Sunday, June 30, 2013

Black's Bluff Preserve

Isn’t it great that areas are set aside for conservation and preservation? Parks set aside large tracts of land (smaller on the city/county level, bigger on the state/national level). We have land that stays as intact habitat with soaring canopy trees, gurgling streams and birds that sing out to visitors. [Of course some land is set aside for recreation: ball fields, biking trails and mini golf.]

Golden tickseed (Coreopsis tinctoria) and a tiny hoverfly
Private organizations help set aside parcels too, often areas of special interest that protect rare plant communities. I wrote earlier about my field trip to Heggie’s Rock, a granite outcrop property preserved by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Recently I visited another TNC property for a very different reason.

You see, even when lands are set aside for conservation, conservation efforts don’t stop for that property. In particular, management of invasive plants on the site is usually required. The agents of invasive plant dispersal – wind, water and wildlife – just about guarantee that seeds of non-native plants will find their way into the conserved environment. Groups like TNC hold regular workdays for volunteers to come in and remove invasive plants. That was the purpose of our visit.

We met on a beautiful Saturday morning in mid-June on a roadside near the site. On one side was the Coosa River but you could hardly see the river for the vegetation, including dense thickets of Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) and large mimosa trees (Albizia julibrissin). It was immediately clear as to the source of the invasive plants that we were there to remove. 

Cheerfully blooming beside the invaders were a few colorful native plants. Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) is never one to be held back and here aggression won the day. Bright red blooms called out to hummingbirds from high up in the trees. Along the roadside, thick patches of colorful tickseed (Coreopsis tinctoria) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) were entertaining some hoverflies as well those of us with cameras.
The Bluff's - notice the mimosa tree in place
On the other side of the road were the Bluffs themselves. Towering cliffs of sandstone over 500 million year old limestone were clearly visible. Apparently the area was quarried for a while and what we were looking at were the edges of two quarries. What makes this place special? TNC describes it as "an area of immense rock outcrops and lime-rich soil located on the cool, moist north face of Walker Mountain where uncommon plants thrive." Well, they thrive if they are not being choked out by privet, mimosa and multiflora rose!

Our job was to cut and spray any of those things. We set off in teams, armed with loppers, hand saws and spray bottles of herbicide to treat the cut stumps. We worked for several hours and tackled privet trees that had trunks as thick as our legs. We found several giant multiflora rose bushes. One was so big that you could not see the men working inside it while they cut the trunks. No kidding, it was the size of a minivan. We also took down a 10 foot "bradford" pear which was already sporting fruits.

Hydrangea quercifolia
In between working we still got to see some beautiful native plants. Two kinds of hydrangea were there - smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) lit up the shady areas with creamy white blooms. Nearby was a single oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia); I had never seen this plant in the wild! We found faded spring ephemeral plants and unusual trees like wafer ash (Ptelea trifoliata) (and we found regular ash (Fraxinus) too).

Bell-shaped Clematis (species not known)

We pulled Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota) and Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). And as the area began to clear, we found new treasures tucked away, waiting to be discovered.

A small bell-shaped purple flower was recognized as one of the native Clematis. After some examination it was determined to probably be an undocumented species at this location. Later we also found the more typical Clematis virginiana.

After a break for lunch, we headed into the cool woods to pull privet seedlings. Our leader said that they had taken down large privet trees several years ago in this area but these were from the long lasting seed bank. There was plenty of stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) in this area too, but we focused on the privet. It was discouraging to see how much there was of each.

Matelea gonocarpos
When you work so close to the ground, you do find a lot of neat things. We found old box springs, a giant wolf spider and plenty of good plants like this milkvine (Matelea gonocarpos) which is a member of the milkweed family.

Actually the woods were full of good things - which was the reason we were here: to clear out the plants that, if left alone, would turn the area into a monoculture of aggressive plants and reduce the plant diversity.

We finished our day with a short hike to a cave on the site. A cave that is the result of eroded limestone over thousands of years. As we approached the entrance, the air was noticeably cooler. It was as if someone had left the door to the refrigerator open. What an amazing place. I am so glad it has been preserved. Visit The Nature Conservancy's page to learn more about Black's Bluff Preserve.

And if you get a chance to volunteer to help remove invasive plants from special places like these and in areas near you - please do so. With so many budget cutbacks, volunteer efforts are sometimes all that is left to protect and preserve our native habitats. All it takes is a pair of willing hands.


  1. Thank you for introducing me to Blacks Bluff and the efforts of the TNC in Georgia. Controlling invasives is such a big job and kudos to all the volunteers!

  2. Ellen, great post! And you're right--I started thinking about it, and I'm not sure I've ever seen a wild hydrangea quercifolia, either! Gonna have to start an inventory in this forest I live next to....

  3. Hello! I was wondering where the cave is? We hiked there today and were never able to locate it, although we enjoyed the beautiful scenery none the less. We hiked the spring trail i think. An older lady said the cave was down a trail to the right of the springs but we never found that trail. Thanks!

    1. Hey, Melissa, after 3 years absence I am not sure I could find it either! Glad you enjoyed your visit there.