Thursday, March 15, 2012

Extra Early Ephemerals

Did you know that this year's unusually mild winter temperatures have influenced flora and fauna species negatively? For instance, honey bees are dying in great masses due to starvation from waking up much too early. Similarly, bat species, which have already been weakened by the mysterious White Nose Syndrome (WNS), are also waking from torpor earlier than expected, burning valuable calories before any sign of food supply emerges. Oh but just wait a couple of weeks when insects do emerge in a booming way, which will likely affect crop damage, disease transmission, and of course nuisance issues. 

A host of questions arise when abnormal weather occurs. For example, many are wondering if the powers of climate change have quickly buckled to the pressures of industrialization. But before making that assumption, some scientists attribute this year's phenomenon to cyclic weather patterns such as La Nina and the Arctic Oscillation (AO). La Nina (opposite of El Nino) increases water temperature in the Pacific Ocean, which influences rainfall throughout the country, often leading to droughts in the south and heavy rainfall in temperate North America. The AO influences the position of the arctic jet stream, which controls winter temperatures; thus, snowfall. La Nina's impact on water temperature ultimately pushed an already abnormally northerly jet stream further north, which caused Ohio and many other states to experience an abnormally low amount of snowfall this year. Two main problems arise when this occurs. For example, the sun puts most of its energy into heating the ground rather than melting snow that should be there. Further, we know that snow deflects a great deal of solar energy because it is white. When there is a reduction in snow, the ground absorbs more solar energy this way as well. So, it is easy to see how two cyclic climatic events can cascade into such a dramatic change in weather by coincidentally occurring at the same time. As a result, we have one of the warmest winters on record.

Though many problems have arisen from such an unusually mild winter, one segment of society has greatly benefitted from this phenomenon - botanists. Today, Andrew Gibson (The Natural Treasures of Ohio) took me on another stroll through his stomping grounds of the biologically diverse Adam's County, Ohio to explore an extra early array of spring ephemeral plants. There, we found approximately 20 new early bloomers for the year!

One of the highlights for me along the trip was the Snow Trillium (Trillium nivale). Of course, as the common name implies, this species - the smallest of the 8 Ohio trilliums - emerges so early that they are often blooming through snow. However, they certainly didn't have to live up to their epithet this winter.

The white trout lilies did not disappoint either. Like T. nivale, this species tends to prefer calcareous soils, which are aplenty in Adams County with such an abundance of dolomitic limestone parent material. We were surprised to see them blooming this early; we were absolutely mind-boggled to see that many had already gone to fruit! The noble plant on the right is surely the king of the ephemeral forest.

Only one bloodroot was to be found today among a complete absence of rue anemone. Similarly, there was no spring beauty to be found, either. We were a bit curious as to why some plants were not in bloom yet when their associates were already so far along. Perhaps some species are less anxious to bloom when such early warm weather occurs; rather, they might rely more on an internal clock. In any event, dwarf larkspur surprised us by blooming much earlier than normal years.

Blooming toad shade trillium (Trillium sessile) was a major surprise to me since I found a healthy patch near peak bloom last year in Athens County on April 24th - almost a month and a half later than this year! Granted, Adams county is two-hours south of that population.

Two other "firsts" for me were the state threatened Michaux's leavenworthia (Leavenworthia uniflora) and one of Ohio's rarest plants - the endangered little whitlow grass (Draba brachycarpa).

Among virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) and yellow fumewort (corydalis flavula), we also came across two toothwort species, common blue violet (Viola sororia) , and many more. I'm already looking forward to visiting Adam's County again. Happy Spring!