Monday, April 3, 2017

Springtime in Oklahoma, or, Will Molly Eat It?

There were plenty of visitors to Robber’s Cave State Park on April 1. This is not one of the state parks that the Oklahoma government, in its desperation to cut everything except oil corporation subsidies and the budgets of the legislature and governor, plans to close. Just a few of the visitors came for the Spring Field Meeting of the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences. Few, but appreciative.

We (faculty and students) were surrounded by nature. Oh, wait, not quite. The forests were mostly shortleaf pine (Pinus echinata) and post oak (Quercus stellata). But the shortleaf pines have nearly all, at least in this part of the state, hybridized with loblolly pines, which have been planted for lumber and pulp production. And every bit of the forest has been affected by human impact, including fire suppression. But it was a nice spring day and we were seeing things that were almost natural. The oaks were just opening their catkins and unfurling a few baby leaves. Post oaks dominate the poor, dry soils of these mountains.

Gloria Caddell, at the University of Central Oklahoma, led the botany field trips.

We didn’t even get out of the parking lot before we found plants that were interesting in more than one way. Gloria explained how to distinguish the three species of violets and how to distinguish poison ivy from fragrant sumac. But I explained that you could eat violets. I convinced Molly, a student from my university (Southeastern Oklahoma State University), to try one. After she was finished looking at a black cherry in bloom, I convinced her to eat some fading redbud flowers too. Last of all, I got her to eat some greenbriar buds.

We explored different habitats within the park. Closer to the creek, we found red maple, bur oak, and black oak. At the edge of the water we saw a birch tree with its male and female catkins. The male catkins dangle from the branch behind the female flowers. This arrangement improves the chances that the pollen that comes to the female flowers is from a different tree rather than the same one. We also saw several wildflower species, some spectacular like the plains wild indigo, Baptisia bracteata.

Baptisia is one of the leguminous plants that produce nitrogen-fixing nodules, as mycologist Steve Marek explained. It is always good to have people from different areas of study together on the same field trip.

And, as always, leave it to Gloria to open our eyes to see the tremendous biodiversity of a trampled lawn in a picnic area. As future high school teacher Lainee Sanders discovered, there was not one but two species of buttercups in the picnic area. (The dog appeared to not care about the flowers.)

There were some high school teachers on the trip. Melissa Bates brought high school students from Oklahoma City. They looked closely at little Antennaria flower clusters, perhaps never having realized that there were boy antennarias and girl antennarias growing together.

You never know where you are going to find moss growing. We found some growing on an old glove, sporophytes and all!

Chad King, a botanist at University of Central Oklahoma, gave an evening presentation about dendrochronology. Tree rings are a storehouse of information about all the tree’s experiences, therefore about things such as climate and fire history. He displayed one of his specimens, a very old tree that had had an eventful life.

Almost everything we saw was something that could so easily have been overlooked if we had been hiking fast or jogging. We need these times of slowing down, looking closely, even nibbling, under the guidance of those among us who know a lot about hidden biodiversity.

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