Serpentine Barrens Botany Trip

By Joe Sebastiani, Members Program Team Leader

Yesterday, I co-led a trip to the Nottingham Serpentine Barrens in nearby Chester County, PA with botanist Janet Ebert.  Each year, the Delaware Nature Society offers a few trips to this recently designated National Natural Landmark. 

This rare ecosystem of pitch pine, scrub oaks, and rare wildflowers and grasses is a bizarre and fun place to visit if you are a naturalist.  Serpentine rock is the dominant feature here, but is rare at the surface on earth.  In North America there are 3 main areas where it occurs…California and southern Oregon, western Newfoundland and the Gaspe Peninsula, and southeastern PA and northeastern MD. 

Serpentine aster (Aster depauperatus) is common at Nottingham, but is a globally rare plant, growing only here and a few other locations nearby.
Serpentine aster (Aster depauperatus) is common at Nottingham, but is a globally rare plant, growing only here and a few other locations nearby.

The soil is barren, rocky, low in essential nutrients, and high in heavy metals like nickel, chromium, and magnesium.  These conditions make it difficult or impossible for most of the plants in our area to grow.  Therefore, the Serpentine Barrens plant community is a rare collection of plants that can handle the tough conditions.  These include prairie grasses that live mainly in the mid-west, plants that usually live on the sandy coastal plain, and tiny plants that can handle living on bare rock and gravel.

Other than the globally rare serpentine aster pictured above, we saw lots of other specialized and very rare plants.  Our walk took us through open savanna habitat and recently burned-over areas dominated by grasses and scattered pitch pines.  In other areas we found strange oaks, some of which shorter that us at their full-grown height.  Oddities such as bear oak (Quercus ilicifolia), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), dwarf chinkapin oak (Q. prinoides), and post oak (Q. stellata) created shrubby thickets among the pines.

Striped gentians (Gentiana villosa) were blooming among the grasses at the serpentine barrens.
Striped gentians (Gentiana villosa) were blooming among the grasses at the serpentine barrens.

 

This area was once greenbriar thicket and pitch pines, but a severe fire 2 years ago turned it into beautiful savannah.
This area was once greenbriar thicket and pitch pines, but a severe fire 2 years ago turned it into beautiful savanna.

Janet Ebert is a freelance botanist who knows her stuff!  As she pointed out one rare species after the next, the group soaked it up and took notes.  Names like big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass, prairie dropseed, purpletop grass, whorled milkweed, wild indigo, swamp thistle, tall sunflower, black huckleberry, and gray goldenrod were eagerly written into personal notebooks.

Tall sunflower (Helianthus giganteus) were in bloom along the trails.
Tall sunflower (Helianthus giganteus) were in bloom along the trails.
Yellow-eyed grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) was found blooming in a few locations.
Yellow-eyed grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) was found blooming in a few locations.

Make your way over to Nottingham County Park in southwestern Chester County, PA to experience this wonderful and beautiful serpentine barrens.  This unique area is close in proximity to Delaware, but you feel like you are out in the mid-west or on the southeastern coastal plain.  It is a nice and inexpensive way for a naturalist to “get away”.

1 thought on “Serpentine Barrens Botany Trip”

  1. Joe –

    Sorry I missed this trip. I had noted it earlier and forgot to put it on my calendar. Looks like a great time! I’ve been to the Soldier’s Delight serpentine barrens, but not to Nottingham. Very cool!

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