Orchid Valley Natural Area

This month’s destination for the WGNSS Natural History Photography Group was Orchid Valley Natural Area in Hawn State Park. This natural area is south of the main park and not normally open to the public, but we were granted permission to enter by the park administration. Our targets were several species of orchids and other rare plants that are known to occur in the area—showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis) being the one I hoped most to see.

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Our group for the day (front to back): me, Lynne, David, Casey, Avery, James, Bill, and Rich (Chris behind tree at back).

There are no trails here—not even a place to park, as we squeezed our cars against the side of the road at a spot that appeared to provide good access. A bit of GPS-guided bushwhacking brought us to increasingly rough and sloping ground that ended up at the edge of a cliff overlooking one of the sandstone box canyons that this area is know for—down below was where we wanted to go. Wild azaleas lined the upper canyon edges with their stunning pink blossoms. We followed the canyon edge and found a way down, then circled back into the canyon to find a stunning waterfall, its sandstone walls dripping with mosses and ferns. We spent quite a bit of time here photographing the waterfall and surrounding area before eventually resuming the search for the orchids that we came to see.

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Bill surveys a waterfall at the center of a sandstone box canyon.

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The waterfall fell about 25 feet onto the sandstone rocks below, its splash creating perfect conditions for luxurious growth of mosses and ferns.

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Mosses sending up their “stems” (actually setae), each holding up a capsule filled with spores.

Sadly, the orchids were not yet in bloom—not even close, another victim of the cold, late spring we’ve been experiencing. Casey, our group leader, did find some very small showy orchis leaves, and we saw some nice clumps of another native orchid, rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens), an evergreen orchid that blooms during late summer. We hiked up another drainage that led to another box canyon—lacking a waterfall but equally impressive, nonetheless—but found no orchids in bloom there, either. We did, however, see cinnamon ferns sending up their spike-like fertile fronds and aggregations of antlion larvae (a.k.a. “doodlebugs”) in the soil beneath the sandstone ledges.

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Leaves of rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens).

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Moss growth is luxuriant in the wet sandstone exposures inside the box canyons.

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Sandstone ledge above a box canyon.

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Pits of antlions, or “doodlebugs”, clustered in the soil beneath a sandstone ledge. Ants and other insects that fall into the pits are quickly dispatched by the sickle-shaped mandibles of the bug lying buried at the bottom of the pit.

You might think failure to find what we were looking for would result in a disappointing field trip—far from it! Time in the field with like-minded friends in a beautiful spot is always a pleasure, and when it comes to searching for rare plants (or insects, or whatever), failure is the norm—making success, when it does come, that much sweeter. There will be other chances to see showy orchis (perhaps in a couple of weeks).

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

2019 WGNSS Nature Photo Contest

Last night the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) held their 2019 Nature Photo Contest, and I was fortunate to have a 1st place winner in the ‘Plants and Fungi’ category! This photograph of grassleaved lady’s tresses orchid (Spiranthes vernalis) flowers was taken at Taberville Prairie Natural Area in St. Clair Co., Missouri. Like other species of lady’s tresses orchids, their tubular flowers are arranged in a spiral along the inflorescence and cross-pollinated primarily by long-tongued bees (e.g. bumblebees, Bombus spp., and megachilid bees) (van der Cingel 2001).

Spiranthes vernalis (spring lady's tresses)

Grassleaved lady’s tresses orchid (Spiranthes vernalis), Taberville Prairie Natural Area, St. Clair Co., Missouri.

Spiranthes is one of the more complex genera of North American orchids, with seven species known to occur in Missouri (Summers 1985), and like almost all orchids, their pollination biology is fascinating! The flowers are “protandrous”, i.e., they are functionally male when they first open and become functionally female as they age. Since they open sequentially from the base of the inflorescence as it grows, this results in female flowers on the lower portion of the inflorescence and male flowers on the upper portion.  Thus, bee pollinators tend to act as pollen donors when visiting lower flowers and pollen recipients when visiting upper flowers.  Male pollinia are attached to the bee’s proboscis as it tries to access the nectar secreted into the base of the floral tube and then come in contact with the female stigma in the next flower that the bee visits.  Bees generally start at the bottom of an inflorescence when visiting a plant and then spiral up to the top before flying to the next plant.  Such “acropetal movement” is likely a result of the tendency for nectar rewards to be greater in the lower flowers, and it ultimately promotes cross-fertilization between neighboring plants.

This was the 4th edition of the contest, which has been held every other year since the inaugural edition in 2013. I’ve earned 2nd and 3rd place honors in the plants category each time before; however, this was my first win in that category. In addition to plants, I also had entries in the ‘Invertebrates’ (restricted to photos taken in Missouri or one of its contiguous states) and ‘Travel’ (open to photos taken anywhere in the world) categories, with one photo each making it to the final round of judging. You’ve seen them both before—Neotibicen superbus (below left—photographed at Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri) and Agrilus walsinghami (below right—photographed at Davis Creek Park, Washoe Co., Nevada). In the end, however, they both got beat out by the competition, so I only had the one winning photograph this time. Nevertheless, it was a 1st place winner, so I am very satisfied.

The WGNSS Nature Photo Contest has quickly become one of the organization’s marquee events, with the number of entries, caliber of competition, and attendance all exceeding the previous three editions. My thanks to the judges who volunteered their time, the attendees who supported the event, and especially to Bill Duncan, Chair of WGNSS’s Nature Photography Group (and an expert nature photographer in his own right), who worked hard to make this event the success that it was (and took home some well-deserved wins of his own). I look forward to the next competition in 2021!

REFERENCES:

Summers, B.  1981.  Missouri Orchids.  Missouri Department of Conservation, Natural History Series No. 1, 92 pp.

van der Cingel, N. A.  2001.  An Atlas of Orchid Pollination: America, Africa, Asia and Australia. A. A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 296 pp.

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

Backyard gems

I’ve been fortunate to have the chance to travel far and wide in my searches for insects—from the Gypsum Hills of the Great Plains and Sky Islands of the desert southwest to the subtropical riparian woodlands of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, tropical thorn forests of southern Mexico and veld of southern Africa. No matter how far I travel, however, I’m always happy to return to the Missouri Ozarks. It is here where I cut my entomological teeth so many years ago, and though I’ve now scrabbled around these ancient hills for more than three decades it continues to satisfy my thirst for natural history. Though not nearly as expansive as the Great Plains, there are nevertheless innumerable nooks and crannies nestled in the Ozarks, and I find myself constantly torn between looking for new spots (it would take several lifetimes to find them all) and going back to old favorites. Living in the northeastern “foothills” in the outskirts of St. Louis provides an ideal vantage for exploration; however, sometimes I am truly amazed at the natural history gems that can be found within a stone’s throw from my house. Some examples I’ve featured previously include Shaw Nature Reserve, home to a hotspot of the one-spotted tiger beetle, Castlewood State Park, where I found a gorgeously reddish population of the eastern big sand tiger beetle, and Victoria Glades Natural Area, site of the very first new species (and perhaps also the most beautiful) that I ever collected.

Englemann Woods Natural Area | Franklin Co., Missouri

Today I found another such area—Englemann Woods Natural Area, and at only 5 miles from my doorstep it is the closest natural gem that I have yet encountered. One of the last old-growth forests in the state, its deep loess deposits on dolomite bedrock overlooking the Missouri River valley support rich, mesic forests on the moister north and east facing slopes and dry-mesic forests on the drier west-facing slopes dissected by rich, wet-mesic forests with their hundreds-of-years-old trees. A remarkable forest of white oak, ash, basswood and maple in an area dominated by monotonous second-growth oak/hickory forests.

Englemann Woods Natural Area

Steep north-facing slopes border the Missouri River valley.

It is not, however, the 200-year-old trees that will bring me back to this spot, but rather the understory on the north and east-facing slopes. Here occur some of the richest stands of eastern hornbean (Ostrya virginiana) that I have ever seen. This diminutive forest understory inhabitant is not particularly rare in Missouri, but as it prefers rather moist upland situations it is not commonly encountered in the dry-mesic forests that dominate much of the Ozarks. Stands of this tree, a member of the birch family (Betulaceae) are easy to spot in winter due to their habit of holding onto their dried canopy of tawny-brown leaves (see photo below).

Englemann Woods Natural Area

Rich stands of eastern hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) dominate the north- and east-slope understory.

Why am I so interested in this plant? It is the primary host of the jewel beetle species Agrilus champlaini. Unlike most other members of the genus, this species breeds in living trees rather than dead wood, their larvae creating characteristic swellings (galls, if you will) on the twigs and stems as they spiral around under the bark feeding on the cambium tissues before entering the wood to pupate and emerge as adults in spring. This species is known in Missouri from just two specimens, both collected by me way back in the 1980s as they emerged from galls that I had collected during the winter at two locations much further away from St. Louis. The presence of this rich stand of hornbeam just 5 miles from my home gives me the opportunity to not only search the area more thoroughly to look for the presence of galls from which I might rear additional specimens, but also to look for adults on their hosts during spring and (possibly, hopefully) succeed in photographing them alive.

Englemann Woods Natural Area

Inside the “hornbeam forest.”

Another “draw” for me is the restoration work that has begun on some of the west-facing slopes in the areas. Pre-settlement Missouri was a far less wooded place than it is today, as evidenced by the richly descriptive writings penned by Henry Schoolcraft during his horseback journey through the Ozarks in the early 1800’s. At the interface between the great deciduous forests to the east and the expansive grasslands to the west, the forests of Missouri were historically a shifting mosaic of savanna and woodland mediated by fire. Relatively drier west-facing slopes were more prone to the occurrence of these fires, resulting in open woodlands with more diverse herbaceous and shrub layers. At the far extreme these habitats are most properly called “xeric dolomite/limestone prairie” but nearly universally referred to by Missourians as “glades”—islands of prairie in a sea of forest! I have sampled glades extensively in Missouri over the years, and they are perhaps my favorite of all Missouri habitats. However, it is not future glades or savannas that have me excited about Englemann Woods but rather the availability of freshly dead wood for jewel beetles and longhorned beetles resulting from the selective logging that has taken place as a first step towards restoration of such habitats on these west-slopes. The downed trees on these slopes and subsequent mortality of some still standing trees that is likely to result from the sudden exposure of their shade adapted trunks to full sun are likely to serve as a sink for these beetles for several years to come. I will want to use all the tools at my disposal for sampling them while I have this opportunity—beating, attraction to ultraviolet lights, and fermenting bait traps being the primary ones. It looks like I’d better stock up on molasses and cheap beer!

Englemann Woods Natural Area

Restoration efforts on the west-facing slopes begins with selective logging.

Eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is native to Missouri, but in our time it has become a major, invasive pest tree. The suppression of fire that came with settlement also freed this tree from a major constraining influence on its establishment in various habitats around the state, primarily dolomite/limestone glades. Nowadays most former glade habitats, unless actively managed to prevent it, have become choked with stands of this tree, resulting in shading out of the sun-loving plants that historically occurred much more commonly in the state. Untold dollars are spent each year by landscape managers on mechanical removal and controlled burns to remove red-cedar and prevent its reestablishment in these habitats. There is one habitat in Missouri, however, in which eastern red-cedar has reigned supreme for centuries or possibly millenia—dolomite/limestone bluff faces.

Juniperus virginiana

Craggly, old Eastern red-cedars (Juniperus virginiana) cling tenaciously to the towering dolomite bluffs.

With little more than a crack in the rock to serve as a toehold, red-cedars thrive where no other tree can, growing slowly, their gnarled trunks contorted and branches twisted by exposure to sun and wind and chronic lack of moisture. Some of the oldest trees in Missouri are red-cedars living on bluffs, with the oldest example reported coming from Missouri at an incredible 750–800 years old. There is something awe-inspiring about seeing a living organism that existed in my home state before there were roads and cars and guns. These ancient trees are now an easy drive from my house (though a rather strenuous 300-ft bushwhacking ascent to reach the bluff tops)—they seem ironically vulnerable now after having endured for so long against the forces of nature. For me, they will serve as a spiritual draw—a reason to return to this place again regardless of what success I might have at finding insects in the coming months.

Juniperus virginiana

This tree may pre-date Eurpoean settlement.

Aplectrum hyemale

Adam-and-Eve orchid (Aplectrum hyemale).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Fathers Day at the Missouri Botanical Garden

Yesterday my girls (wife Lynne and daughters Mollie and Madison) took me and my father to the Missouri Botanical Garden for Fathers Day. Although I’m an entomologist, I also have a strong botanical bent, and although my wife and father are not scientists like me, they nevertheless find a day at the Missouri Botanical Garden as enjoyable as I do. The girls, on the other hand, will never admit that they like it the way the rest of us do, but I think deep inside they enjoy it very much and, in later years, will look upon these visits as some of their fondest Mothers and Fathers Day memories.

Me and daughters Mollie and Madison.

My father and I have been back together for 20 years now. With my wife and daughters, he has become one of the most important persons in my life. I wrote an essay about my father four years ago that explains how he made me whole—it still rings true today.

Me and Pop.

I have been to the Missouri Botanical Garden many, many times over the years, but one sight have have still never seen is a corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum). I learned earlier this week that one of their plants is about ready to bloom, so I eagerly looked for this plant as we wound our way through the Climatron. As we came near the end and I still hadn’t seen it, I wondered if somehow I had missed it along the path. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of the giant 3′ tall flower bud near the end of the footpath, and I knew instantly that I had found what I was looking for.

Corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) getting ready to bloom.

I will be keeping track of the progress of this flower over the next couple of weeks on the Missouri Botanical Garden Facebook page in hopes that I can see it again when the flower opens fully—a rare botanical treat that few people ever get the chance to experience!

Corpse flower explained.

In my younger years when I had a bit more free time on my hands I was a hobbyist orchid grower. I didn’t have a greenhouse but nevertheless managed to keep a steady supply of plants in bloom by growing them outdoors under shade cloth with heavy watering and fertilizing during the summer and moving them indoors under fluorescent lights and in bright windows during the winter. I don’t have nearly the time for such pursuits these days, but I still enjoy looking at their exquisite and infinitely diverse blooms whenever I have the chance, and the Climatron never fails to disappoint.

One of many epiphytic orchids blooming in the Climatron.

While walking through the Climatron, I noticed a very exotic looking lizard on the trunk of one of the trees. I watched it licking exudate from the trunk and thought such behavior seemed rather odd. I later learned that this was the Standing’s day gecko (Phelsuma standingi), and that it might have an important role in pollinating the double coconut palm (Loidiocea maldivica). Both are endemic to the Seychelles Islands north of Madagascar, with the latter bearing the largest seed of any plant in the world (up to 45 lbs. in weight). The photo below was taken of another individual through the glass of its terrarium and, thus, lacks some clarity, but it shows the vivid colors and markings that distinguish these diurnal geckos from the other more typically nocturnal members of the gecko infraorder.

Standing’s day gecko (Phelsuma standingi).

While not gracing this post in a photo, many thanks to my loving wife, Lynne, who is the best mother my daughters could ask for and who helped make yesterday the special day for me and my father that it was!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Friday Flower – Spring Coralroot Orchid

As flowers go, I have a passion for orchids.  Despite comprising perhaps the largest family of flowering plants on earth, most people think of orchids as rare, epiphytic plants restricted to the lush, hyper-diverse, tropical rain forests of South America and southeast Asia.  In reality, terrestrial orchids abound in the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, with more than 200 species occurring in the United States and Canada.  Some, such as the lady slippers (genus Cypripedium),  have blossoms as magnificent as their tropical counterparts, while others are less conspicuous and easy to overlook; however, all share the hallmark that unites the family—a modified petal forming a conspicuous lower lip¹

¹ Interestingly, the lip is actually derived from the uppermost petal, but in most species the flower twists during development so that the lip is oriented at the bottom.

Missouri is home to 34 species of orchids (one introduced, and another discovered in Missouri for the first time just a couple years ago).  None of them are truly common like Rudbeckia or Coreopsis, although some are far more common than is realized.  I’ve featured a few of these previously, including Spiranthes magnicamporum (Great Plains Ladies’-tresses), Platanthera lacera (green fringed orchid), Aplectrum hymenale (Adam and Eve orchid), and Goodyera pubescens (rattlesnake plantain orchid).  I’ve traveled to the far corners of the state to see them, but for today’s featured species—Corallorhiza wisteriana (spring coralroot)—I had to travel no further than my front yard.


I’m sure my neighbors hate my front yard. I don’t use fertilizers or herbicides, and I’m unconcerned about the moss that grows amongst the thin stands of mixed grasses under the tall native oaks that shade much of the yard. My neighbor down the street especially probably shakes his head as he walks his dog past my yard every day, frustrated that I don’t share his passion for the lush, thick, über-green bluegrass monoculture that he has achieved (and must pay somebody to cut at least once a week). Spring must be especially frustrating for him, as I don’t even cut the grass until late May, giving the lawn an especially ragged, unkempt appearance. However, whatever my yard lacks in graminaceous greatness, it more than makes up for in its diversity of woodland natives—spring beauty, toothwort, trout lily, violets, coral bells… and spring coralroot. I have several colonies growing at different spots in the yard, all marked with surveyor’s flags to prevent accidental trampling until their bloom period ends and I can (begrudgingly) begin mowing the grass (no more than once a month, if I can get away with it). I’ve enjoyed these coralroot colonies every spring since I’ve lived here, but this spring was the first that I took the opportunity to photograph their blooms.

Of the three Corallorhiza species that can be found in Missouri, C. wisteriana is the most common, occurring in rich or rocky acidic soils of low wooded valleys, ravine bottoms, along streams and on ridges and slopes of open woods (Summers 1981).  My yard qualifies as the latter, occurring on a limestone ridge in mesic upland forest made only slightly more open by the late 1980s construction of the neighborhood and its minimal disturbance limited to the roads, driveways, home footprints and a small amount of associated lawn.  It is distinguished in Missouri from C. odontorhiza (Autumn coralroot) by its spring flowering period and larger flowers with notched or lobed lip, and from the rare C. trifida (known from only a few Missouri counties) by the purple or brownish stems and spotted lip.


As suggested by the unusual coloration, Corallorhiza species are largely (though not completely) lacking in chlorophyll, and as a result are mostly unable to photosynthesize their own food. Instead, the bulbous rhizomes remain hidden within the soil for much of the year, forming symbiotic relationships with soil fungi and flowering only when conditions are favorable (Luer 1975). The past several springs have been wet here, and accordingly I’ve been rewarded with the wonderful sight of these exquisite tiny blossoms.

I can’t say that I’m entirely happy with these photographs, as I found it difficult to get the entire blossom in focus—when the petals were in focus the lip was not, and vice versa, even in straight lateral profile.  Nevertheless, they still show the delicate structure of the lip, with its scalloped edge and crystalline-appearing surface.  The blooms are fading now—soon there will be no above-ground evidence of their existence, and my neighbor and wife will likely gang up on me to finally power up the lawn mower.

REFERENCES:

Luer, C. A.  1975.The Native Orchids of the United States and Canada Excluding Florida.  The New York Botanical Garden, 361 pp. + 96 color plates.

Summers, B.  1981. Missouri Orchids.  Missouri Department of Conservation, Natural History Series No. 1, 92 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Friday Flower – Orquídea bambu


I arrived at our facility in Campinas, Brazil just before lunchtime.  I had spent the previous 20 hours on planes, trains, and automobiles (well, not trains), so when my colleague suggested that we take a short walk outside to the campus cafeteria I readily agreed.  Fresh air and at last a taste of that sumptuous Brazilian fare that I love so much sounded like a great idea.  As we walked to the cafeteria, I spotted these orchid blossoms on the tips of tall, reed-like stems growing in beds around the campus grounds… Orchids!  Growing in the ground, outside!  What a beautiful and appropriately tropical welcome to start things off.  I love orchids (and used to maintain a small collection back when I had time for such leisurely pursuits), so I asked my colleague if he knew which it was.  He didn’t, so I studied it carefully trying to remember its features so I could identify it later.  The terrestrial part struck me as a little odd for a Neotropical orchid, and I commented to my colleague that I’d bet it was something introduced from Asia.  That is precisely the case, although it took me a while to figure it out.  My initial Google and Flickr searches using terms such as “Brazil orchid” and the like produced pages and pages of Brazil’s famous diversity of native epiphytic species, but no obvious matches to this terrestrial species.  It later dawned on me that I should conduct my searches in Portuguese, and within the first page or two I found it – the appropriately named bamboo orchid (“orquidea bambusa”), Arundina graminifolia.


I would later see this orchid blooming not only in tended gardens, but from cracks in the pavement between buildings.  Originating from south and southeast Asia, this sole member of the genus is popularly cultivated in gardens across the tropics and has become naturalized in many areas.  Mary Farmer at A Neotropical Savanna has an excellent post on recognition and occurrence of this species in Panama, including detailed discussion and photographs of vegetational and floral morphology and its potential (or lack thereof) for becoming an invasive weed.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Friday Flower – green fringed orchid

I may have been the “Beetle Group” leader for last May’s BioBlitz at Penn-Sylvania Prairie, a 160-acre tract of native tallgrass prairie in southwestern Missouri owned by the Missouri Prairie Foundation.  However, it was a plant – specifically the green fringed orchid  (Platanthera lacera) – that would prove be the highlight of my visit.  I’ve already lamented the paucity of beetles that I found at the prairie and the possible reasons for such.  It’s a shame, because to my knowledge the BioBlitz was the first real attempt to begin documenting the diversity of beetles and other insects that inhabit the prairie.  This is in great contrast to the vascular plants, of which about 300 mostly native prairie species have already been recorded from the site in active survey efforts that began even before its acquisition.   It’s no coincidence that prairie plant diversity would be so high in this frequently burned prairie remnant while beetles and other insects would be rather hard to find, since vascular plant diversity is the primary – and often the only – metric used to assess the success of and optimal timing for prescribed burning in native prairie remnants.  Unfortunately, the response of invertebrates to fire-centric management techniques such as those used here have not been so well considered, with the apparent declines in their populations now fueling an increasingly acrimonious debate on the subject.  But I digress…

Also called ragged fringed orchid, this species typifies the rather striking appearance of the genus as a whole.  I’ve always been quite enamored with orchids (even possessing a small collection during my young adult days that I grew outside under shadecloth during summer and indoors under artificial light during winter) but have encountered only a small fraction of Missouri’s 33 native orchid species – mostly in the genus Spiranthes (e.g., Great Plains Ladies’-tresses).  Despite not having seen this genus prior to this day, I knew immediately what I had stumbled upon (at least at the generic level) as we scoured the prairie in our search for its meager scraps of beetle life.  While not listed as threatened or endangered in Missouri, it is still quite uncommon, with populations scattered across the Ozark and Ozark Border counties and occurring with greater frequency in these Osage Plains in a variety of open, acidic-soiled habitats (Summers 1981).  As is typical for species with green-white colored flowers, the blossoms emit fragrance at night and thus attract sphinx moths (family Sphingidae) and owlet moths (family Noctuidae) for pollination, including the hummingbird clearwing hawkmoth (Hemaris thysbe) (Luer 1975).  While our Midwestern populations are considered “spindly and unattractive” compared to the more luxuriantly-blossomed plants of New England and maritime Canada (Luer 1975), I consider this to be the most strikingly handsome orchid I’ve encountered to date.

Photo Details: Canon 50D (ISO 100, 1/250 sec) w/ 100mm macro lens @ f/10 (whole plant) or f/18 (flower close-up), Canon MT-24EX flash (manual, 1/4 ratio) w/ Sto-Fen diffusers. Typical post-processing includes levels adjustment, minor cropping, and/or unsharp mask.

REFERENCES:

Luer, C. A.  1975. The Native Orchids of the United States and Canada Excluding Florida.  The New York Botanical Garden, 361 pp. + 96 color plates.

Summers, B.  1981. Missouri Orchids.  Missouri Department of Conservation, Natural History Series No. 1, 92 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

The joys of ecological restoration

Indian paintbrush and lousewort now dominate patches of SNR

I moved to Missouri in the summer of 1988, having experienced 8 years of generous support of my family’s livelihood by my research on the infamous imported fire ants of the US Southeast, and their relatives in South America. When I arrived in the Midwest, I  hoped to land a job as an insect taxonomist in a university or museum, a goal of mine since before entering college. But this dream was one that even before moving to Missouri was dimming, and then receded ever further from the realm of possibility for me (and for traditionally trained taxonomists, generally), once here. So, I began to re-think what I might do with my work life. It would be something, I hoped, that would make some use of all the course work (mostly in entomology and botany) and research (on ant systematics) I had done during my 24 years (!) of getting educated and four additional years as a post-doc. As or more important, whatever job I ended up in would somehow have to allow me to share my life-long love of nature with others.

A museum drawer of ant specimens mounted for taxonomic study, the ants no doubt frustrated by the years of inattention they have received as I have tended to the duties of my day job.

Early in my residence in eastern Missouri, I made the acquaintance of the naturalist at a 2500-acre (1000-hectare) nature reserve outside of St. Louis. Shaw Arboretum, as it was then known, is country cousin to the world-renowned Missouri Botanical Garden, and is named after the Garden’s founder Henry Shaw. Long story short, in the summer of 1990 the naturalist mentioned to me that he would soon retire, the position would become available, and that I ought to apply. So I applied, and was hired as the arboretum’s naturalist in January 1991.

A dolomite glade plant endemic to a few counties in eastern Missouri, this leatherflower was established at SNR in the 1930s, but expanded exponentially after prescribed fire was introduced in the 1990s. Here, an ant characteristic of glades and dry prairies forages on the flower.

When I came on board, the “Arboretum” had mostly ceased to be an arboretum (a formal collection of trees for display, breeding and research), and most folks seemed unable to either pronounce or define the word. Indeed we learned, through a public survey, that the strange name and the stone wall in the front actually dissuaded people unfamiliar with it from entering! Yes, there were a few patches of exotic trees scattered around the property, especially in the conifer collection near the front entrance know as the “Pinetum”, but ever since the Garden had decided around 1930 that it would not, afterall move all of its horticultural operations to this then very rural site (the original intent of its purchase), formal arboretum and botanical garden type activities had been few and far between, and the site began gradually reverting from abandoned farmland to a wilder sort of place, as well as a haven for native biota. Thus, on its 75th anniversary in the year 2000, Shaw Arboretum was renamed Shaw Nature Reserve.

Colony-founding queen bumblebees are the primary actors in loosening pollen with ultrasound from shootingstar anthers, and distributing it about the plant population.

Around that time, my title changed too, to “Restoration Biologist”. The job is multifaceted; presenting public programs and classes on various aspects of the site’s natural history, writing and reviewing articles, acting as liaison to the vigorous regional group of academic ecologists who use the site for research and teaching, a very intermittent personal research program on ants resulting in sporadic publications, and last but certainly not least, ecological restoration.

Ecological restoration, in the broad sense, consists of  two primary practices:

  • Restoration of a natural community to structure and species composition presumed characteristic of an  ;;earlier condition (however arbitrary or ill-defined).
  • Reconstruction of regional, native-like habitats, de novo, using locally acquired native plant propagules in the appropriate settings of soil, hydrology,  slope aspect and climate.

Both  require essentially perpetual, follow-up maintenance, including invasive species control, mowing, haying, grazing, selective timber removal, species richness enhancements, and prescribed burning. All of these have many variations and nuances in application, and there can be impassioned arguments about their implementation in the literature, at conferences, and in forums and blogs on ecological restoration, native plants, butterflies, beetles, etc..

An ecologically conservative lily ally of undisturbed moist soil habitats now thrives in prairie plantings at the Reserve.

Attitudes about ecological restoration vary, among practitioners, among sociologists and philosophers, and in the general public. One broad attitudinal schism lies along the lines of  whether ecological restoration activities are some sort of primitivist, grand-scale gardening, or do they represent ecologically valid landscape conservation? Another question some pose is to what extent we should interfere with “natural successsion”? Be this as it may be, most people with functioning sensory perception agree the results can be very beautiful. The loveliness of the mosaic of colors in the herb layer of a spring woodland is inarguable, especially so after it has had its woody stem density reduced, and had the leaf litter burned off, to allow more light, rain and seeds to the soil surface — even where there is genuine concern about damage to invertebrate assemblages residing in forest duff. A waving meadow of grasses and flowers in a tallgrass prairie planting, intended to replace just a few of the tens of millions of acres of this ecosystem that have succumbed to the plow, has its own grand beauty, though its per-square-meter species density of plant species remains less than half that of a native prairie remnant and it is dominated mainly by habitat-generalist insect species rather than prairie specialists, even after 30 or more years.

A self-introduced grassland ant forages among a thriving, human-introduced population of this wet prairie gentian.

The smaller, daily rewards of restoration, to the practicing ecological restorationist and to those who visit his or her work, are many. Over 20 years, in the opened-up woods, restored glades and prairie and wetland plantings at SNR, I repeatedly have enjoyed the “sudden appearance” and increase in populations of ant species (of course) that I never observed during my early years of working at SNR (then scouring it for purposes of preparing an annotated ant list). The feeling I get upon discovering that a grouping of shooting star, royal catchfly, bunch flower or bottle gentian plants, are in bloom at a site where I spread their seeds five, seven, or even ten years earlier is a bit like that one feels when a child is born. The spontaneous colonization of SNR grassland plantings by prairie ragged orchid never fails to amaze me. Bird, or frog, or katydid and cricket songs in a former crop field or pasture, as the “restored” vegetation fills in and matures, is as pleasing to my ear as it is to my soul.

A few days ago (in early July), the director of the Reserve came to my office asking if I had noticed a purply pink, “possibly orchid” flower growing on a section of a berm (planted with native vegetation) in our 32-acre wetland complex. I had not been in the area recently, but headed right out to see what it was. Joyously, and not a little surprised, I learned that seeds of the purple fringeless orchid, sowed at a location nearby 17 years previously, had washed to this site, taken root, and as terrestrial orchids are wont to do, flowered after so many years!

The black-legged greater meadow katydid thrives in low areas and near bodies of water in SNR

The prairie ragged orchid began to appear in old fields and prairie plantings where prescribed burning occurs at SNR. It has not been seen in fields maintained exclusively by mowing or haying.

The purple fringeless orchid surprised the restorationist and St. Louis area botanists by flowering in the SNR wetland area 17 years after the original sowing.

Copyright © James Trager 2010

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