

North American distribution of T. cernuum (courtesy BONAP)

Trillium cernuum is a species of the northern Great Lakes region and the Northeast with sparse and isolated occurrences further south.  Looking at the distribution map above of all recorded occurrences (both historical and recent), I have to wonder what it would look like today with a current distribution map.  I wouldn't be surprised to see the southern third of its range's populations and occurrences gone.  This is, in my opinion a species worth more attention and observation.


Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)

Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)

If you're supposed to save the best for last, then it's quite appropriate I would keep the painted trillium (Trillium undulatum) as the sixth and final species of Ohio's pedicellate trilliums.  This stunning and breathtaking wildflower is our state's rarest species of trillium and is currently listed as an endangered species.  For the last few decades its only known occurrence in the entire state has been a swampy woods residing in our most northeastern county of Ashtabula.

Painted trillium in its typical northern habitat
Painted "quadrillium"






















If the painted trillium is our rarest and our most physically appealing, then it seems to fit the pattern that it would arguably be the easiest trillium to identify as well.  No other species in Ohio, or anywhere else for that matter have the distinct combination of white petals accented with dark pink/magenta striping.  The foliage of this plant seems to be unique as well with a reddish-green coloration easily visible in the initial photo of this section.

Painted trillium is a species that must have cool, humus-rich, and strongly acidic soils to survive.  It occurs in a variety of mixed deciduous/conifer woodlands in the southern, high-elevation part of its range and in more low-lying, moist red maple/birch/oak/sugar maple forests (especially with an association of white pine) to the north.

North American distribution of T. undulatum (courtesy BONAP)

Painted trillium occurs predominately in the northeastern states and down through the southern Appalachians.  Its affinity for the strongly acidic, cool soils of the northeast are efficiently replicated by the high-elevation spruce/fir/hemlock forests and rhododendron balds/thickets of the Appalachians which have allowed it to persist for thousands of years in a warming climate.


The Sessile Trilliums: Subgenus Phyllantherum

The sessile trilliums of the subgenus Phyllantherum are the opposite of the pedicellate trilliums and are separated for their flower's lack of a pedicel.  Instead the flowers sit at the apex of the plant with erect, less showy petals that mostly/partial conceal the stamens.  Due to their arrangement, the sessile trilliums tend to be viewed as less showy than their pedicellate brethren.  The subgenus Phyllantherum only occurs in North America and is less diverse than the subgenus Trillium, with two species calling Ohio home.


Sessile Trillium, Toad Trillium, Toadshade (Trillium sessile)

Patch of sessile trillium (Trillium sessile)

It's hard to believe the comparatively bland sessile or toadshade trillium (Trillium sessile) can be so closely related to species as showy and charming as the large-flowered and painted trillium but all the parts are there, albeit in different shapes and sizes.  Sessile trillium grows in a wide variety of woodland settings and can withstand more disturbance and habitat degradation than most any other trillium species in my experiences.

Sessile trillium in bud with nicely mottled leaves
Sessile trillium (T. sessile)






















Sessile trillium is one of the most common wildflowers to be found throughout the state come spring.  Their erect maroon (rarely greenish-yellow) petals envelope the stamens and ovary and sit atop three sepals that can range in color from green to maroon.  Their stalkless leaves can range from a uniform green color to a much more attractive mottled pattern of darker green.  The flowers emit a pungent odor that when combined with their flower structure has led to the conclusion that unlike their showier relatives that are pollinated by bees and bumblebees, the sessile trillium are predominately pollinated by ground-dwelling insects such as beetles.

North American distribution of T. sessile (courtesy BONAP)

Trillium sessile is most abundant in Ohio, Indiana, and northern Kentucky as well as in a "separate" population center in Missouri.  It strangely peters out once you get beyond the center of those two regions but is quite frequent at the heart of its range.


Prairie Trillium, Bloody Butcher (Trillium recurvatum)

Prairie Trillium (Trillium recurvatum)

The last and final species of Ohio trillium left to share is the rare and potentially threatened prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum).  This sessile trillium at first seems nearly identical to the much more common sessile trillium (T. sessile) but can be told apart much easier and quickly than one would think.  Prairie trillium's three leaves have a small, short but noticeable petiole at their base which helps separate it from the aptly named sessile trillium. Remember: the use of the word "sessile" for the subgenus Phyllantherum has to do with the flowers and not the leaves.  Another character to look for in separating these two species is the sepals: prairie trillium's sepals are strongly recurved to a point where they are almost parallel to the stem (hence the scientific epithet of recurvatum).

Closer look at the leaf petioles and recurved sepals
Yellow-colored form (f. shayii)






















Despite the moniker of "prairie" trillium, this species occurs in dry-mesic, open woodland habitats on calcareous soils here in our state rather than in open grassland as suggested by the name.  The flowers typically exhibit a maroon color but can come across as more of a rust-orange color on occasion as well as occur in lemon-yellow forms.  The habit of the plant also tends to be more erect with a longer stem than most sessile trillium I see.

North American distribution of T. recurvatum (courtesy BONAP)

Trillium recurvatum occurs primarily in the Midwest and then follows the Mississippi drainage into the deeper south.  It is curiously absent from a large portion of Ohio despite being very common just across the Indiana border and only occurs in a handful of spots in southwestern Ohio.  It's almost as if early state boundary drafters used this species' range as the north-south dividing line between Ohio and Indiana.

   *********************************************************************************************************************************

I hope this post will serve as a valuable and usable resource for Ohioans and other wildflower enthusiasts of the Midwest and Great Lakes states that are interested in learning more about our native trillium species and how to tell them apart.  It won't be too much longer before they grace our thawing landscape once more!