Rain on Russell Mountain

Hiking buddy Rich and I have already hiked the entirety of the Ozark Trail, doing so in 5–15 mile segments from 1996 through 2015. Since then, we have been redoing some other the segments in the reverse direction from the first time, the eventual goal thus being to hike the entirety of the Ozark Trail in both directions. Today was a small contribution to that goal, in which we did the short section between the fire tower at Taum Sauk State Park (containing Missouri’s highest point at 1,772’ asl) and Russell Mountain.

Raindrop prism.

The forecast was not promising, with steady rain predicted and temperatures remaining in the 30s. Still, Rich and I are not prone to cancelling a hike due to less than ideal conditions, so we arrived at Taum Sauk Mountain mid-morning despite the periodic rain and decided to give it a go. It was a good decision—our rain jackets and warm underlayers kept us confortable, and we were rewarded for our tenacity with an serenely beautiful look at the craggy, water-soaked landscape.

Young Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern), Flavoparmelia baltimorensis (rock greenshield lichen), a fruticose lichen, and Polytrichum commune (common haircap moss) in dry-mesic upland deciduous igneous forest.

It was slow going as we both forgot our hiking sticks, forcing us to more deliberately choose our footing on the rugged, rocky, boulder-strewn trail. Normally on a winter hike, it is the buds, bark, and remnant leaves that I pay attention to as I strive to identify the component trees comprising the forest around me. Today, however, with intermittent light rain, heavy moisture-laden air, and our eyes mostly looking downward to choose our next footstep, it was the ferns, mosses, and lichens—bright green and water-swollen—that captured our attention.

Closeup of Polytrichum commune (common haircap moss) and a fruticose lichen from previous photo.

Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern) dotted the forest floor and along the trail. Most of the plants we saw were older, their fronds and pinnae ragged and tattered. A young individual, however, captured our eye, partly because of its fresh, bright green foliage and partly because of the close association with Polytrichum commune (common haircap moss), Flavoparmelia baltimorensis (rock greenshield lichen), and an unidentified fruticose lichen—a natural mini-terrarium.

Closeup of young Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern) from previous photo.

Further along the trail, a patch of Thuidium delicatulum (delicate fern moss) was found thriving in the cold, wet conditions. As the name suggests, the leaves of this moss resemble the fronds of a small fern but form colonial mats rather than arising from a basal rosette as in true ferns. Wet conditions such as existed today are ideal for seeing this moss in its most attractive state—under dry conditions, the leaves are more appressed and contracted against the central stems.

Thuidium delicatulum (delicate fern moss) growing trailside in dry-mesic upland deciduous igneous forest.

As we descended the hillside, running water could be heard in the distance, suggesting we would be treated to the sight of a waterfall. At the bottom, the normally dry creek ran full, water crashing over the rhyolite boulders strewn further up the ravine and gushing down below us. Some careful footwork was required to scale the hillside off-trail to reach the water’s edge and get a closeup and personal view, but experience made the careful footwork down the hillside and back up well worth the effort.

Rain-swollen creek.

Approaching the glades on Russell Mountain, the diversity of conspicuously green lichens and mosses immediately caught our attention. The normally xeric landscape was lush and moist—water pooling in depressions of the exposed rhyolite bedrock and stream over its slopes in sheets. Beds of Polytrichum commune (common haircap moss) colonized the edges of exposed bedrock, forming extensive mats of turgid, bright green, bristly vertical stems that looked like miniature primordial forests. Like Thuidium delicatulum (delicate fern moss), this moss also is more attractive when moist, its leaves widely spreading and straight, while in dry conditions they are erect with their tips often recurved.

Polytrichum commune (common haircap moss) on exposed rhyolite in the glade.

The final leg of the hike took us through the scenic rhyolite glades (more properly called xeric rhyolite prairie) between the Ozark Trail and the Russell Mountain Trailhead. Normally, the glades are a harsh habitat—dry grasses crackling underfoot amid the searing heat and the surrounding forest of Quercus shumardii (Shumard’s oak) and Carya ovata (shagbark hickory) stunted and open. Today, however, dense fog, heavy air, and water running over every surface made the glade seem mysteriously soft and gentle.

Fog settles over the glade.

The exposed rhyolite bedrock here represents remnants of volcanic rock formed 1.5 billion years ago. Representing one of the oldest continuously exposed landforms in North America, these craggy hills are but mere nubs of mountains that soared 15,000 feet above the salty Cambrian waters that lapped at their feet. It is only reasonable that these ancient rocks should be so heavily colonized by lichens—ancient life forms themselves resulting from a symbiotic association between fungi and a photosynthetic partner, usually algae or cyanobacteria (blue-green algae).

Exposed rhyolite heavily colonized by foliose and fruticose lichens and mosses.

Like the previously seen mosses, rain brings out the best in lichen attractiveness—their hydrated tissues at their brightest and most colorful. A number of fruticose and foliose lichens can be found intermingling in the exposed rhyolite surfaces, with Flavoparmelia baltimorensis (rock greenshield lichen) being one of the most conspicuous examples of the latter.

Foliose and fruticose lichens, including Flavoparmelia baltimorensis (rock greenshield lichen) in the foreground, co-mingle on the exposed rhyolite.

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021

Hughes Mountain redux

Despite the relatively long drive from St. Louis, a healthy group of 15 showed up for this past Monday’s WGNSS Botany Group outing at Hughes Mountain Natural Area; participation no doubt helped out by a spectacular forecast (sunny with highs in the 70s) and near-peak fall colors. Hughes Mountain is situated in the northern portion of the St. Francois Mountains. At its summit is Devil’s Honeycomb—a barren expanse of uniquely fractured Precambrian rhyolite formed by the gradual cooling of magma inside a volcano that was then exposed over 1.5 billion years of erosion. Devil’s Honeycomb is one of Missouri’s geologic wonders, and it’s rocks are among the oldest exposed rocks in all of North America.

Devil’s Honeycomb, summit of Hughes Mountain.

Rocks are not the only items of interest here; the igneous substrate results in acidic conditions that affect the flora in equally interesting ways. This is most pronounced in the igneous “glades” (more properly called xeric igneous prairies) where the soils are too thin and conditions too dry to support the growth of trees, offering refugia for grasses and other herbaceous plants more typical of the western grasslands to persist. Surrounding the glades are dry and dry-mesic upland deciduous forests of oak and hickory featuring a rich shrub layer and open woodland-adapted herbaceous plants.

Beginning on the trail from the parking lot, John Oliver pointed out a stand of tall, now leafless sumacs which nearly everybody (including this author) assumed to be Rhus glabra (smooth sumac) due to their size. In fact, despite their size, they proved to be R. copallinum (winged sumac), with the ID confirmed by a few persisting leaves and their distinctive axial “wings.” John pointed out that an easy winter ID tip for this species is the fruiting structures, which nod distinctively after first frost (those of R. glabra do not).

Post-frost “nodding” seed head of Rhus copallinum (winged sumac).

Ascending the trail through the dry-mesic forest towards the first set of glades, we noted the brilliant colors of small Acer rubrum (red maple) saplings in the understory. When their leaves finally drop, they will be more difficult to distinguish from A. saccharum; however, their rounded rather than elongated buds will still allow differentiation.

Acer rubrum (red maple).

Several of the oaks were examined, with most thinking they were largely Quercus shumardii (Shumard’s oak) and Q. velutina (black oak)—both similar to each other but the latter bearing larger, grayer, pubescent, quadrangular terminal buds. Approaching the glades, Q. marilandica (blackjack oak), Carya texana (black hickory), and Ulmus alata (winged elm) became more abundant, all three much preferring the drier conditions found around the glade margins. An interesting feature of the latter (in addition to the distinctive, corky ridges on the twigs), is the leaves, which are smaller than those of most other elms but tend to grow larger towards the terminus of the twig. They also tend to be much less asymmetrical at their base than other elms.

Ulmus alata (winged elm) showing gradually larger leaves towards the twig terminus.

Very little was left in bloom, but the remnants of recent bloomers were still evident. Solidago petiolaris (downy goldenrod) and Symphyotrichum anomalum (many-rayed aster) were common along the trail and still recognizable, their showy flowers gone and replaced by developing seeds. Hieracium sp. prob. gronovii (beaked hawkweed) was found nestled among mosses perched on a rhyolite shelf, the flowers gone but the leaves still green and distinctively hairy. Hypericum gentianoides (pineweed) was found on the glades proper, most with their stems and leaves turning red but the occasional plant still green enough to allow crushing its stems and enjoying its orange-like fragrance. Bucking the trend, however, was a small patch of Solidago nemoralis (old-field goldenrod), it’s yellow flowers fresh and bright in defiance of the calendar’s call to senescence. A small jumping spider in the genus Phidippus took advantage of the lingering greenery, hiding among the leaves in hopes of finding equally persistent prey.

Hieracium sp. prob. gronovii (beaked hawkweed).
Solidago nemoralis (old-field goldenrod).
Phidippus sp. on Solidago nemoralis (old-field goldenrod).

The benefits of management efforts by the Missouri Department of Conservation in the area’s forests were more evident than ever. Between the first set of glades and the main glades surrounding the summit, a rich shrub layer dominated by Rhus aromatica (fragrant sumac) stretched endlessly under an open woodland of oak and hickory, the latter turning the canopy bright yellow in vivid contrast to the orange and red shrub layer beneath. Such open woodlands were once common in pre-settlement Missouri but are now rare due to the elimination of fire in the landscape and its mediating impacts.

Rhus aromatica (fragrant sumac).

Entering the main glades, the group made their way up towards the summit and Devil’s Honeycomb, while Ted and Sharon stayed back to take a closer look at and photograph a robust colony of Cladonia cristellata (British soldiers) growing under Juniperus virginiana (eastern red-cedar). Lichens, of course, are unique in the world of vegetation in that they are a composite organism—a fusion between a fungus and another organism (usually a green alga or cyanobacterium) capable of producing food via photosynthesis. None of these groups of organisms are considered plants in the modern sense, and, in fact, fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants. Nevertheless, the convergence in appearance, habitat, and ecology of lichens with plants puts their study much more in the realm of botany than zoology.

Cladonia cristatella (British soldiers).
Cladonia cristatella (British soldiers).

The group arrived at the summit just in time to enjoy spectacular vistas under crystal blue skies with wisps of clouds and the balmiest temperatures one could possibly hope for in early November.

The group enjoys the view from the summit of Hughes Mountain.
L–R: Ted MacRae, Rich Thoma, Kathie Bildner, Michael Laschober, Tina Cheung, Kathy Thiele, Nancy Mathis, Sharon Lu, Alan Brant, Mark Peters, John Oliver, Larry Lindenberger, Burt Noll, Gwyn Wahlman, Keith Woodyard.

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021

I’m a fun guy!

The habit of looking at things microscopically as the lichens on the trees & rocks really prevents my seeing aught else in a walk.—Henry David Thoreau

I should have loved an opportunity to go for a walk in the woods with Thoreau—especially during the winter when my preoccupation with insects no longer restrains my fascination with all things natural. While many entomologists see winter as a break from field work—a time to indulge/suffer (depending on mood) the more mundane curatorial tasks associated with their studies, my time in the field continues uninterrupted with long walks in the woods. Hiking stick replaces insect net. Energy foods replace vials. I still pry bark and flip rocks—I cannot completely ignore the potential to find insects. But I also peer through miniature forests of moss, poke about the mushrooms on a fallen log, and squint at the lichens encrusting a rock. Yes, insect specimens collected during the previous summer still need to be pinned, but there is time for that. There will always be time for that—if not now then in my later years when my ability to scramble through the bush begins to wane. For now, the woods sing their siren song, and I must listen.

Trichaptum biforme (purple tooth) on fallen river birch (Betula nigra) | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Trichaptum biforme on fallen trunk of Betula nigra | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Purple tooth (Trichaptum biforme) on dead red maple (Acer rubrum) | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Trichaptum biforme on fallen branch of Acer rubrum | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Multicolored gilled polypore (Lenzites betulina) on river birch (Betula nigra) stump | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Lensites betulina on dead stump of Betula nigra | Reynolds Co., Missouri

"Gills" distinguish this shelf fungus from turkey tails and other similar types.

“Gills” distinguish this shelf fungus from turkey tails and other similar types.

Cladonia chlorophaea or C. pyxidata on chert-trail | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Cladonia sp. (poss. C. chlorophaea or C. pyxidata) on chert-trail | Reynolds Co., Missouri

(Cladonia pyxidata)

A forest in miniature!

Irpex lacteus? on fallen branch of Acer rubrum | Iron Co., Missouri

Irpex lacteus (?) on fallen branch of Acer rubrum | Iron Co., Missouri

Spores are released from the toothy cap underside

Spores are released from the toothy cap underside

Leucobryum glaucum on forest floor | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Leucobryum glaucum on forest floor | Reynolds Co., Missouri

Postscipt: all photos shown taken on 30 November 2013 while hiking a 7-mile stretch of the Ozark Trail (Karkaghne Section in Reynolds Co. and Middle Fork Section in Iron Co.).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2014