Plant Profiles: This ‘n’ That about Trees and Weeds- Pre-conference and post-conference field trips in conjunction with the 8th triennial meeting of the International Oak Society at the famed Morton Arboretum took us from some of the northernmost subtropical Cypress swamps to some of the southernmost boreal bogs.
Oaks in all their diversity were the main feature, of course. However, any lover of our natural heritage, even if only interested in birds, bees, weeds or reptiles would have been pleased with the great diversity encountered. The only disappointment was that even though promised – no snakes materialized and certainly no venomous ones. Oh well, you can’t have it all.
The reflections below are neither a complete travel log nor detailed accounts of species. They should provide the dear reader however with good reasons and regrets for not having participated in such a memorable tour.
The first stop was south of Anna on a narrow out of the way country road. From there we walked down a short distance on a deeply incised field lane. Before us loomed the giant trunk of a huge oak. Most everyone, regardless of age and physical condition clambered up the steep bank, hugged the tree and had their picture taken. Some 20 years ago this tree had come to the attention of Larry Mahan who then later published his book ‘In Search of Large Trees’. It was then described as a Black Oak (Quercus velutina), based on the judgment of several recognized botanical experts. Turns out it is really a Southern Red Oak (Quercus shumardii). (Such ‘misidentification’ makes us lesser botanical lights feel better.) This lonely tree is the largest of its kind world wide. Wow. Nearby were numerous Chinkapin Oaks. Under their canopy along the roadside ditch a few Wild Ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum) still reflected the color of the sky on this beautiful fall day. What might the original forest here have looked like two centuries ago? Based on the detailed descriptions of the forests at that time along Macoupin Creek in Central Illinois by the prolific author W. McClain, we can assume that such magnificent trees were once common in our forests. How little we have preserved. It reminds me of Larry Mahan’s final paragraph in his book, an admonition that we have been given the responsibility to be good stewards of the earth’s natural resources.
I will only briefly mention the idyllic and beautiful gorges at Ferne Clyffe State Park and the several walks we had in the Cache River cypress swamps. The latter put one in mind of Gulf Coast bayous, except that our trees are some of the largest and most magnificent of their kind; awesome indeed.
Quite different was the visit and reception at Longshadow Gardens. This too would fill a small book to do it justice. We gained insights into a most unique business, creating garden ornaments, with worldwide distribution, toured a species rich arboretum and expansive gardens fit for a king.
A sunset hike, only far too brief, took us into a very different world of native meadows, woodlands and steep sandstone cliffs. Damp rock walls were covered with Walking Ferns (Asplenium rhyzophyllum). Also present was Maidenhair Spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes). That was a thrill indeed. I had participated in a fern workshop sponsored by the Southern Chapter of the Illinois Native Plant Society only a few weeks prior and finding just one plant had been one of the highlights.
Surprisingly this Spleenwort species has a global distribution. However it is very uncommon here in Illinois. The same goes for Germany were I saw it just once, decades ago. We later on would encounter Royal Fern in north-west Indiana, a species of similar worldwide distribution. While abundant here in specific sites, it too is very uncommon today in Illinois and red-listed over much of Europe.
Such a trip as the above is certainly about details, but also about connections. Of these we have only explored a few. We would later on during the trip again encounter Shumard Oak in the Morton Arboretum and Black Oak in the sands of the Indiana Dunes National Seashore. Being able to see some of their exposed root systems and drawing some conclusions from that could easily be the subject for another column, if not a whole book. The natural world is infinitely varied; its wonders never cease.