After leaving Minnesota, we spent the month of October making a grand arc east and south, passing through the states of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. The basic plan was to catch up with our nephew in Madison, WI; to sample a few interesting botanical areas in Indiana and Ohio; to meet up with a friend in West Virginia; to drive down the Appalachian Mountains for fall color; to visit a few Civil War battlefields via the Natchez Trace; to search out a rare plant family in east Texas; and finally to make our way to south Texas, where we planned to spend the first half of November.
We spent several days in the Madison, WI area to meet up with our nephew Corey and his girlfriend Zulmari. On October 1, we hiked in Devil’s Lake State Park, a glacially sculpted area with very scenic quartzite talus slopes and interesting limestone plants. The following day at Blue Mound State Park provided a geological contrast, as it lies in the Driftless Area, which was not glaciated. We saw nice examples of chert boulders here, and the mound is capped by Niagara Dolomite, the same rock layer that forms Niagara Falls, about 550 miles to the east. We hiked with Zulmari and Corey at Spring Green Prairie, a preserve administered by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). It protects several habitats that are rare in Wisconsin, and has a nice trail climbing a sand dune cloaked with Black Oaks (Quercus velutina). Corey and Zulmari are both doing graduate work in Materials Science at the University of Wisconsin, and we would like to have seen their labs and toured the campus, but COVID-19 intervened.
We stayed several nights in Indiana Dunes National Park, and took an outstanding loop hike on the Cowles Bog Trail, where we noted 37 species of plants. It was one of those perfect fall days and we had a lovely lunch on the sand beach shoreline of Lake Michigan. The stunning fall weather continued as we stopped at two TNC preserves in Ohio. We found a new dogwood (Cornus racemosa) at Kitty Todd Preserve, and finally caught up with Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), at the peak of its fall color, at the Herrick Fen Preserve.
We met up with our friend Merrilee in Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. We knew Merrilee 35 years ago, when Eileen was teaching in L.A. and I was a graduate student at CalTech, and had last spent time together in the field on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, back in 2005. She is currently working at NASA in Washington, D.C. The three of us visited two lovely high mountains with remnant Red Spruce (Picea rubens) forests on their summits: Spruce Knob and Gaudineer Knob. The surrounding areas were at the peak of fall color, so the drives were gorgeous!
As in the autumns of 2017 and 2018, we drove south through the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina on the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway, which together traverse 574 miles with no stop signs or commercial traffic. Some low-clearance tunnels also limit the number of large RVs, so it is very pleasant driving. We had excellent fall color here in the last week of October, 2017; rather poor color in 2018; and decent color this year. Unlike areas noted for fall foliage father north and west, rather than being dominated by just a few species, the southern Appalachians have a wide variety of woody plants that contribute to the display. We noted 20 species that exhibited notable fall color in mid-October.
Yellows predominate, with lemon-yellow Sweet Birch (Betula lenta) and slightly orangeish-yellow Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra) deserving special mention. Less pervasive yellows included Fraxinus americana, Juglans nigra, Betula alleghaniensis, Carya ovata, Cercis canadensis, Vitis sp., Hamamelis virginiana, Liriodendron tulipifera, and Acer saccharum. The most dramatic species showing at least some redder hues were Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica), an intense red; Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), with large colonies mixing red, orange, and yellow; and Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), simultaneously showing red, orange, yellow, and green! Other reds included Parthenocissis quinquefolia, Acer rubrum, Toxicodendron radicans, and Gaylussacia sp. Additional variety was provided by maroon Cornus florida and Quercus alba.
The Blue Ridge Parkway ends at the southern entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which we crossed, thence heading west to Nashville, TN. South of here we picked up the Natchez Trace Parkway, which we also took in 2018, providing another 444 miles of pleasant driving in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. From the Trace, we took side trips to Civil War sites at Shiloh National Military Park, Grand Gulf Military Park, and Raymond Military Park. We have visited Shiloh before; it may be the most beautiful battlefield in the country. Grand Gulf, near which Grant crossed the Mississippi River, was interesting, and the river floodplain there had native Pecan trees (Carya illinoiensis).
From the end of the Trace, in Natchez, MS, we crossed Louisisana to reach the Big Thicket in eastern Texas. Our outstanding mail forwarding service, run by Escapees, Inc., is headquartered there in Livingston, TX, so we were able to get our first physical mail since February. During the year, they scanned our mail, so we would not have to deal with the hassles of mail forwarding during the pandemic. While in the Big Thicket, we took advantage of the timing to look for the rather elusive bluethread plant family (Burmanniaceae). In the U.S. it is represented by just four southeastern species in two genera. The plants are saprophytic, evident above-ground only in the fall, with no detectable foliage, just wire-thin stems with one or more small flowers on top. Using iNaturalist records, we were able to track down both genera, seeing Apteria aphylla on the Beaverslide Trail and Burmannia capitata at the very interesting Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve. This was my 230th of 239 native vascular plant families in North America north of Mexico!
We next headed to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, in the central Gulf Coast of Texas. The highlight in the refuge was hearing a pair of Whooping Cranes bugling back and forth, and watching them at close range! I had never heard one before. The next day we walked around the Oso Bay Wetlands near Corpus Christi, looking for another new plant family, Basellaceae, without success, and then camped at Malaquite Beach, on North Padre Island. Clearly, we have not botanized much along the Gulf Coast in fall, as we saw nine new plant species in three days, five of them in the aster family. We reached McAllen, TX on November 2, for something entirely different, though it turned out to be even more different than expected …