Botanizing Babler State Park

After missing a week due to inclement weather, the WGNSS Botany Group resumed their weekly Monday walk schedule with a visit to nearby Babler State Park in western St. Louis Co. One of the larger of Missouri’s state parks at nearly 2500 acres, it was initially made possible through the generosity of the family of St. Louis surgeon Edmond A. Babler nearly 100 years ago—barely 20 years after the State Park System was created. For this outing, the group walked the Virginia Day Memorial Nature Trail.

Members of the WGNSS Botany Group (L–R): Rich Thoma, Tom Buescher, Michael Laschober, George Van Brunt, Jennifer Judd, and John Oliver.

The dead of winter in an exurban park can be a challenging situation for seeing unusual plants. In such cases, one is often better served by looking more closely at the familiar to sharpen ID skills and improve ability to identify plants at any stage of growth rather than only when good characters are visible. An example of this with the red oaks. In our area, Quercus shumardii (Shumard’s oak) and Quercus velutina (black oak) are among the most commonly occurring red oaks in our generally dry-mesic upland deciduous forests. They can, however, be difficult to distinguish from one another, as both have highly variable leaves that differ most reliably in subtle characters of pubescence on the lower leaf surface. Without a microscope or strong hand lens, one must often resort to examining many leaves and deciding with which form the preponderance agree.

Quercus shumardii is perhaps the more commonly encountered of the two in our area and exhibits almost no habitat fidelity. It can be found not only in dry, rocky upland woods and borders of glades, but also in valleys and along banks of larger streams and river bottoms. So different in appearance are trees found in the driest situations (e.g., along the margins of glades) from those occurring in moister situations that it is difficult to believe they are the same species. Nevertheless, it can usually be distinguished by the apically flaring leaf lobes. During winter, leaves may be harder to come by, and the small, cone-shaped, brown buds are admittedly nondescript. Basically, in a woods dominated by the two species, Q. shumardii is distinguished by the fact that its buds are anything but the highly distinctive buds of Q. velutina!

Quercus shumardii (Shumard’s oak) – winter buds.

On the other hand, Q. velutina lacks the tolerance for both the very wet and very dry situations that Q. shumardii can handle. In Missouri—at the western limit of its distribution, it is most often found on north or east facing slopes where moisture is adequate but not excessive. Its leaves can be as variable as those of Q. shumardii (although not presenting in distinct forms depending on habitat), but its buds could not be more distinctive—large, distinctly 5-angled, and covered with gray pubescence. In winter, fallen branches are immediately recognizable due to the conspicuousness of the terminal bud clusters.

Quercus velutina (black oak) – winter buds.
Quercus velutina (black oak) – winter buds.

The day was not spent completely focused on winter tree buds—some greenery was seen in the richer, moister low areas along the trail in the form of Aplectrum hyemale (putty root, Adam and Eve orchid). These plants are far more commonly observed during winter than summer due to the appearance then of their distinctive pinstriped, pleated single basal leaf—oftentimes the only green thing present. The leaves disappear in spring, replaced by the much less conspicuous flower stalks.

Aplectrum hyemale (putty root, Adam and Eve orchid).

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2022

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