Endemic Flora in the Ouachita Mountains

Some 300 million years ago, the South American plate collided with the North American continental crust. The resultant buckling formed the dramatic topography of the Ouachita Mountains, which extend from southwestern Arkansas into eastern Oklahoma, defining the southern extent of the Interior Highlands of mid-continental North America.

The fold belt topography of the Ouachita Mountains

The fold belt topography of the Ouachita Mountains

Although the Ozark region, which forms the northern portion of the Interior Highlands, has received more attention in terms of both scientific literature and public familiarity, the Ouachita Mountains have a larger number of endemic plant taxa. In total, fourteen endemic plant taxa have been documented from the Ouachita Mountains, several of which have only been described in recent decades. As a member of the Center for Plant Conservation network of botanical gardens, we work to conserve imperiled plant species in the southeastern United States through seedbanking, reintroduction, and research to better understand the ecology and life history of these species. This research ranges from experiments to understand the ecological conditions necessary to break dormancy and induce germination, to field experiments that aim to provide guidance for ecological restoration and management of the communities and ecosystems in which these taxa occur.

Scenic vista in the southern Ouachita Mountains

Scenic vista in the southern Ouachita Mountains

Ouachita mountain goldenrod (Solidago ouachitensis) is one of the rare and endemic taxa which we are working to conserve in this region. Recently, during the week of November 17th-21st, Matthew Albrecht and I traveled to the Ouachita Mountains to collect seed of S. ouachitensis. A minor snowfall preceded our arrival, bringing with it unseasonably low temperatures. The snow remained for several days on north facing slopes, which increased both the scenic beauty of the region and the difficulty of traversing steep terrain.

Collecting seed of Solidago ouachitensis with a light dusting of snow

Collecting seed of Solidago ouachitensis with a light dusting of snow

The trip was perfectly timed to coincide with the peak of seed maturation, which made for a successful collection effort. Solidago ouachitensis occurs predominantly in two distinct habitat types – mesic oak dominated forest near the summit of slopes and also mixed hardwood forest of riparian toe slopes. Several populations occur along the Talimena National Scenic Byway, where the ridge tops are dominated by a dwarf forest comprised of a near continuous canopy of gnarled, windswept white oak. Solidago ouachitensis occurs on several north-facing aspects down slope from these dwarf forest. Populations vary greatly in size, from no more than several individuals up to thousands of individuals. It appears that the most robust populations (in terms of total population size, the proportion of the population producing seed, and the reproductive output of individual plants) occur in areas with evidence of recent fire. Prescribed fire is used as a management tool in the Ouachita National Forest, which appears to be beneficial for Solidago ouachitensis. To further explore this, we’re initiating experiments to examine whether chemical compounds in smoke enhance germination.

– Quinn Long

Solidago ouachitensis with mature seed. A charred log in the background provides evidence of recent fire.

Solidago ouachitensis with mature seed. A charred log in the background provides evidence of recent fire.