Under the Umbrella Magnolia Trees: Field Trip to Meyers Creek Seep

By Eric Sundell

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Ogle

If my count is right, there were 26 of us at Burl’s Country Smokehouse at ten o’clock, Wednesday morning, May 30. What a turnout!

The main event, Meyers Creek, would be rich in ferns. But our first stop was a natural spring that splashed into the roadside ditch along Meyers Creek Road—the place where Theo Witsell a few years ago discovered a Ouachita Mountain population of horsetail, Equisetum arvense. This is the common equisetum of cooler climates, found across much of North America, but in Arkansas it’s an uncommon fern ally mostly limited to our northern Ozark counties. If you’re familiar with any equisetums in Arkansas, you probably know scouring-rush, E. hyemale, which is likely to eventually turn up in every county. Scouring-rush bears its cones at the tips of tall, unbranched, green stems. Horsetail is dimorphic:  Cones appear and disperse their spores from early, colorless stems that quickly die back, much like the fertile fronds of cinnamon fern. Green, photosynthetic stems, crowded with whorls of green branches, emerge as the fertile stems disintegrate. Those stems make hay all summer while the sun shines.

300-million-year-old stem cast of Calamites, a large tree and ancestral cousin of our modern horsetails and scouring-rushes (Equisetum spp.), photographed at a Bates, Arkansas, coal mine. Photo courtesy of Henry W. Robison

The population of Equisetum arvense reminded me that a little farther west in the same Ouachita Mountains, in a coal mine near Bates, Arkansas, on the Oklahoma border, Don Crank had shown me the Coal Age fossils of Calamites, a 300-million-year-old relative of Equisetum. Only 15 or 20 species of Equisetum are living today worldwide, and all are relatively minor players in ecosystems dominated by seed plants. During the Carboniferous Period of the Paleozoic Era, the calamites were forest giants, reaching heights of 20-30 feet (larger plants were possibly two to three times that height) with stems 2 feet thick. They were among the dominant trees of Coal Age forests. (Those were also the days when the land now folded into the Ouachita Mountains lay near the Equator.)

A second fern ally at the spring was the delicate spikemoss, Selaginella eclipes, with little cones at the branch tips. You might know peacock-fern, an exotic ornamental spikemoss that’s becoming popular for wetland gardening. Spikemosses and their close cousins, the club-mosses, constitute another group of fern allies whose pedigree goes back to the Coal Age.

Two flowering plants bloomed on the wet road bank in the sun: jewel weed, Impatiens capensis, and tearthumb, Polygonum sagittatum. Tearthumb comes by its name honestly. The stems are lined with stiff barbs that can quickly tear up the skin if stems are carelessly handled—a defensive mechanism as effective as that of stinging nettles and faster than that of poison-ivy. Like most members of the buckwheat family, tearthumbs produce nutritious grains that make excellent wildlife food. The species is locally common in scattered Arkansas wetlands, but relatively few specimens have been collected—a plant more fun to find than to handle.

A stem-tip umbrella of Magnolia tripetala leaves.
Photo courtesy of Don Ford

Meyers Creek seep fosters one of the richest habitats in the Ouachita Mountains and in Arkansas, generally. Some of the state’s rarest plants thrive there in soil water uninterrupted by summer drought; for example, fly poison, featherbells, Michigan lily, and American columbo. Eight orchid species have been recorded from the seep, four of them showy: putty root, large whorled pogonia, three-bird orchid, and Kentucky lady’s-slipper. Meyers Creek seep is still the only known locality in Arkansas for yellow twayblade orchid, Liparis loeselii. A reconnaissance expedition three weeks earlier had rediscovered none of those rare plants. But the ferns were in abundance, and we found them again, growing in large, dense colonies under a canopy dominated in part by incomparable umbrella magnolias, with their tight spirals of two-foot leaves terminating long, bare branches at multiple levels right to the top of the canopy.

Part of a frond of the rather unfernlike royal fern, Osmunda regalis. The species is native worldwide on all continents except Australia (and Antarctica).
Photo courtesy of Don Ford

In a long list of ferns that includes Christmas fern, southern lady fern, sensitive fern, netted chain fern, and broad beech fern, two species, marsh fern (Thelypteris palustris) and New York fern (T. noveboracensis), stood out for their rarity in our dry state, and two others, cinnamon and royal ferns, for their size and abundance. Fronds of cinnamon fern were as much as five feet long. After two months of unseasonably hot, dry weather, the vitality and diversity of the Meyers Creek ferns was most impressive.

Lunch at Burl’s Country Smokehouse on U.S. Hwy 270 in Crystal Springs hit the spot. Our thanks to Don Crank who thought that a lot of folks would enjoy seeing such a rich, unique site and organized the trip that got us there.

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