Best places to look at cool plants in Ohio
I’ve spent the last three years living in Columbus, Ohio and getting outdoors whenever possible to look for cool plants, bugs, salamanders, etc. I recently moved away from Ohio and I have been reflecting on all the cool places I have visited during my time there. I wanted to share a few of my top favorite spots I have visited in Ohio, sometimes repeatedly, and what makes them so cool. As a native Michigander, I had my doubts about how much I would enjoy living in Ohio. If you are from Ohio or Michigan you know there is a fair amount of rivalry between the two states. The beautiful parks and nature preserves of Ohio, such as those highlighted in this post, totally opened my eyes to the value of the natural spaces of Ohio and made me really enjoy my time living there. Just as a disclaimer, because I lived in central Ohio most of my favorite spots are in that region, so there are probably many other great spots in other parts of the state that I’m not familiar with. Here are my top plant spots in Ohio. If you look for plants at these parks make sure to stay on the designated trails to avoid disturbing sensitive plants and wildlife!
- Conkle’s Hollow State Nature Preserve
Conkle’s Hollow is part of Hocking Hills State Park near Logan, Ohio. The Hocking Hills region is awesome with gorgeous rock formations, waterfalls, and many cool plants. The Southeast part of Ohio was left unglaciated during the last glacial maximum which has led to interesting differences in geology and plant communities in the southeast portion of the state compared to northwest. Plants that thrive in soil conditions that are slightly acidic such as Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana), Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), and members of the blueberry family like Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea repens), and Deerberry (Vaccinium stamineum) are common in the Hocking Hills region.
While all the different parks and preserves that make up Hocking Hills State park are worth checking out, I like Conkle’s Hollow best. There are two trails at Conkle’s hollow, the gorge trail and the rim trail. The gorge trail is a little less than a mile long and has tall cliffs on either side of the trail. There are lots of cool mosses, liverworts and lichens on this trail, not to mention beautiful views of rock formations and a waterfall at the end.
The rim trail is a bit longer and goes around the edge of the cliffs about the gorge trail. There are several spots with good views and a lot of good plants on this trail. In the fall, you might see Pinesap (Hypopitys monotropa), a member of the blueberry family that is parasitic on mycorrhizal fungi. These plants are leafless, lack chlorophyll, and are non-photosynthetic. Plants like pinesap are known as mycoheterotrophs and steal sugars from mycorrhizal fungi that it is ultimately getting from a photosynthetic plant.
Pinesap was previously placed in the genus Monotropa with another mycoheterotrophic plant, Ghost Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), however genetic work has shown these plants are not as closely related as previously thought, so Pinesap has been moved to its own genus, Hypopitys (1). Pinesap is also thought to be a species complex containing potentially 3 or 4 species that are currently only widely recognized as one species.
Another mycoheterotroph that can be found on the rim trails is Autumn Coral Root Orchid (Corallorhiza odontorhiza). Compared to other orchids like Lady Slippers or tropical epiphytes, this plant might not seem like much to look at. They are also easy to overlook as they are typically around 6-8 inches tall. Autumn Coral Root has several varieties, some of which cleistogamous flowers. This means that the flowers never open, and the plants must self pollinate in order to reproduce (2). I think the fall coral root I saw at Conkle’s Hollow was one of these cleistogamous varieties (Corallorhiza odontorhiza var. odontorhiza).
Besides some cool parasitic plants, the ridge trail at Conkle’s Hollow also has some really nice views if you look up. If you look down at the ground you might see lichens, Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens) and Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). Teaberry and Partridgeberry produce similar looking red fruits in the fall but have quite different leaves and flowers. Teaberry is a member of the blueberry family and the flowers it produces in spring are white and bell shaped which is common in this family. Partridgeberry is a member of the coffee family, Rubiaceae, and produces paired white flowers with four petals. The ovaries of each pair of flowers fuses to form one fruit. You can tell this by looking at the base of each berry which shows the remnants of where the petals were attached.
- Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park
Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park is just outside of Columbus and it contains a wide variety of ecosystem types. Some of my favorite areas include the wet prairie and the Terrace trail. The wet prairie at Battelle Darby Creek is dominated by grasses and sedges, mainly Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Sorghastrum nutans.
Common Bladderwort (Utricularia macrorhiza) can be found blooming in the pond at the wet prairie in early July. These plants are carnivorous, meaning they get nutrients by catching and digesting insects. Common Bladderwort is fully aquatic and has small pouch-like bladders under the water. The bladders have minuscule hairs which are triggered when small organisms such as zooplankton and tiny insect larvae swim past, causing the bladders to activate and suck up those organisms.
Bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata) can be found blooming at Battelle Darby in May. This plant is a member of the sandalwood family, Santalaceae. It gets its strange common name from its superficial resemblance to several other plants with the common name “toadflax”, and the word “bastard”, which means “false” in a botanical context (3). Almost all plants in the sandalwood family are parasites. Bastard toadflax is a facultative parasite which means it can survive without a host but does much better when it parasitizes another plant (4). These plants are generalists and can parasitize a wide number of species across many plant families.
Seneca Snakeroot (Polygala senega) also occurs in this park. Plants in the genus Polygala typically have three petals, one of which is conspicuously fringed to attract pollinators. The common name comes from its use in treating snakebites, and it can still be used for a variety of medicinal purposes today. Also its really pretty and cool and makes me happy.
Large Twayblade (Liparis liliifolia) can often be found in various habitats including dry oak forests and cedar stands. These orchids are pollinated by flesh flies in the family Sarcophagidae which lay their eggs on decaying carrion. The purple coloration of these flowers may be a form of mimicry meant to trick flies into landing on them (5).
In addition to those plants, Battelle Darby is home to a large number of spring ephemerals including Toadshade (Trillium sessile), Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), Trout lily (Erythronium albidum), and many others making it a great place to visit in early spring. In late spring and early summer, Pawpaw (Asimina triloba), Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea), Four leaved milkweed (Asclepias quadrifolia), Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia), Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium), and many other plants can be seen in flower. In late summer and fall, you can admire the many different species of goldenrod (Solidago sp.) and Oak (Quercus sp.), as well as Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) at the wet prairie. Overall, I would highly recommend this metro park to anyone in the Columbus area, it is well worth a trip any time of year.
- Clear Creek Metropark
Clear Creek Metropark is Ohio’s largest nature preserve with over 5,300 acres of land (6). This park, Like Conkle’s Hollow, is in the Hocking Hills region of Ohio where the land is characterized by Blackhand sandstone and slightly acidic soils making it a perfect habitat for ericaceous plants in the family Ericaceae.
Spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) has a weird common name, because its leaves are not spotted, they are striped. Even its specific epithet “maculata” means spotted. The anthers of these flowers, like many members of Ericaceae, are inverted and porous. Instead of opening along a slit like the anthers of many other types of flowers, these anthers open through a little hole. They are pollinated by bees using buzz pollination, where bees vibrate against the anthers to release pollen grains. Personally, I think these anthers have an unsettling shape and they give me the heebie jeebies, but I still love this plant.
I studied Ghost pipes (Monotropa uniflora) for my master’s thesis, and I feel really lucky that I was able to because they are such beautiful and interesting plants. Clear Creek has one of the largest populations of Ghost pipes I have ever seen in person, particularly on the Hemlock trail and the trails near the Thomas and Mathias log cabins. Like Pinesap and coralroot orchids, these plants are mycoheterotrophic and entirely dependent on mycorrhizal fungi for their nutrients. They have been shown through many studies to exclusively parasitize fungi in the family Russulaceae which contains mushrooms commonly known as the brittlegills and milkcaps (7,8).
Yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) can be found blooming in mid May on the Cemetery Ridge trail at Clear Creek. These plants are rare in Ohio and the small population at Clear Creek is protected from deer and ill-mannered park visitors by a mesh fence. Lady slipper orchids get pollinated by trapping insects inside their lower petals which are modified into a large pouch shape. Once inside the pouch, the only way for the insect to get out is by passing through the sexual organs of the flower, hopefully pollinating the flower on their way out.
Fire pinks (Silene virginica), as you might guess from their red color and tubular shape, are hummingbird pollinated. This plant is a member of the Pink family, Caryophyllaceae, which typically have five petals. The name “pink” does not refer to the color but rather from the zigzagging tips of the petal. In fashion and tailoring, pinking means to cut a zigzag pattern in cloth. Many flowers in this family have petals with jagged tips and others, like chickweeds (Stellaria sp.), have petals that are deeply divided, so much so that they sometimes appear to have ten petals rather than five. Plants in this family, particularly the genus Silene are some of my favorite plants. Many of them are pretty weedy but something about them is very charming to me.
May is probably the best time to go to Clear Creek Metropark, as that is when you are likely to see orchids in bloom like the Yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum), Showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis), and Pink Lady Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), and you can also see plenty of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Long spurred violet (Viola rostrata), Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), Firepinks (Silene virginica), and Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) and maybe a salamander or two if you’re lucky.
- Cedar bog
Cedar bog is a nature preserve in Urbana, Ohio and it has the highest FQAI (Floristic quality assessment index) in the state. Floristic quality assessment is a way to evaluate plant communities based on how tolerant that plants that make up the community at that site are to different ecological conditions. Plants that are very particular to a narrow set of habitats have high scores, and plants that are tolerant of many habitat types have low scores. The FQAI score for a particular site is calculated by summing the scores (Coefficients of conservatism) for all plants at a site and dividing by the number of native plants. Cedar Bog has a FQAI score of 74. Conkle’s Hollow, by contrast has a FQAI score of 32.2 (9).
Unlike many of my other favorite spots in Ohio, Cedar Bog is an alkaline site with soil thats calcareous rather than acidic. The various habitat types at Cedar Bog include sedge meadows, wet forest, and prairie. The sedge meadows are the coolest part, in my opinion, and are dominated by walking sedge (Eleocharis rostellata), which bends over as it grows and new plants propagate from the tips as the plant “walks”.
Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) can be found in blooming in fall in these sedge meadows. This plant has five anthers and fifteen staminoidia, which are sterile modified stamen that produce nectar from their tips to help attract pollinators. The stripes along the petals also help guide pollinators to the sexual parts of the flower (10).
Prairie Plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum) is actually a member of the sunflower family, Asteraceae. This plant is relatively rare in Ohio as it is specific to fen habitats and require calcareous soils.
Arguably the most appealing plants at cedar bog are the many different orchids that occur there. Grass pinks (Calopogon tuberosus) and Showy lady slippers (Cypripedium reginae) are the first to bloom in mid to late May and both grow in the sunny sedge meadows. Lesser purple fringe orchid (Platanthera psycodes) blooms in mid June in the wet forest mingling with the skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus). Green Wood Orchid (Platanthera clavellata) also grows in the understory of the wet forest and blooms in late summer.
Another nice thing about Cedar Bog is the wildlife. Five-lined skinks are often found sunning themselves and munching on insects on the boardwalk. Leopard frogs and their tadpoles are common in the waters of the sedge meadows, living among the carnivorous sundews (Drosera rotundifolia) and bladderworts (Utricularia ochroleuca).
Since moving to Ohio in 2017, I have learned there is more to it than just flat corn fields as many salty Michiganders might claim. Ohio is full of interesting plants, animals, habitats, and geographical features. I have highlighted four of my favorites, but special mentions include: Wahkeena Nature Preserve, Christmas Rocks State Nature Preserve, Kitty Todd Nature Preserve, Mohican State Forest, Tar Hollow, and Edge of Appalachia State Nature Preserve (See my post about EOA here). In conclusion, Ohio is pretty neat and I would encourage people from Michigan (and anywhere else for that matter) not to buy into anti-Ohio propaganda and go explore its natural areas!