Incredible flowers and insects abound at Chapparal State Nature Preserve

The hot and humid days of early August are the perfect time to visit the prairies. Flowering is at its peak, and these relics of our diverse botanical past can be amazing.

One of my favorite grasslands in Ohio is the Chaparral State Nature Preserve in Adams County. It is just west of the county seat, West Union.

I took a trip there on a hot day, August 5th. Tolerating the heat and humidity was a small price to pay for the spectacular flower show. The meadow was a riot of colors, and I was not the only admirer. Word has spread about this botanical hotspot, and many visitors have stopped by that day.

Perhaps most striking were the towering purple spiers of the Spiked Blazing Star (Liatris spicata). The club-shaped inflorescences can rise several feet and are irresistible to monarch butterflies. Many of these migrating insects worked the prairie, and the blazing star was their drug of choice. Enriching the display were a number of white flowered forms.

Gargantuan flower stalks of prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) towered over their smaller botanical brethren. These giant sunflowers can grow up to eight feet or more, and the lemon-yellow flowers are prime pollinator magnets. Many American goldfinches frolic, eagerly awaiting seed ripening. Once ripe, the “wild canaries” will invade them and quickly devour the crop.

In places, a strange parsley, master rattlesnake (Eryngium yuccifolium), dominated. Its spherical clusters of small white flowers attracted legions of insects: tiny native bees, multi-striped wasps and a myriad of interesting beetles. Hairstreak butterflies – the warblers of the Lepidoptera world – are enamored with rattlesnake flowers. I’ve seen streaks of coral and red-banded hair get nectar patches.

Two rarities from Ohio were less conspicuous but perhaps more interesting to botanists: bluehearts (Buchnera americana) and pink crimson (Polygala incarnata). The former may be overshadowed by taller plants, but its gorgeous blue-violet flowers are a rival to any of its vegetative comrades. Bluehearts is a hemi-parasite – it burrows its roots into those of surrounding plants and draws its nutrition from those hosts.

It takes a keen eye to spot pink milkwort. A whopper can reach six inches in height. Growing in the driest, sunniest moors, Milkwort’s tiny flowers are said to be measured in millimetres. True to their name, Lilliputian flowers are a pleasing shade of coral pink.

The enormous botanical diversity leads to exceptional animal diversity, and Chaparral was buzzing with insects working the flowers. As always, and an important part of the food web, predatory insects thinned out the herd. Crab spiders and ambush insects mingled with the flowers, ready to pounce on hapless pollinators. For all the flattering floral poetry, a flower is a potential death trap – a showy land of traps and landmines.

The king of predatory insects was the giant robber flies “cannibal flies”. The peregrine falcons of the fly world, these jumbos kill the largest bumblebees and wasps, and have even been recorded taking on hummingbirds.

The Natural Areas and Reserves Division of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources acquired Chaparral Prairie about three decades ago. Then the meadow was covered with red cedar and other woody plants. The open grassland has been reduced to tiny fragments. Years of well-designed management and a lot of hard work have worked wonders.

Mark your calendar for a visit to Chaparral Prairie next summer. Even though the loop trail is less than a mile long, it can sometimes take hours to hike given all the interesting occupants, both floral and wildlife.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

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