Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Best Time of Year in Oklahoma

May in Oklahoma is the most beautiful time to be outdoors. The summer heat has not yet begun, and all the flowers are open. Sure, you have to go out between rains to see them, and you have to dodge a few tornadoes, but this is the time of year that makes me glad to live in Oklahoma. Come about August and I’m not so sure.

This is why the Oklahoma Native Plant Society chooses mid-May as the time for the annual Wildflower Workshop. On Saturday, May 16, a few dozen wildflower lovers took a field trip to three places in south central Oklahoma.

The first was one of the last remaining native prairies in south central Oklahoma. On U.S. 70 west of Durant, it used to be called Carpenter’s Meadow until it was divided up for “development.” Most people saw it as a green and brown square that was a mere canvas for construction. This includes the huge new Methodist Church. However, two of the church members (Dr. Connie Taylor, botanist, and Dr. Gordon Eggleton, physical scientist, both retired from Southeastern Oklahoma State University) are scientists and they managed to convince the church to not convert every last square meter of the property into turf. It was Connie who led the field trip on this little patch of prairie.

After some light rain, the ground was quite soggy, but this did not keep the native plant enthusiasts from walking all over the prairie to find dozens of plant species such as the green milkweed Asclepias viridis (a milkweed that is beautiful even when the flower is not yet open) and Tephrosia virginica, a legume.

The prize, of course, was the prairie orchid Calopogon oklahomensis.

This patch of prairie is threatened not only by churches and businesses but by fracking as well. Notice the fracking well in the background behind this white larkspur Delphinium carolinianum.

Wet and muddy, we got in a bus and went to Ft. Washita, an old fort that was built by the federal government to protect the Chickasaw tribe, which it had forced out of their homeland and into Oklahoma, from the Caddo tribe which was already in Oklahoma. The rocks were crammed with mollusk fossils, as in photos I have posted previously on this blog. It was not long before we were looking for native plants, even right down in the grass beside the picnic tables. ONPS past president Adam Ryburn is always on the lookout for females; this time, it was females of the buffalo grass Bouteloua (formerly Buchloe) dactyloides.

Unlike most grasses, buffalo grass has separate male and female plants.

Down in a low trough in the turf, in the middle of a cemetery full of unmarked Chickasaw graves, there was what looked like little weedy plantains. But a closer look revealed that they were Ophiglossum adder’s-tongues, which are fernlike plants. I took no photos because the lawn mower had not left much.

Our last stop was at the Blue River in Johnston County. Because the granite underneath has not eroded much, the soil is thin and well-drained, which promotes a profuse growth of wildflowers, and allows the Blue River to be relatively clear and have rapids, unlike the usual lazy Oklahoma river that flows past muddy banks formed from limestone soil. The most noticeable flowers were the yellow Coreopsis lanceolata and the deep red Gaillardia pulchella. Down by the river, however, you can also find some magnificent Tradescantia flowers.

Thin gravelly soil on top of the granite boulders allows small plants to grow that would otherwise be shaded out by larger plants. These include the stonecrop Sedum, a flowering plant; velvety smooth mosses; and thin tangles of clubmosses.

A forest fire had destroyed the whole forest in 2011, but many of the trees and shrubs are growing back as thick clumps. Beautiful fungi were sporulating from the dead wood.

Recent rainfall has sent the Blue River into flood stage. However, seaside alders (Alnus maritima, one of the rarest tree species in the world) bravely held their ground (literally! They create the islands they live on) in the roiling waters.

This portion of the Blue River has not been known to have arrowroot (Sagittaria), but some corms of arrowroot had been washed in by the floodwaters and might start a new population there. Forests recover well from, and thrive in the face of, fires and floods. But the prairies cannot survive when the soil is scraped away and turned into parking lots and fracking fields.

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