Sunday, April 29, 2012

Forest Foray

I follow a winding country lane through newly green forest, slowing the pace of my car to a crawl and finally coasting to a dead stop at a wide spot in the road. Carefully checking the map one more time, I conclude that I have arrived at the starting point for my foray into the forest. Gathering my gear, I step out of the car and orient myself to the lay of the land: a forested ridge above forested slopes above forested valleys bordered by more forested ridges, slopes, and valleys in the Stephens State Forest of southern Iowa.  I have come today to search for rare plant species in stands selected for timber harvesting, part of an effort by the DNR Forestry Bureau to manage state forests in ways that maintain forest integrity and protect biological diversity.

Yellow Lady's-slipper

I have high hopes of finding special plants.  Two days earlier, I had been out in the woods with area manager Jessica Flatt as she guided me through another stand on the Forest when we encountered a beautiful clump of Yellow Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium calceolus).  We had "oohed and ahhed" over it and then discussed ways of modifying an upcoming timber harvest to maintain this uncommon orchid, illustrating the challenge of simultaneously managing a forest to benefit both shade-intolerant oaks and shade-tolerant wildflowers.  In this case, we will designate a small buffer area within the larger stand that will be avoided by the harvesting operation.  As an ecologist, its is a pleasure and honor for me to work with foresters like Jessica who conscientiously strive to manage forests for multiple benefits.

Showy Orchis

Now exploring another unit of Stephens Forest on my own, I hike slowly through the woods hoping I am indeed in the right place.  The footpath I am following peters out, so I now navigate with map, compass, and intuition. Near the bottom of a hillI spot trees marked with streaks of blue spray-paint, confirming that I have reached my destination.  I begin recording plant species and am pleased to find Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis); although not a rare plant, finding orchids is always a treat. In his guide to the native orchids of Iowa, botanist Bill Witt describes it as "an early to mid-successional species [which] tolerates disturbance and is often found blooming near trails and at the edges of recent clearings."  It will likely benefit from the increased sunlight and ground disturbance associated with the upcoming tree harvest.

Swamp Buttercup (top)
Lady Fern (bottom)
As I meander through the stand, shiny yellow petals glistening in dappled sunlight alert me to the presence of Swamp Buttercup (Ranunculus septentrionalis while neatly symmetrical fronds in shaded spots inform me that Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) lives here as well. Bright blue flowers of spiderwort seem to hover above the forest floor, their green stems and leaves blending with other verdant vegetation. Upon closer examination, I notice that these spiderwort flowers have hairy sepals; still closer examination with a hand magnifier reveals that the hairs are simple and non-glandular, narrowing its identity to Virginia Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana), a species whose range in the eastern United States extends westward into southeast Iowa, where is accordingly listed as a Species of Special Concern.

Virginia Spiderwort

Initially I cannot write names of new species as fast as I can walk, so must pause to catch up, but the pace of recording finally slows as I pass 50 species.  As I finish my inventory at the far end of the stand, one last species catches my eye just outside of the boundary: a mystery plant that I do not immediately recognize.  I recall a likely candidate, but need to confirm my suspicion, so I pull out my cell phone, take a photograph, and (luckily obtaining a weak signal in this remote and rugged locale) email it to my coworker Mark Leoschke in Des Moines.  I am delighted when Mark responds only a minute later and confirms my suspicion: it is False Hellebore (Veratrum woodii).

Mystery plant (above).
Blackberry cell phone (right),
used to transmit photo, request
help from remote coworker,
and receive ID of mystery plant.
Neat technology!
False Hellebore

This is an exciting find because False Hellebore, although common in Missouri and Illinois, is officially listed as a state-Threatened species in Iowa.  My discovery of it here on Stephens State Forest joins a growing list of sites across southern Iowa where is has also been recently discovered, suggesting the good news that it is not as rare as originally thought.  All of the plants in the small population I have found are vegetative and lack flowering stems from previous years, but according to the new Flora of Missouri this is typical of the species: "at many of the extant sites, the characteristic, broad, corrugated rosette leaves are produced in early spring, but few or none of the plants produce an inflorescence", also adding that "flowering in this species is sporadic, appearing to be promoted by fire."  I called Jessica on my cell phone to let her know the news and look forward to working with her to maintain this species - and all of the others! - as permanent members of the Stephens Forest flora.