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

Botanizing at Elephant Rocks State Park

Granite “elephants” at Elephant Rocks State Park.

After missing the past three weeks, I was finally able to rejoin the Webster Groves Nature Study Society Botany Group for their weekly Monday outing. It was a good outing for making my return, as the group visited one of Missouri’s most famous and unusual landmarks—Elephant Rocks State Park—on what turned out to be a sunny day with unseasonably balmy conditions. Located in Acadia Valley in the heart of the St. Francois Mountains, the park is named for its main feature—one of the mid-continent’s best examples of an unusual geological feature known as a “tor.” These piles of rounded, weathered granite boulders sitting atop a bedrock mass of the same rock resemble groups of elephants lumbering across the landscape. First shaped underground in 1.5-billion-year-old granite as vertical and horizontal fractures developed in the rock and percolating water softened and degraded the rock adjacent to the cracks, the “core stones” were eventually exposed as erosion removed the overlying layers and the disintegrated rock surround the fractures, exposing the giant boulders at the surface.

Granite boulder-strewn dry-mesic upland deciduous forest.

The group explored the area along the Braille Trail, which passes through dry-mesic upland deciduous forest as it circumnavigates the tor. Oaks and hickories—primarily Quercus alba (white oak), post oak (Q. stellata), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), Carya ovata (shagbark hickory), and C. glabra (pignut hickory)—dominate the canopy, while the understory featured Viburnum rufidulum (rusty blackhaw), Cornus florida (flowering dogwood), Prunus serotina (black cherry). Unusually abundant also was Nyssa sylvatica (black or sour gum). This small tree reaches its northern limit of distribution near St. Louis, Missouri but is more common further south. Winter bud skills are necessary to recognize the species at this time of year, which can be recognized by their alternate arrangement with three reddish-brown scales and three bundle scars. The leaves of this tree turn a brilliant red in the fall, making them desirable for landscape planting.

Nyssa sylvatica (black gum) winter buds.

Like Nyssa sylvatica, Viburnum rufidulum (rusty blackhaw) is also most common south of the Missouri River. However, in contrast to the former, the winter buds of the latter are immediately recognizable by their dark rusty-colored “velvety” buds and opposite arrangement. The tree we saw at the beginning of today’s outing was also heavily laden with fruits, a dark blue-black pruinose drupe.

Viburnum rufidulum (rusty blackhaw) winter bud.
Viburnum rufidulum (rusty blackhaw) fruits.

As we examined the blackhaw tree, we noticed a robust vine entwining its trunk and ascending high into the canopy above. Heavily laden along its length was a crop of fruits that immediately identified the vine as Celastrus scandens (American bittersweet). This native species can be distinguished from the introduced C. orbiculatus (Oriental bittersweet) at this time of year by its terminal fruits with orange instead of yellow dehiscing valves.

Celastrus scandens (American bittersweet) vine climbing Viburnum rufidulum (rusty blackhaw).
Celastrus scandens (American bittersweet) fruits.

The “fruit” theme of the day continued as we veered off the path to look at a rather magnificent specimen of Quercus marilandica (blackjack oak) and saw yet another vine bearing fruit inside its canopy. The opposite leaf remnants had us quickly thinking of some type of honeysuckle (genus Lonicera), and we arrived at Lonicera sempervirens (trumpet honeysuckle) once we noticed the fused perfoliate leaf pairs directly behind the fruits. This native honeysuckle is a desirable species and not to be confused with any of the several invasive introduced species of honeysuckle that can now be found in Missouri.

Lonicera sempervirens (trumpet honeysuckle) fruits.

Another honeysuckle relative, Symphoricarpos orbiculatus (coralberry), was heavily laden with fruit in the shrub layer. Like Lonicera sempervirens, this species is also native to Missouri and should not be confused with the invasive introduced species—especially Lonicera mackii (bush honeysuckle), which it superficially resembles but can be immediately distinguished from during this time of year by its uniquely coral-colored fruits.

Symphoricarpos orbiculatus (coralberry) fruits.

As the Braille Trail wrapped around the eastern side of its loop, we passed by a pile of granite boulders—obvious rubble fragments from the quarrying days of the area’s earlier history due to their sharp, angular shapes. Drill holes could be seen in and around the margins of some of the fragments, providing more evidence of their provenance from rock splitting operations before their eventual abandonment, perhaps not being of sufficient quality to warrant further cutting and shaping into building blocks or paving stones before shipment to St. Louis. Lichens growing sparingly on the cut faces indicated that some amount of time had passed since the stone had been cut, but it was a mere fraction of time compared to the densely colonized original exposed surfaces.

Granite rubble showing drill holes along margins.
Drill hole in granite bolder from quarrying.

Lichens were not the only forms of life taking advantage of new habitat created by past quarrying activities. Two species of ferns were found growing in protected crevices between the boulders, especially those where water was able to collect or seep from. The first was Asplenium platyneuron (ebony spleenwort), with only sterile fronds present but distinguished by the shiny dark rachis (stem) and stipe (stem base) and alternate, basally auriculate (lobed) pinnae (leaflets). The second was at first thought to be another species of Asplenium, possibly A. trichomanes (maidenhair spleenwort), but later determined to be Woodsia obtusa (common woodsia) by virtue of its all green rachis and stipe and much more highly dissected pinnae arranged very nearly opposite on the rachis. We later found the two species again growing close to each other right along the trail—completely unnoticed despite the group having passed them three times already (i.e., 25 person passes!).

Asplenium platyneuron (ebony spleenwort) sterile fronds.
Woodsia obtusa (common woodsia) sterile fronds.

A short spur took us to the Engine House ruin—originally built to repair train engines and cars; its granite skeleton still in good condition—before passing by the park’s main geological attraction: the central tor with its famous “elephants”! Standing atop the exposed granite and boulders, I try to let my mind go back half a billion years—an utterly incomprehensible span of time—when the boulders before me are still part of a giant submerged batholith underneath volcanic peaks soaring 15,000 above the Precambrian ocean lapping at their feet; life already a billion years old and dizzyingly diverse yet still confined to those salty waters.

Engine House ruin.
Exposed granite bedrock.
This formation—a stack or pile of rounded, weathered granite boulders sitting atop a bedrock mass of the same rock—is called a “tor.”
Vertical cracks in the bedrock erode into narrow gaps once exposed by erosion.

The landscape atop the tor seems sterile and barren, but like the rubble piles below it’s cracks and crevices abound with life. An especially fruticose stand of Vaccinium arboreum (farkleberry) found refuge in a protected area among some of the bigger boulders, their dark blue fruits continuing the “berry” theme of the day and providing an opportunity for the group to sample their flavor and compare to its cultivated blueberry cousins (I found their flavor to be quite pleasing, if somewhat subdued compared to what is my favorite fruit of all). Vaccinium arboreum is the largest of the three species in the genus occurring in Missouri, and the woody stems of larger plants make it quite unmistakable. Smaller plants, however, can be difficult to distinguish from the two other species, in which case the leaf venation can be used—that of V. arboreum being very open. This is another species that finds itself at the northwestern limit of its distribution in the craggy hills of the Ozark Highlands, where it shows a distinct preference for the dry acidic soils found in upland forests overlying igneous or sandstone bedrocks.

Vaccinium arboreum (farkleberry) fruits.
Vaccinium arboreum (farkleberry) leaf.

Despite this being a botany group outing, I rarely manage to go the entire time go by without finding and pointing out at least one interesting insect. Today, it was an adult Chilocorus stigma (twice-stabbed ladybird beetle) sitting on a Nyssa sylvatica trunk. This is a native ladybird, not to be confused with the introduced and now notorious Harmonia axyridis (Asian ladybird beetle), that lives primarily in forest habitats and is generally considered to be a beneficial species (although not sold for commercial use in orchards or on farms).

Chilocorus stigma (twice-stabbed ladybird beetle).

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021

Botanizing at Castlewood State Park

Fall color was the goal of today’s Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) Botany Group field trip, and Castlewood State Park—with its breathtaking bluff-top views over the Meramec River Valley—is as good a place to see the autumn spectacle as any. It was a well-attended group despite the cool temps, blustery winds, and hint of moisture in the air, likely helped by the park’s closer-than-usual proximity to St. Louis.

Meramec River viewed from Lone Wolf Trail Overlook.

The group decided to hike the Lone Wolf Trail, which traverses both dry forest along the bluffs and riparian forest along Kiefer Creek. We got the climbing out of the way quickly by making the long, steep ascent up to the bluffs from the parking lot—giving ample opportunity for all to make it up before exploring the bluffs. John pointed out a small tree with developing male catkins that identified it as Ostrya virginiana (hop hornbeam). The catkins will remain closed through the winter and flower next spring. Ostrya (pronounced “oh-STRY-uh”) bark is usually vertically striate (pronounced “STRY-ate”), but the bark on this tree was still relatively smooth—a “non-striate Ostrya”!

Male catkins of Ostrya virginiana (hop hornbeam).

Reaching the wooden deck overlooking the Meramec River Valley, the size of our group apparently intimidated three youngsters that were on the deck, and they quickly yielded way. The expected fall colors had not yet materialized, leading some to engage in what seems to be an annual tradition of debating whether this year’s colors are abnormally late. While at the deck and walking further along the trail from it, debates centered mostly around distinguishing the various oaks and hickories. Fallen (squirrel-clipped?) twigs from one of the large oaks exhibited large, fuzzy, quadrangular buds typical of Quercus velutina (black oak), but the leaves had usually deep sinuses. After consulting a Missouri oaks field guide, we decided they must represent Q. velutina despite the atypical leaves. Close examination of the hickories with magnification revealed distinct pubescence on the buds and petioles, suggesting Carya texana (black hickory).

The WGNSS Botany Group takes in the view from the Lone Wolf Trail Overlook.

There was little still remaining in bloom along the bluffs, and what was still in bloom was in pretty rough shape. We found two blue fall asters near each other, but a closer look revealed that they were actually two different species—Symphyotrichum turbinellum (prairie aster), distinguished by its vase-shaped involucre and branchy growth with simple leaves, and Symphyotrichum patens (creeping aster), recognizable at once by its basally clasping leaves. Another fall aster without blooms caused some debate—the recurved phyllaries of the involucre and chordate lower leaves suggested Symphyotrichum anomalum (manyray aster), but the toothed leaf edges suggested something else. Without a flower to see the color, it was suggested it could be an “anomalous anomalum.” Otherwise, only the occasional, scraggly Solidago ulmifolia (elm-leaf goldenrod) completed the list of still-barely-blooming plants along the bluffs.

Acalypha virginca (Virginia copperleaf) provides the forest floor with subtle fall color.

Descending from the bluffs along a north-facing slope and more mesic conditions provided much more color than along the bluff. Patches of Asimina triloba (pawpaw)—their large, simple leaves now vivid yellow, brightened the understory, while the ubiquitous Acer saccharum (sugar maple) lifted the yellows higher into the canopy. Only the giant oaks, mostly Q. alba (white oak) and the aforementioned Q. velutina soared above the maples, their great height no doubt a result of rich, deep soils on the north-facing slope. On the ground below, a multitude of ferns colonized the moister areas, with three species found growing side-by-side: Adiantum pedatum (northern maidenhair fern), Phegopteris hexagonoptera (broad beech fern), and Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern).

Apioperdon pyriforme (pear-shaped puffball, stump puffball) on dead oak trunk base.

Fall color was not restricted to the leaves of the trees—fruits also provided dazzling points of color. Cornus florida (flowering dogwood) and Lindera benzoin (spicebush) both sported bright red berries similar enough in appearance to each other that close examination was required to distinguish those that had fallen to the ground. The former is synecious (i.e., all flowers bisexual), thus, all individuals can bear fruit. The latter, however, is dioecious (i.e., some individuals bear only male flowers, while others bear only female flowers); thus, only female trees produce the red berries. Comparing male versus female trees provided a chance to compare also the now-developing flower buds that will be among the first to open of any plant next spring. Since male plants tend to flower earlier than females, their flower buds were observed to be ever so slightly larger and further developed than those on female plants.

Lindera benzoin (spicebush) female fruits.
Lindera benzoin (spicebush) female flower buds.
Lindera benzoin (spicebush) male flower buds.

Along Kiefer Creek, flowers were limited to the occasional Campanula americana (tall bellflower) until we came upon a small area where a few late-blooming and very short-stemmed Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan) were found (regrowth?), but the remnants of green garden netting found around them indicated that they might have been planted. Definitely native in the same area, however, were a few still-flowering Eupatorium serotinum (late boneset) plants, a couple of which were found to be hosting a small, dark blue and yellow striped caterpillar. Neither of the two entomologists present knew what it was, although both had suggestions, but a little bit of sleuthing revealed them to be the larval stage of Haploa clymene (clymene moth), one of the tiger moths (subfamily Arctiinae) and known to feed on Eupatorium.

An unusually short-stemmed Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan).
Haploa clymene (clymene moth) caterpillar on Eupatorium serotinum (late boneset). Species ID based on host.

After returning to the parking lot and chatting with the group, I went back to the Eupatorium plants to take additional photographs of the Haploa clymene caterpillars with the big camera (look for those in a future post). On the way back to the car, I found a small snail actively crawling over the trail surface—its body fully stretched and antennae fully extended. I couldn’t resist putting the iPhone to the test to see if it could capture good photos of this small snail, and both the lateral and head-on shots were more than adequate. iNaturalist identifies it as a species in the genus Ventridens (dome snail), a member of the family Zonitidae (true glass snails).

Ventridens sp. (dome snail) on trail through mesic riparian deciduous forest.
Ventridens sp. (dome snail) on trail through mesic riparian deciduous forest.

©️ Ted C MacRae 2021