This preserve was on my running list of sites to visit, but jumped to the head of the line when a staff member from the Nature Conservancy of Ohio assured me that I would find Skunk Cabbage there.
I was intrigued by the word “Fen”. Despite my wanders in greenspaces across the country and parts of Europe, to my knowledge, I have never been on a fen. Fens are unique wetlands where the water source is the ground water aquifer and the water is alkaline. There is also a large peat component to the soil. Because the water arises from springs, rather than being the drainage of a watershed, there is no flooding in a Fen, and also the water flows even in a drought. The fen wetland is one of the rarest habitats in Ohio, and we were thrilled to be there.
The fens in Ohio are the result of the glaciers that overlaid the state 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. When the glaciers receded large pockets of gravel and clay were left behind and now lay beneath the peat in the fens. They act as filters as the ground water seeps to the surface through springs. The mineral rich alkaline water results in unusual plant communities in the fens and 26 Ohio threatened species have been identified here. It was our search for Skunk Cabbage, one of the unique plants that inhabit these wetlands, that brought us here.
In addition to the fen habitat, Gallagher Fen Nature Preserve also contains a dry upland prairie and a mature deciduous woodland. This collection of habitats in such close proximity is rare.
From the parking lot the trail enters the woodland with large oaks of the White Oak Family as well as Hickories that were either Shagbark or Shellbark. It was not possible to identify them to species in their leafless state. With the canopy dancing in the 15 MPH winds, I was just glad that the wood was largely devoid of ashes.
After anxiously making our way through the noisy woods that had trees rubbing against each other resulting in sounds that were amazingly like a crying child, the trail opened up in a pioneer cemetery from the 1800s.
Unfortunately many of the headstones were fractured and lying on the ground, or eroded by the years of weather. Still, there were some that could be read.
Eunice Reece died in 1876 at the age of 91. She was born in 1785, before Washington was elected president in 1789, and died when Grant was president. Hard to fathom that the U.S. had 18 presidents in her lifetime, and she lived through both the founding of our country and the Civil War.
Arising from the cemetery are two loop trails.
First we took the East Fen Trail, which is marked in blue on the above map, that exited from the southern side of the cemetery. As we did so we were looking into the low lying winter sun that silhouetted some large trees that were nestled into a prairie. While the trees were not as large, it was reminiscent of the bluegrass prairie that we hiked at Griffith Woods in Cynthiana, Kentucky last February.
To our left was the edge of the mature woods,
and to our right we had our first glimpse of a fen.
You could see the small flowing stream with exposed gravel characteristic of the fen habitat. Given our location on the ridge above the lowland, and the time of year, we were not able to identify plants making up the botanical community. This loop of the trail did not venture down into the wetland, and in fact, there were signs prohibiting it. Midway through the loop however, there was a formal overlook that provided excellent views of the basin.
Eventually the loop empties back into the cemetery, basically where the entry trail came in. We again crossed the cemetery, exiting on the western edge, onto the West Fen Trail, which was yellow on the earlier map image. We headed down a small wooded grade and then back up to a ridge.
Here we got our first glimpse of a larger fen basin. From this vantage point you could see the gravel laden stream winding through the wetland.
Upon the ridge trail we could go either direction and chose to go counter clockwise to the right. This gave us additional time on the trail as it worked its way through prairie, again harboring large trees, and views of the fen below.
The trail wound around this Red Oak with its heavily persistent leaves,
and we came upon the staircase that led us down into the fen itself.
To protect the fragile ecosystem, the stairs empty onto an elevated boardwalk that circumvents the wetland.
Within a few yards of the base of the steps we see our first Skunk Cabbage, the earliest wildflower to bloom in our Midwestern region, this on February 19th.
The maroon structure is actually a modified leaf called a spathe, which encloses the spadix, a structure that hosts numerous petal-less flowers and can be seen on another specimen below.
The photographer was challenged to get photos of the spadices as we were early in the season and many of the spathes had not quite opened, and of those that did, many opened facing away from the boardwalk that we were restricted to.
Soon, after this first Skunk Cabbage sighting, the boardwalk crossed the quick moving stream. To our right the stream with the exposed gravel was entering a woodland.
To our left the stream meandered through the bulk of the fen. The plants that inhabit this wetland are the “fen meadow” and many of them are rare. Of note is the exposed large glacial rock.
Despite the small size and shallowness of the stream, the year round stable ground water flow allows fish populations to flourish, as seen in the photo below. Given consistent water temps below 60, I would be interested to find out what species of fish these are.
Similar to engraved bricks as a fundraiser, it appears that planks could be purchased to support the cost of the boardwalk.
Soon the boardwalk offered a short side-branch that lead to an viewing stage which gave us the scene captured in the title photo, as well as the image below.
As the boardwalk completed its arc we found large numbers of Skunk Cabbages as well as a couple of outstanding lichen specimens.
At this point we exited the fen, climbing another set of lengthy stairs. Continuing on the yellow trail along the ridge, we took the other path back to the cemetery, and along the way we captured these photos, indicative of the productivity of the woods. The first represents the ubiquitous hickories that we saw across the preserve. The shells of these are 3/8 to 1/2 inch thick, characteristic of either Shagbark or Shellbark Hickories.
These on the other hand are extremely small, perhaps 3/16th inch.
They are Hackberry seeds, which with its dimpled surface, on close up, looks like a golf ball, .
Hackberry fruits are edible, and when sampled in the fall, the flesh tastes like a date.
One final observation was these interesting pods and seeds that I am still trying to identify. We found them in the prairie on the East Fen Loop. Clearly they are wind dispersed, and the photography captures their beautiful simplicity.
In summary, people collect all kinds of things. I happen to collect habitats and ecosystem experiences, and the fen was a great addition to my collection. But it was not just about the fen – there was the oak and hickory wood as well as the prairie pockets. Gallagher Fen Preserve is a small remnant of the extensive prairie fen ecosystem that was endemic to central Ohio, but has been largely lost to agriculture and development. If you have the opportunity, I would encourage everyone to experience it both in the winter, as we did, but also in July, August, or September, at the height of prairie season. We will be back late next summer for a prairie edition. In the meantime we will celebrate seeing Skunk Cabbage in the wild and will do a focused topic article on it next week.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns. Video by Ellen Burns.
Location – 4709 Old Columbus Road, Springfield, Ohio, 80 miles north of downtown Cincinnati.
Parking – Small gravel lot for about 8 cars.
Facilities – None.
Trail Conditions – bare dirt, grass, and mosses. Around the larger fen there is a extensive boardwalk.
Print Trail Map Link – None. There is a map that you can photograph at the trailhead.
Benches – None.
Picnic Tables – None.
Kids – Kids six and over should do well.
Dogs – Prohibited.
Paired Hiking Trails – None on site but Cedar Bog Nature Preserve and Clifton Gorge are nearby.