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

“62nd” Annual “Season-Opener-Birthday-Bug-Collecting-Trip”

This past Tuesday was my birthday, and as I have done for my entire adult life I took the day off and went on my traditional “Season-Opener-Bug-Collecting-Trip”. In the past I’ve usually just had one friend go with me, but today I had three—Rich, Chris, and Bill!

We started off by heading south about 3½ hours to Tingler Prairie Natural Area in Howell Co.. I wanted to come here because: 1) it was a place I’d never visited before, and 2) there is a population here of the endemic Ozark trillium (Trillium viridescens) that I thought might be in bloom. Rain in the forecast and a patch of the real thing on the way down had us a little worried, but the day turned out spectacular with temps climbing to 80°F and skies partly to mostly sunny.

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Tingler Lake – the centerpiece of Tingler Prairie Natural Area.

We never did find the trillium—even calling another friend (Casey), who had seen them here before to find out exactly where he saw them. Turns out we hit the right spot, but apparently we were too early, especially given how late spring has been moving along this year. Nevertheless, we still found much to capture our interest, including a yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris)—too quick for photos—and a black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) that coiled up nicely under the end of a fallen log and tolerated my prodding and “cleaning” of the scene around him to get some good photos (albeit, only with the iPhone).

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Black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus).

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The “cloudy” eye is actually an artifact of the flash lighting reflected by the retina.

Unfortunately, insect activity was very light. We saw no tiger beetles and only the earliest spring forms of most other insects. I took about 10 specimens each of the early-spring jewel beetles Acmaeodera tubulus and Pachyschelus purpureus, which I found on flowers and foliage (respectively) of wild geranium, Geranium maculatum. It was the first time that I’d found the latter as abundant as this, so the series of specimens will be a welcome addition to my cabinet. I also took a couple of A. tubulus on a flower of violet wood sorrel, Oxalis violacea and showed the others the characteristic end of an oak twig pruned by a twig pruner (Anelaphus parallelus) larvae (and revealed the culprit for them to see). Despite the paucity of insects, it was a beautiful and high-quality spot, and I look forward to collecting here again sometime when the season is more advanced.

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Several adult Acmaeodera tubulus feeding on petals of wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) flowers.

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Twig pruner, Anelaphus parallelus, larva cut from its gallery near the base of a pruned oak twig.

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Revealing the culprit while Chris takes notes on some of the birds he’s been hearing.

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Redspotted purple butterfly, Limnetis arthemis astyanax (family Nymphalidae), caterpillar on black cherry (Prunus serotina), one of its favorite host plants. The caterpillar mimics bird droppings for protection.

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Fire pink, Silene virginica (family Caryophyllaceae) thrives on a dry, cherty hillside.

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Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum (family Berberidaceae) prefers the rich, more mesic hillsides (this is where we expected Trillium viridescens to occur).

After finishing up at Tingler Prairie, we drove east an hour and bushwhacked over rough Forest Service 2-track to Bald Hill Glade Natural Area in Ripley Co. It had been close to 10 years since my previous visit, but I remembered the roads well. We had to park, however, about a mile from the entrance to the glade due to fallen trees across the final stretch 2-track. The landscape had changed considerably since my last visit—gone was the dense, close forest lining the 2-track, and in its place stood open woodland brought to this condition by active management that included the use of prescribed burning apparently as recently as the past season.

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Dwarf iris (Iris cristata).

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These diminutive plants are distinguished from other members of the genus by their short stature and sepals with midline beards.

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Bald Knob Glade Natural Area.

After hoofing through the forest we reached the glade and found a beautiful—if somewhat sterile—scene before us. The recent burn included not only the woodland but also the glade itself, and no unburned refugia could be found anywhere. Floristically, this is beneficial for the glade, which needs periodic fire to prevent woody encroachment, but in my experience such burns also result in severely depressed insect populations for years afterwards. It takes time for the insects to find and recolonize the glade, and in this case the lack of unburned refugia will only increase the amount of time that will be needed for the insect populations to recover.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed our hike through the area, watched and listened to the calls and songs of a number of cool birds, including summer tanagers, indigo buntings, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and—a first for me—the splendidly yellow prairie warbler. We also took photographs of the glade and some of its plants (with the big camera), and on the way back to the car we found several of the Polistes wasp-mimicking light flies, Pyrgota undata (family Pyrgotidae). Interestingly, all were mating pairs, and the ones we observed closely (as we photographed them with the big camera) were engaged in a most curious “French kissing” behavior. I can’t wait to read up more on this when I prepare to post the photos of this behavior.

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Widow’s cross (Sedum pulchellum).

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Me, Rich, Bill, and Chris.

Eventually, impending dusk signaled a close to the day, and after driving east another 1½ hours to have pizza dinner in Poplar Bluff we made the long drive back to St. Louis (arriving at my home at 12:30 a.m.!).

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

© Ted C. MacRae 2019

Blackjack oak “flower”

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This blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica) was found on one of southeastern Missouri’s finest sand prairie relicts a couple of weeks ago on my ‘Annual Birthday Season Opener Bug Collecting Trip.’ Growing near the edge of the prairie at the transition to dry sand forest (Nelson 1985), the arrays of soft, red, newly-expanding leaves at each branch tip had a distinctly floral quality to them. Of course, as with all oaks, the actual flowers of blackjack oak are much less conspicuous, with the staminate (male) flowers borne on drooping catkins, the pistillate (female) flowers on separate spikes on the branch, and pollination accomplished by wind.

Missouri is oak country – nearly a quarter of North America’s 90 oak species (Nixon 2009) occur naturally within the state. This high diversity is explained partly by Missouri’s ecotonal continental position – straddling the east-west transition from the great eastern deciduous forest to the western grasslands. The boundary between these two great biomes is a dynamic, ever-changing interdigitation of woodland, savanna, and prairie that ebbs and flows with the prevailing climatic conditions. Unlike the more mesic forests further east, these dry woodland habitats were often subjected to fire during presettlement times – to which oaks in general (and blackjack oak in particular) are supremely adapted with their thick bark and ability to resprout repeatedly after being burned or grazed back. Sadly, the suppression of these fires post-settlement has caused many of these unique, fire-mediated natural communities to shrink drastically amidst a choking growth of junipers (“cedars” ’round these parts), maples, and other fire-intolerant species. Only on publicly owned preserves and a few private parcels under progressive ownership (such as the sand prairie relict where this photograph was taken) is fire once again shaping the landscape.

Oaks are among my favorite trees, and among the oaks I have several favorites. White oak (Quercus alba) – tolerating many forest types but forming nearly pure stands in high-quality, mesic sites, its tall symmetrical crown, pale bark, and brilliant fall colors are unparalleled among Missouri’s other oaks. Post oak (Q. stellata) as well – lacking the elegance of white oak but achieving its greatest character in fire-adapted savannas and open woodlands as squat, gnarled, massively-trunked trees with broad, spreading crowns¹. Blackjack oak has none of these qualities, yet somehow, it is still one of my favorite Missouri oaks. Stunted and gnarled (‘scrub oak’ to some), it occurs mostly in sandstone and limestone glades, savannas and woodlands on dry, nutrient-poor soils that support few other tree species. The dark green of its tough, waxy (to limit the loss of water), pear-shaped leaves contrasts beautifully with its rough, blocky, almost black bark. Blackjack oak has virtually no timber value, although it is sometimes used for charcoal and firewood. Nevertheless, for me, it is almost an icon for the unique natural communities in Missouri in which it occurs – communities that face ever-increasing pressure from human and forest encroachment.

¹ Please refer to this lovely essay about post oaks in Missouri, by the talented Allison Vaughn.

REFERENCE:

Nelson, P. W. 1985. The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri. Missouri Natural Areas Committee, Jefferson City, 197 pp.

Nixon, J. C.  2009. Quercus in Flora of North America, Vol. 3.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Glades of Jefferson County

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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