Eastern Ohio is made up of sandstone hills with acidic, dry soils, which has let the plants that have adapted to this environment thrive in this area. On our trip to Hocking Hills we encountered sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), and hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) which were the only two species we found that were mentioned in Jane Forsyth’s list of plants of eastern hills in the article “Linking Geology and Botany.”
Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)
Sourwood has opposite simple leaves. The leaves of this tree are actually edible! The tree that we found was very small, however that didn’t stop it from having extremely sour leaves.
Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis)
According to Peterson’s Field Guide eastern hemlock trees have needles that are attached singly to the branch with “slender stalks”. The underside of the needles are whiteish. Both the needles and bark of hemlocks are considered to be medicinal due to the presence of tannins (Medicinal Plants of the Northeast).
Biotic Threats to Forest Health
Unfortunately it wasn’t all fun and games on our field trip to hocking hills. We witnessed two trees that have been/are most likely going to be ravaged by fungus diseases and insects.
American Chestnut (Castanea dentata)
The American chestnut fed animals and humans alike for 40 million years until the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica killed this beautiful tree off in 40 years. Not only was this tree edible, but it was also one of the largest trees in the forest and had really strong, rot resistant wood. Today, the American chestnut is considered functionally extinct, meaning the root system has not been killed off and occasionally sends sprouts up from the ground. Ultimately, these sprouts die before they reach a quarter of their original height. Currently, The American Chestnut Foundation is researching ways to potentially bring this species back through breeding, biocontrol, and biotechnology.
Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis)
The good news is the eastern hemlock hasn’t been wiped out YET. However, researchers are racing against an insect called the woolly aldegid. Hemlocks affected by this bug appear to have white fuzzy buttons that are actually egg sacks along their branches. Currently, eastern hemlocks are being injected with an insecticide to kill this bug, unfortunately it isn’t species specific and kills the other insects that call this tree home as well…(Michigan State University).
Vittaria appalachiana, also known as the Appalachian Gametophyte is found in deep shaded areas of sandstone and quartzite. It is such a remarkable species because it reproduces without sporophytes which is almost unheard of!
According to Kimmerer and Young (1995) fern gemmae are much larger than spores and generally cannot participate in long distance wind travel like spores are able to. Gemmae have to rely on traveling short distances by wind, water, and even…SLUGS!
Appalachian gametophyte occurs in the Appalachian Mountains and a plateau of the Eastern United States.This species is absent to the north of the last glacial maximum, even though studies have proved that they are able to survive there. This data leads researchers to believe that a sporophyte must have been responsible for its current range, until the gametophytes were no longer able to reproduce, which occurred sometime around the last ice age (American Journal of Botany).
The current populations of Appalachian gametophyte could not be sustained from a long distance tropical sporophyte source thanks to allonym studies as well as its range in southern New York. The most likely explanation for the wide range of Appalachian gametophyte can be explained by an original fully functioning sporophyte (American Journal of Botany).
*find two species of Fagaceae*
American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
Quite possibly my favorite tree, this beauty was found growing in Hocking Hills County, Ohio. Petersons field guide describes the American beach as a, “tall tree with distinctive smooth gray bark, slender many scaled buds, and elliptic, coarse toothed leaves. American beeches nuts can actually be ground down into a butter and eaten, wile the inner bark has actually been made into sawdust and used as flour for bread when times were rough (American beech).
American Chestnut (Castanea dentata)
Also in the family Fagaceae is the American chestnut. I can only imagine what our Ohio forests used to look like with these giant beauties, because as mentioned above, these trees are functionally extinct. That being said quite a lot of research is being done working towards the restoration of this species, and there is still hope left.