Sunday, June 11, 2017

Special Plants, Special Places – Coosa Valley Prairie

Echinacea simulata
I have heard about the Coosa Valley Prairie area for years; it is a rich remnant of a tallgrass prairie that once stretched into Georgia. According to experts, these are considered calcareous prairies and defined as “Open grass- and forb-dominated communities over clayey calcareous soils that inhibit growth of woody species. Groundlayer plant species diversity is high, and includes disjunct species known primarily from midwestern prairies. Includes wet and dry prairie subtypes. These habitats require periodic fire for maintenance.”

Two weeks ago, the Georgia Botanical Society held a field trip to explore a 929-acre conservation easement on industrial pinelands that was negotiated by The Nature Conservancy.

Grand Prairie and wavyleaf purple coneflower (Echinacea simulata)
More than two dozen of these so-called “remnant prairies,” collectively known as the Coosa Valley prairies, contain over 40 rare and endangered animals and plants. They include species like the Alabama leatherflower (Clematis socialis) and the whorled sunflower (Helianthus verticillatus), both of which we were able to see in one of the wet prairies thanks to work by TNC. More abundant plants, especially in an area known as the Grand Prairie, included the wavyleaf purple coneflower (Echinacea simulata), wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), whorled coreopsis (Coreopsis major), and an incredible assortment of milkweeds (for more on the milkweeds, see last week’s blog here.)

Our first stop was the Grand Prairie; the sweep of coneflower across the land was a breathtaking view. To a person, the reaction was one of awe. As we stood there in stunned silence, the bird calls began. Around the open area were stands of pine and the birds called from high in the trees  – summer tanager and indigo bunting were pointed out by folks who knew birds but then there was one that we all recognized – the distinctive bob-white call of a quail.

Scaly blazingstar (Liatris squarrosa)
Mohr's Barbara's buttons
(Marshallia mohrii)

We stayed around the field for about an hour, exploring the dry areas as well as a small wet spot. Another special plant that we came to see was Mohr’s Barbara’s buttons (Marshallia mohrii) and it was blooming nicely. This is the plant that led to the discovery of this area over 25 years ago by a curious botanist. Other beautiful blooming plants included scaly blazingstar (Liatris squarrosa), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa), milkweeds, verbena (Verbena simplex), snout-bean (Rhynchosia tomentosa), and New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus). The summer plants were lush with growth, and we found, among others, the thick leaves of ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis). As we walked back to the cars, a beautiful group of colic root (Aletris farinosa) was spotted. Properly exploring this prairie would take days!

Colic root (Aletris farinosa)
Verbena simplex

Snout-bean (Rhynchosia tomentosa) with beans forming

Clematis socialis
Our next stop was a wet prairie to check on the progress of the endangered plants that TNC was helping. While the whorled sunflower (Helianthus verticillatus) was just a healthy population of leaves, we were able to find a single flower on the Alabama leatherflower (Clematis socialis). Bright panicles of pink phlox (Phlox sp.) dotted the area and the large leaves of the prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) looked like tropical canna. Another plant grew thickly in the muck and our leader said it was the dense blazingstar (Liatris spicata). That area is going to be gorgeous in the summer!

From the wet prairie we walked through a woodland to get to another dry prairie. A bright blue bloom caught my eye near the ground; it was so similar to skullcap (we had already seen Scutellaria integrifolia near the Grand Prairie) that I assumed it was so but snapped a picture anyway. I later found out that it is nettleleaf sage (Salvia urticifolia). The amount of new plants that I saw in one day was delightful!

Phlox spp.
Nettleleaf sage (Salvia urticifolia)

The uniqueness of special natural habitats is amazing. Thanks to those who discover them, those who work to document them, and those who work so hard to protect them. I am proud to be a monthly contributor to TNC. To find other ‘special places’ that I’ve profiled, just search for ‘special places’ in the search box on the upper left corner of the blog page.

Note: A good resource is the 'Calcareous Prairies' section in The Natural Communities of Georgia book (pages 197-200); this section uses Coosa Prairies as the basis for the description of this unique environment. A fall visit to this place, with a whole new set of flowers, would be just as interesting as a spring one.

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