“Now Entering the Xeric Hardpan Forest”

Recently I purchased and read Wildflowers and Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachians and Piedmont.

Now, before you go labeling me as a mega-dweeb, you should know that plant communities are super hot right now. All the coolest middle aged suburban garden bloggers are talking about them and how they can be used as inspirations for design.

Where have you been?

So anyway, after reading the book, I decided a hike in the Shenandoahs was in order to see what all the fuss was about. I was all psyched to get out there and identify me some sweet plant communities!

Would I encounter an Alluvial Forest?   Would I chance upon a Basic Mesic Forest?  Was it even possible I would catch a glimpse of the vaunted Grassy Bald

Well, it turns out that I didn’t see any of these plant communities! As I walked along the trail, all I witnessed for SEVERAL miles was plant anarchy! Maples AND Oaks cavorting (wha??), a few wimpy pines, mixed with spicebush, briars, and lots of Japanese Stiltgrass!  Plus cobwebs and horseflies!

If I was in the presence of a particular Plant Community, I have no idea what it was. Maybe it was the Smorgasbord Community, or some hippie plant community that just accepts everybody. 

Anyway, after hiking for awhile I arrived at a gorgeous sequence of pools and waterfalls.

Perchance, had I stumbled upon a Spray CliffI invoked Level 3 of Bloom’s Taxonomy and applied the knowledge I had gleaned from my field guide to my surroundings.  Most of the plant life around the pools consisted of slippery algae on the surface of the rocks, some unidentifiable (by me) saplings, ferns, and a smattering of poison ivy.  There was no sign of any Mountain Laurel or Rosebay Rhododendron, the species that are supposed to be “locally abundant” in a Spray Cliff.  There were some lichens, but there were supposed to be liverworts.  Dang!

Lean in and I will whisper you a little secret: IT TURNS OUT PLANT COMMUNITIES DON’T ALWAYS ORGANIZE THEMSELVES INTO TIDY LITTLE NEIGHBORHOODS LIKE WE DO.  Nope, there are no signs saying, “Welcome to the Swamp Forest-Bog Complex!   There are no HOA restrictions to keep things looking orderly.

This, combined with the fact that my plant community identification skills still need lots of practice, meant that this outing was a tad frustrating.  That’s okay, though.  I figure it took me awhile to learn to “read” individual plants (by leaf shape, habit, etc.) so learning to read plant communities will take just as long.  I’m so focused on looking at tiny details of plants that I haven’t trained myself to see the bigger picture.  And this, of course, is the key to using nature as inspiration for design. 

The good news is that the “classroom” for studying plant communities — fields, forests, streams — is a delightful place to study.

21 thoughts on ““Now Entering the Xeric Hardpan Forest”

  1. First of all I really love your blog posts. I think you are a wonderful writer Mary. I am a gardenerholic from the Waikato region of New Zealand, the North-central region of the north island. I have been a gardenerholic for nearly 30 years now. Upon my early ventures into gardening I read every textbook on plants and followed advice in those books blindly. The Waikato is an enormously challenging region in which to garden simply because conditions can get so extreme and weather can change so fast. So throw all the gardening books out the window because in the Waikato, their rules – except for the most rudimentary nutritional guides for each plant group – often don’t apply. But what does apply is the plant COMMUNITY in which your plants grow. Communities of plants are like communities of people – it is the interaction between of the members of the community that determines the success or failure of the group(the garden) as a whole. Organise your garden’s plant community correctly – because many symbiotic relationships exist in plant communities – and all the plants will work together to survive in the most extreme environments., often thriving where they should not thrive at all. Plants are good at relationships – much better than people. Now after 30 years of gardening I have learnt to think like the plants do – in terms of their relationships to their surroundings and each other. It has taken me 30 years to learn of all the factors and variables in the gardening worked that are most crucial – relationships and communities are the most important factor of all, Plants are not that different from people after all.

  2. Oh yes they do organize themselves into tidy communities. That’s why ecologists name them. Here in Iowa I know three that once covered most of the state: tall-grass prairie, short-grass prairie, and oak savannah.

    • Wellllllll….geologists name the layers of the earth,too, but they’re not arranged uniformly like a layer cake, as textbooks diagrams always suggest. So it is with ecosystems as well. Also, topography plays a big role in the development of plant communities and Iowa is pretty darn flat.

  3. I think the issue is that communities of plants, like of people, are subject to transitions and disruptions. There are certain plants that, barring disruption, will be found together. It’s worth trying to replicate these ideal plant communities, but very difficult. Much more feasible for the average gardener is to simply place together those plants that have similar cultural requirements. If we could get everybody to do just that, Gardenkind would have made a giant step forward.

  4. Mary,
    One of my favorite comments gleaned from internet plant discussions came from an orchid grower – I use it a lot in teaching, especially when dealing with taxonomy and species concepts, but it would work as well with your “plant communities” ideas — “I like to keep in mind that nature is not familiar with the word ‘species’ and as I often remind those in orchid-related discussions, the problem is us, not the plants. We are trying to solidify and pin down what is actually a process, not a final product. We select one point on a line and call it the line.” Originally said by Tennis, a grower who I believe lives on Hawaii, it certainly is appropriate to communities as well. Described plant communities are typically a finish point of an ecological succession in a given area, and one of the challenges is the ecological successions are disturbed all the time. A final succession stage like a “mature oak hickory forest” simply means that the majority of the tall mature trees are going to be oaks or hickorys, and there will be seedlings of both as well. But there will also be undergrowth of other trees, including possibly maples, dogwoods, redbuds, etc. some of these depending on what sort of topographic and geologic area you’re in. And then of course there will be various shrubs and other annuals and perennials on the forest floor as well. If you come across a tree fall, you’ll see several earlier stages of succession racing for their chance in the sun (most of them literally) but eventually the oaks or hickorys will win out.
    Though I suspect that especially splash zone areas are changing with the planet adjusting to all the garbage we’re continuing to throw into the air, the lovely picture you took would likely not have been a splash zone or a rock spray area even if you’d just gotten 4-6 inches of rain. That particular area typically refers to more airborne droplets of water, many of them fine enough to evaporate, providing a cooler area surrounding a waterfall or splashing stream, with pretty consistently moist but well-drained
    soils along the stream or waterfall’s edges providing a usually cool and moist area where you might love to sit for a while but would be hard-pressed to find a nice dry spot. All these terms can be tough to wrap our heads around, especially when we think about them as finite instead of a continuum, a “process,” as Tennis reminds us. Sounds like more good walks in your future though, and that’s a good thing!

    • Thanks for this, Jonathan. It seems a little ironic that the trails that take us out into these ecosystems are themselves a form of disturbance…..so what pops up along the trail may not have popped up had the trail not been there. And I totally get your point about disturbance and change, etc. Makes it more challenging to actually find these communities, but you’re right, anything that will get me out into the woods is a good thing.

  5. Another enjoyable post! You forgot to bring your secret native plant community decoder ring. Everything would be obvious if you had it.

    I think you pointed out quite well the limits of naming native plant communities. While there are many “high” examples of stable, identifiable communities, most do blend and bleed into each other, and the vast majority of natural spaces are disturbed in some ways (invasives, logging) which may create a more heterogeneous jumble of communities.

    I still find native plant communities to be one of the most inspiring places to think about design. The “high” examples of many of these communities are gorgeous in both their patterns and palettes.

    Next time, remember to take your decoder ring and Xray npc goggles 😉

  6. Xeric Hardpan Forest is real out here in Texas where cactus grows in the Ripiarian zone.

    Beautiful photo of the pools from your hike.

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