When hardcore botany meets hardcore nature photography—nature geekery at its finest!

Last Saturday, the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) Nature Photography Group was joined by several members of the WGNSS Botany Group and Missouri Native Plant Society to look for one of Missouri’s rarest plants—Geocarpon minimum, a.k.a. tinytim or earth-fruit (family Caryophyllaceae). This diminutive, federally-threatened and state-endangered plant grows only on sandstone glades, primarily in west-central Missouri with a few populations known also from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. The window for finding this plant is short—it’s entire life cycle lasts only about 4 weeks, with an even shorter window for finding it in flower.

Our first stop to look for them was Bona (pronounced “Bonnie”) Glade Natural Area. I’d been here before, but it was about 10 years ago and at the wrong time to look for this plant (but I did find widowscross, Sedum pulchellum, in bloom). Some of the group had seen it here before and were able to coach us on the microhabitat where we would likely find them, and it didn’t take long before we did. Soon after finding the first plants, we found them in bloom as well—their almost microscopic flowers being the perfect subject for my macro lenses!

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Remnant sandstone glade at Bona Glade Natural Area, Dade Co., Missouri.

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Geocarpon minimum (tinytim or earth-fruit). Note the tiny open flowers just below center. (This is an iPhone photo—I have much better photos with my “big” camera.)

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Claytonia virginica (spring beauty) (family Montiaceae).

After getting plenty of shots of the plant and flowers, we moved to an adjacent plot of land across the highway, where we not only found more tinytim plants but also Corydalis aurea, commonly called golden corydalis (pronounced koor-ID-uh-lyss), in the family Papaveraceae—something I’d never seen before.

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Sedum pulchellum (widowscross) (family Crassulaceae).

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Corydalis aurea (golden corydalis).

Next the group moved on to Corry Branch Glade. It was originally our intent to look for more of the plant at this site, but immediately upon entering the glade we noticed a stunning display of Selenia aurea, or golden selenia. This small, striking species in the mustard family is restricted to just a handful of counties in the west-central part of the state, again primarily glade habitats. It was a surprising and pleasant find that occupied the groups’ attentions for some time before we finally decided to break for lunch (it was well into the afternoon!). While I was there, I not only photographed the plant but started having some success with my new 15-mm wide-angle macro lens, with which I had been experimenting all day (to that point without much success).

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Selenia aurea (golden selenia) (family Brassicaceae).

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Members of WGNSS & MoNPS go hunting for rare plants! Front to back: Ted MacRae (me), John Oliver, Casey & Anh Do Galvan, Steve Turner, Bill Duncan, David Seidensticker, Deb Tyler, Adam Rembert, and James Faupel.

After “lunch” (which was closer to dinner!), a few of us (Bill, David, and I) wanted to go back to Bona Glade to take another crack at photographing tinytim with our wide-angle macro lens. I especially was not satisfied with what I had gotten earlier, that being my first serious attempt at using the lens in the field. Having a better idea now of how to use the lens and what our compositional goals were, we scoured the area looking for just the right plants in just the right situations. I can honestly say I finally got a feel for how to use the lens, the trickiest part of it being how to balance use of flash on the subject with the amount of ambient light from the background (I’m not a stranger to this concept at all, frequently having combined flash with “blue sky” in much of the macrophotography I’ve done up to this point). We photographed several plants on different substrates looking for the right combination of plant, substrate, and background, and we all walked away pretty optimistic that we’d gotten the photos that we wanted.

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Bill Duncan photographing tinytim with his wide-angle macro lens.

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Amelanchier arborea (serviceberry) (family Rosaceae).

My thanks to Casey and Ando Galvan for letting me ride down there with them, to David Seidensticker and Bill Duncan for letting me ride back with them, and for everyone in the group who so generously shared their great, collective knowledge of botany, photography, and natural history. What a fun day!

NOTE: The photos in this post were taken with an iPhone X. The “real” photos, taken with our “real” cameras, will be shared as they become available.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

2018 Arizona Insect Collecting Trip “iReport”

Hot on the heels of the previous installment in this series, I present the sixth “Collecting Trip iReport”; this one covering a trip to Arizona during July/August 2018 with Art Evans and—like the previous installments in this series—illustrated exclusively with iPhone photographs (see previous installments for 2013 Oklahoma2013 Great Basin2014 Great Plains, 2015 Texas, and 2018 New Mexico/Texas).

This trip was a reunion of sorts—not only had it been 20 years since I’d collected in Arizona, it had also been 20 years since I’d spent time in the field with Art Evans—which just happened to be in southeast Arizona! For years I looked forward to our next opportunity, and when he told me of his plans for an extended trip to take photographs of his forthcoming Beetles of the Western United States, I couldn’t pass up the chance. Art had already been out west for five weeks by the time I landed in Phoenix on July 28th, and together we drove to Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains and spent the night before beginning a 7-day adventure in and around the “Sky Islands” of southeastern Arizona.

As with the recent New Mexico/Texas post, the material collected still has not been completely processed and curated, so I don’t have final numbers of taxa collected, but there were a number of species—some highly desirable—that I managed to find and collect for the first time, e.g., the buprestids Acmaeodera yuccavoraAgrilus restrictus, Agr. arizonicusChrysobothris chiricauhuaMastogenius puncticollis, and Lampetis webbii and the cerambycids Tetraopes discoideus and Stenaspis verticalis. Who knows what as-yet-unrecognized goodies await my discovery in the still unprocessed material?!


Day 1 – Chiricahua Mountains, Cave Creek Canyon
After arriving at Cave Creek Ranch late last night, we awoke to some stunning views right outside our room!

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View of Cave Creek Canyon at Cave Creek Ranch, Chiricahua Mountains.

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Cave Creek Ranch, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains.

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Cave Creek Ranch, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mountains.

The first buprestid of the trip was a series of Pachyschelus secedens on Desmodium near Stewart Campground. We beat the oaks and acacia along the way to Sunny Flat Campground but didn’t find much. Once we got near Sunny Flat I did some sweeping in an area with new growth of Helianthus sp. and got a series of Agrilus huachucae, a few lycids, and one Leptinotarsa rubiginosa. I beat one Acmaeodera cazieri from Acacia greggii and found another on flower of prickly poppy (Argemone sp.). On the roadside at Sunny Flat I found several Acmaeodera spp. on a yellow-flowered composite – one A. rubronotata, one A. solitaria(?), and three A. cazieri. Also collected one A. cazieri on a rain gauge, Mecas rotundicollis and one as yet undetermined acanthocinine cerambycid on miscellaneous foliage, one tiger beetle (Cicindela sedecimpunctata?) on the roadside, and two orange lycids in flight.

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Majestic peaks loom over the canyon.

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Blue pleasing fungus beetle (Gibbifer californicus) – family Erotylidae.

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Me with Margarethe Brummermann.

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Reddish potato beetle (Leptinotarsa rubiginosa) is an uncommon relative of the much more well known (and despised) Colorado potato beetle (L. decemlineata).

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Margarethe Brummermann searches for beetles in Sunny Flat Campground.

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Bordered patch (Chlosyne lacinia) – family Nymphalidae.

Desert flats east of Portal, Arizona
We came to this spot to look for Sphaerobothris ulkei on joint-fir (Ephedra trifurca), but after not finding any for awhile I got distracted by some big buprestids flying around. Caught several Hippomelas sphenicus, one Gyascutus caelatus, and two Acmaeodera gibbula on Acacia rigida, and the first and third were also on Prosopis glandulosa along with Plionoma suturalis. We finally found S. ulkei – searched the area for almost three hours, and Art and I each caught two and Margarethe caught one – also one each of P. suturalis and A. gibbula. I also got a mating pair of A. gibbula on Acacia greggii. After dinner, we went back and placed an ultraviolet light – checked it a couple hours later and got a nice series of Cylindera lemniscata and a few meloids (for Jeff).

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Desert flats below Portal, Arizona – dominant woody vegetation is mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), sweet acacia (Acacia rigida), and three-pronged joint-fir (Ephedra trifurca).

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Art Evans photographing Hippomelas planicauda in the ‘studio’ afterwards.

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Sphaerobothris ulkei, collected on Ephedra trifurca.

Day 1 of the trip ended in typical monsoon fashion – heavy, thunderous rainstorms moved into the area during late afternoon, dimming prospects for blacklighting. Still, we set them up anyway at several spots and checked them later in the evening (flood waters preventing us from going to all the spots we wanted to). Not surprisingly, the one trap that yielded interesting specimens was in the lowest (warmest) area and received the least amount of rain. For me it was a nice series of Cylindera lemniscata.

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Day 2 – Southwestern Research Station, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona
There is a large stand of a narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias sp.) at the station, so we stopped by in our way up the mountain to check it for beetles. Got a nice little series of Tetraopes discoideus (tiny little guys!) on the stems as well as a few Rhopalophora meeskei, two Lycus spp., and one Pelonides humeralis on the flowers.

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Tetraopes discoideus (family Cerambycidae).

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Rhopalophora meeskei and Lycus sp. on Asclepias sp.

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At the Southwestern Research Station with Barbara Roth, Art Evans, and Margarethe Brummermann.

Road from Southwestern Research Station to Ruster Park
After leaving the SWRS on our way up to Rustler Park, we stopped to check a couple of bushes of New Mexico raspberry (Rubus neomexicanus). Margarethe thought there might be lepturines on the flowers, but instead we found a few Acmaeodera spp. and some Rhopalophora meeskei.

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New Mexico raspberry (Rubus neomexicanus).

Further up the road we made another quick stop to check roadside flowers – just a single A. rubronotata on a yellow-flowered composite, but spectacular views of the valley below.

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Looking west from the Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona.

Gayle Nelson once told me about finding Chrysobothris chiricahuae on pine slash at Rustler Park, so I was pleased to see several fresh slash piles when we arrived. I saw a Chrysobothris (presumably this species) on the very first branch in the very first pile that I looked at, but I missed it (damn!) and didn’t see any more in that pile. However, in the next pile I visited I saw two and got them both. I looked at a third pile and didn’t see any, nor did I see any more on the two previous piles that I looked at. Still, two is better than none (assuming this is, indeed, what they are!).

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Rustler Park, Chiricahua Mountains, Arizona.

Chiricahua National Monument
Not a bug collecting stop, but we wanted to drive into the monument and see the incredible rock formations which are best appreciated by driving through Bonita Canyon and then up to Massai Point. The unusual spires, columns, and balancing rocks are a result of erosion through vertical cracks in the compressed volcanic ash which was laid down in layers 25 million years ago and then uplifted. Tilting during uplift caused vertical fractures and slippage, into which water then worked its way to create today’s formations. One of the columns I saw is 143 feet tall and only 3 feet in diameter at one point near the base! Mexican jays were our constant, close companions as we hiked through the pinyon pine/oak/juniper woodland.

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Vicinity Gleeson, Arizona
There is a wash across N Ghosttown Trail with stands of Baccharis sarothroides growing along the sides. Art previously collected a single Cotinis impia on one of the plants, so we came back to check them. We didn’t find any, but we did find two fine males and one female Trachyderes mandibularis on a couple of the plants. I also found a dead Polycesta aruensis.

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Vicinity Tombstone, Arizona
Art saw Gyascutus caelatus here previously, so we came back and found them abundantly in sweet acacia (Acacia rigidula), which was in full bloom. They were extremely flighty and hard to catch, so we each got only four. I also collected one Stenaspis solitaria on the same and a Trachyderes mandibularis female in flight.

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Trachyderes mandibularis female

At another spot nearby, we stopped to look for Lampetus webbii, which Art had seen but not been able to collect when he was here a couple of weeks ago. We did not see any (but read on…), and I saw but did not collect a Trachyderes mandibularis and two Stenaspis solitaria. I also saw and photographed some giant mesquite bugs (Thasus neocalifornicus).

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Giant mesquite bugs (Thasus neocalifornicus).

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Note the heavily armed and thickened hind legs of the male (L) versus the more slender and red/black banded hind legs of the female (R).

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Not sure of the ID (other than ‘DYC’ – damned yellow composite).

The day ended enjoying steaks, Malbec, and Jameson with two of the best hosts ever!

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Day 3 – Box Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona
Our first stop of the day was Box Canyon, a gorgeous, rugged canyon on the east side of the range. Mimosa dysocarpa was in bloom, off which I beat two Agrilus aeneocephalus, several Hippomelas planicauda, and one Stenaspis solitaria. Norm gave me an Acmaeodera cazieri that he’d collected on an unidentified yellow-flowered composite, and right afterwards I found some small, low-growing plants with purple flowers and sticky leaves (eventually ID’d as Allionia incarnata, or trailing four o’clock) to which Acmaeodera yuccavora and A. cazieri were flying in numbers. After that I crawled up top and beat the mesquites, getting one Chrysobothris sp., a mating pair of S. solitaria, and a couple of large clytrine leaf beetles.

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Box Canyon from just above the dry falls.

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Prickly poppy (Argemone mexicana) blooming along the roadside.

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Hippomelas planicauda mating pair on Mimosa dysocarpa.

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Allionia incarnata, flower host for Acmaeodera cazieri and Acm. yuccavora.

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Acmaeodera cazieri (left-center).

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Acmaeodera yuccavora.

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Lubber grasshopper (Taenipoda eques). The striking coloration warns potential predators that it is chemically protected.

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Datana sp. caterpillars.

Vicinity Duquesne, Arizona
We came here to look for Tetraopes skillmani (this is the type locality). We found the host plant (Sarcostemma sp.), but there were no beetles to be seen anywhere. Maybe another location nearby…

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Sarcostemma sp. (family Asclepiadaceae).

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Patagonia Pass, Patagonia Mountains, Arizona
We went up higher into the mountains to get into the oak woodland, where I hoped to find some of the harder-to-collect oak-associated Agrilus spp. Right away I beat one Agrilus restrictus off of Emory oak (Quercus emoryi), but no amount of beating produced anything more than a single Enoclerus sp.. I also beat the Arizona oak (Q. arizonica) and got only a single Macrosaigon sp. On Desmodium sp. I collected not only Pachyschelus secedens but a nice series of Agrilus arizonicus. For me it is the first time I’ve collected either A. restrictus and A. arizonicus, the former being quite uncommon as well, so all-in-all not a bad stop.

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Agrilus arizonicus mating pair – the males are brighter green than the females, which are more coppery.

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Unidentified plant.

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Me, Art Evans, and Norm Woodley.

Sycamore Canyon, Santa Cruz Mountains, Arizona
We came here for night lighting, but while we still had light I did some sweeping in the low vegetation and collected a mixed series of Agrilus arizonicus (on Desmodium sp.) and Agrilus pulchellus – the latter a first for me, along with two small cerambyids that could be Anopliomorpha rinconia. Conditions were perfect (warm, humid, and no moon), and we had lots of lights (Art’s five LED units, Steve’s MV/UV combo setup, and my UV setup), but longhorned beetles were scarce – just one Prionus heroicus and one Lepturges sp. for me, and Steve got a few others including a nice Aegomorphus sp. I did also collect a few scarabs – Chrysina gloriosa and Strategus alous – because they’re just so irresistible!

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A beacon in the night!

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Art, Steve, and Norm checking the lights.

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Chrysina gloriosa.

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A male oz beetle (Strategus aloeus).

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Eacles oslari is a western U.S. relative of the imperial moth (E. imperialis).

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Insects whirring around my head!


Day 4 – Prologue
One of the downsides (if you can call it that) of having great collecting is the need to take periodic “breaks” to process all the specimens and make my field containers available for even more specimens. Thanks to Steve and Norm for making their place available to Art and I so we can do this before heading out to our next set of localities.

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Copper Canyon, Huachuca Mountains, Arizona
Copper Canyon is the classic spot for finding the charismatic Agrilus cavatus (see photo), but first we did some sweeping in the low vegetation near the parking area, where Norm got one Agrilus arizonicus and two Agrilus latifrons – and gave them to me! (Thanks, Norm!) I did some beating of the oaks, and after much work I ended up with a single Agrilaxia sp. and pogonocherine cerambycid on Emory oak (Quercus emoryi) and a couple of giant clytrines on the Arizona oak (Q. arizonicus). I then started sweeping the low-growing Acaciella angustissima – right away I got two A. cavatus. They were in the area past the cattle guard on the right where lots of dead stems were sticking up, and although I continued to sweep the plants more broadly in the area I never saw another one. Finally, Norm called me up to a small Mimosa dysocarpa near the car off which he collected three Agrilus elenorae – and gave them to me! (Thanks, Norm!) I gave the tree a tap and got one more, and in my last round of sweeping I came up with a Taphrocerus sp. (must be some sedges growing amongst the grasses).

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Copper Canyon to the northwest.

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Copper Canyon to the north.

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Agrilus cavatus on its host plant, prairie acacia (Acaciella angustissima).

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Robber fly (family Asilidae) with prey (a ladybird beetle).

Bear Canyon Crossing, Huachuca Mountains, Arizona
There was quite a bit of Mimosa dysocarpa in bloom along the roadsides on the west side of the Bear Canyon crossing, which I beat hoping to find some more Agrilus elenorae. I didn’t find any, but I did get several more Hippomelas planicauda, which is a nice consolation prize – and a great photo of the last one! Other than that I did a lot of sweeping and found only a single Acmaeodera cazieri.

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Bear Canyon to the south.

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Bear Canyon to the north.

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Hippomelas planicauda on one of its hosts, velvetpod mimosa (Mimosa dysocarpa).

Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch of the National Audubon Society, Elgin, Arizona
Cool temperatures and a blustery wind discouraged most insects from finding our blacklights. However, our blacklight did find some other interesting local residents. These two individuals could be the stripe-tailed scorpion, Paravaejovis (Hoffmannius) spinigerus, a common species in Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.

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Day 5 – Miller Canyon Recreation Area, Huachuca Mountains, Arizona
There was a lot of Baccharis sarothroides growing in the lower canyon near the parking area, so I checked it all out hoping to find Tragidion annulatum. None were seen, and in fact there was very little insect life in general. I did pick up a couple of Acmaeodera solitaria by sweeping – not anything significant but the 15th species buprestid of the trip and found a dead Cotinis mutabilis, and Art got a nice series of Chalcolepidius click beetles on B. sarothroides and Prosopis glandulosa. Puzzling the lack of insect activity, given how green all the plants were and how fresh the growth looked. I guess we’ll have to look elsewhere.

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Acanthocephala thomasi, a leaf-footed bug (family Coridae).

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I was all lined up for a side shot of the bug when suddenly he took flight.

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Turkey vultures hanging out waiting for me to die!

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Actually they were all hanging out around a dead cat, some of which I scared up as they were feeding on it.

Vicinity Naco, Arizona
We decided to try some desert thorn-scrub habitat so headed east towards Bisbee. Just north of Naco we saw some habitat where it had rained recently – everything was green with the sweet acacia (Acacia rigidula) and creosote (Larrea tridentata) in full bloom. Immediately out of the car I found a Dendrobias mandibularis on Baccharis sarothroides (and when I came back to it later I found a big, major male on it – see photos). On the sweet acacia we found a handful of Gyascutus caelatus (one of which I got a nice photo of), a mating pair of Sphaenothecus bivittatus, and a Cymatodera sp. Finally, out along the roadsides a riot of different yellow composites were in full bloom, including Heliomeris longifolia off which Art got a couple of Acmaeodera solitaria and I got two specimens of a large Acmaeodera sp. (blue-black with numerous small irregular yellow spots).

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Dendrobias mandibularis – major male.

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Them’s some mandibles!

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Gyascutus caelatus on Acacia rigidula.

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A blister beetle (family Meloidae) in the genus Zonitis – either sayi or dunnianus – on Heliomeris longifolia.

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Heliomeris longifolia – host flower for both the Zonitis blister beetle and Acmaeodera sp. jewel beetle.

Vicinity Tombstone, Arizona
We decided to go back to the spot north of Tombstone where Art had earlier seen Lampetis webbii and give that species another shot. We looked at the Rhus sp. tree that he’d seen them on, and then we each followed the wash in opposite directions looking at the Rhus trees along them, which growing above the banks but never further away than about 25 feet. Along the way I collected several more Gyascutus caelatus on sweet acacia (Acacia rigida), which were more abundant this time than last and also easier to catch. After walking about 1/4-mile down the wash I saw something fly from a Rhus tree and land low on the bushes nearby. I quickly netted it, pulled it out, and was elated to see that it was, indeed, Lampetis webbii! I searched the Rhus in the area more carefully but didn’t find any more, then found some Rhus growing up along the road. At one point, I saw a large buprestid fly and land high in the top of another Rhus tree. I couldn’t tell for sure if it was L. webbii, but I extended my net as far as I could, positioned it beneath the beetle, and tapped the branch hoping it would fall in. Unfortunately, it flew away instead of dropping, so I can’t say for sure whether it was L. webbii or just a wayward G. caelatus. At any rate, L. webbii is yet another species that I have not collected before now and the 17th buprestid species of the trip.

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Lampetis webbii, collected on Rhus sp.

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Stenaspis solitaria on Acacia rigidula.

Ramsey Canyon, Huachuca Mountains, Arizona
After returning from Tombstone, we visited Pat & Lisa Sullivan at their home at the end of Ramsey Canyon. Pat is a scarab collector who runs lights at his home nightly, and after a delicious dinner we spent the rest of the evening checking the lights. I was hoping to collect Prionus heroicus, and I got my wish. Also got Prionus californicus and several other non-cerambycid beetles such as Chrysina beyeri, C. gloriosa, Lucanus mazama, and Parabyrsopolis chihuahuae (the latter a first for me). I also placed a prionic acid lure (thanks Steve!) and got three more male P. heroicus. We also hunted around the rocks and roadsides hoping to find Amblycheila baroni but didn’t find any. Art did, however, find a female P. californicus and gave it to me (thanks!).

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Meeting Pat Sullivan!

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Darkling beetles (family Tenebrionidae) such as this one come out at night to feed on decaying vegetation.

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Chrysina beyeri (family Scarabaeidae) is one of three species in the genus occurring in Ramsey Canyon.

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Black-tailed rattlesnake (Crotalus molossus), collected by Pat in Ramsey Canyon.

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Sidewinder (Crotalus cerastes lateropens), collected by Pat in Yuma County.

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“Sometimes the best collecting is inside!”


Day 6 – Vicinity Sonoita, Arizona
Unsuccessful attempt to collect Hippomelas martini, only recently described (Bellamy & Nelson, 1998) and part of the type series taken somewhere near this spot (“20 mi NE Patagonia, Hwy 82”) by “sweeping roadside vegetation”. At other locations it had been recorded on Calliandra sp., and I found patches of the plant here along and on top of the road cuts. This gives me confidence that I found the right spot, but I didn’t encounter this or any other beetles by sweeping the patches or visually inspecting them.

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Box Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona
We decided to come back to Box Canyon since we’d had such good luck last time. I started at the spot above the dry falls where I collected so many Acmaeodera cazieri and A. yuccavora on flowers of Allionia incarnata. This time it was hotter, drier, and windier, and the flowers were semi-closed. Still I found a few of each. I then started walking down the road towards the lower canyon crossing where I would meet up with Art. Things were really hopping on the Mimosa dysocarpa, with Hippomelas planicauda abundant (finally collected my fill) and several other Buprestidae also beaten from the plants: Agrilus aeneocepahlus, Acmaeodera scalaris, Acmaeodera cazieri, Chrysobothris sp., and a species of Spectralia! (seven species of Buprestidae at one location I think is the high for the trip.) I checked other plants and flowers along the way down but didn’t find much.

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Halfway down from the “dry falls”.

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The “dry falls” about halfway up the canyon.

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Pseudovates arizonae – the aptly named Arizona unicorn mantis.

Lower Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona
Madera Canyon is perhaps the most famous insect collecting locality in Arizona – maybe in the country, and it is hard to make a visit to Arizona without stopping by here. We elected to work the lower canyon first in an area where Chrysobothris chalcophoroides has been taken on Arizona oaks (Quercus arizonicus). Hiking towards the oaks I found some Stenaspis solitaria in a Baccharis sarothroides and marveled at the variety of other insects active on the plants (see photos) – later I would also collect an elaphidiine cerambycid on the plant. Next I started working the oaks, beating every branch I could reach with my net handle. With one whack of the stick a single Paratyndaris sp. and a single Brachys sp. landed on my sheet – those would be the only buprestids I would collect off the oaks! Other than that I collected one Hippomelas planicauda on Mimosa dysocarpa for the record. While I was working the oaks up in the knoll, the weather started turning with blustery winds, and I could see the rain coming in the distance. By the time I got down from the knoll the rain had arrived, and I walked back to the car in a sunny downpour using my beating sheet as an umbrella!

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Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains.

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Acanthocephala thomasi on Baccharis sarothroides.

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What appears to be a so-called “cricket killer” wasp (Chlorion aerarium) also feeds on sap on Baccharis sarothroides.

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A longhorned beetle, probably in the genus Aneflus, rests on the foliage of Baccharis sarothroides.

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Rain headed my way!

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Rain passing into neighboring Florida Canyon.

Montosa Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona
Just to try something different, we went to Montosa Canyon – the next canyon south of Madera Canyon – for tonight’s blacklighting. We set my sheet up just E of the crossing and Arts ground units back to the west along a gravel road on the south side of the crossing. Moths came in numbers, but the beetles were light – I collected only blister beetles (Epicauta sp.) and a Cymatodera sp. checkered beetle at the sheet, a series of tiger beetles and a female Strategus cessus at the second ground unit, and a male Strategus aloeus and two Stenelaphus alienus at the third ground unit.

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A gorgeous sunset to start the evening.

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A deepening dusk brings the promise of insects at the lights. 

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A bee assassin bug, Apiomerus flaviventris.

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An ocotillo, or calleta, silkmoth – Eupackardia calleta.

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One of the western riparian tiger beetles.


Day 7 (last day) – Vicinity Continental, Arizona
There was a photo posted on BugGuide of Stenaspis verticalis taken last week, so we decided to give it a shot and see if we could get lucky and find it ourselves. We checked all the Baccharis sarothroides within ½-mile if the spot but didn’t find it. I did, however, collect four Euphoria leucographa, two Chalcolepidius smaragdula, two Aneflus spp., and singletons of Stenaspis solitaria and Dendrobias mandibularis. I also took a couple of Hippomelas planicauda on Mimosa dysocarpa – just for the record!

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Euphoria leucographa on Baccharis sarothroides.

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Chalcolepidius smaragdinus on Baccharis sarothroides.

Lower Madera Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona
We returned to work the lower canyon area. I’d heard that the tiger beetle Cicindelidia obsoleta santaclarae has been taken in the area last week so was hoping to run into it. While Art worked the east side of the road I worked the west, initially following FR-781 into what looked like grassland areas where the tiger beetle might occur. I didn’t see any but took Acmaeodera scalaris on Heterotheca sp. flowers and Acmaeodera solitaria on Argemone mexicana flowers. There was also a fresh wind-thrown mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) with a bunch of Chrysobothris octocola and one Chrysobothris rossi on it. Still the area looked abused from grazing and was uninteresting, so I looked for another area to explore.

Northwest of the parking lot I spotted another grassy area that was dotted with Baccharis sarothroides, so I decided to give that area a look. After clambering several times through barbed wire fence, I reached the area and began to give it a look. Still no tiger beetles, but every time I passed a B. sarothroides I inspected it closely. I’d looked at several plants when I came upon one with a Stenaspis solitaria sitting in the foliage, and when I looked down on one of the stems and saw a big male Tragidion sp. on the underside of the stem. After securing it, I looked closer at the plant and saw a pair of annulated antennae crawling up another stem – I knew right away it was a mating pair of Stenaspis verticalis! After carefully moving to the other side to confirm, I dared to take a few photos in situ (see below) and then secured the couple. Of course, this gave me newfound motivation to work the entire area to look for more. It was very hot by then, and I was already quite thirsty, but I summoned up all the stamina that I could and worked as many plants as I could, ending up with six Tragidion spp. and three Stenaspis verticalis. The latter was one of my top priority targets for this trips, and the only thing more satisfying than getting it is doing so on my last day on the field.

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View to south edge of Madera Canyon – Elephant Head is at the right.

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Chrysobothris octocola female ovipositing on freshly killed mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa).

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Tragidion sp. mating pair on Baccharis sarothroides.

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Mating pair of Stenaspis verticalis on Baccharis sarothroides.

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Chalcolepidius lenzi at a sap flow on Baccharis sarothroides.

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Lateral view of Chalcolepidius lenzi.

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Barrel cactus in bloom.

Montosa Canyon, Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona
We  returned to Montosa Canyon and stopped at the Astronomy Vista partway up. It was hotter than bejeebuz! There was not an insect to be seen except giant cactus bugs and a single Euphoria leucographa that Art found on a sapping Baccharis sarothroides. Temp was 103°F even at this elevation!

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Stunning vista during the day! 

We needed to escape the heat, and I wanted to see oaks for one more crack at Mastogenius, so we drove up to the 13-km marker and I collected on the way back down to below the 12-km marker. Conditions were much more agreeable (temps in the 80s), and near the top there was a Ceanothus sp. bush in bloom, off which I collected Rhopalophora meeskei and Stenosphenus sp. – both genera represented by individuals with black versus red pronotum. Then I started beating the (Mexican blue, I believe) oaks, and right away I got a Mastogenius sp.! Kinda small, so I’m thinking not M. robusta and, thus, probably M. puncticollis (another species new to my collection). I also beat a largish Agrilus sp. that I don’t recognize, a few clerids, two R. meeskei, one Stenosphenus sp., and a couple of leaf beetles. There was also another type of oak there – Arizona white, I believe, which I beat as well but only got one clerid.

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Spectacular views from 7000 ft!

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A lichen moth on flowers of Ceanothus sp.

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The biggest, fattest, bristliest tachinid fly I have ever seen!

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The spectacular vistas just keep on coming!

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An ancient alligator juniper stares down yet another sunset (perhaps its 50 thousandth!).

We stopped by the Astronomy Vista again on our way back down the canyon, and I found a pair of Moneilema gigas on cholla (Opuntia imbricata).

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Obligatory dusk shot of Moneilema gigas on Opuntia imbricata.

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Another individual on the same plant.

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Sunset over “Las Cuatro Hermanas”.

It was a fantastic seven days in the field with Arthur, and it was a great pleasure to (in some cases, finally) meet Margarethe, Barbara, Steven, Norm, and Pat. I appreciate the warmth, generosity, and hospitality that all of them displayed to me and look forward to our next encounter, hopefully in the near future.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

Winter Botany Quiz #6 – answers and a checklist

I thought yesterday’s Winter Botany Quiz #6 would be a fairly difficult, and given the apparent difficulty of my previous quizes (Pismire Puzzle and Tuesday Teaser) I thought I’d give readers a break this week and narrow down the location to the Lake Tahoe area. Despite publishing in the dead of night, it took only 31 minutes for Peter Yeeles to swoop down and correctly name the family, genus, species, and function for the structure pictured. His only lapsus regarded the terminology used for the name of the structure itself, leaving the door open for James Trager to snag some scrap points. The plant is, of course, Cercocarpus ledifolius (curl-leaf mountain mahogany) in the family Rosaceae, and the structures pictured above and in the previous post are the stigmas of the flowers persisting as wind-assisted dispersal structures for the fruit. “Cercocarpus” is, in fact, derived from the Greek words for “tailed” and “fruit”, whose numerous erect hairs give the plant in a silvery sheen late in the growing season.

Why was I interested in this plant? It was one of the few tree species occurring in the Lake Tahoe Basin that I wasn’t able to find for last year’s 3-part series, Trees of Lake Tahoe (including The Pines, The “Other” Conifers, and The Deciduous Trees).  Widespread in the mountainous west (and barely qualifying as a tree), its occurrence in the Tahoe Basin is more sporadic.  Better stands are found outside the basin proper on the dry eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada (Graf 1999), and indeed these plants were photographed at ~6,500 feet on the eastern slopes of Mt. Rose.

My real interest in Cercocarpus, however, is as a favored host plant for species of jewel beetles (family Buprestidae).  About two dozen species of these beetles have been associated with Cercocarpus spp. in North America, nine of which have been confirmed as breeding within dead branches of these plants and five having been associated with no other plant.  I’ve collected a number of these species myself, particularly in the San Gabriel and Santa Rosa Mountains of southern California and the Chisos Moutains of Big Bend National Park in Texas, including Polycesta cazieri, Chrysobothris piuta, and paratype specimens of Acmaeodera rubrocuprea. I thought it might be of interest to any readers who might collect these insects to present a checklist of Buprestidae associated with Cercocarpus in North America (see appendix below).

REFERENCE:

Graf, M. 1999. Plants of the Tahoe Basin. Flowering Plants, Trees, and Ferns. A Photographic Guide. California Native Plant Society Press, Berkeley, 308 pp.

Checklist of North American Buprestidae associated with Cercocarpus

(Bold indicates species that have been reared from Cercocarpus.  An asterisk indicates species that have been associated exclusively with Cercocarpus).
Acmaeodera (s. str.) angelica Fall
Acmaeodera (s. str.) connexa LeConte
Acmaeodera (s. str.) dolorosa dolorosa Fall
Acmaeodera (s. str.) idahoensis Barr
Acmaeodera (s. str.) mariposa mariposa Horn
Acmaeodera (s. str.) mariposa dohrni Horn
Acmaeodera (s. str.) nelsoni Barr
Acmaeodera (s. str.) nexa Fall
Acmaeodera (s. str.) plagiaticauda Horn
Acmaeodera (s. str.) pubiventris lanata Horn
Acmaeodera (s. str.) rubrocuprea Westcott & Nelson*
Acmaeodera (s. str.) vandykei Fall
Acmaeodera (s. str.) variegata LeConte
Acmaeodera (Squamodera) vanduzeei (Van Dyke)
Anthaxia (Haplanthaxia) caseyi sublaevis Van Dyke
Anthaxia (Melanthaxia) porella Barr*
Anthaxia (Melanthaxia) simiola Casey*
Chrysobothris bisinuata Chamberlin*
Chrysobothris mali Horn
Chrysobothris piuta Wickham
Chrysobothris purpureovittata purpureovittata Horn
Chrysobothris purpureovittata cercocarpi Westcott & Nelson*
Dicerca (s. str.) hornii hornii Crotch
Polycesta (Tularensia) californica LeConte
Polycesta (Tularensia) cazieri Barr

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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Trees of Lake Tahoe – The Deciduous Trees

Alder, Maple, and Nuttall’s Flowering Dogwood make beautiful bowers over swift, cool streams at an elevation of from 3000 to 5000 feet, mixed more or less with willows and cottonwood; and above these in lake basins the aspen forms fine ornamental groves, and lets its light shine gloriously in the autumn months.–John Muir, The Mountains of California (1894).

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This is the third installment of a “Trees of Lake Tahoe” series summarizing the trees of Tahoe Basin. The basin forests are, of course, dominated by a diverse assemblage of conifers – eleven species in all.  These were covered in parts 1 (Trees of Lake Tahoe – The Pines) and 2 (Trees of Lake Tahoe – The “Other” Conifers ) of this series.  Yet, despite this coniferous domination, the 14 species of deciduous trees¹ that occur in the Tahoe Basin is three more than the number of coniferous tree species.  These deciduous tree species will be covered in this third and final part, including the nine species I was able to locate on my recent visit to the area back in mid-March.  Because of the timing of that trip, the trees will be discussed from a decidedly wintertime perspective that makes species identifications a little more challenging compared to the coniferous species.

¹ Admittedly, I use the term “tree” in the broadest sense, since many of these species might better be described as “tree-like shrubs” or “shrubby trees,” often representing only the largest examples of genera whose members include a number of true shrubs.  Only a handful of these species routinely form large, unmistakably tree-like forms, the largest of which still pale in comparison to the coniferous giants that dominate the basin.

Family SALICACEAE

This family of dioecious plants (male and female flowers on separate plants) is represented in the Tahoe Basin by two genera.  Two species of Populus occur here, and both decidedly trees in form.  Most of the nine species of Salix that grow in the basin grow only as shrubs, while two of them sometimes form distinct trees.

Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides)

…in winter, after every leaf has fallen, the white bark of the boles and branches seen in mass seems like a cloud of mist that has settled close down on the mountain, conforming to all its hollows and ridges like a mantle, yet roughened on the surface with innumerable ascending spires.–John Muir, Steep Trails (1918).

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Quaking aspen is one of the most unmistakable trees of the Tahoe Basin – regardless of the season.  Famous for its shimmering foliage during summer and blazing fall colors, it is equally distinctive during winter when its smooth, creamy, greenish-white trunks stand in stark, leafless contrast to the dark green coniferous foliage that cloaks the landscape.  Thick stands of this species are common in moist meadows and stream margins, with stands typically representing clonal colonies of genetically identical trees sprouting from a common root mat.  Although another species of Populus does occur in the basin (black cottonwood – see below), that species is not nearly as abundant as quaking aspen and lacks its distinctive smooth bark.

The second photo above shows some of the few, still-clinging leaves that I found, unremarkable in senescence but showing the flattened petioles that cause to summertime leaves to flutter and quiver incessantly with the summer breezes, alternately flashing their bright green upper surface and silvery underside.

Black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa)

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Black cottonwood is the largest American Populus and the tallest non-conifer in western North America.  Growing throughout the cool, moist Pacific Northwest, it is at its elevational limit in the Sierra Nevada along moist streams and lakeside habitats in the lower Tahoe Basin. The wonderfully knowledgeable Forest Service worker, who helped me greatly in my quest to locate all of the basin’s conifers, was skeptical about my chances of finding this species; however, while hiking the Rubicon Trail at Emerald Bay State Park I spotted the unmistakable, deeply furrowed, gray bark of this close relative of our own eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides).  Examining the twigs revealed the large, pointed buds, sticky with resin, and a few clinging leaves whose wide, ovate shape confirmed the species’ identity.  It was the only black cottonwood I saw in the basin, although surely others exist throughout the basin at lakeside elevations.

Willows (Salix spp.)

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As a group, willows are easily distinguished from the other deciduous trees and shrubs that occur in the Tahoe Basin.  However, discriminating among the several species can be quite difficult, even for trained botanists.  Winter is not the best time to try to identify willows, as many species are distinguished by characters of the foliage and flowers.  In some cases, examination of both male and female flowers is required – frustrating since they are borne on separate plants!  Wintertime characters normally useful for other plants such as bark and twig color are rarely informative for different species of willow, and even growth habit as trees or shrubs can vary greatly within species depending on elevation and available moisture.  All of this is a long-winded way of saying I don’t know which or how many species of willow I observed in the Tahoe Basin.

p1020705_2p1020707_2According to Graf (1999), there are nine species of willow in the Tahoe Basin; however, only two of them are trees – the abundant shining willow (S. lucida spp. lasiandra), and the more drought-tolerant Scouler’s willow (S. scouleriana).  The remaining seven species are shrubs that rarely exceed 10-12 feet in height.  Indeed, one of them – arctic willow (Salix arctica) – grows no more than 4 inches tall, occurring in seepy slopes and along lake and stream margins in the subalpine zone at Carson Pass.  Most of the willows I observed were at lower elevation along the shore of Emerald Bay and in the wet meadows around South Lake Tahoe and Spooner Lake and were growing as large shrubs or small trees and exhibited either bright yellow or red bark on the year-old branches, turning to smooth gray on older branches.  I don’t know whether these represent one or more species, or if they even represent one of the two arborescent species, but I suspect the yellow-twigged species may represent Lemmon’s willow (S. lemmonii), one of the shub species and Tahoe’s most common willow.  Perhaps a stretch goal for next year’s trip could be to find and distinguish all nine Tahoe Basin willow species, but realistically I would settle for knowing for sure what species the plants in these photographs represent (although I definitely would like to find the diminutive arctic willow).

Family BETULACEAE

Like the Salicaceae, plants in this family have male and female flowers on separate structures called catkins, but the plants themselves are monoecious (both sexes on the same plant).  Two genera – Alnus and Betula – occur in the basin, each represented by one species.

Mountain alder (Alnus incana ssp. tenuifolia)

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Like the willows, mountain alder is another deciduous plant that straddles the line between tree and shrub, and as is typical of most species in these two plant families (Salicaceae and Betulaceae) the species shows a high affinity for moist sites along stream and lake margins and on seepy north- and east-facing slopes.  The largest specimens I saw, as pictured above left, were found growing on the granite sand beaches along the Rubicon Trail on the western shore of Emerald Bay in Emerald Bay State Park.  Like alders anywhere, this species is immediately recognizeable in winter due to the persistent woody cones that represent the previous year’s female catkins.  Another larger species of alder, white alder (A. rhombifolia), occurs in the Sierra Nevada, but it is not clear to me whether this species actually occurs in the Tahoe Basin proper.  Graf (1999) does not include it in his rather comprehensive treatment of Tahoe Basin plants, but Peterson & Peterson (1975) and Quinn (2006) both list it from the basin (although rare). 

Water birch (Betula occidentalis)

I did not observe this species, which Graf (1999) records from Carson Pass.  The only birch occurring in the Sierra Nevada, it is more common outside the basin proper on the eastern slopes above the burning sagebrush plains.  Like alder, separate male and female catkins are borne on the same tree; however, the female catkins of birch are solitary rather than clustered and disintegrate when ripe rather than persisting as woody cones.

Family FAGACEAE

This family contains the über diverse genus Quercus – represented in California by 20 species.  However, of the five arborescent oaks that occur in the Sierra Nevada, only one has successfully penetrated the high elevations of the Tahoe Basin. A second species of Quercus also inhabits this montane region but grows exclusively as a low shrub, and another shrub in the related genus Chrysolepis also grows here – these two latter species will be treated more fully in a future post.

Canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepis)

The trunk was all knots and buttresses, gray like granite, and about as angular and irregular as the boulders on which it was growing—a type of steadfast, unwedgeable strength.–John Muir, The Mountains of California (1894).

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This is one of North America’s most variable oaks, exhibiting extreme variability in leaves and fruit and developing as either a tree or a shrub, depending upon the site where it grows. Slow growing and solid, it does best in sheltered locations, where it can develop an impressive, spreading crown and live a hundred years or more. On exposed slopes, it takes on a shorter, shrubbier aspect (above left) or forms dense thickets (above right).  I saw most of this species at lower elevations within the basin – along the Vikingsholm Trail in Emerald Bay State park leading down to the west shore of Emerald Bay.

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The leaves of this evergreen species are bluish green with numerous golden glandular hairs when young and becoming dull gray and smooth with age. Although there are no other arborescent oaks at this elevation with which it can be confused, I did find growing alongside it the strictly montane and shrubby huckleberry oak (Q. vaccinifolia).  The somewhat smaller, mostly entire leaves were the only indication it was not merely a shrub form of canyon live oak, and further study revealed that the two species can be distinguished by the presence of multiradiate glandular hairs on both leaf surfaces of canyon live oak.  These two species are closely related (both are in the Protobalanus – or “golden oak” – section of the genus), and widespread hybridization has apparently been documented in this part of the Sierra Nevada where the two species’ distributions overlap (Nixon 2002).

Family ROSACEAE

This large family of dioecious plants with usually pentamerous radial flowers is represented in the Tahoe Basin by nearly three dozen mostly perennial shrubs.  Six of these species, representing the genera Amelanchier, Cercocarpus, Prunus and Sorbus, sometimes develop a tree form.

Cherry (Prunus sp.)

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Two species of Prunus – bitter cherry (P. emarginata) and western chokecherry (P. virginiana var. demissa) – occur in the Tahoe Basin, both growing as either shrubs or small trees.  I cannot say for sure which species is represented in these photographs (taken on the slopes above Emerald Bay at Emerald Bay State Park), as the two species are best distinguished by subtle differences in their flowers and foliage.  Bitter cherry is apparently common in the Tahoe Basin and has bark that is smooth and dark brown, while chokecherry is more of a foothill species that is uncommon on the western shore (where these photos were taken) and has more grayish brown and somewhat scaly bark.  I can go either way with bark color based on these photos, so I’ll forgo an ID for the time being and seek to follow up during my next visit.  A third species of Prunus, the strictly shrubby desert peach (P. andersonii), formerly occurred at low elevations around the south shore, but it is now considered to be extirpated from the basin.

Mountain ash (Sorbus californica)

While hiking the Rubicon Trail in Emerald Bay State Park, I spotted a single, small tree with distinctive, large winter buds that reminded me immediately of the ornamental species mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) from my former days as a nursery inspector.  This thought seemed to be confirmed when I found a senesced but still attached leaf, pinnately compound with nine ovate, toothed leaflets.  However, my pocket copy of Native Trees of the Sierra Nevada (Peterson & Peterson 1975) included no species of Sorbus, and I concluded it must be something else.  This lone tree was located in deep shade within the white fir forest near the western shore of Emerald Bay, so I opted to find another tree in better lit conditions for taking photos – unfortunately, no other trees of this species were found.  Once I got back home, I was happy to find Sorbus californica listed in my just purchased copy of Graf (1999).  This species has attractive white flowers in small panicles during the summer that give rise to bright red berries during fall and is apparently common in mid- to higher-elevation riparian communities around the lake.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)
Curl-leaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius)

I did not locate either of the two species of serviceberry that occur in the Tahoe Basin, the common serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis) and the more localized glabrous serviceberry (A. alnifolia var. pumila).  Being highly familiar with our eastern species, A. arborea (just recently finished flowering), I suspect either of these species would be readily recognized, even in winter, by their smooth, silvery-gray bark and shrubby, small-tree form.  I also did not see curl-leaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius), another species that barely qualifies as a small tree.  It is apparently more at home on the dry eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada but can be found within the basin proper sporadically in the southwest and along the southeastern lake shore and more commonly on dry slopes in the far north and south of the basin.  I have collected a number of woodboring beetles from mountain mahogany across the southwestern U.S. from the mountains of southern California to the Chisos Mountains of Texas.

Family ACERACEAE

The single North American genus, Acer, is represented in California by four species, three of which occur in the Sierra Nevada but only one occurring in the Tahoe Basin.  Plants in this family are closely related to the Hippocastanaceae, represented in the Sierra Nevada foothills by California buckeye (Aesculus californica).

Mountain maple (Acer glabrum var. torreyi)

As with mountain ash, I found a single small tree representing this species near the west shore of Emerald Bay while hiking the Rubicon Trail.  Despite lacking foliage, I recognized it immediately as a maple by its opposite, scaly buds.  Also like mountain ash, I assumed I would see more after finding the first one and thus didn’t photograph this particular tree growing in deep shade.  That’ll teach me.  This species sometimes grows as a multi-stemmed shrub in moist situations, and even when assuming tree form, as did the one I saw, it is at best a small tree with a maximum height of only around 15′.  With fall foliage in varying shades of pink to red, it must rather nicely compliment the blazing yellow cloak of the quaking aspen during September and October.  Tahoe Basin individuals are placed in var. torreyi due to their bright reddish twigs, while those on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada exhibit gray twigs and are placed in var. diffusum.

This concludes my “Trees of Lake Tahoe” series – at least until next year when I hope to locate some of the remaining species I did not find during this year’s visit.  However, I do have one more “flora of Lake Tahoe” post in preparation covering some of the many woody shrubs that occur within the basin.

REFERENCES:

Arno, S. F. 1973. Discovering Sierra Trees. Yosemite Association, Yosemite National Park, California, 89 pp.

Graf, M. 1999. Plants of the Tahoe Basin. Flowering Plants, Trees, and Ferns. A Photographic Guide. California Native Plant Society Press, Berkeley, 308 pp.

Muir, J. 1894. The Mountains of California. The Century Co., New York, xiii+381 pp.

Muir, J.  1918. Steep Trails. Houghton, Mifflin, Boston, ix+390 pp.

Nixon, K. C. 2002. The oak (Quercus) biodiversity of California and adjacent regions. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report PSW-GTR-184, 20 pp.

Peterson, P. V., and P. V. Peterson, Jr. 1975. Native Trees of the Sierra Nevada. University of California Press, Berkeley, 147 pp.

Quinn, C.  2006.  A Nature Guide to the Southwest Tahoe Basin: Including Desolation Wilderness and Fallen Leaf Lake: Trees, Shrubs, Ferns, Flowers, Birds, Amphibians, Reptiles, Mammals, and Fishes Inhabiting the Sierra Nevada Watershed Southwest of Lake Tahoe, California.  CraneDance Publications, Eugene, Oregon, 232 pp. 

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Glades of Jefferson County

We stood a moment to contemplate the sublime and beautiful scene before us, which was such an assembly of rocks and water—of hill and valley—of verdant woods and naked peaks—of native fertility and barren magnificence… – Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, 1818-1819

In the Ozark Border south of St. Louis, a series of natural openings punctuate the dry, rocky forests of Jefferson County. Commonly called “glades” or “cedar glades,” these islands of prairie in a sea of forest are home to plants and animals more commonly associated with the Great Plains region further to the west. Extending in a narrow arc from central Jefferson County east and south into northern Ste. Genevieve County, these glades occur most commonly on south and southwest-facing slopes below forested ridges and are characterized by thin soils and exposed dolomite bedrock of Ordovician age. Glades are, in fact, a common natural feature throughout much of the Ozark Highlands, an extraordinary plateau where the great eastern deciduous forest begins to yield to the western grasslands. A much more extensive system of dolomite glades occurs in the White River Hills of southwest Missouri, where they often extend up steep slopes and over the tops of knobs to form what Schoolcraft called “naked peaks” and are now called “balds” (and spawning the “Baldknobbers” of Branson fame). Additional glade complexes occur throughout the Ozark Highlands on different rock substrates – igneous glades abound in the St. Francois Mountains, sandstone glades dot the Lamotte landscape in Ste. Genevieve County and the northern and western Ozarks, limestone glades can be found in the northern Ozarks near Danville and Lake of the Ozarks, and chert glades occur in extreme southwest Missouri. These different glade systems share a common feature – shallow soils where tree establishment is limited due to summer moisture stress. They differ vegetationally, however, due to differences in hydrology and soil chemistry as a result of their different substrates. Floristically, dolomite glades exhibit a high degree of diversity relative to other glade types.

The term “glade” is derived from the Old English “glad,” meaning a shining place – perhaps the early settlers found their open landscapes a welcome respite after emerging from the confining vastness of the eastern deciduous forest. Whatever the meaning, the glades of Jefferson County hold a special place in my heart, for I “grew up,” entomologically speaking, in those glades. As a young entomologist, fresh out of school, I spent many a day scrambling through the glades and surrounding woodlands. It was here where my interest in beetles, especially woodboring beetles, was born and later grew into a passion. For eight years I visited these glades often – attracted by the extraordinary diversity of insects living within the glades and congregating around its edges. My earliest buprestid and cerambycid papers contain numerous records from “Victoria Glades” and “Valley View Glades” – the two best-preserved examples of the glades that once occurred extensively throughout the area (more on this later). My visits to these glades ended in 1990 when I moved to California, and although I moved back to the St. Louis area in 1995, the focus of my beetle research has more often taken me to places outside of Missouri. It had, in fact, been some 10 years since my last visit to these glades until last week, when I was able to once again spend some time in them.

Ozark glades differ from the true cedar glades of the southeastern U.S. in that they are not a climax habitat – they depend upon periodic fires to prevent succession to forest. Some recent authors have suggested the term “xeric dolomite/limestone prairie” be used to distinguish the fire-dependent glades of the Ozarks from the edaphic climax cedar glades of the southeast (Baskin & Baskin 2000, Baskin et al. 2007). Fires have been largely suppressed throughout Missouri since European settlement, leading to encroachment upon the glades by eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana). Pure stands of red-cedar have developed on many former glades, crowding out the herbaceous plants that depend upon full sun and leading to soil formation that supports further encroachment by additional woody plant species such as post oak (Quercus stellata), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), and fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) from the surrounding woodlands. Fire has returned to many of the Ozark glades situated on lands owned or managed by state and federal agencies such as the Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, and U.S. Forest Service, as well as private conservation-minded organizations such as The Nature Conservancy. These agencies have begun adopting cedar removal and fire management techniques to bring back the pre-settlement look and diversity of the Ozark Glades. This is particularly true at Victoria Glades and Valley View Glades, the two largest and most pristine examples of the Jefferson County dolomite glade complex. Fires have been used to kill small red-cedars in the glades, as well as rejuvenate their herbaceous plant communities. Larger red-cedar trees are not killed outright by fire and must be removed by chainsaws. This above distant view of the TNC parcel at Victoria Glades shows many such burned red-cedars. The glades themselves are not the only habitat to benefit from this aggressive management – when I was doing my fieldwork here in the 1980’s the surrounding woodlands were a closed post oak forest bordered by fragrant sumac and with little or no understory in the interior. The photo at right now shows an open savanna with a rich understory of not only sumac and other shrubs, but also many herbaceous plants as well such as black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and American feverfew (Parthenium integrifolium). Such open woodland more closely resembles what Schoolcraft saw across much of the Ozarks during his journey almost two centuries ago.

Victoria and Valley View Glades are dominated by little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). A smaller but highly charismatic non-grass flora is also found on the glades – species such as Missouri evening primrose (Oenethera macrocarpa) (left), pale purple coneflower (Echinacea simulata) (pictured above and below), and prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) not only add beautiful color but also support both vertebrate and invertebrate wildlife. The Fremont’s leather flower (Clematis fremontii) is a true endemic, occurring only in this part of Missouri and entirely dependent upon these glades for its survival. Less well studied is the vast insect fauna associated with the glades. It is here where I first discovered the occurrence of Acmaeodera neglecta in Missouri. This small jewel beetle is similar to the broadly occurring A. tubulus but at the time was known only from Texas and surrounding states. In collecting what I thought were adults of A. tubulus on various flowers in the glades, I noticed that some of them were less shining, more strongly punctate, and exhibited elytral patterning that was often coalesced into longitudinal “C-shaped” markings rather than the scattered small spots typical of A. tubulus. These proved to be A. neglecta, which I have since found on many glade habitats throughout the Ozark Highlands. Both species can be seen in this photo feeding on a flower of hairy wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) – the lower individual is A. neglecta, while the upper individual and two inside the flower are A. tubulus. Another interesting insect-plant association I discovered at these glades was the strikingly beautiful Dicerca pugionata – another species of jewel beetle – and its host plant ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius). Only a single Missouri occurrence had been reported for D. pugionata, despite the common occurrence of its host plant along rocky streams and rivers throughout the Ozark Highlands. This plant also grows at Victoria and Valley View Glades along the intermittent streams that drain the glades and in the moist toeslopes along the lower edges of the glades where water that has percolated through the rocks and down the slopes is forced to the surface by an impermeable layer of bedrock. Unlike the tall, robust, lush plants that can be found in more optimal streamside habitats with good moisture availability, the ninebark plants of Victoria and Valley View Glades are small and scraggly, usually with some dieback that results from suboptimal growing conditions. I surmise these plants have reduced capabilities for fending off attacks by insects, including D. pugionata, and as a result a healthy population of the insect thrives at these glades. Some might be inclined to call this beetle a pest, threatening the health of one of the glade’s plants. In reality, the insect finds refuge in these glades – unable to effectively colonize the vast reserves of healthy plants that grow along streams throughout the rest of the Ozarks, it strikes a tenuous balance with plants that are themselves on the edge of survival.

Despite the success in moving Victoria and Valley View Glades closer to their pre-settlement character, the integrity of these areas continues to be challenged. Poachers take anything of real or perceived value, and ATV enthusiasts view the open spaces as nothing more than tarmac. Pale purple coneflower occurs abundantly on these Jefferson County glades (but sparingly in other habitats – primarily rocky roadsides), where they provide a stunning floral display during June and sustain innumerable insect pollinators. Plants in the genus Echinacea also have perceived medicinal value, as herbalists believe their roots contain an effective blood purifier and antibiotic. There are no conclusive human clinical trials to date that fully substantiate this purported immune stimulating effect (McKeown 1999). Nevertheless, demand for herbal use has skyrocketed in recent decades, prompting widespread illegal harvesting of several coneflower species throughout their collective range across the Great Plains and Ozark Highlands. I witnessed massive removals of this plant from both Victoria and Valley View Glades during the 1980’s, but the pictures I took this year suggest that such illegal harvests have been suppressed and that the populations at both sites are recovering nicely.

The same cannot be said for the practice of rock flipping. This was a problem I witnessed back in the 1980’s, and I saw fresh evidence of its continued occurrence at both sites. The thin soils and sloping terrain leave successive layers of dolomite bedrock exposed, the edges of which shatter from repeated freeze-thaw cycles to create rows of loose, flat rocks along the bedrock strata. Lizards, snakes, tarantulas, and scorpions find refuge under these loose rocks, only to be ripped from their homes by flippers and transferred to a dark, cold terrarium to endure a slow, lingering death. As if poaching the glade’s fauna and watching them slowly die isn’t bad enough, the flippers add insult to injury by not even bothering to replace the rock in its original position after stealing its inhabitant, amounting to habitat destruction three times greater than the area of the rock itself. Firstly, the habitat under the rock is destroyed by sudden exposure of the diverse and formerly sheltered microfauna to deadly sunlight. Next, the habitat onto which the rock is flipped is also destroyed, as the plants growing there begin a slow, smothering death. Lastly, the upper surface of the rock, sometimes colonized by mosses and lichens that might have required decades or longer to grow, usually ends up against the ground – its white, sterile underside becoming the new upper surface. Rock flipper scars take years to heal, and nearly all of the flat, loose rocks seen in the more accessible areas of the glades exhibit scars of varying ages next to them. If a scar is fresh (first photo), I generally return to the rock to its original position – the former inhabitants cannot be brought back, but at least the original habitats are saved and can recover quickly. However, if a scar is too old (2nd photo) it is best to leave the rock in its new position – replacing it only prolongs the time required for recovery.

Even more damaging is ATV use. Herbaceous plants and thin soils are no match for the aggressive tread of ATV tires, and it doesn’t take too many passes over an area before the delicate plants are killed and loose soils ripped apart. I witnessed this become a big problem particularly on Victoria Glades during the 1980’s – actually finding myself once in a face-to-face confrontation with an ATV’er. Fortunately, he turned tail and ran, and it appears (for now) that such abuses have stopped, as I saw no evidence of more recent tracks during this visit. But the scars of those tracks laid down more than two decades ago still remain painfully visible. I expect several more decades will pass before they are healed completely.

My return to Victoria and Valley View Glades was a homecoming of sorts, and I was genuinely pleased to see the progress that has been made in managing these areas while revisiting the sites where my love affair with beetles was first kindled. Sadly, however, the larger glade complex of Jefferson County continues to deteriorate. Restoration acreage aside, red-cedar encroachment continues unabated on many of the remaining glade parcels – large and small – that dot the south and southwest facing slopes in this area. It has been conservatively estimated that as much as 70% of the original high quality glades in Missouri are now covered in red-cedar. Many of these are privately held – their owners either do not recognize their ecological significance or are loathe to set fire to them. An example can be seen in the picture here – this small parcel is part of the Victoria Glades complex but lies on private land in red-cedar choked contrast to the Nature Conservancy parcel immediately to the south. Small numbers of herbaceous plants persist here, but without intervention by fire or chainsaw their numbers will continue to dwindle and the glade will die. Aside from the loss of these glades, the continuing reduction of glade habitat complicates management options for preserved glades as well. Many glade associated invertebrates are “fire-sensitive” – i.e., they overwinter in the duff and leaf litter above the soil and are thus vulnerable to spring or fall fires. While these fires are profoundly useful for invigorating the herbaceous flora, they can lead to local extirpation of fire-sensitive invertebrate species within the burn area. Recolonization normally occurs quickly from unburned glades in proximity to the burned areas but can be hampered if source habitat exists as small, highly-fragmented remnants separated by extensive tracts of hostile environment. Grazing also continues to threaten existing remnants in the Jefferson County complex. Grazing rates are higher now than ever before, with greater negative impact due to the use of fencing that prevents grazers from moving to “greener pastures”. Over-grazing eliminates native vegetation through constant depletion of nutrient reserves and disturbance of the delicate soil structure, leading to invasion and establishment of undesirable plant species. Eventually, the glade becomes unproductive for pasture and is abandoned – coupled with fire suppression this leads to rapid woody encroachment. It is truly depressing to drive through Jefferson County and recognize these cedar-choked glades for what they were, able to do nothing but watch in dismay as yet another aspect of Missouri’s natural heritage gradually disappears. The continued loss of these remnant glades makes careful use of fire management on Victoria and Valley View Glades all the more critical – ensuring that a patchwork of unburned, lightly burned, and more heavily burned areas exists at a given time will be critical for preventing invertebrate extirpations within these managed areas.

I close by sharing with you a few more of the many photographs I took during this visit – stiff tickseed (Coreopsis palmata), three-toed box turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis), climbing milkweed (Matelea decipiens – see the excellent post about this plant on Ozark Highlands of Missouri), downy phlox (Phlox pilosa), green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), and a “deerly” departed native browser.

Ozark Trail – Marble Creek Section

If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go…. This is the story of our past and it will be the story of our future. – Terry Tempest Williams


During the past several years that Rich and I have been hiking the Ozark Trail, most of our hikes have taken place in the fall and winter months. From a hiker’s perspective, I really enjoy these off-season hikes – the foliage-free canopy affords unobstructed views of the terrain and vistas, the cool (even cold) temperatures are more comfortable under exertion (provided one has properly layered), and there are no mosquitos to swat, ticks to pick, or gnats to incessantly annoy. I also enjoy them as a naturalist, for the world is quiet and still, allowing me to focus on things I may not notice amidst the cacophany of life during the warmer months. By the end of winter, however, the biologist in me yearns to once again see bugs and flowers and the great interplay of life. Unfortunately, this makes something as simple as hiking from point A to point B rather difficult – too many distractions! Nevertheless, each spring Rich and I try to hike a small leg of the Ozark Trail before the crush of summer activities fills our calenders. Last week, we chose the Marble Creek Section, an orphan stretch (for the time being) in the rugged St. Francois Mountains that eventually will connect to the famed Taum Sauk Section. It would be our first return visit to the St. Francois Mountains since we first embarked on our goal to hike the entirety of the Ozark Trail.

The St. Francois Mountains are the geologic heart of the Ozark Highlands. Since their primordial birth 1.5 billion years ago, recurring cycles of erosion and deposition have worn them down and covered them up, only to see them reemerge once again as the younger rocks covering them were themselves stripped away. The Ozarks are an ancient landscape with ancient hills, and none are older than those of the St. Francois Mountains. It’s as if the Earth itself began in these mountains. We began our hike at Crane Lake, a clear, blue 100-acre lake built in the 1970s by the Youth Conservation Corps. The trail surrounding the lake was built in 1975 and is, in its own right, a National Recreation Trail. It meanders along the lakeshore and through hillside igneous glades and descends into a deep ravine below the dam where Crane Pond Creek cascades through spectacular rhyolite shut-ins. East of the lake the trail connects to the Ozark Trail proper and continues to Marble Creek campground. All told, we would be hiking a 9-mile stretch.

I knew we were in a special place almost from the beginning when I noticed a small flowering plant growing next to the trail under the mixed pine/oak canopy. I’m not a very good botanist, but I instantly recognized the plant as dwarf spiderwort (Tradescantia longipes), an Ozark endemic known from only a handful of counties in Missouri and Arkansas. I knew this only because I had just the night before read about this wonderful plant on Ozark Highlands of Missouri, a superb natural history blog focused on my beloved Ozarks. Reading about this lovely, diminutive member of the genus, I wondered if I might encounter it on my own hike the next day. As we searched off the trail and near the lakeshore we encountered dozens of the plants, each with one or two exquisite blue flowers. Our excitement at seeing a true Ozark endemic increased with each plant we encountered, giving us confidence that its future, at least in this area, appears secure. Of the numerous photographs I took, I share two that show its short, squat habit and filament-covered stamens. Eventually we decided we needed to move on – we had spent 20 minutes and only hiked 100 ft!

Looping around the south side of the lake, the trail traversed mesic to dry-mesic upland forest and afforded spectacular views of the lake and rugged north shore. The spring ephemerals had already come and gone, replaced by such classic woodland denizens as birdfoot violet (Viola pedata, pictured), fire pink (Silene virginica), cream wild indigo (Baptisia leucophaea), four-leaved milkweed (Asclepias quadrifolia), Pursh’s phacelia (Phacelia purshii), and shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia). Insect life was abundant, however, the only species seen in one of my chosen specialties, metallic wood boring beetles (family Buprestidae), were early spring species of Acmaeodera – pictured here is A. ornata on a dewberry (Rubus sp.) flower. This pretty little beetle occurs throughout eastern North America in early spring on a variety of flowers, where adults feed on pollen and mate. Eggs are laid on dead branches of certain hardwood trees, through which the larvae tunnel as they develop. Dry, dead wood contains little nutritional value, and the larvae cannot digest the cellulose. As a result, they eat considerable volumes of wood, extracting whatever nutrients they can for growth and ejecting the bulk as sawdust, which they pack tightly in their tunnels behind them. A year or more might be required before they have grown sufficiently to transform into the adult and emerge from the wood. A smaller relative, Acmaeodera tubulus, was also seen on flowers of native dwarf dandelion (Krigia biflora).

We stopped for lunch on a little point extending out towards the lake. The forest overstory was dominated by an open mixture of white oak (Quercus alba) and shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata). Thickets of highbush huckleberry (Vaccinium stramineum) and carpets of reindeer moss in the open areas belied the acidic nature of the igneous substrate. Stands of bastard toad flax (Comandra richardsiana) in full bloom were found at the tip’s dry, rocky tip. These interesting plants feed parasitically on neighboring plants, attaching to the roots of their hosts by means of their long, thin rhizomes. Resuming our hike, we descended down into a shaded, moist draw feeding the lake and saw a huge royal fern (Osmunda regalis var. spectabilis) bush. I had never seen this aptly named fern before, but it was immediately recognizeable by its large size (~5 ft in height) and presence of distinctive, fertile leaflets on some of its upper branches – a very striking and handsome fern, indeed. Nearby was a smaller, but no less attractive species of fern that I take to be marginal sheild fern (Dryopteris marginalis) – another species I have not seen before (or at least made the effort to notice).

Soon, we reached the dam and for the first time saw the spectacular rhyolite shut-ins. While perhaps not quite as impressive as the nearby and much more famous Johnson’s Shut-Ins, Rich and I nonetheless watched entranced as the water roared over the smooth igneous rock exposure, forming elegant cascades, rushing through narrow chutes, and swirling into small pools. Steep canyon walls rose sharply on each side of the shut-ins, as if standing guard. Clambering amidst the pines and cedars that cloaked them, we found this maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) nestled within a crack on a vertical rock face under continuous deep shade. Reaching the top of the bluffs, we were greated by one of my favorite of all Ozark habitats – the igneous glade. Glades are natural island communities surrounded by a sea of forest. Their shallow, dry, rocky soil conditions support plants and animals more adapted to prairie or desert habitats. Specific communities are influenced by the type of rock below – igneous and sandstone substrates support lichens, mosses, and other acid soil-loving plants, while limestone and dolomite substrates support a more calcareous flora. The photo here shows the massive boulder outcroppings typical of igneous glades and their weather-resistant bedrock. We hoped to see a collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris), perhaps Missouri’s finest saurian reptile, but today was not the day. We did, however, see adults of the beautiful and aptly named splendid tiger beetle (Cicindela splendida) sunning themselves on the bare rock surfaces – flashing brilliant green and clay-red. The adults we saw had spent the winter deep inside tunnels dug into the rocky soil the previous fall and were now looking for mates. Male tiger beetles grab females by the neck, their jagged, toothy jaws fitting precisely in grooves on the female neck designed specifically for such. As I looked upon this prairie island within the forest, I thought about how the St. Francois Mountains were once themselves islands. I realized the landscape we were exploring today was itself a fossil – with rhyolitic ‘islands’ amidst a ‘sea’ of cherty dolomite laid down a half billion years ago in the warm, tropical, Cambrian waters that surrounded the St. Francois Islands, by then already a billion years old themselves. Yes, the Earth itself seems to have begun here.

Leaving the glade and once again entering the acid pine forest, we came upon one of the most striking floral displays that either of us have ever witnessed – wild azalea (Rhododendron prinophyllum) in the midst of full bloom! I have known about several colonies of this plant for many years now but had only seen them at the very end of the bloom period, with just a few, pitiful, limply hanging flowers still attached. Today, the plants were absolutely dazzling. The blossoms were not only visually attractive, a deep pink color, but also unexpectedly fragrant. We stood amongst several specimen plants as tall as ourselves, taking picture after picture amidst the clovelike aroma wafting around us.

We checked our watches – we were now 3 hours into our hike and had traversed just 2 miles. Clearly, this was not a sustainable pace, so we put our heads down and focused on covering ground. Once leaving the vicinity of Crane Lake, the trail became rather difficult to follow – it obviously receives little use, and in one stretch some logging activities had obliterated the trail completely. Were it not for the sporadic pieces of orange flagging tape tied just within sight of the previous, we would not have know where to go. At one point, we got completely off-track and had to backtrack a full half mile before we found the proper trail. The day put our contour map reading skills to their greatest test yet. It was difficult and strenuous terrain, with steep up and down grades and few long ridgetop stretches until (thankfully) the final 2 miles, which terminated in a long descent (more thankfully) to Marble Creek Campground. Despite the difficulties in following the trail and our not bringing enough water, I would have to rank this section a close second to the Taum Sauk stretch for its ruggedness, spectacular vistas, and unique plant communities. Yes, the St. Francois Mountains are truly the heart of the Ozarks.

Pipestone National Monument

Grandson, do not expect to accomplish much in this lifetime, for no one shares your vision… – The Oracle


Wednesday was my birthday, and it has been my custom for many years now to take the day off and go hiking/bugging somewhere. Coming as it does in early spring, it is usually the first real bug collecting trip of the year. This year, however, I was roped into a short business trip to visit a USDA lab in Brookings, South Dakota, so tradition would have to take a back seat. My visit at the lab ended early, though, and my flight back home from Sioux Falls didn’t leave until that evening, so I studied the map to look for any possible nearby points of interest in this landscape that has, for the most part, been unforgivingly converted to fields of corn, soybean, and wheat. I quickly noted a place called Pipestone National Monument just over the border into Minnesota. I love stopping at national monuments while traveling – they usually have some significant historical or geological interest, and their typically (though not always) small size means one can fully explore the area in a relatively short time. I did not know or had never heard of this place, but what I found was a charming little jewel tucked within a remnant of tallgrass prairie. At this far northern latitude, spring is still in its earliest of states. Few insects would be seen, but nevertheless I felt thankful for the chance to spend time outdoors and in a place of beauty where I could reflect on the years gone by and those (hopefully) still to come.

The area is named for a thin layer of catlinite – pipestone – exposed in this small area that has been quarried for centuries by Native Americans for carving into pipes (both war and peace). Quarrying within the monument continues to this day, with permission to do so reserved by law only to registered Native Americans. The area is identified as a sacred site associated with Native American spiritual beliefs and is preserved as a significant cultural and ethnographic landscape. Of particular interest to me was the site’s distinct hydrologic/geologic landscape and the native tallgrass prairie associated with it. A short ¾-mile trail loops through the area, providing a diverse glimpse of the area’s unique features. Pipestone may have provided the area’s namesake, but a narrow exposure of Sioux quartzite is the area’s most prominent geologic feature. Sioux quartzite is derived from billion and a half year-old layers of sand/silt sediments deposited thickly on the floors of ancient, Precambrian seas and compressed over the vastness of time into a hard, reddish metamorphic rock. Normally covered in this area by glacial till, the layers at this site are tilted upward 5–10 degrees towards the west and break through the surface to form a jagged, mile-long west-facing escarpment 23-30 feet high. Underneath the quartzite is the pipestone, a thin layer of metamorphosed shale. This fine-grained rock is derived from clay deposits, thus it is much softer and redder than the harder-than-steel quartzite. Pipestone Creek bisects the escarpment, giving rise to the lovely Winnewissa Falls, flowing over the escarpment and running down to a small, natural empoundment (Hiawatha Lake) before continuing its journey back into the glacial till and tallgrass prairie (for anybody surprised that there should be “falls” in this part of the country, it is interesting to note that nearby Sioux Falls is named after a grander example of of such flowing over quartzite exposures in its downtown).

Precious little remains of the expansive tallgrass prairie that once extended from horizon to horizon in this area. A few small parcels managed to escape the plow, but even in those tiny remnants dramatic alterations in plant communities have occurred due to fire suppression and the introduction of more than 70 non-native plant species. Prescribed burning programs are now being used at the Monument to restore the prairie’s native plant composition and appearance. Looking out over the tallgrass prairie remnants above and below the quartzite escarpment, it I was tempted to visualize circles of teepees on the higher ground away from the quarries (all Native American tribes worshipped this site and would never camp directly within it), with herds of American bison dotting the landscape in the distance. Contrasting with the openness of the prairie, the escarpment itself is densely studded with trees – American elm (Ulmus americana) along the top edge, and bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the escarpment itself. Unlike the large, sometimes towering examples of their kind found further to the east, the trees here are dwarfed and spreading, almost gnarled. Below the escarpment, woodland quickly gives way to pure stands of smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and choke cherry (Prunus sp.), which just as quickly yield to the surrounding sea of prairie. Along Pipestone Creek below the escarpment, lower layers of exposed quartzite provide nooks and crannys where enough moisture collects to support the growth of green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) trees, until glacial till once again covers the quartzite, and riparian woodland yields to grasses and forbes. It’s not hard to imagine why this became a special place to the Native Americans, even before they discovered the pipestone that was to become so important to their culture.

The pipestone quarries are located a short distance to the west of the escarpment – where the hard quartzite layer is thin enough to break through – and, thus, have had little impact on altering the physical appearance of the escarpment itself. Winnewissa Falls (meaning “Jealous Maiden” in the Dakota language), lies at the center of the escarpment, providing a stunning centerpiece. Despite its beauty, it is but a shadow of what it was before early settlers in the area blasted away the top 18 feet of the ledge to create a reservoir for drinking water. A century of weathering and recolonization by lichens and mosses have softened the scars on the rocks, leaving little to indicate that such a dramatic alteration took place. However, standing in front of the falls, finding that “zone” where the temperature suddenly drops and cool wet mist blows on the face, and thinking about the significance of this place to the Native American tribes who held it so sacred, I was left feeling bewildered at how such drastic measures could have been contemplated for so beautiful a place.

In addition to the falls, nature has created some striking sculptures in the rock. “Old Stone Face” can hardly be mistaken for anything else – despite its human likeness, it was created entirely by natural forces. “The Oracle” is another naturally-formed human likeness found (though not as easily as Old Stone Face) in the outlines of the rocks. Tribal Shamans (Medicine Men) believed it served as a guardian of the valley and that voices issued from it’s cold stone lips. I stared for awhile and strained to listen, trying to imagine what words it might have spoken. At first, it seemed as if all was silent. Then I noticed the sound of the wind rolling over the prairie and twirling through the gnarled oaks. I heard the falls in the distance. I heard birds in the midst of frantic early-spring songs. I thought perhaps these might be the voices that guided the Shamans – spoken so loudly, yet so easily unheard.

The first U.S. government expedition to the quarry occurred in 1838 with Joseph Nicollet, a French scientist who was sent to map the upper Mississippi country. He and the members of his expedition carved their names in the rocks atop the escarpment, as did many of the early pioneers that first settled in the area. In studying the surface of these rocks, I couldn’t help but notice the incredible diversity of lichens to be found. Around 75 species are known from the area, and as shown in the photos I share below they come in a fantastic array of forms and colors. Lichens are primary colonizers of rock surfaces, able to do so as a result of their nutritional autonomy. Lichens are merely fungi that have evolved a specialised mode of nutrition: symbiosis with photosynthetic microalgae or cyanobacteria. Often, the algal component is capable of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere, while the fungal organism attacks the rock with organic acids to release minerals. This is the basis of soil formation. Over time, enough soil accumulates in small depressions to allow mosses to colonize the rock surface. As successive generations of moss grow and die, more and more organic material accumulates on the rock surface, eventually supporting the growth of vascular plants (which extract nitrogen from the soil, rather than from atmospheric sources). These cycles of growth and death act in concert with the forces of erosion to ultimately convert barren rock to tallgrass prairie, hardwood forest, or other climax habitat. Mind you, this is an extraordinarily slow process – it can take a full century for a lichen to grow one inch! As I looked at the abundance and diversity of lichens on the rock surfaces, I tried to visualize the breadth of time encompassed by what was before me and quickly became lost in eternity.

While the trail that loops through the area is less than a mile in length, it took me an hour and a half to complete it. What started out as a few hours to kill ended as a hurried rush through the museum and interpretive center, trying to cram a few last morsels of knowledge into my head in those final moments before I would have to submit to the drive back to Sioux Falls. As I left the area, I noticed these oddly out-of-place boulders known as “The Three Maidens.”
Native Americans believe that these boulders shelter the spirits of maidens who demand offerings before permitting them to quarry the pipestone. Science tells us that the boulders are composed of granite and were likely carried here by glaciers during the past 1 million to 10,000 years ago. Originally a single boulder some 50 feet in diameter, repeated freezing and thawing over the millenia since it was dropped here have split the boulder into the several pieces seen here. Perhaps only The Oracle knows which is true.

For a more detailed, yet highly readable account of the geology of this area, please consult Minnesota Geology, Field Trip, Summer 2000 and Other MN DNR Workshops, by Arlyn DeBruyckere.