Endangered plant found along Ohio to Erie Trail

Sarah Macy, a technician with the Madison Soil and Water Conservation District, discovered this rope dodder along the Ohio to Erie Trail in London. Rope dodder is an endangered plant in Ohio that hasn’t been seen in Madison County since 1933. Dodders are parasitic plants that attach themselves to host plants to acquire their water and nutrients. Here, the orange rope dodder is wound around the green stem of a member of the Aster family.

(Posted Sept. 11, 2020)

Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

By definition, it’s not every day that a person comes across an endangered plant species and rarer still that that person has an inkling that what they’re seeing is special.

In early August, the stars aligned. Sarah Macy, a technician with the Madison Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), and her husband, Thomas, a forester, went for a walk on the Prairie Grass Trail, a portion of the Ohio to Erie Trail that runs between London and the Clark County line.

Macy was making preparations for the Prairie Appreciation Bike Ride, an annual event put on by SWCD and the Friends of Madison County Parks and Trails (FMCPT). Ride participants learn about the prairie flower and grass species that once flourished in Madison County, some of which can still be seen along the bike path.

Sarah and Thomas were passing one of the four prairie patches between the Madison County Senior Center and the Clark County line when a flash of orange caught her eye. There, wound around a member of the Aster family, was a dodder–a genus of parasitic plants whose vines, which have little to no leaves, attach themselves to a host plant to acquire its water and nutrients.

“When I initially saw the plant, I thought it looked different from other dodders, but I didn’t plan on keying it out beyond genus because dodders are notoriously difficult to identify,” Macy said.

She took a picture, then let the issue lie for a few days before curiosity won out. Prior to signing on with the Soil and Water Conservation District nine months ago, Sarah worked as an aquatic entomologist, someone who studies insects that live in water for part or all of their lives. She was used to wanting to know what things are, and this was another one of those times.

“I really love plants, and I especially love rare and unusual plants,” she said.

“I decided to do a little research to see what the different dodder species found in Ohio looked like. I was fortunate because this species, rope dodder (Cuscuta glomerata), is relatively easy to identify by its dense, continuous flower clusters. Of the eight species in Ohio, four are state endangered and one is considered extirpated (completely gone) from the state.”

Macy had come across one of the four that is currently listed as endangered, meaning it is rare, on the edge of its range, or no longer has habitat. Until 1989, rope dodder was considered to be gone from Ohio when it was found in five locations, all in western Ohio and all associated with prairie remnants that had been recently burned.

According to Ohio’s chief botanist, Rick Gardner of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, prior to Macy’s find, rope dodder had not been seen in Madison County since 1933. The record will be mapped in the Ohio Natural Heritage Database, a database of records of rare, threatened, endangered and extinct species for the state of Ohio.

Not bad for a walk along the bike trail.

Macy is appreciative of the work FMCPT volunteers have done over the years to establish and maintain the bike trail and the fact that they recognized it is a special corridor for the county.

“Even though it’s a narrow corridor, it does have great diversity. It’s like a little refuge in a heavily agriculture area,” she said, adding that the tree and bird species located along the trail, not to mention the prairie remnants, are impressive–ones she didn’t expect to see in Madison County.

“It’s special and highlights the diversity that was here and what is still hanging on,” she said.

To learn more about the flora and fauna along the Ohio to Erie Trail in Madison County, tune into the Friends of Madison County Parks and Trails’ Facebook page where on Sundays they post interesting finds from along  the trail.

For additional information about Ohio’s rare and state-listed plants, visit https://ohiodnr.gov/wps/portal/gov/odnr/discover-and-learn/plants-trees/rare-plants/.

Each year, the Madison Soil and Water Conservation District and the Friends of Madison County Parks and Trails host a Prairie Appreciation Bike Ride to highlight the remnants of prairie grasses and flowers that grow along the Ohio to Erie Trail in Madison County. In was during preparations for this year’s ride, which took place on Aug. 8, that Sarah Macy discovered an endangered plant species along the trail.


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