Botanizing at Meramec State Park, Natural Wonders Trail

Two days ago, the WGNSS Botany Group met in the Visitor Center parking lot on a not-as-cold and not-as-cloudy day compared to previous days with the plan to walk the Natural Wonders Trail—a relatively easy 1.3-mile loop that features mesic forest on north-facing slopes, dry forest and glades on the south-facing slopes, and a spring-fed creek that meanders through the riparian corridor below. The upland portions of the trail pass through Meramec Mosaic Natural Area, boasting an amazing diversity of natural communities and associated flora all in relatively close proximity.

North-facing dolomite bluff in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest supporting at least six species of ferns.

We walked clockwise around the loop, which took us up and out of the riparian forest onto the north-facing slopes. Lindera benzoin (spicebush) was abundant in the understory at the lower elevations, with male and female plants both being immediately recognizable—the former sporting noticeably swollen buds that will produce the male flowers in spring, and the latter still bearing many of their now-faded berries, their earlier bright red color lost to a dull purple-black. Two members of the Betulaceae were also seen commonly in the understory—Ostrya virginiana (hop hornbeam), with its hop-like fruit clusters and almost always adorned with rich-brown marcescent leaves, and Corylus americana (hazelnut) sporting distinctive hanging male catkins.

We had scarcely reached the upper slopes when we began noticing a diversity of green foliage—not from the numerous trees and shrubs, but rather from a variety of ferns, hangers-on from earlier times that continue to find niches within the woody-dominate community that now dominate the landscape. The first example seen was a single Sceptridium dissectum (cutleaf grape-fern), its leaf now in reddish-bronze winter dress. Shortly afterwards we began to see prominent outcrops of dolomite as we neared the north-facing bluffs, their surfaces thickly covered with mosses and providing a perfect situation for Asplenium rhizophyllum (American walking fern). The long, tapering leaves of this species root at their tips and give rise to new plantlets—an asexual method of reproduction that allows a single plant to quickly colonize an entire rock surface.

Sceptridium dissectum (cutleaf grape-fern) in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.
Asplenium rhizophyllum (American walking fern) on north-facing dolomite bluff in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.

The bluff faces themselves provided the greatest diversity of ferns. An unusual species observed in abundance was Cystopteris bulbifera (bulblet fern, bulblet bladderfern, or bulblet fragile fern). Unlike many ferns, the fronds of this species turn completely brown during the winter (although a few small green plantlets of what may be this species were observed growing among them). It’s most notable feature, however, is the small “bulblets” that form on the underside of its leaves, providing the plant a most unusual method of asexual reproduction.

Winter foliage of Cystopteris bulbifera (bulblet fern, bulblet bladderfern, or bulblet fragile fern) on north-facing dolomite bluff in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.
Possible plantlet of Cystopteris bulbifera (bulblet fern, bulblet bladderfern, or bulblet fragile fern) on north-facing dolomite bluff in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.
Vegetative bulblet on winter foliage of Cystopteris bulbifera (bulblet fern, bulblet bladderfern, or bulblet fragile fern) on north-facing dolomite bluff in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.

Two Pellaea spp. (cliffbrake) we’re found as well growing from crevices on the bluff face: P. atropurpurea (purple-stem cliffbrake or purple cliffbrake) and the more uncommonly encountered P. glabella (smooth cliffbrake). In some cases the plants were growing very near each other, allowing the group an opportunity to compare and contrast. Pellaea atropurpurea is distinctive in both habit and appearance, with fertile leaflets narrowly elongate—sporangia arranged along the curled under margin and the sterile leaflets broader and “T-shaped” at the base. In addition to its dimorphic leaves, the distinctly pubescent, purplish-brown rachis separates it from P. glabella. The latter species can be found scattered throughout the Ozarks and a few northern counties and is less likely to be seen growing in soil as opposed to exposed rock.

Pellaea atropurpurea (purple-stem cliffbrake or purple cliffbrake) on north-facing dolomite bluff in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.
Underside of fertile frond of Pellaea atropurpurea (purple-stem cliffbrake or purple cliffbrake) on north-facing dolomite bluff in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.
Pellaea glabella (smooth cliffbrake) on north-facing dolomite bluff in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.

Two more species of Asplenium were found as we continued to examine the moss-covered rock exposures, one being the commonly encountered A. platyneuron (ebony spleenwort or brownstem spleenwort)—distinctive by its purple-brown rachis and “offset” pinnae with asymmetrical basal lobes, and an as-yet-undetermined species provisionally assigned to this genus. We would see additional examples of A. platyneuron away from the rock faces growing in the soil—their fertile fronds tending to grow more erect than the sterile fronds. This same habit was seen in the eighth and final fern of the day, the very common Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern) which we encountered regularly in more mesic areas of the forest floor.

Asplenium platyneuron (ebony spleenwort or brownstem spleenwort) on north-facing dolomite bluff in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.
Fertile frond of Asplenium platyneuron (ebony spleenwort or brownstem spleenwort) on north-facing dolomite bluff in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.
Fertile frond underside of Asplenium platyneuron (ebony spleenwort or brownstem spleenwort) on north-facing dolomite bluff in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.
Asplenium sp. (spleenwort) on north-facing dolomite bluff in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.
Sterile fronds of Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern) on north-facing dolomite bluff in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.

Despite the botanical focus of the walk, we are all naturalists at heart and quick to notice anything that piques our natural history curiosity, regardless of what kingdom of life it pertains to, and when John called out, “Okay Ted, here’s a quiz for you,” I suspected my entomological skills would be put to the test. What he’d found were three strange-looking structures hanging from a small Ostrya sapling that would have, to anybody less-observant, been passed off as some plant fruiting structure. Of course, we knew that Ostrya fruits bore no resemblance to these structures, and when we noticed they were connected to each other and had apparently been “tied” to the twig by some sort of insect, we then guessed they may have been the fruiting structures of an as yet unidentified herbaceous plant or vine. That idea was quickly dispelled, however, when cutting into one of the structures revealed it was filled with bright yellow spheres that I can only surmise to be lepidopteran eggs, with the structures themselves and their attachments to the twig consisting of the silk that many caterpillars use to construct cocoons in which to pupate. Could these be the eggs of an usual type of bagworm moth, the females of which are typically wingless and larvicida and remain in their cocoon after emergence, where they mate, lay eggs, and die? The structures and their egg-like contents, at this point, remain a mystery, but I did collect them and am attempting to hatch the “eggs” (if that is what they are) in an effort to gain further clues about their identity.

Unknown structures tied to a sapling Ostrya virginiana (hop hornbeam) in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.
Cutting into the structure revealed what must be eggs, possibly lepidopteran.
The structures were tied together along but independent the tree branch.

Turning back to the east the forest changed dramatically. The tall canopy of mesic-loving hardwoods such as Quercus alba (white oak) and Acer saccharum (sugar maple) gave way to a shorter, more open canopy of trees preferring dry to xeric conditions such as Q. muhlenbergii (chinquapin oak), Rhamnus caroliniana (Carolina buckthorn), and Sideroxylon lanuginosum (wooly buckthorn or gum bumelia). Entomologist that I am, I couldn’t resist the chance to check the ground around the bases of the trunks of each of the latter, hoping to see evidence of larval activity by the spectacular and highly host-specific Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer), but no such evidence was seen. At one point, the dry oak woodland yielded to a bona fide dolomite glade (more properly called “xeric dolomite prairie”), with evidence of mechanical removal of woody plants and prescribed burns serving as testament to dedicated management practices intended to restore and preserve the original character of the glade by park management.

The final stretch led back down into the valley, where a disturbing amount of Lonicera japonica (Japanese honeysuckle) was observed on the forest floor and growing up the smaller trees. A grove of Pinus echinata (shortleaf pine), apparently planted some time ago, looked oddly out of place given the dolomitic substrate in the area but did provide an opportunity for dramatic up views. After regrouping in the parking lot (and remarking on what a “fern-tastic” walk it had been), a number of participants caravanned to Clark Street Cade and Bakery in nearby Sullivan for a welcome resumption of the traditional post-walk lunch.

Grove of planted Pinus echinata (shortleaf pine) in dry-mesic deciduous upland forest.

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2022

2022 Oklahoma Insect Collecting Trip iReport

Welcome to the 11th “Collecting Trip iReport”; this one covering a very short (4 days) trip to northwestern Oklahoma on May 3–7, 2022. My collecting partner for this trip was long-time friend and hymenopterist Mike Arduser. Mike is one of the best natural historians that I know and, like me, has a special love for the often overlooked beauty of western Oklahoma and its fascinating insect fauna. It had been 13 years, however—too long, in my opinion, since our last joint field trip when we sampled the bee (Mike) and beetle (me) fauna at The Nature Conservancy’s Four Canyon Preserve in Ellis Co. Thus, I was happy for the chance to once again spend some time in the field with such a knowledgeable naturalist in an area we that both know and love.

As with all previous “iReports” in this series, this report is illustrated exclusively with iPhone photographs (thus the term “iReport”). Previous iReports in this series include:
2013 Oklahoma
2013 Great Basin
2014 Great Plains
2015 Texas
2018 New Mexico/Texas
2018 Arizona
2019 Arkansas/Oklahoma
2019 Arizona/California
2021 West Texas
2021 Texas/New Mexico/Arizona


Day 1 – Gloss Mountain State Park (Major Co.)
It took most of the day to get here—Tulsa threw us a couple of obstacles in the form of a construction-mediated wrong turn and a motorcycle engulfed in flames. I’ve been to Gloss Mountain a number of times, but never this early in the season. Skies were sunny (unlike St. Louis when we left this morning), but temps didn’t get much above 60°F and even dropped down into the upper 50s before we finished up at sunset.

Gloss Mountain State Park – early evening view from atop the mesa.

Surprisingly, despite the earliness of the season and cool temps, beating was quite productive. Working the low areas around the parking lot, I beat a fair number and diversity of beetles and hemipterans—mostly chrysomelids—but only a single Agrilus sp. off of Prosopis glandulosa.

This must be Oenothera macrocarpa (bigfruit evening primrose, Ozark sundrop, Missouri evening primrose), though it looks very different from populations south of St. Louis.

I knew there were other trees, principally Celtis reticulata (net-veined hackberry) and Sapindus drummondii (soapberry), on top of the mesa and wanted to see if anything was on them. Bingo! Even before reaching the top, I beat a few Agrilus (several spp.) from the Celtis, and up on top I beat quite a few more off the same. There were also additional mesquite trees up top, off which I again beat a single Agrilus sp. along with a few other things, notably a series of ceresine treehoppers. The Sapindus was just starting to leaf out, and I found nothing by beating them other than a single ceresine. A notable find was the pile of larval frass of Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer) at the base of a living Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia) tree—a sure sign of active infestation by a beetle I have yet to formally record from this place.

Frass at the base of a small Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia)—evidence of an active larval infestation by Plinthocoelium suaveolens (bumelia borer).

On the way back down from the top, we hit the sunset perfectly as it “touched” a peak in the foreground! Despite my success here this evening, Mike saw no bees of interest on the few flowers that were found due to the cold temps and chilling winds, so tomorrow we will continue west hoping for warmer conditions on the western edge of Oklahoma.

Dramatic sunset “landing” on a small foreground peak.
The opportunity lasted for only a minute!

Back in town, we searched for an open sit-down restaurant—fruitlessly because of the late hour—and ended up with a mediocre breakfast burrito from a fast food shop I’ve never been to before. The local Buick dealership, however, with its 1950s neon lights shining brightly in the night sky, was a taste of Americana that makes these trips so enjoyable. Life on the road!

Jensen’s Buick, Fairview, Oklahoma.

Day 2 – Black Mesa State Park (Cimmaron Co.)
Welp! We awoke this morning to cold temps (low 60s), thick fog, and low hanging clouds, and the forecast for the area showed essentially no improvement through at least the day. Our plan had been to hit a spot about an hour southwest before heading back north to Beaver Dunes State Park, but the forecast for both those areas also was cold and wet. It was not until we looked at the forecast for Black Mesa—our last planned stop of the trip and a 4½-hour-drive to the west—that the forecast seemed to be in our favor, so we decided to blast on out there. We figured we would get there at about 2:00 pm and could spend the rest of the day there collecting, camp there tonight, and start heading back east tomorrow (assuming the forecast improved for the areas we missed).

Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana).

Wrong! When we got there, it was not only cloudy and cold, but dry as a bone! Even if it had been sunny with warmer temps, there still would not have been any insect activity to speak of. The leaves of oaks and hackberries in the area were just barely starting to break bud, and the only flowers we saw at the park were a large willow in full bloom—but not a single insect visiting them. Knowing that there was no other place where conditions were better that we could drive to within the next couple of hours and collect for at least a short time, we instead decided to make it a hiking day and hike the High Point Trail at nearby Black Mesa Nature Preserve.

Black Mesa Nature Preserve (Cimmaron Co.)
When we arrived and looked at the signage, we learned that the hike to the oracle at the official high point would be a more than 8-mile hike! Just reaching the top of the mesa itself would be a more than 3-mile-hike, with the high point another mile on top. Not knowing if we had the appetite for such a distance (or time to do it before sunset) and with the wind cold and biting, we started out anyway and gave ourselves permission to turn around at any point if we felt like it.

View along High Point Trail.
View along High Point Trail.
Berlandiera lyrata (lyreleaf greeneyes).

Nevertheless, we persevered. We checked the cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata) along the way hoping to see Coenopoeus palmeri (one of the cactus longhorns, which I’m not sure has been recorded from Oklahoma) or at least one of the more widespread Moneilema species, but none were seen (nor really expected). The trail up the side of the mesa was steep and spectacular, and the trail atop the mesa was surreal—especially given the cold winds and low-hanging clouds. Eventually, we made it to the official high point and enjoyed the fun facts carved into each side of the granite obolisk marking the spot.

View along High Point Trail about halfway up the climb.
Juniperus monosperma (one-seed juniper).
Oklahoma High Point obolisk.
Oklahoma High Point marker.
Mike (right) and me at Oklahoma High Point.

Coming back down was not much easier than going up, the steepness of the trail jamming my toes into the toe box of my new hiking boots (which performed admirably!), but I did find an insect—a largish black weevil torpidly crawling on the trail. Even on the relatively level lower portion of the trail once we got there was difficult, our legs really starting to feel the miles now. As we hiked the last mile back to the car, the temperature continued to plummet as it started to sprinkle, turning to rain soon after we reached the car and then heavy rain as we headed down the highway back to the east. The irony of the situation—rain coming to a parched landscape just when we are ready to leave—did not escape us. We’ll spend the night in Boise City and hope for a better forecast tomorrow!

Descending the upper slope on the High Point Trail.

Day 3 – Beaver Dunes State Park (Beaver Co.)
Temps were down in the mid-40s when we awoke this morning, but skies were sunny and we were heartened by a promising forecast of continued sun and highs in the low to mid-60s. Our first destination—Beaver Dunes—was a relatively short 2-hour drive further east, and when we arrived sunny skies still prevailed. Unfortunately, temps still hovered in the mid-50s with a biting wind that made using the beating sheet difficult to impossible.

Dunes at Beaver Dunes State Park.

That said, I managed to beat a fair series of Agrilus spp. (probably mostly one species) and a few other beetles off living Celtis reticulata (net-veined hackberry) dotting the roadside along the entrance to the Picnic Area. Under the main group of hackberries I noticed new growth of Cucurbita foetedissima (buffalo gourd) along with last year’s dead stems. I’ve never collected Dorcasta cinerea (a longhorn beetle that utilizes buffalo gourd as a larval host), so I began splitting open the old stems to see if I could find unemerged adults. I didn’t, but what I did note inside the stems was evidence of boring by some insects and, eventually, the tiniest little scolytine bark beetles that I’ve ever seen. They were always found right at the node, usually in pairs (perhaps male and female?), and I ended up collecting a series of about a dozen specimens from two different stems.

Tradescantia occidentalis (prairie spiderwort, western spiderwort).

Also in the main group of hackberries, I noticed a dead branch hanging from the tree, which had fallen but gotten snagged on a lower branch to remain off the ground. The branch was obviously infested and showed a few emergence holes indicative of both buprestids and cerambycids, and when I broke into it I found two unemerged adult Agrilus (different species), which caused me to cut and bundle the branch to being back for rearing. At the entrance, I went to examine the stand of yellow flowers that greeted our arrival, determining them to be Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus (smallflower desert-chicory, Texas false dandelion). While I was on the ground photographing the flowers, I noticed a red and black hister beetle that proved to be Margarinotus bipustulatus—aptly named considering the two red maculations on the elytra. I also noticed a couple of tiger beetle larval burrows in the hard-packed sandy soil and found a long, thin plant stem to “fish” the larvae out. I managed to snag the larva in one of the burrows, which I believe is Tetracha carolina (Carolina metallic tiger beetle) by virtue of the thin white margin around the prothorax and the open habitat in which the larval burrow occurred. If this is true, then it is a second instar because it is slightly smaller than a typical Cicindela sp. third-instar larva.

Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus (smallflower desert-chicory, Texas false dandelion).
Pyrrhopappus pauciflorus (smallflower desert-chicory, Texas false dandelion).
Margarinotus bipustulatus (family Histeridae).

Afterwards, I went over to the dunes to see if Mike had found anything, but temps were still too cold to see anything flying. He did, however, show me an interesting stand of Penstemon that he’d found and that we determined to be P. fendleri (Fendler’s penstemon). The plants were all on the north side of the dune in apparently protected spots, and I noted that on iNaturalist our observation was the northernmost record for the species (save one suspicious, disjunct Colorado record).

Penstemon fendleri (Fendler’s penstemon).
Penstemon fendleri (Fendler’s penstemon).

On the way back to the car, I beat a few more beetles off living Celtis reticulata. By now, we’d seen all we needed to see here and decided to head southeast to one of the Brachys barberi locations (that were the reason for this trip in the first place).

5 mi E of Harmon (Ellis Co.)
This

Recently, another coleopterist collected Brachys barberi—more typically a southwestern species—on Quercus harvardii (shinnery oak) at this spot. I’ve not managed to find the species myself yet, and as it was collected on May 3rd last year I hoped the timing would be right. Quercus havardii dominated the landscape at this spot, mostly as thick stands of low-growing shrubs but also as a copse of small trees.

Quercus havardii (shinnery oak, shin oak, Havard oak).

At first, I swept the lowest-growing plants, collecting a variety of mostly chrysomelids and curculionids and even one Agrilus sp., before moving to beating along the sunny edges of the patches of taller shrubs and collecting similar species (but no Agrilus sp.). Just to the north, I noticed a stand of individuals tall enough to be considered trees (presumably a clonal stand) and began beating them. Immediately I began collecting not only the chrysomelids and curculionds that I was collecting before, but also several Agrilus spp. and what must be Agrilaxia texana—a species represented in my cabinet by just two specimens that I collected in northeastern Texas way back in 1984.

I worked nearly the full perimeter of the copse, noticing that most of the beetles were being collected only on the south-facing sunny (and leeward) side. When I was just about ready to call it quits, a much larger black and yellow beetle landed on the sheet. For an instant I thought it was a lycid, but it moved characteristically like a longhorned beetle, and I quickly realized that I had collected Elytroleptus floridanus—a quite rare southeastern U.S. species that I have only seen once before when I reared a single individual from dead oak that I collected in the Missouri bootheel (and representing a new state record). I wasn’t sure the species had ever been recorded from Oklahoma, so I found Gryzmala’s revision of the genus online and saw that it had been previously recorded from the state—but all the way over on the east side near the border of Arkansas. All records from Texas as well are from the eastern side of the state, so today’s capture appears to represent a significant northwestern extension of the species’ known geographic range by about 300 miles!

Sadly, I never saw Brachys barberi, but collecting Elytroleptus floridanus (in Oklahoma!) was a pretty good consolation prize.😊


Day 4 – Prologue (“Good to Go” coffee shop)
We awoke to bright sunny skies, and though a tad chilly it was still warmer than the previous mornings and with a good forecast to boot! It would take about an hour to drive to the day’s collecting spot—the one and only Gloss Mountain State Park (where we visited briefly a few days ago to start the trip), but not until after an unexpected and hilariously bizarre experience at a coffee shop in town called “Good to Go”.

“Good to Go” coffee shop lounge.

Mike was the first to notice the velociraptor in the lounge—saddled up for a ride! Okay, that’s cute. Then he noticed the sign on the outdoor display that read “Stegosaurs roamed the Earth about 5,000 years ago.” At first I thought, okay, they’re a little confused on the timeline, but what they’re trying to say is that dinosaurs lived a long time ago.

“Stegosaurs roamed the Earth about 5,000 years ago.”

Then I noticed a granite plaque in the background that clearly read “The Holy Bible”, and it dawned on me that we had entered a creationist’s den! Had we not already ordered our coffee, I might have surreptitiously tiptoed my long-haired hippy butt out of there before somebody pointed at me and began slowly chanting “Lucifer!”

Apparently this is overwhelming evidence that humans saw living dinosaurs.

Once we were outside the shop, our coffee secured and the need for hushed tones no longer muffling our reactions, we took a quick walk with the dinosaurs to admire their seeming scientific accuracy. I was impressed with the T. rex in particular, it’s body axis realistically horizontal with the tail straight and strong—not the lumbering, upright, tail-dragging version that I learned about as a kid. At least they were accepting some of the current body of scientific evidence on dinosaurs and ignoring only that dealing with their age—or so I thought…

A remarkably scientifically accurate rendition of T. rex with the more recently advocated horizontal posture.

The stegosaur as well appeared to be fairly accurately rendered, its tail also straight and strong and a youngster trailing closely behind, until I noticed something atop the adult—an angel riding it! ‘God’s creatures big and small’, I guess.

Note the angel riding the stegosaur!

The coup de grace was the information plaque behind the stegosaur. Rather than providing information on dinosaurs, I was instead treated to a barrage of hilariously unsupported claims advocating the idea that humans and dinosaurs once lived together. Each “factoid” on the plaque was more bizarre and quotable than the one before. Did you know that the adult stegosaur probably died 4,000 years ago in the Great Flood, but that the baby—happily—likely survived by getting a ride on the Ark with Noah! And all that scientific evidence that pinpoints the Cretaceous extinction to 65 million years ago? Apparently it has merely been fabricated as part of a global conspiracy because scientists just don’t want to agree with the Bible. I just about lost it, however, when I reached “It is uncertain if humans ever rode Dinosaurs, but there is overwhelming evidence that humans saw living dinosaurs.” I mean—What?!

I don’t even know where to begin!

Our unplanned morning entertainment now done, we hit the road for our next—and final—collecting spot for the trip.

Gloss Mountain State Park (Major Co.)
We arrived at about 10 am with a plan to spend the rest of the day there—whether the collecting was good or bad, this would be our final stand. We hiked up to the mesa, stopping at an accessible spot about halfway up to work the trees (me) or set out pan traps (Mike). Beating the Celtis reticulata (net-veined hackberry) yielded a similar assortment of beetles as last time—a couple of Agrilus spp. along with the occasional chrysomelid or curculionoid and a few other beetles, and the same was true with Prosopis glandulosa (mesquite), with the exception that I did not find any Agrilus this time.

Gloss Mountain State Park – view west from atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.

Atop the mesa, I decided to do an entire perimeter hike—something I’ve always wanted to do but never actually accomplished. The idea was to beat all of the C. reticulata, P. glandulosa, and Sapindus drummondii (soapberry) that I could find in an effort to “leave no stone unturned” in my quest for beetles. Soon after starting out, I saw a nice Pasimachus elongatus ground beetle running across the mesa top and “forced” it to cooperate for photos by pinning a hind tarsus to the ground with my finger tip (barely visible in the upper left side of the photo). I collected it, as well as another that I saw a short distance away, and then proceeded with the beatings! Beating the C. reticulata was quite productive, with perhaps three Agrilus spp. and numerous other beetles being collected off of nearly every tree that I beat. Beating P. glandulosa also was productive for various beetles, though again no Agrilus were encountered. The biggest surprise came when I started beating S. drummondii, most of which were still in the earliest stages of leafing out. I got nothing from most of the trees (the majority of which were clustered in a small copse near the front of the mesa), but in the back part of the cluster were a couple of trees with noticeably more foliage—beating them yielded perhaps a dozen Agrilus limpiae, a soapberry specialist that I haven’t seen in numbers since 1986 when I collected a series on soapberry in south-central Kansas.

Gloss Mountain State Park – view west from atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Pasimachus elongatus (family Carabidae) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.

I rarely get anything beating Sideroxylon lanuginosum (gum bumelia), but I beat most of the trees that I saw anyway and collected one cryptocephaline chrysomelid and two curculionoids. A single Eleodes hispilabris (apparently on its last leg) was seen near the north end of the mesa, which I photographed and collected, and on the way back I encountered a small patch of Sphaeralcea coccinea (scarlet globemallow) in bloom, from the flowers of which I collected a few small melyrid-type beetles and a small halictid bee for Mike. Also on the north part of the mesa I saw a young eastern collared lizard (Crotaphytus collaris), who posed just long enough for me to get off a shot before blasting away from my approaching lens.

Eleodes hispilabris (family Tenebrioindae) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Sphaeralcea coccinea (scarlet globemallow) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Crotaphytus collaris (eastern collared lizard) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.

Throughout the hike atop the mesa I kept my eye out for “new-to-me” plants (of which there are many), finding for the first time Toxicodendron rydbergii (western poison ivy) and blooming individuals of Chaetopappa ericoides (rose heath). Physaria gordonii (Gordon’s bladderpod)—a relative of the federally threatened P. filiformis (Missouri bladderpod)—was blooming abundantly atop the mesa. At this point, Mike and I rejoined and relayed to each other our more notable findings. For Mike’s part, he had seen a couple of cacti that I had missed—Escobaria missouriensis (Missouri foxtail cactus) and Echinocereus reichenbachii perbellus (black lace cactus)—and took me to the spots where he had seen them. While retracing our steps, we also found Gaillardia suavis (pincushion daisy, perfumeballs) and the strikingly beautiful Penstemon cobaea (cobaea beardtongue, prairie beardtongue, foxglove penstemon).

Toxicodendron rydbergii (western poison ivy) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Chaetopappa ericoides (rose heath) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Physaria gordonii (Gordon’s bladderpod) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Escobaria missouriensis (Missouri foxtail cactus) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Escobaria missouriensis (Missouri foxtail cactus) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Echinocereus reichenbachii perbellus (black lace cactus) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Echinocereus reichenbachii perbellus (black lace cactus) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Gaillardia suavis (pincushion daisy, perfumeballs) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Penstemon cobaea (cobaea beardtongue, prairie beardtongue, foxglove penstemon) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Penstemon cobaea (cobaea beardtongue, prairie beardtongue, foxglove penstemon) atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.

By this time, I had been on the mesa top for five hours, and even though temperatures were mild (mid-70s) I desperately needed food and water. Mike, for his part, had also had a wildly successful day with bees, capturing many at the flowers and many more in the various pan traps (both in top and halfway up the slope). I descended the steep slope with its mixture of metal steps, cut rock, and wooden planks and enjoyed a quick feast of sardines and Triscuits (a decades-long bug-collecting-trip staple) washed down with Gatorade before getting back to work on the mesquite around the parking lot. I was committed to trying to find Agrilus on the plants—a single individual of which I’d beaten from the plants three days earlier, and after beating several plants and seeing none (but collecting a great number of clytrine and cryptocephaline chrysomelids along with other insects) I finally found one! I continued to work the trees and collect primarily chrysomelids, but no more Agrilus were seen. I am hopeful that it will be a southwestern species not currently known from Oklahoma—a situation I have found with several other Prosopis-associated beetles in this part of northwestern Oklahoma.

Gloss Mountain State Park – view north from atop gypsum-capped red clay mesa.
Gloss Mountain State Park – history of the name.

I hadn’t intended to work any additional Prosopis beyond the road into the parking lot, but there were a few particularly large trees along the front of the park next to the highway rest stop. The first one I beat yielded a very large cryptocephaline that I had not seen on any of the other Prosopis, so I continued beating them and collected a nice series along with a few other clytrines, pachybrachines, and curculionoids. At the furthest point west, I recalled having seen during a previous visit a western diamondback rattlesnake a bit further to the west, so I continued to the spot hoping to see another. No such luck, so I tiptoed through the tall grass back to safety and made my way back to the car to wrap up seven and a half hours of collecting on a spectacular day—sadly, the last of the trip!


Epilogue
This trip was just a warm-up. In just over one week, I will head out again—this time to western Texas and southern Arizona for sure, and maybe elsewhere depending on how things go. At three weeks, it will be the longest collecting trip I’ve done since I went to South Africa in 1999 and Ecuador 10 years before that. I’m also looking forward to meeting up with a number of other coleopterists at various points during the trip—Jason Hansen, Joshua Basham, and Tyler Hedlund in Texas, and Norm Woodley and Steve Lingafelter in Arizona. If there is time, I may stop off at a place or two in northeastern New Mexico and at Black Mesa on the way back. Look for an iReport on that trip sometime in early-mid June!

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2022

Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve & Wildlife Management Area

The pine flatlands of the southeastern Coastal Plain offer an interesting contrast to the upland forests of my home state of Missouri. Closed canopies of oak and hickory are replaced by open canopies of pond and longleaf pine. Dry glades—islands of prairie dotting the forests—are replaced by bogs and bays—oases of wetland punctuating the sandy scrub. In both places, however, fire plays an important role in shaping and preserving these unique habitats. In this ~10,000-acre preserve, prescribed burns spare the heat-tolerant pines—their trunks blackened and scorched but the living branches high above unharmed—and prevent woody shrubs from choking out herbaceous plants, including famously insectivorous plants such as Venus fly traps, sundews, and pitcher plants. I had yet to have seen any of these plants in their native habitats, and after learning of this place and their presence here from a local resident, Madam and I made a beeline to the preserve for an afternoon of botanical hiking.

Pine flatlands at Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve & Wildlife Management Area.

Almost immediately after starting down the road from the parking lot, I noticed white blossoms dotting the forest floor. Approaching closer revealed them to be wild azaleas—in this case Rhododendron viscosum (swamp azalea). Individually, the petite plants with their crowns of oversized blooms were quaintly beautiful. En masse, clustered on the forest floor, they were an amazing sight to see.

Rhododendron viscosum (swamp azalea) in pine flatland.
Rhododendron viscosum (swamp azalea).

The going was slow in the beginning, with something new to me at every turn. A species of Nuttallanthus (toadflax)—either N. texanus (Texas toadflax) or N. canadensis (Canada toadflax), depending on details of flower dimensions—bloomed abundantly in the sunny openings. A small purple flower was at first assumed to be a species of Tradescantia (spidorwort) but proved to be the related Callisia graminea (grassleaf roseling)—a new genus for me. A bit further down the road we encountered orange flowers that proved to be Polygala lutea (orange milkwort). This genus is represented in Missouri by several species, all having flowers of pink, yellow, or white.

Nuttallanthus (toadflax)—either N. texanus (Texas toadflax) or N. canadensis (Canada toadflax).
Callisia ornata (scrub roseling).
Polygala lutea (orange milkwort).

Flowers were not limited to herbaceous plants. The evergreen woody shrub layer was just coming back to life with new growth, a few of which bore distinctive blossoms identifying them as members of the genus Vaccinium (blueberry). There are several potential species that could be here.

Vaccinium sp. (blueberry).

At one point, Madam called me to the other side of the road, pointing to a strange plant at the edge of a wet area and asking “What’s that?” Bingo—I recognized it instantly as one of the so-called “pitcher plants” (genus Sarracenia), among the most dramatically charismatic of the insectivorous plants. Pitcher plants trap insects using a rolled leaf with downward pointing hairs on the inside and the uppermost part of the leaf flared into a lid (or operculum) to prevent rain from diluting the digestive secretions pooled at the bottom of the leaf. Though a bit past bloom, it was easily identifiable as S. flava (yellow pitcher plant). We were thrilled to have seen our first pitcher plant in the wild, and we looked forward to seeing more (hopefully in full bloom).

Sarracenia flava (yellow pitcher plant).

As we scanned the edge of the wetland looking for more pitcher plants, I noticed tiny white flowers on the small shrubs underfoot. They looked rather “hollyish” to me, and indeed they proved to be Ilex glabra (gallberry), a species of evergreen holly native to the coastal plain of eastern North America and most commonly found in sandy woods and peripheries of swamps and bogs.

Ilex glabra (gallberry).

At this time of season, I was expecting to see insects well active, and this was certainly the case with butterflies—the most common being a species of swallowtail that oxymoronically reminded me of a small giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) but in reality were Papilio palamedes (Palamedes swallowtail). I’m a beetle guy, however, so I was happy to find a few Acmaeodera tubulus jewel beetles on flowers of Erigeron sp. (fleabane), and when I saw a standing recently-dead pine beyond the wet drainage I decided to check it for other jewel beetles on its trunk. As I started to step across the water, a small purplish plant on a piece of wood in the water caught my eye, and I immediately recognized it as one of the sundews (genus Drosera), another genus of insectivorous plants that capture and digest insects using stalked mucilaginous glands that cover their leaf surfaces. This is one of the largest genera of insectivorous plants, but I take this one to be D. intermedia (spoonleaf sundew).

Drosera intermedia (spoonleaf sundew).
Drosera intermedia (spoonleaf sundew).

About a mile and a half from the car, we finally found what we had been hoping to see since soon after we arrived—Sarracenia flava (yellow pitcher plant) in full bloom. A rather large patch of them was visible from afar, their yellow blooms glowing in the sunlight, but sadly most of them were slightly or greatly past peak bloom. A bit further back, however, on the other side of the water, I spotted two single plants in perfect bloom, their petals fresh and intact and making the effort to find a way across the water well worth the effort. Other plants without blooms but with fresh, brightly colored “pitchers” were also seen along the water’s edge.

Sarracenia flava (yellow pitcher plant).
Sarracenia flava (yellow pitcher plant).
Sarracenia flava (yellow pitcher plant).

As we admired the spectacle in front of us, I noticed a clump of red within the vegetation at water’s edge and realized we were looking at another species of pitcher plant—Sarracenia purpurea (purple pitcher plant)! How fortunate we were to see this clump—the only one we saw—which was in perfect bloom and with colorful, freshly-formed pitchers whose squat form contrasted notably from the tall, slender, graceful pitchers of S. flava right next to it.

Sarracenia purpurea (purple pitcher plant).
Sarracenia purpurea (purple pitcher plant).
Sarracenia purpurea (purple pitcher plant).

By now, the April heat had taken a noticeable toll on the conditioning of these two recently-escaped-from-winter Midwesterners. Having found the Holy Grail for the day, we began the long, tired slog back to the car—our legs dragging but our spirits soaring.

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2022

Botanizing at St. Joe State Park

Dry post oak woodland.

This week’s destination for the WGNSS Botany Group outing was St. Joe State Park, where the western portion of the Bicyle/Hiking Trail runs along a prime example of dry post oak woodland. Such woodlands were common in Missouri during pre-settlement times but have been largely eliminated from the present-day landscape due to incompatible land management practices, including fire suppression. Post oak woodlands depend upon periodic fires to maintain an open canopy, allowing a rich ground layer of native grasses and forbs to flourish in the abundant sunlight. In pre-settlement times, this happened naturally as a result of lightning strikes; however, remnant post oak woodlands exist today largely as a result of active landscape management including the use of prescribed burns and selective thinning. Evidence of these practices was easy to find in this remarkably restored example of an original post oak woodland.

Prescribed burns help to maintain an open canopy and a rich herbaceous ground layer.
Selective girdling optimizes species composition while minimizing ground layer disturbance.

At the end of January, there is still a lot of winter left to endure—far too early to be thinking about the still-distant-spring even at our “middlin’ latitudes.” Nevertheless, even at this early date, the buds of Ulmus rubra (slippery elm) are noticeably swollen. (I’ve always felt “slippery” was a misnomer for this species. I know it refers to the slippery texture of the inner bark when chewed, but the leaves are rough, and the twigs are rough, and the buds are rough as well—and who even does that [chews the inner bark] anymore?!) It is this roughness to the leaves that most easily distinguishes U. rubra from the similar U. americana (American elm), but during winter it’s fuzzy, rusty-red buds provide the clue instead. If one has a pocketknife, a slice into the bark to look for alternating light/dark layers (the absence of which signifies U. rubra) can also be used.

Ulmus rubra (slippery elm).

The rich ground layer of a post oak woodland dazzles during spring and summer, the temporal sequence of floral displays belying the diversity that produces it. This diversity does not disappear during the winter, nor does the evidence of it—it merely expresses itself in different form. To recognize the plants that are there, one must train their eyes to see these different versions of them. Bright yellow flowers are replaced by dry seed boxes… fleshy green leaves with purple ball inflorescences are replaced by naked stems with dehiscent pods… delicate white petals are replaced by prickly pods. The ability to recognize the elements of a landscape at any moment—not just at their most beautiful—makes it easier to enjoy the landscape itself at any moment. Following are some of the plants we saw, no doubt distinctive when in bloom, but also recognizable when not if one knows what to look for.

Dasistoma macrophylla (mullein foxglove).
Anemone virginiana (tall thimbleweed).
Manfreda virginica (formerly Aloe virginica—false aloe, rattlesnake master, Virginia agave).
Dioscorea villosa (wolf yam).
Asclepias purpurascens (purple milkweed).

During the previous week’s outing at Hawn State Park, the group spent a fair amount of time distinguishing Missouri’s five species of Betulaceae—all of which can be found growing together along the banks of Pickle Creek. One is not likely to see three of them along the margins of a dry post oak woodland, but the two remaining—Corylus americana (American hazelnut) and Ostrya virginiana (American hop hornbeam), both much more tolerant of drier situations—were seen in abundance. These two species also happen to be the two that are most often confused with each other—especially during winter, giving the group another opportunity to study their subtle differences. Both develop male catkins during the winter, but those of C. americana tend to be larger, lighter in color, and frequently occurring singly along the branch. The winter twigs are a bit more distinctive—with tiny hairs and rounded buds in the former, versus hairless with pointed buds in the latter. Of course, of the two, only O. virginiana produces the distinctive hops-like fruits that often persist into the winter, so their presence immediately identifies any plant possessing them.

Corylus americana (American hazelnut) (L) versus Ostrya virginiana (American hophornbeam) (R) – male catkins.
Corylus americana (American hazelnut) (L) versus Ostrya virginiana (American hophornbeam) (R) – winter buds.
Ostrya virginiana (American hophornbeam) (R) – last season’s fruit.

Direct comparisons of winter twigs proves to be a useful identification technique for other similar species pairs—even those in the same genus. Acer saccharum (sugar maple) and A. rubrum (red maple) often grow in close proximity and are similar enough to be frequently confused. When twigs of the two are placed next to each other, however, the differences are apparent. Color alone—A. rubrum usually exhibiting a reddish tinge to the twigs and buds—is not always diagnostic, and both species have what could be called pointed buds. Touch the tips, however—the buds of A. saccharum are sharp enough to prick the finger, while those of A. rubrum are blunted just enough to avoid feeling the prick.

Acer saccharinum (sugar maple) (L) versus Acer rubrum (red maple) (R) – winter buds.

Along the length of the trail, I noted an abundance of dry, persistent flower stalks of Hydrangea arborescens (American hydrangea) colonizing the bordering rock ledges. Normally found in moist (and frequently inaccessible) situations, its presence in a dry post oak woodland suggests drainage through the layers of dolomite underneath the woodland reaches the surface in these exposed toe-slopes, keeping them persistently moist. While the promised floral display in June is reason enough to return, my interest in woodboring beetles provides additional motivation, as its flowers are a favorite of a diverse group of woodboring beetles call flower longhorns (subfamily Lepturinae)—some of which having been associated only with this plant. Time to mark the calendar!

Members of the WGNSS Botany Group (L–R): Keith Woodyard, Eileen & Tom Buescher, Alan Brandt (hidden), John Oliver, Kathy Thiele (hidden), Burt Noll, Michael Laschober, Pete Kozich.

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2022

Botanizing at Hawn State Park

Pinus echinata (shortleaf pine) woodland at Hawn State Park.

Nestled in the northern foothills of the St. Francois Mountains lies one of Missouri’s most remarkable of places—Hawn State Park. I have written about this place on several occasions and visited even more often, yet I never tire of exploring its sandstone canyons, rhyolite shut-ins, and stately pine forests. As such, I was happy to see it as the selected destination for the WGNSS Botany Group Monday Walk.

A partially frozen Pickle Creek meanders through Hawn State Park.

It was a chilly winter morning when the group met at the picnic area parking lot, and after a bit of discussion to orient ourselves on the plants we might see, we crossed the foot bridge over Pickle Creek to explore the habitats off the Whispering Pines Trail. Almost immediately (in fact, even before completely crossing the bridge), we noticed Alnus serrulata (smooth alder) lining the edges of the creek banks. Unlike many trees, A. serrulata is easy to recognize during winter by virtue of its persistent female cones and newly-formed male catkins. Alnus serrulata is one of five species in Missouri belonging to the family Betulaceae—all five of which occur together here in Hawn State Park (and, in fact, can be found within feet of each other). In the case of this species, the female cones are unique, the male catkins are green and red and occur during winter in clumps, and the winter buds are red with two scales.

Alnus serrulata (smooth alder) – persistent female cones.
Alnus serrulata (smooth alder) – newly-emerged male catkins.
Alnus serrulata (smooth alder) – winter buds.

Immediately after crossing the bridge, we saw the second betulaceous species on slightly higher ground—Corylus americana (American hazelnut). Like A. serrulata, this species is usually a small tree, but it lacks the persistent cones during winter, has more brownish male catkins that may be clumped, especially at the branch tips, but also tend to occur singly along the length of the branch, and has brownish, rounded winter buds and noticeably fuzzy twigs.

Corylus americana (American hazelnut) – male catkins.
Corylus americana (American hazelnut) – winter bud.
Corylus americana (American hazelnut) – male catkins.

Entering the mixed pine-oak forest (and pondering Fr. Sullivan’s oak ID quiz—which turned out to be Quercus coccinea, or scarlet oak), Kathy noticed the persistent fruiting stalks of one of our native terrestrial orchids—Goodyera pubescens (downy rattlesnake plantain). Normally, this orchid is noticed during winter by virtue of its striking white-veined green leaves, but in this case they were completely hidden under leaf litter. Had it not been for the fruiting stalk, we would never have noticed its presence. Hawn State Park has a healthy population of these orchids, and hopefully the fruits of this individual will bear an abundance of its tiny (spore-sized) seeds.

Goodyera pubescens (downy rattlesnake plantain) – last season’s fruiting stalk.

Continuing our off-trail bushwhacking, we eventually reached a series of sandstone canyons that promised not only spectacular ice formations from their constant moisture drip, but the potential for seeing plants that rely on the cool, shaded, moist, acidic nooks and crannies they offer.

Sandstone ledges.

Two fern species were seen. The first was Asplenium platyneuron (ebony spleenwort)—not uncommon and distinguished by the dark, reddish-brown, glossy stipe and rachis (on fertile fronds) with simple pinnate leaves and alternately-arranged leaflets with a basal auricle (ear-lobe). Two columns of elongated sori (spore-bearing structures) oriented diagonally to the central veins can be found on their lower surface of the leaflets. Dryopteris marginalis (marginal wood fern) was also found on the sandstone ledges. This fern is most easily identified by the location of its sori on fertile fronds, which occur along the margins of its subleaflets (some other less common species will have the sori placed more interiorly).

Asplenium platyneuron (ebony spleenwort) – lower leaf surface of fertile frond.
Dryopteris marginalis (marginal wood fern) – lower leaves of fertile frond.
Dryopteris marginalis (marginal wood fern) – lower surface of lower leaves of fertile frond.

The most exciting find on the sandstone ledges was Mitchella repens (partridge berry). This member of the Rubiaceae (same family as coffee) is characteristic of sandstone canyons and ledges and occurs in Missouri only in a few counties in the southeastern part of the state where this habitat exists. The plant is unmistakable and easily identified, especially when in fruit. Interestingly, each of its bright red berries is actually a fusion of two fruits, as evidenced by the pair of minute, persistent calyces at the tip.

Mitchella repens (partridge berry).
Mitchella repens (partridge berry) – fruit showing paired calyces.

Back on-trail, the group focused on identifying the many different tree species along the trail (Quercus coccinea was dominant). One small “tree” had us stumped, however, it’s giant terminal bud with small lateral buds clustered nearby seemingly suggesting oak—until we noted the curious whorl at the branch node and, on a subsequently-seen individual, persistent fruit capsules that immediately identified it as Rhododendron prinophyllum (early azalea). Another lover of acidic pine woodlands, this species is restricted in Missouri to high-quality habitats in the Ozark Plateau, and Hawn State Park has some of the finest populations to be found.

Rhododendron prinophyllum (early azalea) – winter bud.
Rhododendron prinophyllum (early azalea) – branch node.
Rhododendron prinophyllum (early azalea) – last season’s fruiting capsules.

As the group ascended the trail and began pondering whether to turn around, the characteristic leaves of a small saxifrage were seen at the base of an oak tree. Micranthes virginiensis (early saxifrage, Virginia saxifrage) shows a preference for rocky acid soils and reaches the western limit of its distribution in Missouri, where it is limited to a few counties in the Ozarks. A similar but much smaller species, Micranthes texana (Texas saxifrage) can be found in sandstone glades in western Missouri.

Micranthes virginiensis (early saxifrage, Virginia saxifrage).
Micranthes virginiensis (early saxifrage, Virginia saxifrage) – last season’s fruiting stalk.

Returning to Pickle Creek, the group focused on the remaining three species of Betulaceae found in Missouri—and Hawn State Park, all growing in the immediate vicinity of the foot bridge. The three species—Betula nigra (river birch), Carpinus caroliniana (American hornbeam, musclewood, blue beech), and Ostrya virginiana (American hophornbeam), all have numerous subtle characters that distinguish them from the other two members of the family (Alnus and Corylus), but in winter they are most easily recognized by their bark. The flaky, peeling, cinnamon-brown bark of B. nigra is the most distinctive and cannot be mistaken for anything else. This contrasts completely with the smooth, gray, sinuous look of C. caroliniana (which I can’t help but stroke whenever I see it—should I be admitting that!?). In between is the rough, shredded, brownish appearance of O. virginiana (which is further distinguished from C. americana by its pointed rather than rounded buds).

Betula nigra (river birch) – bark.
Carpinus caroliniana (American hornbeam, musclewood, blue beech) – bark.
Ostrya virginiana (American hophornbeam) – bark.

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2022

Botanizing Babler State Park

After missing a week due to inclement weather, the WGNSS Botany Group resumed their weekly Monday walk schedule with a visit to nearby Babler State Park in western St. Louis Co. One of the larger of Missouri’s state parks at nearly 2500 acres, it was initially made possible through the generosity of the family of St. Louis surgeon Edmond A. Babler nearly 100 years ago—barely 20 years after the State Park System was created. For this outing, the group walked the Virginia Day Memorial Nature Trail.

Members of the WGNSS Botany Group (L–R): Rich Thoma, Tom Buescher, Michael Laschober, George Van Brunt, Jennifer Judd, and John Oliver.

The dead of winter in an exurban park can be a challenging situation for seeing unusual plants. In such cases, one is often better served by looking more closely at the familiar to sharpen ID skills and improve ability to identify plants at any stage of growth rather than only when good characters are visible. An example of this with the red oaks. In our area, Quercus shumardii (Shumard’s oak) and Quercus velutina (black oak) are among the most commonly occurring red oaks in our generally dry-mesic upland deciduous forests. They can, however, be difficult to distinguish from one another, as both have highly variable leaves that differ most reliably in subtle characters of pubescence on the lower leaf surface. Without a microscope or strong hand lens, one must often resort to examining many leaves and deciding with which form the preponderance agree.

Quercus shumardii is perhaps the more commonly encountered of the two in our area and exhibits almost no habitat fidelity. It can be found not only in dry, rocky upland woods and borders of glades, but also in valleys and along banks of larger streams and river bottoms. So different in appearance are trees found in the driest situations (e.g., along the margins of glades) from those occurring in moister situations that it is difficult to believe they are the same species. Nevertheless, it can usually be distinguished by the apically flaring leaf lobes. During winter, leaves may be harder to come by, and the small, cone-shaped, brown buds are admittedly nondescript. Basically, in a woods dominated by the two species, Q. shumardii is distinguished by the fact that its buds are anything but the highly distinctive buds of Q. velutina!

Quercus shumardii (Shumard’s oak) – winter buds.

On the other hand, Q. velutina lacks the tolerance for both the very wet and very dry situations that Q. shumardii can handle. In Missouri—at the western limit of its distribution, it is most often found on north or east facing slopes where moisture is adequate but not excessive. Its leaves can be as variable as those of Q. shumardii (although not presenting in distinct forms depending on habitat), but its buds could not be more distinctive—large, distinctly 5-angled, and covered with gray pubescence. In winter, fallen branches are immediately recognizable due to the conspicuousness of the terminal bud clusters.

Quercus velutina (black oak) – winter buds.
Quercus velutina (black oak) – winter buds.

The day was not spent completely focused on winter tree buds—some greenery was seen in the richer, moister low areas along the trail in the form of Aplectrum hyemale (putty root, Adam and Eve orchid). These plants are far more commonly observed during winter than summer due to the appearance then of their distinctive pinstriped, pleated single basal leaf—oftentimes the only green thing present. The leaves disappear in spring, replaced by the much less conspicuous flower stalks.

Aplectrum hyemale (putty root, Adam and Eve orchid).

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2022

Botanizing at Elephant Rocks State Park

Granite “elephants” at Elephant Rocks State Park.

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

Granite boulder-strewn dry-mesic upland deciduous forest.

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

Nyssa sylvatica (black gum) winter buds.

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

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

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

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

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

Lonicera sempervirens (trumpet honeysuckle) fruits.

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

Symphoricarpos orbiculatus (coralberry) fruits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chilocorus stigma (twice-stabbed ladybird beetle).

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021

Hughes Mountain redux

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

Devil’s Honeycomb, summit of Hughes Mountain.

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

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

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

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

Acer rubrum (red maple).

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

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

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

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

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

Rhus aromatica (fragrant sumac).

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

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

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

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

©️ Ted C. MacRae 2021