We had just completed an outstanding but atypical prairie hike at the Joan Jones Portman Trail and were reflecting on it over a picnic lunch when Caroline suggested that we stop at Chaparral Prairie in our way home – the ladies wanted a more traditional prairie experience on this early August outing.
In the 2 years of Footpaths’ existence, Chaparral had become the gold standard by which all prairie hikes were measured, and it was literally on the way home. Previously we had been there in October of 2021 as the annual floral display waned, and in June of 2022, before the prairie peaked in its show. This would be our first visit in peak prairie season.
Chaparral is considered one of the best remaining remnants of a habitat known as a “cedar barren”. Barrens are characterized by relatively poor soils and subsurface bedrock that limit tree growth. In fact, settlers coined the term “barrens” to describe landscapes that had few trees.
As we exited the parking lot and got to the trailhead we were met with a surprise – the preserve had added a new hiking trail – Blazing Star. It had just opened a week before our visit and they were still working on some of its features.
The Blazing Star Trail is a half mile “all persons” concrete loop that allows those with limited mobility to be fully immersed in a prairie experience.
A worker told us that it was especially designed for wheelchair functionality, with pull offs where those in wheel chairs can be positioned off the trail to sit and observe wildlife, while not obstructing others. While we were there he was constructing shelters to shade those in the “parking” areas.
The path is well placed and provides broad views of the prairie, and its namesake flower, the Blazing Star, as seen in the title photo and below. It is also called Liatris for its genus name.
You had color close up but also in the distance, as seen with these Woodland Sunflowers that were noted in the semi-shade on the edge of the wood – their preferred environs.
My Footpaths experience has changed my understanding of the prairie habitat. In the past I had thought that they were endless fields of grasses and forbs (flowering plants), but in reality, especially in the Ohio Valley region, they are frequently married with woodlands of trees that can also live on the thin soils such as Post Oak, Blackjack Oak, and Redcedar. Sometimes there are pockets of trees within the prairie, and sometimes pockets of prairie within the woodlands.
The trees are frequently stunted in size for their age due to the limited nutrients and water in the thin soils.
Despite the poor quality of the soils, the flowering plants have evolved to thrive, and many species were part of the floral display at the time of our visit.
Perplexing Tick-trefoil – we have seen other Tick-trefoils before and they can be identified by the cartoon face appearance of the flower, as seen in the photo below. Do you see the eyes, nose, and mouth?
I believe that this is the Perlexing species by the shape of the leaves seen in this photo. Identifying plants from a distance can be a challenge when one follows the directive of remaining on the paths to avoid damaging the habitat.
Sensitive Plant – called this because the leaflets fold on themselves when touched. It is also known as Partridge Pea, as game birds such as quail and grouse eat its seeds. The red splotch in the eye of the flower is the give away.
Dense Blazing Star – named because of the proximity of the flower heads to each other. The plant starts flowering at the top of the spike and then works its way down.
Each flower head is a cluster of eight individual flowers.
The density of the flower heads can be appreciated on this photo of a Blazing Star spike before any have bloomed. The photo shows 52 flower heads. Each flower head will have 8 flowers. Doing the math, this single spike will have more than 416 individual flowers.
White Blazing Star – this was much less common in the meadow and appeared as isolated plants rather than swathes as seen with the pink variety. It is really considered the same species as the pink variety (Liatris spicata) and is probably the result of a genetic mutation. Some authorities feel that the white variety is less robust.
Slender Mountain Mint – this was the other white seen in the meadow on this visit. It gets the “slender” part of its name from the Rosemary like leaves seen just below the flowers in the photo below.
It is loved by the pollinators and on close up one can appreciate some spotted purple coloration.
Common Milkweed – Its thick leaves have a tropical feel to them and ooze a “milky” substance when traumatized. They are a source of nectar for many pollinators and a larval host plant for the Monarch butterfly.
Green Milkweed – a much less common milkweed and its flowers are less showy. Its leaves can be narrow as seen here, or up to 2.5 inches in width. Neither of my field guides included it which is due to its rarity.
Butterfly Weed – a member of the milkweed family, the flowers are similar in structure to Common Milkweed, but bright orange.
Indian Hemp – its reddish stems and opposite branching are its identifying features. It is a larval host plant for the Hummingbird Moth.
Goldenrod – there are 60 species of goldenrod east of the Rockies and other than Early Goldenrod, they are just coming into their flowering season. Soon they, along with Ironweed, will be the predominant plants flowering in our meadows and prairies. They will bloom up to the first heavy frost.
Rattlesnake Master – no prairie plant roster would be complete without this interesting plant. What it lacks in color it makes up with in architectural and tactile features.
To close out the flowers, some repeat performers that we have discussed recently (Bergamot/Bee Balm, Prairie Dock, Ironweed, and Grey-headed Coneflower ). The purples and yellows always make nice pairings in the meadow.
As always there are the other creatures that add interest and entertainment to the prairie. One of those was this Black Swallowtail butterfly who looked worse for wear. It had clearly escaped from predatory encounters, losing a large part of its hind wing. It reminded me of the videos of Allied bombers limping back to the airfields in England after meeting up with German flak.
Another interesting one was this Giant Swallowtail. They have a dramatic difference in the coloration of the topside (first photo) and underside (second photo) of this species. You can tell that it is the same specimen as the right swallowtail segment of the hind wing is missing in both photos.
The photographers did some great work capturing this Sulphur butterfly seemingly floating on the breeze.
While I have not been able to identify this insect, I like the “still life” quality of this image. It is on a Timothy Grass seed head that is bent toward the ground.
And of course there are the bees.
The sound track to this hike was the song of the Indigo Buntings who were perched and singing in the trees that were always nearby.
Finally, no prairie safari would be complete without a photo of one of the great predators of the prairie – the dragonfly. Dragonflies are not pollinators, but in fact, true predators, feeding on other insect visitors to the meadow. They typically eat flies, midges, and mosquitoes, but will also eat occasional butterflies or even smaller dragonflies. They usually catch their prey mid-flight and will land on a perch to consume it. This is a Widow Skipper dragonfly as it is dressed in black.
In summary, this outing was just what we wanted – a brief but intimate pass through a prairie at the height of its season. What was exciting to see was the thoughtfulness of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in developing this “all persons” trail that allows those of lessened mobility and stamina to experience an outstanding prairie in a safe manner. Chaparral was already one of our favorite hiking venues and this improvement, that broadens the population who can enjoy it, just increased its appeal. Peak season will go on for another 4 to 5 weeks, so find yourself a prairie and enjoy the show.
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Photo credits to Caroline Burns Grizzle and Ellen Burns.
Location – 65 miles from downtown Cincinnati in West Union, Ohio.
Parking – asphalt lot for 12 cars.
Trail Conditions – 0.5 mile flat concrete oval.
Map Link – none needed.
Benches – there were none at the time of our visit but it appears some would be installed soon.
Picnic Tables – none noted.
Kids – great for kids of all ages. Would be good for strollers as well.
Dogs – prohibited.
Suggested Paired Hikes – there are four other trails at Chaparral that are outstanding and total 2 miles in length. Here is a link to a map of their layout. The Blazing Star Trail does not appear on this map since it is new.