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A Crash Course in Alabama Ecosystems

A Crash Course in Alabama Ecosystems

[Guest blog post by Louise Agee Wrinkle Native Plant Intern Mitchell Vaughan]

Recently, I was part of a group who went on a field trip to the Bibb County Glades, located near Montevallo, Alabama. Described variously as “a botanical lost world” and “a botanical wonder,” as well as other similarly impressive titles, this site is not at all what comes to mind when I hear the word “glade.” I pictured something more like the Everglades, a big grassy wetland broken by the occasional tree hammock. The word glade, however, means an open area surrounded by trees. Much of the Bibb County Glades are comprised of rocky, arid, grass-and-wildflower-covered rocky outcrops. What makes these glades distinctly different is the type of rock of which they are composed, Ketona dolomite. 

Dolomite is a type of limestone and this particular type of it is unusually pure and contains large percentages of calcium and magnesium. Magnesium, in high concentrations, can be toxic to many species of plants; this is why the glades are populated by many unique species that have adapted to living in that particular type of limestone. They thrive here without competition from more typical species, which would normally populate the area. Growing on these glades are several rare species, including one third of all Alabama endemic plant species – and eight  species unknown to science before their discovery in the 1900s.

After trekking through some steep open terrain, we ventured into the adjacent woodlands where it was noticeably cooler. We hiked along a stretch of the Little Cahaba River and then deeper still into a forested area along a small stream. Here, it became more like walking through a temperate rainforest with lush green vegetation spreading prolifically in every direction. Following the stream, we eventually came to a spot with a particularly interesting botanical inhabitant, one that has yet to be named and described. Its temporary name is Trautvetteria sp. nov. (tassel-rue), and will be definitively named by whomever first describes it botanically. 

Finally, we packed up and drove to a nature preserve along the Cahaba River, where we hoped to see Hymenocallis coronaria  (Cahaba lily) flowering. And flowering they were! It’s a spectacular sight to see an expanse of showy white flowers bobbing daintily over the river waters in which it grows. Visiting these sites makes it clearly evident why they are described as some of Alabama’s natural wonders. 

From sunny glades to shaded woodlands, it was quite a day. Exploring several of Alabama’s ecosystems in rapid succession can offer a newfound appreciation for our state’s biodiversity and unique natural character. 


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