I had the most wonderful opportunity last Wednesday to meet up with Christopher Reid at one of the newly discovered Coastal Tall grass prairies located on private land in Calcasieu Parish. The prairie exists on an old and very large cattle farm operation stretching south from the town of Vinton all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Chris is botanist for the State Natural Heritage Program. His job is finding, preserving and assisting in managing rare land and the vegetation that grows on it. Last summer, Chris and his fellow Wildlife and Fisheries staff members erected fenced-off study plots to exclude cattle from the vegetation within. This will, over time, give the vegetation a rest from grazing and should provide a unique opportunity to see what species return naturally. It was a really exciting and interesting visit for me considering that as far as we know yet, there are no longer any good and sizable examples of our native prairie preserved in Louisiana. This farm, like three others the State is working with, has the potential to be brought back to its former glorious self: a natural, diverse prairie complete with Pimple Mound formations. One of the most significant things I saw was the height of the pimple mounds (Mima mounds, Coppice dunes) that were scattered across the landscape. Mima mounds are naturally occurring circular raised areas of soil, laid down during the late Pleistocene era (that’s a long time ago, folks). The soils are really sandy, and it shows. Chris and I were finding plants that aren’t normally this close to the Gulf. They aren’t except on top of these mounds. These were high mounds all right, up to four feet tall or maybe a bit higher. Ones I had previously seen were just slightly raised areas a few inches or so high and several feet around. So dramatically different and the altitude of these so high, they were well worthy of being called Cajun mountains, especially considering the flatness of the land in this part of the state.
above: Chris Reid on top of a nearly imperceptible Cajun mountain
All plants that were not on the mounds were indicative of a high moisture regime, meaning they showed the soils there were for the most part, very wet. Conspicuous was the Brownseed paspalum, Texas Coneflower, Hairy Fruited Hibiscus, Water Hemlock, and the other usual Cajun Prairie suspects.
Hairy Fruited Hibiscus has lots of fuzz
above: native Hairy Petunia Ruellia humulus tucked in with the obnoxious multiflora rose, an invasive exotic species that gets around via fruit-eating birds. Rosa multiflora is a hateful, thorny thing.
Up on the mountains were plants from way up in Vernon Parish, 100 miles north, where the soils are super-sandy. Who ever heard of Sassafras less than a mile from coastal fresh water marsh? The mima mounds have, thats who! This sand loving Sassafras stood out like a sore thumb. She was hanging out with her buddies Queen’s Delight, Wooly White, and a bunch of other highlanders, way up where the air is much thinner. And the view from atop the mountains? ….you could see for a hundred feet!
There were several odd-ball species found on the flats, too. White Topped Sedge, typically a Pine herbaceous species, was growing right there in the wet prairie soils, big as the sky. Hooker’s Eryngo was a new species for me. I am the biggest fan of Eryngium species in general, and seeing this in the wild was quite the treat. I got that same feeling I used to get as a kid when the ice cream truck music sounded through my old neighborhood. This species is not listed in the distribution book for that Parish, nor is it in the Floristic Assessment for Coastal Prairie. Nice! Also present and accounted for was Rough Leafed Goldenrod and the Antelope Horn and Longleaf Milkweeds.
Rough Leafed Goldenrod
Long Leaf Milkweed
Strangely and conspicuously absent was Switch grass and Gamma grass. Overgrazing, Chris suspected. I did find what I thought to be a small clump of Big Bluestem, which got him all excited. Its pretty easily id’d even at an early, infertile stage. He was glad to see it barely grazed outside the pens
above: Chris took me in the direction of the gulf to look for a plant he had seen on an earlier trip. We hiked about a while to a Buffalo wallow area (a marias), where he collected a tiny grass-like plant (that I forget the name of) as a state record for Calcasieu Parish. Yip Yip!!
As we were done and leaving, we wheeled out of the farm property and onto the Parish road, where Chris slowed to show me Side Oats Gramma grass growing big as can be and thick as hair on a goat’s back. This was the catch of the day for me. I have only seen this a couple of times in Louisiana and seeing it a stone’s throw from the Gulf was both exciting and encouraging. Until now, I thought that growing this plant this close to the Gulf was not possible. It was a very hopeful end of the trip for me. I would like to one day be able to work with it more than I have. It has great ornamental and restoration potential. If I can, I’ll get a couple of handfuls of seed when they ripen perhaps, and see what comes of growing it.
Side Oats Gramma grass in flower, Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana