Honestly, when I first heard about this project I was a little salty, since I struggle finding time in the day to eat, much less take several hours out of my jam-packed schedule to go on a hike and look for trees. But on Labor Day, my fiancé and I set aside a day to hang out together, and I was able to convince him to go on a morning walk with me through Emily Traphagen Park in Delaware County, and I am remiss we didn’t do it sooner. It’s regrettable that between both of our schedules it’ll be a struggle to find another day we can do it again – but that’s enough of my personal problems here.
Emily Traphagen Park was not at all what I expected, with a surprisingly short drive putting us back in the thick of the woods. There’s a wide plain by the parking lot, filled with screaming children on the playground and a gazebo with plenty of picnic seating and places for grillouts, even! There’s only one trail that disappears further back into the foliage, but as you can see on the map below, it branches off into two huge circular paths, with no shortage of things to see.
Writing this now, I’m realizing I should have gotten pictures of their life-sized dinosaur mockups they had hanging in the trees (I learned a lot about the Allosaurus on our walk), but alas, hindsight is 20/20.
We’re here to talk about plants. Specifically, some of the flora found at the aforementioned Emily Traphagen Park, and even more specifically: two trees, two shrubs or woody vines, two flowering plants, and one poison ivy.
We’ll start with something easily distinguishable (and hopefully, easily avoidable!): poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).
Poison ivy is a common sight in most wooded areas, and Emily Traphagen is no exception. With its climbing tendrils and hair-like roots that attach it to the tree, feeding off the tree’s hard work and livelihood, it’s not uncommon to see it branching so heavily off a tree it almost appears like the tree’s leaves are poison ivy. According to the CDC, when the leaves, branches, stems, or roots of poison ivy are damaged, bruised, etc., the plant releases an oil called urushiol that interacts with skin, causing an allergic reaction that can lead to rashes, bumps, and blisters. In some people who react more strongly than others, it can even cause reactions as serious as anaphylactic shock and require hospitalization.
It can be difficult to avoid when working in the woods and brush. The urushiol can be rubbed off onto tools, clothing, and pet hair before being transferred to your skin. Burning the stupid stuff doesn’t even work, because the urushiol can even be inhaled and cause a reaction internally! Urushiol is so potent that as little as a quarter of an ounce of the stuff is enough to cause a rash on every person on Earth, and the amount that would coat the head of a pin could be rubbed off on as many as 500 people before it loses its potency (source). What a terrible plant – and it’s not even the worst! Poison sumac is far more potent than poison ivy! I’d hate to be the scientist(s) who figured that one out.
I need a shower now. Let’s look at a far less threatening plant. The American beech, Fagus grandifolia.
The American beech is extremely drought sensitive but also likes well-drained soils, making it a common sight on slopes near rivers, creeks, streams, lakes, dams, and watersheds. The specific epithet (that is, the second part of the scientific name), literally means “large-leaved”, referring to its broad, oval shaped leaves that prefer full sunlight and create a lot of shade in the understory. The beech is monoecious, meaning it produces both male and female flowers, with the latter very visually distinct from the former.
It can grow anywhere from 50′-80′ tall, rarely noted as high as 120′, and can spread its branches about 40′ in diameter, making it a popular shade tree in large yards and public recreation spaces. The beech is very important for wildlife, as the beechnuts ripen in the fall and are a popular food among birds and rodents, like squirrels and chipmunks, alike. According to the Missouri Botanical Gardens website, the beech doesn’t have to worry much about disease, although beech scale – a tiny bug that causes beech bark disease – can definitely be a threat to older trees.
I wish I could have gotten a better picture of the foliage, but as we’ll talk about, the shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) can get wicked tall before it begins to branch, making it popular for wood-cutting but difficult to identify by leaf for students.
Despite only being able to see the bark on this tree (even zooming in as far as my phone camera would allow showed no details on the foliage in the canopy), it was a fairly easy identification. No other tree native to this area has this distinct bark that peels from the top and bottom in long, thin strips. This is a smaller, younger tree, and on older specimens the “shagginess” will be much heavier and far more distinct.
Since branches don’t sprout off the trunk of the tree until the top 1/3 or even 1/4 of the tree’s height, it’s extremely popular for use in lumber, since less work has to be done to shave limbs off the trunk, and this isn’t even acknowledging the tough, heavy wood that’s very good for use in things like furniture and tool handles. In fact, Andrew Jackson, the seventh United States president, was nicknamed ‘Old Hickory’ for his strength, a direct reference to the hardiness of the tree and the sturdiness of its lumber.
A source I didn’t expect to find on this tree, the National Wildlife Federation, talks at length about the hickory’s uses to wildlife. In older trees where the bark flakes off in much wider plates, small mammals like the Indiana bat like to make their homes in the tight crevasses it creates, weaseling in there where they are safe from the majority of predators and the elements. They are usually found scattered about in forests with other varied selections of trees, like oaks and maples.
At first glance, I thought this flower was a Queen Anne’s lace, but upon further searching, I discovered it was a close look-alike, the white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), a member of the family Asteraceae (Queen Anne’s lace is family Apiaceae).
Each stem terminates in anywhere from 10-30 flowers, with distinctive bright white corollas and stamens. In the fall, the flowers turn to achenes that are distributed by the wind. This plant thrives in partial sun, partial shade climates with well-drained soils, making it a staple along water’s edges in the understory.
The snakeroot attracts many insects, including bees like leaf-cutter bees that help spread their pollen. The caterpillars of some moths are known to feed on the foliage of closely-related species, and it’s speculated that they also feed just as heavily on the snakeroot, although it’s only been occasionally documented. For mammals, however, the foliage of the snakeroot is very bitter and toxic, which leads many mammals to avoid it like the plague (is it too soon to make that joke?). In fact, if it grows wild in cow pastures, it can lead to death by toxicity in our big bovine friends (source). Definitely something to keep an eye on, to make sure it doesn’t grow too rampant along your fence lines, where it likes to thrive.
The spotted touch-me-not (Impatiens campensis) caught my eye the second I saw it on the side of the path, growing rib-high in the direct sunlight in a gap between the trees.
Learning the name was more than a little concerning, considering I had touched it quite a bit, but the name comes from the fact that when the seed pods are ripe, they’re apt to explode and scatter the seeds in all directions when they’re touched! Good to know it’s just a scare factor that inspires the name and not like poison ivy – “touch me not or you’ll regret it”. Listen, I’m not good at coming up with catchphrases.
This flower is crucially important for the Ruby-throated hummingbird! According to Wild Adirondacks, the nectar from the spotted touch-me-not makes up as much as 5-10% of the hummingbird’s diet. The special shape of the flowers makes them a perfect vessel for the hummingbird’s uniquely-shaped beak. Past the little hummingbird, other animals like the ruffled grouse and chipmunks will feed on the seeds, while larger mammals like deer are reported to eat the foliage, although studies show they’re more choices of opportunity than a staple of their diets.
A very common sprawling shrub sight, not just in this park but in a lot of backyards and natural patches, is the flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), easily identifiable out of flower by the bright red berries that cluster where the leaves meet the branches.
The specific epithet of the flowering dogwood comes from the Latin flos, referencing their brilliant, distinctive late-spring white foliage, where these shrubs stick out like sore thumbs on every roadside and treeline while the trees backing them are just coming back into full leaf. They bloom slightly after but barely overlapping the redbud, and together they dot the landscape with much needed splashes of color in April, after the cold, barren winter finally releases its grip.
In full flower, they attract a lot of butterflies to their nectar- and pollen-heavy blooms, and in fruit, they’re a great food source for a lot of birds, since they produce fruit throughout most of the growing season. They’re unfortunately susceptible to a number of diseases, especially in high-stress environments, such as dogwood anthracnose (responsible for the devastation of numerous dogwood plants), as well as being high-value targets for borers (source).
The last specimen I found was not one I had expected or even intended to find, and I had another shrub saved for this spot, but the heavy fruiting on this riverbank grape (Vitis riparia) was so exciting to see that I could not walk past it.
It’s rare to see a riverbank grapevine in such heavy fruit this late in the season, when they’re almost always the first plants picked clean by deer and birds. This vine was wrapped tightly around the tree it dangled from, and I had to jump to reach them, so I’m thinking they were just a little too high for the layman (lay-skunk?) to reach without substantial effort.
The riverbank grape is a woody perennial vine that can grow up to 50′ long! The grape prefers full sun and mostly dry conditions, which is likely why we found it on a stretch of path complemented by thickets of bulrushes and cattails, with very few overhead trees creating a canopy. In addition to providing food to animals like birds, foxes, bears, opossums, and skunks (and the average forager) with their juicy grapes, a plethora of bugs, notably the Sphynx moth caterpillar, feed on its foliage. Rabbits and deer will also feed on their stems and foliage (source).
Although this was my first trip to Emily Traphagen, this assignment notwithstanding I absolutely plan on returning again. It was a gorgeous place to visit, and as someone who grew up in the country and then moved from the middle of nowhere into the heart of Columbus, getting the chance to be back in the woods away from the constant hustle and bustle of the city was refreshing. It was something I wasn’t aware I had missed so much until I had it again.
Botanical Survey II
They took the dinosaur mockups down between trips, which makes me disappointed since I didn’t get a chance to take some photos.
- black walnut – 5
- honeylocust – 4
- riverbank grape – 3
- poison ivy – 1
- Amur honeysuckle – n/a
- shagbark hickory – 6
- flowering dogwood – 5
- American beech – 7
- catalpa – n/a
- blackhaw – 4
- sugar maple – 5
- slippery elm – 3
- northern spicebush – 5
- white oak – 6
- red oak – 6
- bigleaf maple – n/a
- field maple – n/a
- red huckleberry – 6
- black raspberry – 1
- American sycamore – 7
- common blue wood aster – 4
- moonseed – 5
- blue ash – 7
- false turkey-tail – n/a
- greater burdock – n/a
- common bonnet – n/a
- tall goldenrod – 3
- prickly ash – 3
- shaggy mane – n/a
- Canada clearweed – 2
- New England aster – 2
- spotted joe-pye weed – 6
- creeping thistle – n/a
- pale purple coneflower – 6
- narrowleaf sunflower – n/a
- Canada goldenrod – 1
- bush honeysuckle – 7
- calico aster – 2
- shady horsetail – n/a
- eastern cottonwood – 3
- tulip tree – 6
- winterberry holly – 6
- eastern redbud – 3
- roundleaf greenbrier – n/a
- multiflora rose – n/a
FQAI: sum of all native CC / n of native plants
140/(sqrt(32)) = 24.75 FQAI score
- America beech – 7
- American sycamore – 7
- bush honeysuckle – 7
- blue ash – 7
These plants have high CC values due to their apparent pickiness when it comes to locations they will grow. For example, the American beech, Fagus grandifolia, does best in slightly acidic (but not too acidic), well drained, moist soils. Too much water too constantly will kill the roots, but they do require a significant amount of constant moisture to thrive. This is why they’re found near bodies of water, such as creeks and ponds, but not so close that their roots will flood. They can grow anywhere that has full sun to partial shade, but in heavy shade they won’t grow as successfully, so they must find an opening in the overstory to take over. These specific requirements is why the beech, along with these other trees, has such a high CC value compared to other plants on the list.
- poison ivy – 1
- Canada goldenrod – 1
- black raspberry – 1
- Canada clearweed – 2
Plants with low CC values are far less picky, if picky at all, about where their roots choose to grow and can thrive. A great example of this is poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans, which has successfully adapted to almost any kind of environment that nature can throw at it. It can thrive in full sun to partial shade, savannahs to woodlands, deep woods to fencerows and roadsides, and even the soil composition hardly bothers it – it can grow and thrive just as easily in dry, impoverished soils as it can in moist, nutrient-rich substrates. Plants that are very common are often the species with the low CC values, since they can thrive in any environment they’re dropped into.
- Amur honeysuckle, Lonicera maackii – Arguably one of the most readily identifiable invasive plants in North America, the Amur honeysuckle was originally introduced as an ornamental plant. It was then planted for wildlife cover and erosion control (due to the wide, reaching arms and heavy rooting, respectively), but very quickly the population escaped management and exploded out of control. It is adapted to almost any environmental conditions, from sun to deep shade, thriving in wet or dry soil. It can force other plants out, as it can form dense thickets that will choke all the sunlight from the area and kill shade-intolerant plants. Interestingly, the American robin has been observed commonly using the honeysuckle as a nesting site, which makes their nests, eggs, and young more susceptible to predation by snakes. The fruits are rich in carbohydrates and can provide some nutrients to wildlife during winter, but they do not compare to native fruits high in lipids (a far better source of energy) that most migrating species will overlook in favor of the honeysuckle, which as one can imagine can cause dietary problems (source).
- Greater burdock, Arctium lappa – Burdock is one of the plants that produce burrs that stick to anything they come into even the slightest contact with, which is both understandable since that is its main way of distribution, and obnoxious to deal with, since the burrs have a tendency to all but dissolve on contact, making them difficult to remove. In fact, sheep’s wool that has burdock burrs stuck in it can be heavily devalued due to the difficulty of dealing with them. In their native ranges, burdock has several uses as homeopathic remedies and are of medicinal value. The leaves can be brewed into a tea that can help support the liver, but it is bitter and not very palatable. It is also useful in reducing swelling and soothing aching joints (source).
- Roundleaf greenbrier, Smilax rotundifolia – One of the interesting things about roundleaf greenbrier is that it is native to the United States, but only the southeast and eastern US. In the northeastern states, it’s listed as “noxious and invasive”, since most of the plants that thrive in the northeastern part of the country are not adapted to deal with the greenbrier. It thrives in old-growth stands, but is also a common sight in shady understories or in moist, well-draining areas. It is important for wildlife, as many species of not only terrestrial animals but birds will feast heavily on their berries. The tight, tangling capabilities of these thorny vines can create dense thickets that are ideal cover for small animals like chipmunks and mice. Every part of the plant is apparently palatable to white-tailed deer, as they will graze on it heavily. It’s difficult to manage, since most greenbriers (Smilax spp.) are extremely tolerant to herbicides (source).
- Multiflora rose, Rosa multiflora – Introduced in the 1860s, it was widely cultivated as an ornamental plant and used in rose breeding programs since it was so prolific. By the 1930s it was being planted widely for erosion control programs, wildlife habitat enhancement, and as a “natural fence” for farm animals since it grows so densely, all of this done at the behest of the USDA. Uses then turned to a natural crash barrier on highways and continued use as wildlife cover for animals like rabbits, bobwhites, and pheasants. By the time it was realized that it was a problem plant, it had been spread so widely that it was almost impossible to regain control of again, and it has run rampant since. A single plant can produce as many as 500,000 seeds per year, and seeds can remain viable in the soil for anywhere from 10-20 years, making it next to impossible to completely remove from areas it has invaded (source).
- American beech, Fagus grandifolia – One of the quickest ways to identify an American beech in the wild is by its terminal bud – the bud on the end of most branches or twigs – since it is dark, sharp, and shaped like a cigar. The leaves are papery-thin, and the bark is smooth and gray. Beeches are actually one of the most common trees for teenagers to carve names into, since the thin, smooth bark provides an easily scratchable surface. The beech does best in slightly acidic (but not too acidic), well drained, moist soils. Southeastern Ohio is extremely acidic in the sandstone hills, which makes sense as to why it is most common on limestone slopes of western Ohio, where the soil does not regularly hold as much water.
- Sugar maple, Acer saccharum – Sugar maple does not grow well on dry, shallow soils, but prefers well-drained loams of any variety, which is the biggest determinant of distribution. It is picky in western Ohio, preferring gently sloped areas that lend themselves to water runoff without completely drying the soil out. It is common over most of Ohio for this reason, picking the best sloping areas to plant its roots. I would not fully agree with Forsyth’s assignment of sugar maple to the limestone areas of Ohio, although she is not incorrect. Sugar maple has opposite, palmately veined leaves with five rounded shallow lobes, dark green on top but lighter on the underside. The twigs are brown, slender, and shiny, with wide, short, very sharp terminal buds. These are the trees used for maple syrup production!
- White oak, Quercus alba – Despite its name, the bark is usually a light to darker gray, very rarely white. The ‘white’ comes from the finished, polished wood, which is very light, almost white. It is tall, but the majority of its size comes laterally, as its branches spread wide and dominate any canopy it’s a part of. The leaves are lobed but only slightly, with rounded edges unlike the red oak. When new foliage grows in, it can be silvery-pink to a deep red, layered with fuzzy down. White oak is fairly tolerant of habitats, although it cannot tolerate high acidity soils. This is the main determinant of its distribution, as southeastern Ohio soils can become extremely acidic in most areas. Based on this alone, I would be inclined to agree with Forsyth’s classification of white oak’s distribution.
- Red oak, Quercus rubra – At a glance it can be hard to tell red oaks from white oaks, although one easily distinctifying feature is the bark. The bark of a red oak is ridged, with the peaks of the ridges being almost white, colloquially called “ski trails”. The leaves are deeper lobed than the white oak, with sharp points where Q. alba is rounded. Red oaks grow in most soils that are acidic, pH ranging from 4 to 7. It thrives on well-drained, moist loam; however, it is exalted for its tolerance to clay soils. All of this seems to point to the red oak doing better in southeastern Ohio than in western limey substrate, but if the roots are completely saturated for more than a few weeks during the growing season, it can be extremely detrimental to growth, which is likely why Forsyth classified it the way she did. I don’t know how much I would expect red oak to be exclusively limestone-substrate-bound, but I don’t wholly disagree.
(Geobotany, page 5)