Local group explores for arboretum site

By By Joseph M. McGee/Special to The Star
April 6, 2001
March 18 was cool and cloudless in east Mississippi – a perfect day to go botanizing. And that's exactly what 15 nature enthusiasts did that Sunday afternoon when they hiked into a prospective arboretum site near Bonita Lakes. The group viewed a site under consideration for the arboretum planned in connection with the upcoming Cultural Arts and Entertainment Center. Their leader was Steve Strong, Lauderdale County Extension Service Agent.
The site, easily reached from the Causeyville Road exit off Highway 45 southeast of downtown Meridian, features a great deal of topographic relief, or as local Audubon member Tohy Tisdale put it, "lots of hills and hollows." Whatever the geologic properties the site possesses, botanically it is a mesic (moist) woodland with a rich, diverse flora.
In mid-March when Strong's group explored the area, the woods had a definite late winter-very early spring aspect. Many trees and shrubs were just beginning to leaf out. Others revealed huge swelling buds, while still others appeared as dormant as they were in mid-winter. Overall a hint of spring green was everywhere.
The hikers were especially interested in finding various spring ephemerals – low growing, forest floor perennial (sometimes annual) wild flowers which "green up" in late winter. When sunlight reaches the forest floor at its maximum for the year, these plants bloom during the cool days of early spring before being shaded out by the leaves of the tree canopy overhead.
Among the ephemerals the group observed were bloodroot (already finished blooming and in seed), 2 or 3 violet species, wild hyacinth and, on one steep slope, the seldom seen hepatica with its delicate, palest-of-pink flowers and three-lobed leaves just barely poking out above last fall's leaf litter. Seeing hepatica in bloom alone made the hike worthwhile. But many other forest floor plants were found, including yellowroot, wild ginger, at least one species of wild iris, wild parsnip, crane fly orchid, lady fern, netted chain fern and several other ferns with their fiddle heads just unfurling.
Shrub diversity on the slopes and in the hollows of the site is high too. Wild azaleas, known locally as pink honeysuckle but actually a rhododendron species, were just coming into bloom. Strawberry bush, dwarf pawpaw and two or three species of huckleberry were also leafing out and about to bloom. The group also found oak-leaf hydrangea with its large, fuzzy buds bursting open, and several viburnums which, like the hydrangeas , will bloom sometime in mid-spring to early summer. The witch hazels (really a small tree) that the group saw were beginning to leaf out but won't bloom until late fall.
But the absolute jewel of the entire area was the silky camellia or Stewartia. This shrub, or sometimes a small tree, is rare anywhere, but the group located one near a stream. The lone individual appeared as dormant and inconspicuous that Sunday in March as it must have been back in January.
Providing the main "architecture" to any woodland are, of course, the trees. Remember, according to the dictionary, an arboretum is a botanical garden exhibiting trees for their scientific interest and educational value. The trees at the proposed arboretum are among everyone's favorites because so many of them do not occur "just everywhere."
In mid-March the huge buds of the big leaf magnolia were bursting, providing every bit as much interest as an opening flower bud. At least four other species of magnolia are part of these woods: cucumber tree, umbrella magnolia, sweetbay magnolia, and southern magnolia. Also present are large tulip trees ("yellow poplar") which, at maturity, might be the tallest trees in the arboretum. These first cousins to the magnolia bloom in mid to late spring, providing nectar for orioles passing through.
Still in bud were numerous American beech trees with many of last year's tan leaves still clinging to twigs. Bonita's botanizers noted that beech buds superficially resemble thorns. They are long, thin and pointed. When mature the beech trees, along with the big leaf magnolias and tulip trees, might form the main component of a climax forest at the arboretum.
Plants provide the obvious structure of a natural community (ecosystem), but many, many other life forms contribute to its biodiversity. For example, while botanizing, Strong's group found several fist-sized globs of colorless, almost transparent "jelly" in a moist depression along a trail. These brought to mind jellyfish cast up onto a beach! Close inspection by Gail Barton, head of the Horticulture Department at Meridian Community College, revealed tiny black crescent shaped objects embedded within the globs of jelly. The group believed that these amorphous masses were of amphibian origin. After checking in herpetology books, it was concluded that they were indeed masses of salamander eggs, probably laid by a species of the mole salamander group.
Few birds were seen or heard that Sunday afternoon, early morning being a better time for bird watching, but a hairy woodpecker did put in an appearance. This species is fairly uncommon in Mississippi.
There is an endless variety of natural phenomena to observe in a woodland or an arboretum. April is the main month for spring migration of small land birds (thrushes, vireos, wood warblers, etc.) returning to North America from the tropics. Woodlands everywhere will resound with their songs and a cacophony of insect sounds as the weather warms up. But that's another field trip!

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