If you’re driving from Michigan to Pittsburgh, you’ll probably go through Ohio. At least, that’s how the car-full of ecologists I was with did it. Some people might advise you to find some (any) way around it.
I had never been to Ohio before and was not particularly impressed from the highway, even though they have rest stops that seem like heaven compared to the dinky bathrooms and vending machines I remember from childhood trips up and down the east coast. Of course, Ohio doesn’t seem to have much else to look at – from the highway all I saw was flat, flat, flat land and and plants that do well in disturbed areas. Perhaps income from rest stops counts as their tourist trade?
After a few hours driving through Ohio, I was distinctly UN-excited about the ecology field trip our driver had planned. Luckily, I wasn’t in charge.
The Kitty Todd Nature Preserve is a very cool place to visit in the oak openings region of Ohio. When the Europeans first got to the area, they were pretty unimpressed with the sandy soil, but it turns out that while the poor soil and frequent fires only support sparse oaks, there are LOTS of gorgeous and unique herbaceous plants. There are some cool bugs and other critters, but you all know how I get distracted by plants.
Kitty Todd used to be a hog farm. Pigs do a number on most vegetation through all that rooting and wallowing, but perhaps the worst damage at Kitty Todd was due to their massive amounts of nutrient rich poop. The soils in the region are naturally quite poor and the native plants are NOT adapted to nutrient rich soils. So even after the hogs were gone, the native species couldn’t compete with the weeds and invasives. For awhile, no one had much hope for restoring Kitty Todd.
But then the gun club next door bulldozed a bunch of their sand into banks for shooting and, the next thing they knew, their land was being overrun with endangered oak openings species that had lain dormant for decades in the seed bank. The Kitty Todd land managers worked with the gun club to replicate the depth and type of bulldozing, and now they’ve (happily) got the same issue.
The first year they noticed establishment of a rare sundew species, they started a project to keep a count of each plant and it’s location on the preserve. Now you can’t tour the preserve without stepping on them they’re so numerous.
Sundews have a very fun adaptation to poor soils – they get many of their nutrients by catching and absorbing bugs with their numerous sticky hairs. When I looked very, very closely, I could see lots of little gnats stuck to the sundews. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of the feast.
We also got to see cardinal flowers, which, coincidentally, The Phytophactor recently wrote about. In addition to being a show-stopping red, cardinal flowers are bird pollinated. Specifically, they’re pollinated by the ruby-throated hummingbird. You’ll have to read The Phytophactor’s post for some of the more exciting details on the exact mechanism of pollination.
The flower that probably got the most “oohs” and “aaahs” was (surprise!) an orchid. Many people think that orchids are all tropical plants, but it’s actually hard to find a place without them. Though non-tropical orchids tend to be less showy, the orange fringed orchid is pretty spectacular.
Our tour guide told us that he’d seen more orchids this year than any other year he’d been at the preserve. He thought it had to do with the more typical Ohio winter they experienced last year – a kind of winter the orchid will see less and less of as climate change progresses. The orange fringed orchid is already endangered or threatened across much of its range – hopefully climate change won’t make it too much rarer.
Last year, an arsonist set fire to part of the preserve and burned over quite a few acres. Luckily, fire is normal and healthy for this ecosystem, though there is probably some optimal burn frequency. Blazing Stars in particular seem to really love fire – the bit of the burn site we walked through was covered with the purple flowers.