Hiking at Hughes Mountain Natural Area

Even though I ended the bait trapping season last weekend, I still plan to get out on a weekly basis to explore some areas that I haven’t been able to visit yet this season. Tops on the list for me is Hughes Mountain Natural Area, an exposed rhyolite dome in the St. Francois Mountains that features dry oak-hickory woodlands surrounding xeric igneous glades.

Hughes Mountain summit.

The main thing I was hoping to see was Tragidion coquus, a spectacular longhorned beetle that seems common in some areas (e.g., Texas) but is rarely seen in Missouri. I saw one here three years ago in late September at the woodland/glade interface, and a recent conversation with fellow cerambyciphile Dan Heffern, who mentioned that they seem to prefer recently burned oak woodlands, makes me think that is why I saw it here (the surrounding woodlands are managed with periodic prescribed burns to stave off woody encroachment of the glade proper).

Columnar fracturing of rhyolite dome.
Eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana) on the glade.

I hiked along the trail through the forest leading to the main glade, noting an abundance of many-rayed aster (Symphyotrichum anomalum) in bloom and a few persisting blooms on now-rank plants of slender false foxglove (Agalinis tenuifolia).

Many-rayed aster (Symphyotrichum anomalum). Note the photobombing ambush bug (Phymatodes sp.) on the stem in the lower left corner.
Slender false foxglove (Agalinis tenuifolia).
Slender false foxglove (Agalinis tenuifolia).
Common dittany (Cunila origanoides).

After reaching the main glade, I stayed along the interface around its entire perimeter, hoping to see one of the beetles either resting on foliage or in flight. It was a good day to look—sunny and relatively warm, but no beetles were seen. In fact, even though we haven’t yet had any frost, there was not a lot of insect activity in general with the exception of marvelously cryptic lichen grasshoppers (Trimerotropis saxatilis), which were common on the glade along with a variety of other grasshoppers.

The remarkably cryptic lichen grasshopper (Trimerotropis saxatilis).

There was also little blooming on the glade, which made the chances of seeing the beetle even lower since they are known to be attracted to flowers such as thoroughwort (Eupatorium spp.) and blazingstar (Liatris spp.). I did find a few persisting blooms of the hot-pink largeflower fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus), but most other plants were well past bloom. Eventually I completed the walk around the glade perimeter and worked my way back.

Largeflower fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus) flower.
Largeflower fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus) basal leaves.

At one point, I found a clump of small shagbark hickories (Carya ovata) that were oozing sap at several points along the main trunks and noted a variety of insects feeding at the sap flows. I checked carefully, thinking that they might include T. coquus, but none were seen—just flies, butterflies, and a wheel bug assassin bug (Arilus cristatus). Shortly afterwards, I reached the car—my bottles empty but my soul nourished by another day surrounded by nature.

An abnormal fall-blooming serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea).

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021

Botanizing at Salt Lick Point Land & Water Reserve

Bluff tops of Salt Lick Point Land & Water Reserve.

Today the WGNSS Botany Group ventured into Illinois for its Monday field trip to explore the limestone bluffs and hilltop prairies of Salt Lick Point Land & Water Reserve. This being the first day of autumn, goldenrods and other fall-blooming plants in the great family Asteraceae were expected to dominate the flora, which indeed was the case. Along the steep, rocky trail leading up to the prairies, Solidago buckleyi (Buckley’s goldenrod) and S. ulmifolia (elmleaf goldenrod) bloomed together in the dry-mesic deciduous forest. The former is a near-Missouri specialty, extending just barely into nearby portions of four adjacent states, and can be distinguished by its relatively larger flowers on columnar inflorescences with recurved involucral bracts and its relatively broad leaves with distinct teeth.

Solidago buckleyi (Buckley’s goldenrod).
Solidago buckleyi (Buckley’s goldenrod).
Solidago buckleyi (Buckley’s goldenrod).
Solidago buckleyi (Buckley’s goldenrod).

As we walked the trail, I heard several cicadas singing, starting with Megatibicen pronotalis pronotalis (Walker’s annual cicada) near the bottom and Neotibicen robinsonianus (Robinson’s annual cicada) as we ascended, the latter eventually joined also N. lyricens (lyric cicada). Carcasses of the latter two were also seen along the trail (confirming my IDs based on their songs), and as we reached the second of three significant hilltop prairie remnants Kathy found a live male M. pronotalis in the low vegetation. It’s noisy, rattling alarm screeching as I held it attracted a crowd of gawkers within the group and a flurry of photographs before I secured the specimen in a pill bottle and recorded the location. Like most cicadas, only the males are capable of making sound, which they do by rapidly expanding and contracting hard membranes called tymbals that reside under distinctive plates found on the venter at the base of the abdomen.

Megatibicen pronotalis pronotalis (Walker’s annual cicada).
Megatibicen pronotalis pronotalis (Walker’s annual cicada)—male ventor showing plates tha core the tymbals.

Goldenrods were blooming profusely in the prairie, attracting numerous insects including Lycomorpha pholus (black-and-yellow lichen moths)—a mimic of netwinged beetles in the genus Lycus.

Lycomorpha pholus (black-and-yellow lichen moths) on flowers of Solidago ulmifolia (elmleaf goldenrod).

As the trail continued along the blufftops, we found a true bluff specialty—Solidago drummondii (bluff or Drummond’s goldenrod). Like S. buckleyi, this species also is very nearly a Missouri endemic and is found exclusively on or very near limestone/dolomite bluffs. It’s habitat and very wide, toothed leaves on short petioles easily distinguish this species from other goldenrods.

Solidago drummondii (bluff or Drummond’s goldenrod).
Solidago drummondii (bluff or Drummond’s goldenrod).
Solidago drummondii (bluff or Drummond’s goldenrod).

In the interface between the dry-mesic deciduous forest and another hilltop prairie, we saw a nice patch of Agalinis tenuifolia (slender false foxglove), distinguished by its thin, branching stems, opposite, linear leaves with long, thin pedicels, and small flowers with upper lip arching over and enclosing the stamens.

Agalinis tenuifolia (slender false foxglove).
Agalinis tenuifolia (slender false foxglove).

As I photographed the plant, I heard others in the group on the prairie saying “We need an entomologist,” and as I approached the group I found them surrounding a Brickellia eupatorioides (false boneset) hosting two individuals of the large, black planthopper, Poblicia fulginosa. Although normally very wary, both individuals cooperated nicely for photos, and I succeeded in capturing a photo showing the bright red markings on their abdomen in obvious contrast to the otherwise dark, somber coloration of the insect. In fact, the dorsal portion of the abdomen is entirely bright red, presumably serving a “flash coloration” function similar to the brightly colored abdomen of jewel beetles or hind wings of underwing moths to confuse potential predators by its high visibility in flight and sudden disappearance when the insect lands and folds its wings over the abdomen.

Poblicia fulginosa on Brickellia eupatorioides (false boneset).

As we continued past the hilltop prairie, several individuals of Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia or woolly buckthorn) were found along the dry ridgetop trail. Whenever I see S. lanuginosum, I look for signs of Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer)—arguably North America’s most beautiful longhorned beetle. No signs were seen at the first tree, but at the second the telltale frass (digested sawdust ejected by the larvae that bore through the main roots of living trees) was easily spotted at the base of the trunk. This beetle is distributed across the southeastern and south-central U.S. wherever it’s host can be found, occurring reliably as far north as the dolomite glades south of St. Louis; however, I am unaware of any records of this beetle from Illinois.

Frass at trunk base of Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia or woolly buckthorn) indicating active infestation by Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer).

After a long, steep, rocky descent back down, we found many more S. drummondii perched poetically on the vertical limestone bluff face at the bottom.

Solidago drummondii (bluff or Drummond’s goldenrod).
Solidago drummondii (bluff or Drummond’s goldenrod).
Solidago drummondii (bluff or Drummond’s goldenrod).

The walk back to the parking lot gave us the opportunity to study several additional fall-blooming asters including Solidago altissimum (tall goldenrod), S. gigantea (giant goldenrod), Helianthus tuberosus (Jerusalem artichoke), and Smallanthia uvedalia (bearsfoot). While H. tuberosus is easily recognized by gestalt, John Oliver pointed out the main identifying characters that distinguish the species from the mutitude of other sunflowers such as leaves becoming alternate at the upper reaches of the stem, the rough, scabrous stem, and the basal “wings” on the distal portion of the leaf petioles, particularly the lower leaves.

Helianthus tuberosus (Jerusalem artichoke).
Helianthus tuberosus (Jerusalem artichoke).
Helianthus tuberosus (Jerusalem artichoke).
Helianthus tuberosus (Jerusalem artichoke).
Helianthus tuberosus (Jerusalem artichoke).

Smallanthia uvedalia, on the other hand, is much less common but immediately recognizable by its unique flower heads with few, well-spaced ray florets and large, maple-like leaves.

Smallanthia uvedalia (bearsfoot).
Smallanthia uvedalia (bearsfoot).
Smallanthia uvedalia (bearsfoot).

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021

Muir Woods National Monument

This is the best tree-lovers monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world. – John Muir

Coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) is the tallest type of tree in the world, with maximum recorded heights approaching 380 feet. This majestic conifer grows only along the Pacific Coast in a narrow strip from Monterey to Oregon. Most of the estimated 2 million acres of original redwood forest are now gone — victims of the saw! One of the small groves that managed to escape this fate due to its relative inaccessibility grows along Redwood Creek and adjacent slopes in what is now Muir Woods National Monument. At heights approaching 260 feet, the redwoods growing here are not the tallest to be found; however, their proximity to San Francisco (just 15 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge) makes them the most heavily viewed examples of this ancient tree. Lynne and I visited Muir Woods a few times in the 90’s after moving to Sacramento — today (3/20) was our first visit since then, and the first ever for Mollie and Madison. In addition to getting to see these marvelous trees once again, we were also treated to a spectacular display of spring wildflowers.

We began our hike on the main paved trail. This is where most visitors confine themselves during a visit to this place, so the picture here documents a rare sight — no people! I apologize for its lack of focus, a consequence of the limitations of my little point-and-shoot camera in the limited amount of light that makes it through these towering trees during late afternoon.

Standing beneath one of these trees and looking up is a lesson in insignificance — the feeling one gets looking straight up the trunk of one of these giants cannot be adequately captured on film (er… microchip).

We quickly tired of the crowds and decided to hike up the Ocean View Trail, which climbs quite steeply up the east side of the valley. This marvelous trail was nearly devoid of people, and we found ourselves winding through thick, dark, cool forest with numerous side ravines. The lower elevations of the trail were dominated by redwood trees and a spectacular array of spring wildflowers. Among the most common was California toothwort (Cardamine  californica [=Dentaria californica]), a member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae). I noticed that the leaves at the base of the plant were broad and oval, while those arising from the flower stalk were slender and lanceolate, often divided into 3 leaflets.

Wake robins (genus Trillium), belonging to the lily family (Liliaceae, sometimes separated into the lily-of-the-valley family, Convallariaceae), are among my favorite wildflowers. We soon noticed Western wake robin (Trillium ovatum) growing commonly in shaded areas along the trail. We were also seeing some purple-flowered wake robins — at first I thought they were a different species, but it soon became apparent that these were older Western wake robin flowers, which change color from white to purple as they age.

A little further up the trail we began encountering small patches of Mountain iris (Iris douglasiana, family Iridaceae). Flower color for this native species ranges from cream-white to lavender, but all of the flowers we saw were of the white variety.

We saw this fat Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum ssp. amplexicaule [=Smilacina racemosa var. amplexicaulis]) growing in one of the cool, moist, side ravines. This is another member of the Liliaceae (sometimes separated into the Convallariaceae). The large, oval leaves clasping around the distinct, unbranched stem were almost as attractive as the flowers, which apparently give rise to bright scarlet berries in the summer.

In the middle elevations the redwood forest transitioned to drier oak woodland containing a mixture of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii), bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), and tan oak (Lithocarpus densiflorus). Some of the Douglas-firs were enormous.


Indian warrior (Pedicularis densiflora) is a member of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae, sometimes separated into the Orobanchaceae). This plant, with its striking bright red flowers and finely divided, fern-like leaves, is a facultative parasite on the roots of other plants. Apparently, the genus name refers to an old superstition that sheep could become infested with lice if they ate this plant.


The juncture of the Ocean View Trail with the Lost Trail was closed, so we backtracked down the 1+ miles back to the main paved trail. By now it was fairly late in the afternoon, and the crowds had thinned considerably. Having gotten lots of good views of the giant trees, we began turning our attention downwards to the smaller understory flora. Ferns, of course, are a dominant component of this understory, especially along Redwood Creek. This large specimen may represent Western sword fern (Polystichum munitum) (family Dryopteridaceae), which can apparently be distinguished by small hilt-like projections from the base of the pinnae (leaflets), but I couldn’t get close enough to see for sure.


Abundant on the ground in the valley was redwood sorrell (Oxalis oregana), a member of the family Oxalidaceae. In places this plant covered the ground in thick carpets.


Among the more interesting plants we saw in the valley was California fetid adder’s tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii), yet another member of the Liliaceae or Convallariaceae. I wasn’t sure what this plant was at first, despite its highly distinctive, glossy, mottled foliage. We were too late to see the blooms, which apparently have a fetid odor to attract flies for pollination, but did find the maturing pods on their slender, drooping stems.


Close to the creek’s edge we saw this colony of horsetails (Equisetum sp.), primitive plants in the family Equisetaceae. Members of this group belong to one of the most ancient lineages of vascular plants, dating back to the Devonian period (416-359 million years ago). Their Paleozoic ancestors (Calamitaceae and Archaeocalamitaceae) were giants, reaching heights of 50 ft or more, and were major components of the Carboniferous swamplands. Along with lycopod trees (Lepidodendrales), they were important contributors to coal formation and, like the lycopods, became extinct by the mid-Permian (~270 million years ago). The genus Equisetum represents the only surviving descendants of this lineage. Unlike their extinct progenitors, these small, herbaceous plants rarely exceed 4 ft in height; however, they share many of the same characters such as articulate stems with microphylls arranged in whorls. Recent phylogenetic studies, using both molecular and morphological characters, suggest that horsetails, together with ferns, form a clade representing one of the three major lineages of vascular plants (Pryer et al. 2001).


Nearby we saw a patch of Giant wake robin (Trillium chloropetalum) in flower. These were taller than the California wake robins we saw on the slopes of the Ocean View Trail but similarly characterized by a whorl of 3 leaves and flowers composed of 3 erect petals. Mature flowers darken to a deep red purple, so it seems these plants had just begun flowering. Muir Woods appears to be a good place for observing a diversity of Convallariaceae!


Also along Redwood Creek we found this bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) in full bloom. As its specific epithet suggests, this maple has the largest leaves of any member of the genus — in this example the newly-expanded leaves were distinctly purplish. The picture below shows the greenish-yellow flowers (petals inconspicuous) produced on long, pendulous racemes.


Interpretive signs along the paved main trail pointed out a redwood “family group,” formed by sprouts growing from the base of a larger tree. Eventually, the central “mother” tree died and decayed away, leaving a ring of offspring that mature into an enormous, characteristic circle of trees. This apparently also happens with other types of trees, though on a smaller scale, as demonstrated in this picture of an oak (Quercus sp.) family group.


As the day drew to a close we found ourselves back in the parking lot, where this California icon, a clump of Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), was spreading its wide, majestic crown from multiple, twisted trunks and gnarled branches.


Much too soon, it was time to leave this beautiful valley, but before heading back to Sacramento we stopped to take one last look down towards the valley and out to the Pacific Ocean from the Panoramic Highway.