Saturday, September 04, 2010

Striking Botanical Gold

This is my latest contribution to "Ohio Flora" a new blog all about the native and naturalized plants of Ohio.

An Ohio mega-rarity, Schoenoplectus smithii

Many of you know that I've spent the last seven years of my life as a botanist for the ODNR Division of Natural Areas and Preserves.  I didn't start out that way.  Initially I thought I knew quite a bit about Ohio's flora, but I was quickly humbled by the knowledge of people like Jim McCormac, Greg Schneider, and Rick Gardner.  I really do remember one of the first days out in the field when Greg explained to me the basic differences between a grass and a sedge.  I've come a long way.

That brings us to last week, where I had perhaps my best discovery yet.  This summer I've been finishing out a grant as an employee of the Division of Wildlife since the demise of Natural Areas and Preserves as a stand-alone division this past June.  I decided to head up to Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve to see if I could find the elusive Potentilla paradoxa (state endangered) or perhaps Sagitarria cuneata, (state threatened).

I was skunked with those two species, but on the last mudflat I examined, I struck botanical gold.  My partners dropped me off at a small island near the mouth of the marsh.  I've visited the mudflat surrounding the island several times, but today, something caught my eye.  Like a bit gleaming precious metal, one grass-like plant stood out above the carpet of spikerushes and water purslane.

Mudflat at Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve
Below me was a bulrush, but unlike the much more common and large species like Softstem bulrush (Schoenoplectus taebernaemontani) or common threesquare (Schoenoplectus pungens), this plant was miniature.  Its green culms (stems) weren't much longer than a robust blunt spikerush (Eleocharis compressa) but instead of having a terminal inflorescence (flower head), the spikes were lateral, with long bracts above the spikes (a group of sedge flowers).

Immediately I knew this was something REALLY cool.  The first instinct of a professional botanist is to pick the plant to examine it in the hand.  It's a horrible habit.  I've tried to train my brain to stop and think before I pick something that I just found that I'm super excited about.  Fortunately, that gear kicked in and I began to look for more plants without any luck.  Only one clump!  Ugh....what to do?  Without a specimen, I wouldn't be able to identify it.  I carefully pried loose three culms from the mud, leaving eight intact.  I was super excited, not really knowing what I found, but also realizing that it was probably something really cool.  I have been studying the flora of the Lake Erie Coast for almost five years, but had never seen anything quite like what I had just collected.

Back at the office, I "Googled" the online edition of Volume 23 of the Flora of North America- the volume that treats the sedge family.  Fortunately for me, there are only a handful of Scheonoplectus species in Ohio, so I quickly narrowed down my specimen to one of two things- Pursh's bulrush (Schoenoplectus purshianus) and Smith's bulrush (Schoenoplectus smithii).  A look at a seed underneath the dissecting microscope, and the fact that the bract above the inflorescence made me believe this was indeed Smith's bulrush.  This state endangered species was last seen along the Lake Erie Coast in 1988 and is known from only one other modern location in Ohio.

I sent a few photos to Rick Gardner and Dan Boone, who had had last observed this plant in Ohio in 2006.  Dan called that afternoon and said "Tom, you've got Smithii".  But there was only one problem- I only found one plant at Sheldon Marsh.  Smith's bulrush is an annual that produces thousands of seeds. The seeds are incorporated into the soil, lying in wait for decades until the right conditions to return once again.  I had found only one plant, so my find could just be a meaningless waif.  I needed to find more.

So I decided to check out the last place where it had been observed- East Harbor State Park.  Dr. Ron Stuckey had documented two plants, yes, only two plants in 1988.  Perhaps it had returned to East Harbor this year as well?

After walking the mile and a half to the location where he collected  it along a rip-rap wall, I found what I was expecting- the habitat was gone-no mudflats, just the open water of a deep boating channel.  I wasn't ready to give up though. There was still one more place I needed to look- a deep water pond and mudlflats of an experimental wetland right near the parking lot.  I was expecting to see the state endangered Caribbean spikerush, (Eleocharis geniculata) growing there- I had observed it five years prior, but Smith's bulrush was not there then- would it be now?

After a few stops along the way where we found a few other state listed species, we finally set out to find the experimental wetland.  By this time, since I had found some other goodies- I was prepared to find the Caribbean spikerush, get into our nearby vehicle and drive off to our next spot.

When we arrived at the wetland, I saw great mudflats with tons of spikerushes.  My attention immediately turned to the rhizomatous red-footed spike-rush (Eleocharis erythropoda) and a really big weird thing that I hadn't seen before. Or at least I thought.  Carpeting the mudflats was the healthiest population of Caribbean spikerush I had seen.  I had known this species as micro plant with culms not much longer than an inch growing in dried out mud pools of abandoned limestone quarries.  But here on these mudflats, with optimal conditions, the clumps were downright huge, probably eight inches across.

It didn't take but a few more steps though, and the shiny botanical gold shined into my eyes once again.  A giant clump of Smith's bulrush was right at my feet! COOL!  It was such a satisfying moment- I had set out to find more of this plant, and right there at my feet was a robust clump.  I looked around with Chris Grimm, my botanical partner-in-crime this past August, and we just kept seeing more clumps- As we walked around the mudflat, no fewer that 75 Smith's bulrush were bursting from the mud.  How cool!

This past week has probably been my most satisfying week in seven years of botanizing around Ohio because of the Smith's bulrush find.  Only a handful of plants had ever been documented on Lake Erie's shore in the history of Ohio's botanical exploration, and I had found the mother-load.  In a week, years of searching for rare and unusual things in northern Ohio paid off right there in a mud puddle at East Harbor State Park.  I feel great about the work I've done- the hundreds of specimens that I have collected and processed, the thousands of miles I have driven across northern Ohio.  I certainly won't be retiring as a botanist, but this phase of my career will soon be ending.  I had the best job that I could ever ask for the past seven years.  But like all good things, it must come to an end, and I will look back with only fond memories- especially of a little bulrush named Smithii.



  1. Great story, Tom. Finds like that are really exciting.

  2. Awesome write up- so proud of you! :-)

  3. I love your passion. I'm so happy for you and so proud.

  4. A graminoid that only a naturalist could love... Good job, Tom.