Virginia’s Piedmont grasslands: floristics and restoration

Jordan Coscia is a PhD student in the Restoration Ecology Lab at Virginia Tech and a graduate fellow at Virginia Working Landscapes, a program of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She describes her research goals and includes a preliminary species list for natural and semi-natural grasslands on the northern Virginia Piedmont.

You may have heard the legend that before European colonization, a squirrel could get from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi by hopping from tree to tree. While the pre-European landscape of the eastern United States was indeed quite different from what we see today, the idea of a vast, all-encompassing forest is misleading. Particularly in the Southeast, open, grassy habitats such as meadows, pine and oak savannas, glades, and barrens were interspersed with hardwood forests. This mosaic of forests and open savannas was maintained by grazing elk and bison, variation in soil types and depth, and regular fires set by both lightning strikes and Indigenous peoples. All of these grassland-maintaining processes were disrupted by the introduction of European development and agricultural practices.

As a PhD student in the Restoration Ecology Lab at Virginia Tech and a graduate research fellow with the Smithsonian’s Virginia Working Landscapes program, I am researching native warm-season grasslands in Virginia. I have three main goals:

(1) To describe the plant species that characterize native warm-season grassland communities on the Virginia Piedmont;

(2) To determine which ecological processes and environmental conditions allow these grasslands to thrive and persist in tandem with forests; and

(3) To determine the best methods to restore and reconstruct these communities where they have been lost.

I am accomplishing the first of these goals, the description of Virginia’s Piedmont grassland communities, by surveying the plant species found in existing Virginia grasslands. Today, most high-quality grassland sites in Virginia are in areas where routine maintenance prevents the growth of shrubs and trees and keeps the habitat open for the sun-loving grassland plants. Many highly diverse sites, for example, are found in powerline rights-of-ways that are maintained by annual mowing.

Jordan Coscia surveys grassland plant vegetation in an experimental restoration in northern Virginia. Photo credit: Charlotte Lorick.

By surveying native grassland fragments such as those found in rights-of-ways, we can determine the plant species that are characteristic of these habitats. We can then include these species in planted grasslands and native grassland seed mixes to create more ecologically accurate restorations. In the summer of 2020, the Restoration Ecology Lab at Virginia Tech partnered with the Clifton Institute and Virginia Working Landscapes to identify and survey remnant and semi-natural grassland plant communities across northern Virginia. The results of these surveys will inform future grassland restoration projects in the area, including my own grassland restoration experiment that will test the effectiveness of different grassland installation and management techniques. While a full report of the survey results will be available in a future publication, you can find a sneak peak of the full list of the species recorded in our 2020 surveys below.

A semi-natural grassland bursting with scaly blazing star (Liatris squarrosa) blooms in a powerline right-of-way in Fluvanna County, Virginia. Photo credit: Jordan Coscia.

Across 34 sites, we identified 354 taxa (including subspecies and varieties), with an additional 53 groups only identifiable to genus or family. Of those identified to genus level or better, 330 (81%) are considered native, 41 (10%) are introduced, 11 (3%) are invasive, and 25 (6%) are of uncertain status in northern Virginia. The three most commonly recorded species were little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), narrowleaf mountainmint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium), and tapered rosette grass (Dichanthelium acuminatum).

Our species list is available for download below.

The final column is a count of occurrence, or how many sites a plant was recorded in, with a maximum possible value of 34. Plants are listed alphabetically by Latin species name in descending order of occurrence.

We are continuing this work in 2021 through a collaborative effort with the Center for Urban Habitats. This year, we have expanded our grassland discovery and characterization to an eight-county area centered on the city of Charlottesville in the central Piedmont. With a larger team and a refined protocol, we have already discovered more than 300 remnant grassland fragments this growing season. Both the 2020 and 2021 surveys are generously supported by research grants from the Virginia Native Plant Society.

Note: Part of this work represents a USDA NIFA Hatch project.

Torrey’s mountain mint – an oddball species?

In a state whose flora has been studied for hundreds of years, grassland conservation and restoration are still hindered by a need for better understanding of basic plant ecology and systematics. Leighton Reid, Jordan Coscia, Jared Gorrell, and Bert Harris contributed to this post.

All ecologists deal with puzzling groups of plants. In eastern North America, sedges (genus Carex) and panic grasses (genus Dichanthelium) are notorious for having many species with similar characteristics. In Central America, tree seedlings in the avocado family (Lauraceae) can be tricky to separate.

Sometimes we also encounter oddballs – plant species that it’s hard to see where they fit into the contemporary landscape.

Torrey’s mountain mint (Pycnanthemum torreyi) is a bit of both – an oddball species whose relationships to other mountain mints is not yet worked out.

Late-season aspect of Torrey’s mountain mint. Photo credit: B. Harris.

Like others in its genus, Torrey’s mountain mint is an aromatic herb that grows (mostly) in more-or-less open areas. Its crushed leaves have a delightful minty smell. In summer, it produces clusters of small, white flowers that are visited by a variety of pollinators.

Unlike some other mountain mints, Torrey’s is also rare. NatureServe ranks it as a G2, meaning that it is imperiled throughout its range – which extends sporadically from New Hampshire to Kansas.

Virginia has more Torrey’s mountain mint populations than the other states. The Flora of Virginia describes its habit as “dry, rocky, or sandy woodlands and clearings.” In some places, like the Piedmont, it occurs mainly on basic soils, whereas in other places, like the Coastal Plain, it lives in sandy, acidic soils. In the mountains it has been found also in limestone seepages.

An oddball species

While restoring natural areas in Chicagoland in the 1980s, Stephen Packard described some of the plants he saw as “oddball species”. Species like purple milkweed (Aslcepias purparescens) and cream gentian (Gentiana alba) grew neither in closed forest nor in open prairie, so where did they belong? These species preferred intermediate levels of light, such as would be found beneath a spreading burr oak. Packard’s observation that these species preferred savanna conditions sparked his realization that savanna had once been a frequent component of the Chicago landscape.

Matthew Albrecht has considered a similar possibility in Tennessee for Pyne’s ground plum (Astragalus bibullatus). This species grows on so-called cedar glades around Nashville, but it does not grow right in the middle. It prefers the edges where there is intermediate light. This suggests that these cedar glades may once have had softer edges that tapered slowly from exposed, rocky glade into open woodland. With modern fire suppression, these edges have become hard; many glades are now bordered by dense forests of eastern red cedar.

Could our own Pycnanthemum torreyi fall into the same category? An “oddball species” with a preferred niche that is neither full sun nor full shade? In our fieldwork on the northern Virginia Piedmont, we encountered several populations of Torrey’s mountain mint, all of which were growing in edgy sites, like powerline right of ways, or the edge of an old apple orchard.

A small population of Torrey’s mountain mint grows along one edge of this field near the forest edge, not in the open center of the field. Is this typical of this species’ preferred light environment?

Last summer, one of us (Leighton) tested P. torreyi’s habitat affinities inadvertently and with a very small sample size. He planted three seedlings in his small, Blacksburg, Virginia yard – one in an exposed spot on the south side of the house and two in a partially-shaded spot on the north side of the house. The plant in the more open, southerly spot grew okay, but it was somewhat stunted – like a spider plant that has been left out in the sun. Its stem and leaves grew short and tough. In contrast, the two plants on the north side of the house grew full and spread out, both flowering and fruiting in their first season. They also remained green late into the season, even after nearby P. tenuifolium and P. incanum had senesced. If this was a species desirous of full sun, shouldn’t it be doing better in the exposed position in the back by the parking lot?

Two Torrey’s mountain mints growing well and flowering in partial shade on the north side of JL Reid’s home in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Clearly Leighton’s sample is way too small to draw any conclusions, but it does make us wonder if Torrey’s mountain mint prefers and intermediate level of light, such as would be found in a savanna or an open woodland. These disturbance-dependent habitats were once widespread but are excluded today in much of the eastern United States. Maybe Torrey’s mountain mint is an oddball species whose habitat preferences will eventually lead us to design new restoration targets in Virginia, but we’ll have to study its ecology in a bit more detail first.

A “Problematic Species”

The Flora of Virginia also highlights that Torrey’s mountain mint is a “problematic species”, whose interpretation is “confounded by its similarity to Pycnanthemum verticillatum and its hybridization with other species.”

During our fieldwork in 2020, we were able to positively identify all of the individuals that we encountered, differentiating P. torreyi from P. verticillatum by characteristics of their flowers and leaves. Still, the possibility that Torrey’s mountain mint is not a well-differentiated species is troubling. Several landowners in our area are conserving open habitat in part because this rare species occurs there, so it would be nice to know if it is a good species.

I asked Gary Fleming, a Vegetation Ecologist for the Virginia Natural Heritage Program, for his thoughts. “Well, the entire genus Pycnanthemum is a bit problematic!” Gary wrote me in an email. He explained that the problem is that nobody has studied this genus using molecular phylogenetics, that is, using DNA to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships between species. As a result, our understanding of how species in this genus relate to each other is pretty fuzzy.

“Personally, I think P. torreyi is a good species,” Gary continued, “Over the years, I’ve observed it in numerous places state-wide and it appears to be morphologically very consistent.”

In a state whose flora has been studied for hundreds of years, apparently the Pycnanthumum nut has not yet been cracked. Hopefully some enterprising botanist will take this up soon (and maybe Packera while they’re at it).

Torrey’s mountain mint flowers. Photo credit: JL Reid.

Note: Part of this blog post represents a USDA NIFA Hatch project.

Botanizing a Central Appalachian Shale Barren

Leighton Reid describes a field trip to a unique, natural community with Tom Wieboldt, retired curator of the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech.

From southwestern Virginia to central Pennsylvania, ancient shale formations jut out of the mountains at wonky angles. Loose and crumbly, the rocks bake in the sun. Surface temperatures can reach 60° C (140° F) – comparable to a desert. Rocks slip and tumble easily on the steep slopes. Few eastern plants are tough enough to hack it under these conditions. Among those that can, a few are globally unique.

On a warm day in August, I had the opportunity to botanize one such place – a central Appalachian shale barren in Craig County, Virginia – with Tom Wieboldt, retired curator of the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech (VPI), and a leading authority on shale barren flora. As we hiked and photographed plants, we talked about the conservation and potential for ecological restoration of these rare communities.

Shale barren wild buckwheat (Eriogonum allenii), a central Appalachian endemic whose relatives are mostly west of the Mississippi.

The gems of the shale barrens are the endemics. Amazingly, 22 species are found mostly or exclusively on central Appalachian shale barrens. Another seven species are rare or disjunct from the rest of their range – typically far to the west. For example, the closest population of chestnut lip fern (Cheilanthes castanea) outside of Virginia and West Virginia is in Oklahoma.

Virginia white-haired leatherflower (Clematis coactilis), a Virginia endemic and one of three leatherflowers endemic to central Appalachian shale barrens.
Shale-barren ragwort (Packera antennariifolia) had already finished flowering by August, but its leaves lived up to their name, looking very much like pussytoes (Antennaria sp.). This plant is strictly endemic to shale and metashale barrens.
Kates Mountain clover (Trifolium virginicum) was long thought to be a shale barren endemic, but it also occurs (rarely) on other substrates.
Shale barren evening primrose (Oenothera argillicola), a strict shale barren endemic.
The teeny-tiny flowers of mountain nailwort (Paronychia montana), a plant that is not quite endemic to shale barrens. It also occurs on a variety of other substrates.

Shale barren plant communities exist in a dynamic equilibrium. The steep, brittle shale formations often are under-cut by rivers, which carry away rocks and cause further erosion. In essence, the entire slope is constantly slipping downwards. Successful plants find the most stable areas and send down deep roots to try to keep their place on the rocky conveyor belt.

Why do shale barrens occur only in the Central Appalachians and not also in the Southern Appalachians? Tom gave me two reasons. First, the shale deposits in the Central Appalachians get thinner south of Montgomery County, Virginia, where Virginia Tech is located. Second, the high Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia create a rain shadow over parts of the Central Appalachians, more so than the more southern and shorter Cumberland Mountains. Drier conditions in the Allegheny rain shadow contribute to the shale barrens’ uniquely western ambiance.

Inhospitable as they are, shale barrens are not immune from human pressures. They are sometimes crossed by roads or utilities, and shale banks are sometimes quarried for road-building material. Livestock and overpopulated white-tailed deer browse the plants and catalyze erosion, while also adding nitrogen and foreign seeds to the sparse soil.

Craig Creek undercuts several shale bluffs, hastening their erosion and creating the conditions for shale barren plants to flourish.

Can disturbed shale barrens be restored?

When Reed Noss visited a Virginia shale barren for his book Forgotten Grasslands of the South, he found traversing the slippery slopes, lurching from one scattered red cedar to another, “close to suicidal”. I had similar thoughts following Tom up the mountainside. He climbed like a mountain goat, wandering out on thin ledges to collect interesting looking mosses.

Tom Wieboldt collects an interesting-looking moss from the side of a crumbling cliff.

As we walked, Tom wondered aloud whether it would even be possible to restore such a fragile plant community if it was destroyed. Wouldn’t it be better just to leave these places alone?

Undoubtedly leaving these places alone would be better. But I enjoyed thinking about how one might restore a shale barren that had already been destroyed – by quarrying, for instance. A first step might be to recontour the slope, aiming to reestablish a dynamic equilibrium with some areas eroding more actively than others. Perhaps this could be done by a skilled operator with some of the same quarrying equipment that had previously exploited the loose shale.

To revegetate such a place would require a source of propagules. I am teaching a course on Plant Materials for Environmental Restoration, so I put it to my students to find out whether shale barren plants were available from two major conservation seed suppliers. The results were not promising. Out of 86 native, non-woody angiosperms found in central Appalachian shale barrens*, less than a quarter (23.3%) could be purchased from any major seed supplier, and only 2.3% were available as seed collected from Virginia. None of the endemics were available.

As far as I can tell, few shale barren restorations have been undertaken, but I did read about one attempt in a shale barren in Green Ridge State Forest, Maryland. Whereas some shale barrens are actively threatened by acute pressures, like quarrying, this small (0.6 ha) barren was passively threatened by steady encroachment from the surrounding forest. Trees, especially pignut hickory (Carya glabra), were growing into a formerly open barren, stabilizing the soil and cutting off direct sunlight to plants closer to the ground. Managers restored the site in 2010-2011 by removing some of the pignut hickories and by burning the area during the winter. Together, these actions resulted in greater herbaceous vegetation cover and greater species diversity.

Central Appalachian shale barren, Craig County, Virginia, with a mix of shale barren wild buckwheat (Eriogonum allenii) and hairy lip fern (Cheilanthes lanosa) dominating the foreground.

Thanks to Tom Wieboldt for a fun field day, an excellent guest lecture, and stimulating discussions about botany, conservation, and restoration. To learn more about this unique natural community, read Tom’s co-authored chapter about shale barren communities in Savannas, Barrens, and Rock Outcrop Communities of North America, or Reed Noss’s chapter on shale barrens in Forgotten Grasslands of the South.

*For the seed availability exercise, we used the list of plants recorded by the Virginia Natural Heritage Program in their description of Central Appalachian Shale Barren (Shale Ridge Bald / Prairie Type) CEGL008530. We excluded woody plants, non-native plants, and ferns.

Plant diversity, soil carbon, and ecological restoration in Virginia grasslands

Kathlynn Lewis is an undergraduate researcher in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech. She is studying soil carbon storage as part of a larger project on grassland floristics, conservation, and restoration in northern Virginia. Keep up with her research on Twitter by following @KathlynnLewis.

How many rare or “cool” plants do you drive by every day without noticing? Do you brake for Buchnera americana? Do you pull over for Pycnanthemum torreyi? This is something not a lot of people think about, and I didn’t think about either until very recently. The answer is that there are more cool plants along roadsides than you would think. Some of the rarest grassland plants in Virginia have found a home in roadside clearings and powerline cuts where regular removal of trees has created an opening for them to grow and sometimes thrive.

This summer the Virginia Tech Restoration Ecology Lab team has been hard at work doing plant and soil surveys in several counties of northern Virginia. We are partnering with the Clifton Institute and Virginia Working Landscapes to find out where these rare grassland plants can be found and what are the greatest threats these populations face.

American bluehearts (Buchnera americana) – a charismatic hemiparasite and rare denizen of high-quality Virginia grasslands. Photo by JL Reid.

Many of the native vegetation surveys have taken us to the locations people might expect to find high-quality grassland plants, such as parts of Manassas Battlefield National Park where the soil and ecosystem have remained relatively undisturbed for almost 80 years. Other areas are much less expected. Rare plants also show up in power line right of ways and strips of roadside with tire tracks crisscrossing them in every direction and markers stuck in the ground indicating the soil was completely displaced to bury utility lines.

A flourishing native grassland at Manassas National Battlefield Park. In July, it was bedazzled with the hot pink inflorescences of scaly blazing star (Liatris squarrosa). Photo by JL Reid.
A hidden gem – high diversity native grassland along a back road in Culpeper County. The two lines show our 50 × 2 m sampling transect. Photo by JL Reid.

During June, we collected samples from 29 sites to compare plant species diversity with the amount of carbon stored in the soil. We also sampled soils from grassland restoration plantings and pastures “improved” with tall fescue (Schedonorus arundinaceus) to compare the effect of different management practices and ecological restoration on soil carbon sequestration. The soil work is my part of the project. My prediction is that soil carbon storage will be greatest in diverse, native grasslands and lowest in degraded fescue fields. I expect that restored grasslands will be intermediate.

A “blackjack” soil sample from a power line right of way in Culpeper County. This soil had so much clay you could pull it out of the probe and tie it in an overhand knot. Photo by JL Reid.

Power line right of ways are an interesting focus of this study because they present both opportunities and challenges for plant conservation. Power companies keep these areas open by cutting out trees and spraying young sprouts with herbicide. This management is the only reason that grasslands exist in these places today, but the rare plants that live there are at constant risk of collateral damage. At least two of the areas that we sampled in June were sprayed in July, harming populations of rare plants like Torrey’s mountain mint (Pycnanthemum torreyi) and stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

Rose-pink (Sabatia angularis) next to a power line right of way in Prince William County. This plant can give away a good grassland even at 60 miles per hour. Photo by JL Reid.

The vegetation surveying team has already observed over 450 species across the 29 sites sampled. Not all of these species are a welcome presence though. Invasive species appear to pose one of the largest threats to Virginia grassland ecosystems we have observed in the field. A newly emerging and particularly aggressive invader is joint-head grass (Arthraxon hispidis) which we have found in many of the sites we are sampling. This annual grass is similar to Japenese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) but there is very little information about its effects on grassland ecosystems or methods for controlling it.

Joint-head grass (tan-colored thatch) smothering one of the most diverse grasslands in northern Virginia. Photo by JL Reid.

The plant survey team is now doing a second round of sampling to identify later-blooming species, and they are collating information about the land use history at each of our study sites. The soil samples we collected are currently being analyzed (by me) in a lab at Virginia Tech. We will start analyzing data in the fall and hope this summer’s fieldwork will help inform future research projects and the conversation around land management in Virginia grasslands.

The author collects a panic grass (Dichanthelium sp.) for further observation. Photo by JL Reid.

To find out how ecological restoration affects grassland soil carbon storage in northern Virginia, follow the author on Twitter @KathlynnLewis.