The three of us had a lot of anticipation energy as we drove to the preserve. Two of our daughters were filling in for the photographer as she continued to recover from Covid. I gave them a choice of two preserves; a wetland or prairie habitat. They opted for the prairie since we were in August and it was officially prairie season.
The trailhead, as seen in the title photo, reinforced the prairie vibe, and the first thirty yards did not disappoint. It was full of color from both flowers and butterflies. The summer flowers get all the glory for providing nectar to the butterflies, but there are other plants that play a critical role in the lifecycle of these pollinators – these are the host plants for the butterfly larvae and I will try to give them some mention when appropriate.
Glade Coneflower – the most common of the coneflowers.
Aphrodite on Teasel – violets are the host plants for Aphrodite larvae.
Tiger Swallowtail on Teasel – the Tiger Swallowtail larval host plant are many species of broad leafed trees including Willow, Cottonwood, Birch, Ash, Cherry, and Tulip-poplar. For butterflies, it has a very large yellow green egg, and the young caterpillars are brown and white and resemble bird droppings. That is a great camouflage technique given their location up in trees.
Monarch – the larval host plants are the many species of Milkweed family, including Butterfly Weed.
Eastern Black Swallowtail on Teasel – Eastern Black Swallowtail larval host plants are the carrot family, like Queen Anne’s Lace, Parsley, and Rattlesnake Master. Quite different from the trees used by the Yellow Swallowtail. I have frequently seen their caterpillars on Parsley in my garden.
Once across this pocket of prairie we entered a cedar thicket.
The poor thin soils supported a sparse understory of grasses with an occasional flowering plant such as this stunted Oxeye Daisy.
I like the simplicity of this Black-eyed Susan that is just starting to bloom with a single flower. The poor soils and shade of the cedars limit the plant’s growth.
In this area we had our first exposure to Round Leaf Trefoil – its three leaflet compound leaf is quite distinctive. In the photo below I have circled a single compound leaf. Its does well in the poor dry soils of a cedar glade.
Frequently seen amongst the the Redcedars were shrubby Roughleaf Dogwood. As we have mentioned in previous posts, the dogwood family members can be identified by the convex lens shape that the leaf veins make. The rough texture of the leaves gave me the specific identification.
This “convex lens” is best seen with enlarging the image.
It was interesting to see an occasional fern on this challenging landscape. I tend to think of ferns growing in moist environments with excellent soil, but clearly they are more adaptable than that. Here an Ebony Spleenwort grows right at the base of a Redcedar.
As I was bent over pointing out the identifying characteristics, this guy made his presence known – an American Toad.
The trail wove back and forth utilizing switchbacks to gain altitude. Along the way we would be delivered to the edge of prairie pockets, giving additional floral displays.
The Nodding Onion was finishing its season.
An Early Goldenrod laying at an odd angle, perhaps due to wind or wildlife.
Tickseed is a member of the Coreopsis family. Goldfinches and other birds feast on the ball shaped seed heads when they mature.
The next two photos are of White Sweetclover, a non-native from Eurasia that the pollinators love and that can become invasive. It was very sparse here.
Meadow Pink – beautiful in its simplicity.
Partridge Pea – the bright yellow flowers attract butterflies and bees. Its seeds are eaten by game birds and songbirds. The leaflets fold together when touched, leading to its other name – Sensitive Plant.
Some of the prairie pockets afforded us a view of the valley.
In the understory of the Redcedar thicket were a mix of mosses and Reindeer Moss, enjoyable on a broad view as well as the on closeup.
Interspersed along this section were occasional Virginia Pines, which can be identified by the short twisted needles in fascicles of two. They also have retained cones of several seasons and the cones do not release their seeds until their second season.
About two thirds of the way up we entered a deciduous wood. Clearly the soil was thicker and of better quality, and there was significantly less exposed stone on the path.
Here slip rocks became a more prominent feature of the landscape.
These rocks had “slipped” down from the bluffs above over the eons.
I enjoy studying them as they are an ecosystem amongst themselves, capped with mosses, lichens, herbaceous plants, and ferns. This gave me the opportunity to use my new Fern Finder key for ferns.
Eventually I ended up at Bulblet Fern, which are characterized by the bulblets on the underside of the leaves. The bulblets function in asexual reproduction as they can fall from the parent plant to start a new plant. It is the only fern to form bulblets.
We continued up the trail and the final switchback delivered us to the base of the bluffs atop the hill.
It gave us the opportunity to study the plant community that thrives in this hardscape environment.
I especially liked the ferns that inhabited this little alcove.
We rounded the corner and reached our goal, the Flood’s Point Overlook.
It was a rock outcropping that was somewhat tight confines for our party of three, but it did give a beautiful view of the Brush Creek Valley.
While we were there Ellen noted that we shared our perch with a couple of others:
This Eastern Fence Lizard was hanging out on a windswept and contorted Redcedar tree.
Within 18 inches was a large Fowler’s Toad. They have flat islands of dark pigmentation on their backs, as compared to the American Toad.
As we looked down from our perch we could see this Carolina Buckthorn tree below us, which is at the most northern point of its range. It was quite a large specimen and will offer wildlife a bounty of fruit soon.
One thing that the caretaker of the preserve pointed out to us as we started our jaunt was to make sure that we understood that the trail hooked up with the 1,400 mile Buckeye Trail that crosses much of Ohio, and that we needed to turn around there unless we were in for a longer hike.
We enjoyed a leisurely descent, retracing our path, and frequently stopping at the same places as we did on our climb up. This allowed for closer examination of the things that had caught our attention.
One of those was this unique plant. It was challenging to get its floral scape and its leaves that lay on the ground in the same photo.
Eventually we identified it as Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, one of the orchids native to Ohio. Exciting! The rattlesnake reference is to the similarity of the leaf venation pattern to the scales on a rattlesnake. Like many orchids it has a symbiotic relationship with fungi in the soil. The fungi provides moisture and nutrients and the plant provides energy captured as sugars by photosynthesis.
The upper prairies seemed to host different butterfly species. Gone were the swallowtails. Instead we were seeing these which tended to be smaller and more muted in their color:
Whirlabout – it is a member of the Folded-wing Skipper group. Named because of its rapid and somewhat circular flight pattern. My butterfly guide reports their larval host plant as “weedy grassess”. The Folded-wing Skippers hold their fore and hind wings at different angles when sunning themselves.
Pearly Crescentspot – one of the more common meadow butterflies. Their larvae dine on aster foliage. They tend to be curious and actually investigate visiting humans, rather than flee as many butterfly species do.
Little Wood Satyr – the grasses and sedges of the prairie are the host plant for its larvae.
Hackberry Butterfly – its bland coloring when the wings were upright allowed it to blend in perfectly with the exposed stone and dead plant debris. The upper wing surface is orange and black, somewhat similar to the Crescentspot above. Its sole larval host plant are Hackberry trees.
This Folded-winged Skipper appears to be a Brazilian Skipper, and despite its name, it is found in much of the continental U.S.
This Folded Winged Skipper appears to be a Broken Wing Dash. Its eye is fascinating.
In total we saw 4 toads as we worked our way up the trail. These were additional Fowler’s Toads
Lastly, the surprise performers were once again the fungi – colorful and varied in form.
In summary, the hike on the Joan Jones Portman Trail was a memorable outing. While we don’t typically think of prairie inhabiting a hillside, it certainly did here in pockets. With thin soils and exposed rock it was a punishing environment, but still beauty flourished in many forms. The changing habitats added interest and exposed us to different species. It also got us to think about the other plants that play important roles in lifecycle of butterflies. True to form, The Edge of Appalachia delivered on our outdoor experience. It was definitely worth the road trip. If you go, remember to slow down and observe. You will see so much more and improve your outing.
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Photo credits to Ellen Burns and Caroline Burns Grizzle.
Overview: Location – 78 miles from downtown Cincinnati in West Union, Ohio.
Parking – gravel lot for 12 cars.
Trail Conditions – bare dirt with exposed rocks, especially in the Redcedar thickets.
Benches – one noted about 3/4ths of the way up the trail.
Picnic Tables – several are undercover at the Rieveschl Overlook which is across the road from the trailhead and overlooks Brush Creek. A very nice setting for a picnic.
Kids – it is a steady climb on the way up and the rocks on the trail can be challenging. I would lean toward 8 and over.
Dogs – prohibited.
Suggested Paired Hikes – if you are looking for additional prairie experience I would suggest the Lynx Prairie which is nearby and is a more traditional prairie habitat, or the outstanding Chaparral Prairie that is also just outside West Union, OH.