Botany Along the Ohio-Erie Trail


A Key to Common Wildflowers in July - August

John E. Silvius, Professor of Biology

Thankfully, the Ohio to Erie Trail stretching from Xenia through Cedarville to South Charleston, Ohio is graced with many beautiful wildflowers.  Some are remnants of the pre-settlement days when Greene County was covered with both forest and prairie lands.  Most of the photos accessable from the links below were taken along the bikeway between Xenia and South Charleston, OH.   Between Cedarville and South Charleston, a long segment of the bikeway is located adjacent to U.S. Route 42.  Between the highway and the bikeway, a narrow strip of unplowed land exists which has been a refuge for prairie species which have been largely driven from surrounding agricultural land.   The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) of Greene and Clark Counties have been kind enough to erect "Do Not Mow or Spray" signs and are cooperating in a mowing program that avoids the summer months when prairie grasses and forbs are actively growing and storing reserves for winter and the next growing season.   To learn more, you have two choices as shown below:

1.  Visit our remnant prairie plant page to view some of the more rare prairie plant species that are being protected through cooperation between the Greene Co. and Clark Co. Park Districts, the ODOT, the Dayton Power and Light Company, and adjacent landowners.

2.  Use the Wildflower Key below to Get Acquainted with Common Wildflowers -- Stop along the way, being careful of passing cyclists, identify and enjoy their beauty, and then leave them for others to enjoy.  More serious "biking botanists" may wish to obtain a wildflower guide at a library or bookstore.

To Use This Guide:

Observe the plant, then decide which of the following categories your plant represents. Go to the appropriate "Key" as directed:

I. Wildflower -- Includes species with colorful flowers. They are not woody like
                        trees or shrubs.
                        Go to "Wildflower Key" below:

II. Grasses -- Includes species with grass-like leaves, topped with many tiny
                    flowers arranged in delicate sprays.
                    Go to "Grass Key" below:
I.     "Wildflower Key"

 A.   Flowers White or Whitish:

        1.   Flowers Large -- ½ inch or more in length or diameter; petals can be easily counted.
          Bouncing Bet (Saponaria officinalis) 1     If flowers are not so, go to "2." below.

        2.    Flowers Small - less than ½ inch; hard to count petals
                a. Flowers in flat lacy heads -- Queen Anne's Lace; Wild Carrot (Daucus carota)

                b. Flowers numerous, in a flattened cluster as if the plants are covered with snow;
                    consider the following choices
             Leaves narrow, tapering at both ends - Tall Boneset, (Eupatorium altissimum)2;
             Leaves wide, pierced by the stem - Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)2

 B.  Flowers Green, Arranged in Pointy, Finger-Like 'Spikes':

            1. Plants tall (3 to 15 ft) -Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida)

            2. Plants short (< 3 ft), finely divided leaves - Common Ragweed, (Ambrosia
                artimesiifolia)     Note: Ragweeds, not goldenrods, are the chief cause of pollen
                allergies in late summer.

C.     Flowers Orange or Yellow:

            1. Flowers sunflower-like -- a central disk or knob composed of many tiny flowers
                                                        surrounded by a circle of "rays" which appear to be petals
                                                        but are each flowers with an elongated "petal-like" corolla
                a.  Rays drooping downward away from disk (center):
                     Disk made of loosely arranged flowers; wings or ridges run down stem -- Wingstem(Actinomeris alternifolia)
                     Disk cone-shaped; rays yellowish; leaves large, divided into leaflets --Tall Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)
                     Disk an elongated, gray or brown knob, anise-scented  -- Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
                b.  Rays not drooping downward away from disk (center):
                     Both disk (center) and rays are yellow or orange; opposite leaves -- Sunflowers (Helianthus) 3
                     Disk (center) is much darker (blackish-brown) than rays -- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
                     Flowers on tall, leafless stalks; large basal leaves -- Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum)

            2. Flowers dangling, slipper-like, tapering to a slender spur:
                Flowers Orange -- Spotted Touch-me-not (Jewelweed) -- Habitat ViewClose-up (Impatiens capensis) 4
                Flowers Yellow -- Pale Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens palida) 4

            3. Flowers with four petals, opening at twilight; conspicuous pods (fruits)
                -- Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)

            4. Numerous Small Flowers in flattened clusters; each flower consists of a ring
                of five raised "hoods" that form a crown, or "corona" above matching petal-like
                structures that are curved downward.   Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) 5

            5. Flowers in long spikes extending above thick, fuzzy leaves -- Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

D.     Flowers Violet, Purple, or Pink :
            1.  Flowers numerous, forming a flattened cluster; plants tall, common in pastures - Ironweed (Vernonia sp.)
            2.  Flowers in rounded clusters; each flower consists of a ring of five raised "hoods" that form a crown,
                 or "corona" above matching petal-like structures that are curved downward; sap is milky (hence the name)
                 fruits are pod-like with many seeds attached to silky fibers for dispersal --Milkweeds (e.g. Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca)
            3.  Flowers tubular, snapdragon-like; arranged in long spikes -- Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana)
            4.  Flowers in thistle-like "heads", each containing many tiny flowers; leaves often spiny:
                 a.  Flower heads large, over 1.5 inches high -- Pasture Thistle (Circium pumilum)
                 b.  Flower heads small, 1 inch or less high:
                      Leaves spiny; this plant is an agressive, clump-forming weed -- Canada Thistle (Circium arvense)
                      Leaves not spiny; base of flower heads covered with black-fringed scales -- Spotted Knapweed,
                        (Centaurea maculosa)

E.     Flowers Blue:
   1. Sunflower-like heads and toothed, blue rays; borne on leafless stems; close up in the heat
                of the day - Chicory (Cicorium intybus) 6

           2. Flowers star-shaped, arranged on tall spikes; prefers shady areas -- Tall Bellflower,
               (Campanula americana) Habitat view; Flower Close-up

           3. Flowers tubular, snapdragon-like, with stripes beneath, in moist areas, Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and Close-up

F.    No Flowers:  Bamboo-like stems, <½ inch diameter, damp, sandy areas
           (e.g. between Bicket Rd. and U.S. 35.) -- Habitat view; Close-up - Equisetum hyemale) 7
II.   "Grass Key"

Grasses are a prominent and beautiful part of the Autumn bike trail landscape. Their flowers are born in tight, wheat-like spikes or racemes, or in delicate open-branched arrangements called panicles. Two beautiful grasses are Big Bluestem, a key member of the tallgrass prairie; and, Switchgrass.  Both species can be found in Greene Co. and Clark Co. as a remnant of the original prairie landscape which occupied parts of southwest Ohio. Because railroad right-of-ways were not plowed, but did experience occasional fires, these species found refuge from the plow which eliminated their kind in adjacent farm fields. Agricultural "weed grasses" are also present along the trail-- e.g Foxtail (Setaria). Use the following key to get acquainted:

A.     Flowers in a Wheat-Like Head; many bristles  - Foxtail (Setaria sp.)

B.     Flowers in open "panicles":

           1. Reddish gold colored panicles; "rabbit-ears" visible where leaf blade joins the stem --
          Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)7

           2. Flowers on long stalks (pedicels) forming a large open panicle; leaf blades hairy near the base --
          Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

           3. Dark purple panicles, oily to the touch - Redtop, Purpletop (Triodia flava)

C.    Flowers in panicles composed of 3 or more spikes or racemes

            1.  Panicles composed of 3 (up to 6) racemes resembling a turkey foot; growing in bunches
                -- Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) 8

            2. Panicles composed of 5 to 20 one-sided, comb-like spikes -- Prairie Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata)

"Footnotes, Ideas for Further Study"

The footnotes below are matched with some of the plant names above:

1.    Bouncing Bet, or soapwort, is named for the soapy lather that forms from the juices once used by early settlers as a soap
        substitute. Photo courtesy of Richard A. Howard Image Collection, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

2.    When  you have distinguished Bonset from Tall Boneset, see if you can you see a difference in habitat preference between
        these two species of Eupatorium.   Hint:   In some places along the Cedarville-Xenia segment of the bikeway where
        trees grow along the edge, the north side receives more direct sun than the south side.  Which side would tend to be
        drier and more stressful?    On which side do you find tall boneset?

3.    Sunflowers come in many species. See if you can notice differences in flower color, growth form, and different habitats

4.    Touch-me-not flowers produce fruits that, when touched lightly, will explode and expel their seeds! Try a touch. Also, as
        you ride along, can you see a difference in habitat preference between the "spotted" and "pale" touch-me-not?"

5.    Butterfly weed is the only "milkweed" in our area that does not have milky sap. Question:  Why then is butterfly weed
        considered a milkweed of genus Asclepias (e.g. part D.2. of the Wildflower Key)?    Note the stunning orange flowers.

6.    Chicory flowers close in the heat of the day; the roots were a coffee substitute during economically hard times.

7.    Souring rushes contain silica in their cell walls making them ideal for scouring pots and pans during pioneer days before
        scouring pads.

8.    Indian Grass can be seen a few yards west of mile marker 7.5 on South side. Both Indian Grass and Big Bluestem can be
        seen just west of Murdoch Rd. (mi. 6.0).   [Construction of the water line in 2000 may have destroyed these plants.]

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Dedicated to Prof. Austin Elmore (at Cedarville College, 1961-1988) and his wife, Marabeth, who have both inspired us to appreciate the beauty of the creation in SW Ohio. (8-24-00)