About twenty of us parked along the side of a quiet country road and walked down into Paradise Valley in the Owasippe Scout Reservation, a fantastical fern land, in the center of an old growth forest.
We were quickly filled with excitement at finding plants that looked like nothing special at first, but turned out to be truly fascinating seen through the eyes of someone like our exuberant guide, Connie Crancer. She punctuated our walk with shouts of “Yes! Wow! Look here!” We followed her lead to see plants right and left and along the trail and off. Everything about the plants was enthralling – their parts, their function, and their presence –and we were quickly caught up in the thrill of discovery!
Connie’s main goal was to show us the diversity of ferns in this small, but very unique valley on the Owasippe Scout Reservation. We saw bracken, sensitive, maidenhair, royal, ostrich, evergreen woodfern, and the small oak fern.
And there were many other intriguing plants. Star flower, spotted touch-me-not, squaw root, native honeysuckle, orange impatiens, buttercup, columbine, sedges, horsetail, cucumber root, May apples, Bishop’s cap plant, wild watercress, and more.
Some of us got a bit sidetracked at one point along the trail, puzzling over why the leaves on a tree looked so out of place until we realized it was poison ivy with huge leaves branching up and out along a tree. It looked very much like a snake waiting to strike at unsuspecting hikers! Connie handed out a list of 31 species. We located all of them, along with a few other species to add to the Paradise Valley list.
Connie told us the way she identifies plants. It isn’t always easy. :Usually a botanist will first look at the flower(s),” she says, “but when plants are not flowering, the leaves, habit and habitat will often clue you to the genus if not the species. For example, a young poison ivy plant has very nearly identical leaves with apparent side thumbs out like a box elder seedling, but the box elder will have opposite branching, while poison ivy has alternate branching.”
Connie taught us that plants fall on a wetness scale of -5, to 5, with zero being the ability of a plant to be in wet or dry areas. Negative 5 is wet and 5 is dry or upland. “This is useful for deciding what to plant in gardens, but often native plants are more adaptable to our gardens than what their wetness coefficient may indicate,” she says.
Paradise Valley was lush and green and still, with small, rippling streams winding their way throughout. And then suddenly there was a refreshing vista of cool water — Cleveland Creek — with a wobbly bridge spanning its width. That was the far boundary of our walk. We turned around and found our way back to the country road, with Connie stopping here and there to identify plants at the request of hikers reluctant to let their expert guide leave. And then the valley was quiet again.