News and Events


Macon Telegraph: Research Shows Unusualness of Oaky Woods' Chalk Prairies, Forests

This article originally appeared in Macon Telegraph, Monday October 12, 2009

By S. Heather Duncan

Patrick Lynch conducts his graduate research far from a lab.

When he ventures into the field, his tools are a narrow spade carried in his belt and two enormous plastic bags. On a day when the air was thick and wet as soup, the University of Georgia student hiked into the limestone forest of Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area in pursuit of rare plants.

 He stopped when he spotted a good specimen of a plant he hasn’t collected. He noted where it was growing, what it was growing near and other information that might be useful to researchers later.

Lynch used the spade to dig up the root, folded up the plant and put it in one of the big plastic bags. Later, they would be iced in a cooler until he got home.

“I’ll probably stay up all night and press them,” Lynch said. Eventually the specimens will be archived in the vast collection at the state herbarium.

This and more new research could help build support for preserving Oaky Woods, which includes more than 20,000 acres of Houston County now owned by a group of local developers.

Tom Patrick, a botanist for the state Department of Natural Resources, said conserving land along the Ocmulgee River in Middle Georgia is a priority for the state.

“We’ve also wanted to purchase Oaky Woods, and it’s one of our priorities for research,” he said.

Among the reasons are its rare plant communities, its large black bear population, its fossils and other unusual features.

On a recent day in the woods with Lynch, Patrick said, “If we can document this as an unusual forest type, groups like the Trust for Public Land and the Nature Conservancy might be attracted to get involved. ... It’s just like having an endangered species.”

The land’s current owners have proposed building 30,000 homes there and preserving some portions as green space. A movement to protect the entire area has been building steam, but state officials and land owners have been unable to reach a deal.

Lynch and another graduate student, Lee Echols, have been studying plants in Oaky Woods’ forest and its prairies, respectively. What these unusual plant communities have in common is chalk.

That’s the common term for the limestone deposits left when Houston County was the shore of an ancient sea. Small white slabs of limestone still protrude from the ground in the woods.

The prairies, which are frequently covered with waving asters, goldenrod and other wildflowers, were once commonly referred to as “black belt” prairies after similar formations in the Gulf coastal plain.

But Echols’ research, soon to be published, found enough distinctive geology and plants for the Oaky Woods formation to get its own, new category: Georgia Eocene chalk prairies.

Echols said almost all the known Georgia chalk prairies are in Oaky Woods, although there are also some in the nearby Ocmulgee Wildlife Management Area. Historically they are isolated to Houston, Bleckley, Peach and Twiggs counties, he said.

“Open prairie is considered a critically imperiled community, the most extreme designation,” said Echols, who is now a professional conservation biologist in North Carolina. “Every example is noteworthy and worthy of protection.”

These chalk prairies are relatively rare everywhere.

Ann Johnson, plant ecologist for the state of Florida, recently toured the prairies of Oaky Woods after reading Echols’ thesis. She studies the prairie “glades” of the Florida panhandle and is trying to visit all the coastal prairies in the South for comparison.

Wilson Baker, an environmental consultant working with Johnson on the research, said the prairies are the rarest unprotected habitat in Florida, where it’s found in two counties.

The Georgia prairies harbor a broad range of rare species, including some Echols documented for the first time in the state, and others that had never before been found on the coastal plain.

Echols also found Oaky Woods’ first plant on the endangered species list, fringed campion, as well as two other flowers that are considered threatened within Georgia.

“I found a ton of rare species there,” he said, adding that the diversity of species was unusual for a study area of less than 100 acres.

Lynch’s research is still in progress. He is collecting almost every plant he sees in the limestone forests of Ocmulgee Wildlife Management Area. In Houston County, he’s being more selective because more research already has been done there.

In the woods, Lynch examined spider lilies, wrinkled his nose at the smell of camphor, pulled up a sample of adder’s tongue — a tiny primitive fern — and pointed out a “squirting cucumber,” which looks like a berry on a vine.

When asked about the plant’s name, Patrick pinched the berry and it exploded.

“It’s juicy,” he observed.

Patrick searched for pawpaw fruits among the many pawpaw trees, which usually prefer bluffs. but are plentiful in the Big Grocery Creek bottomlands. Cherokee sedge grew like long green hair beneath large American elm trees.

“Most of these up north died of Dutch elm disease, but in the South we still have beautiful specimens in our bottomland hardwood forests,” Patrick noted.

In this forest and others in Oaky Woods, some “state champion” trees have been found. These are the largest known trees of their species in Georgia. Patrick and local Oaky Woods activist John Trussell believe there are more. Trussell, a founder of Save Oaky Woods, said he’ll incorporate the new research into the tours he conducts for teachers, scout groups and others at the wildlife management area.

“Hopefully this will raise public awareness of what we have and why we need to preserve it,” Trussell said.

Print - Return