The photographer and I had not been on a trail for two weeks – a rarity. One of us had been traveling, chasing a little white ball over manicured greenspace, and I was hopeful that we would see a lot of progression in the spring ephemeral wildflower season.
The choice to go to the Big Woods Trail was a direct result of our hike on The Big Beech Trail in Louisville. The description of the Big Woods was exactly what I was hoping to see in Louisville but did not find – a mature Beech wood. The literature said that 44% of the tree canopy here was Beech, and we were hoping that we would find the associated wildflowers of a mature wood.
The Big Woods is a 200 acre old growth forest of Beech, Tulip-poplar, Sugar Maple, and Oaks, with numerous trophy specimens of each species. By any standard that is a huge swathe of Old Growth Wood. Its ownership can be traced to one family, the Huestons, dating back to the early 1800s. The family had owned a total 2600 acres and had allowed the Big Wood to remain in its natural state, foraging what they could use such as maple syrup. The woods remained with the family until it was sold in the 1930’s to conservationist Morris Taylor. He sold the tract to the state of Ohio in the 1940s for the development of a state forest. In the 1950s, with the purchase of additional acreage, Ohio formed Hueston Woods State Park.
The images as we pulled into the parking area were striking – the impressive mature wood noted in the title photo to our right, and the trauma of a fallen iconic Beech tree to our left. The immensity of that tree can not be put into words.
It was overcast but before we left home we had verified the weather outlook. Partly cloudy with temps in the mid 50s, and an 11% chance of rain during our visit, although heavy showers were predicted for the late afternoon and evening.
Our first steps on the trail were remarkable for two observations: an almost innumerable number of massive Beeches and Tulip-Poplars, and an understory of young Beeches with their persistent leaves.
At first glance everything appeared to be the grays of the tree trunks and the straw color of the beech leaves. But if one looked closely, you could see the emergence of the first spring wildflowers.
Primarily they were the expected early performers: Spring Beauty and Harbinger of Spring.
One that was just making a showing was Blood Root. The first flower below has just erupted from the forest floor. The second is starting to open.
The trail itself was inviting – rolling terrain with broad vistas across the understory.
In prose it is hard to give the reader a feeling for the number and size of the mature trees. As we worked our way up a stair we were struck by the bulk of this Tulip-poplar tree.
A short time later we had this view of a series of huge trees. It was literally one after another.
We crossed several small ravines with the assistance of bridges. The bridges not only make passage easier, they prevent bank erosion if hikers were to climb down and up the slopes.
I think that the numerous tree carcasses seen on the forest floor in the above photo reflect the lifecycle of a mature wood rather than the result of the demise of Ash trees. It is the circle of life.
The trail wove north and south along the ridges and crossed the streams in between. Eventually we came upon a detour.
We were diverted down a mild slope to a creekside that was very inviting.
Despite the recent rains, the creek flow was stable and the stone striding doable to cross to the north bank.
Once across, we had a meandering trail above the bank
We were about 0.7 miles into the hike when we perceived a sudden change that gave the photographer a sense of doom. We had noted drops in temperature and atmospheric pressure. We pulled out our phones and rechecked the weather App. Yep, still just an 11% percent chance of rain, and decided to march on. But then an overcast sky became ominous and we heard thunder. We had flashbacks to our Quiet Trails Nature Preserve experience last summer when a severe storm caught us 1.5 miles from our vehicle. The second thunder roll was the equivalent of a starter’s gun – and we were setting a pace back to our van. We were lucky to get off the trail just before a heavy rain started.
In retrospect, what was exciting at Big Woods was what was about to happen. Emerging vegetation gave us an idea of what was to come. And to be honest, there were some things there that I could only hypothesize on: Unknown (? early Solomon’s Seal ), Cut-leafed Toothwort, Waterleaf, Dutchman’s Breeches, Blood Root, Unknwon).
One of my favorite sightings was seeing the spring flowers nestled up at the base of the iconic trees. It is just a marriage that was meant to be. The size of the Beech roots have an almost rainforest feel to them.
The mystery plant of the day was this.
The parallel veins tells me that it is a monocot, which are the more primordial plants, dating back to the days of the dinosaurs. It is a Putty Root Orchid, one of the orchids native to the eastern U.S., occurring from Oklahoma to the eastern seaboard, and from Louisiana to Ontario. It has an interesting life cycle in that it has a single “wintergreen” leaf, that emerges in the late fall, overwinters, then dies in the spring. So it is doing its photosynthesis when most plants are not, taking advantage of the greater amount of light that is available on the forest floor when deciduous trees are leafless. A flower stalk then appears in late May or early June. Reproduction generally occurs by underground tuber growth as the flower is generally poor at pollination. For these reasons it is generally seen in “clonal” groups having the same DNA. While not threatened or endangered, it is considered rare throughout much of its range. The name “Putty Root”comes from the mucilaginous paste that was obtained from its tubers and used to repair pottery or earthenware in the past. Sort of nineteenth century Superglue.
Just before we aborted our adventure we came upon a blanket of these emerging leaves. These are Rue Anemone, one of my favorite spring woodland wildflowers. And we saw a grouping the size of a quilt. I will have to find my way back with good timing to see them flowering.
The photographer captured two nice images that reflect the relative moistness of the environment. The first is of this lichen laden bark. Lichens are composed of both fungi and algae; the fungi supplying the structure and the algae supplying the photosynthetic capability (energy source).
Finally, a photo of an extensive fungus atop a stump in the forest. Moisture invites diversity, and decay.
While I am not a fungi fanatic, I do appreciate the artistic “still life” that they present the photographer on the hiking trail. Certainly much easier than capturing a fleeting warbler as it bolts to the dark side of a tree.
In summary, though we had to abort our outing, The Big Woods was still an impressive venue. We were probably a couple weeks early (March 23rd) for the onset of prime spring wildflower season there, but the stage is beautiful. From a theatrical point of view, we were there for the pre-dress rehearsal. We could see the performers waiting to come on stage but they were currently unadorned. But I don’t have to be here for opening night. I could wait to see the last matinee. Or, in autumn, the close of season. Or for that matter, an off season tour when the majestic Beeches, Tulip-poplars, Sugar Maples, and Oaks are blanketed in snow. What can I say. As much as I love the spring ephemerals, they are just the theatrical makeup for the icons of an old growth forest – the trees.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.
Special thanks to Sarah Grote of the Boone County Parks (KY) for the assistance identifying Putty Root Orchid.
Location – 6301 Park Office Rd, College Corner, OH 45003
Parking – Large asphalt lot.
Facilities – None at trailhead. Formal indoor restrooms at Nature Center about 0.5 miles away.
Trail Conditions – bare dirt and embedded gravel.
Print Trail Map Link – https://www.hueston-woods-state-park.org/resources/hueston-woods-park-map.pdf
Benches – None noted on trail but we did not complete the full trail.
Picnic Tables – None on the trail but numerous throughout the park.
Kids – Kids four and over should do well.
Dogs – Prohibited.
Paired Hiking Trails – There are a number of trails at Hueston Woods but we have not been on them.