Nottingham Serpentine Barrens

By:  Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader 

The title sounds exotic, doesn’t it?  Nottingham…are we going to the U.K?  Serpentine…sounds like there are lots of snakes.  I thought there were no snakes in Great Britain.  Oh, sorry, that’s Ireland.  Barrens?  What is that?  Sounds depressing and empty.  

Last week I co-led the above field trip with Janet Ebert, local freelance botanist.  Instead of going to a depressing, snake-infested city in the U.K., we took a 40-minute drive from the Ashland Nature Center to a wonderfully biodiverse, endangered species-rich ecosystem near Nottingham, Chester County, Pennsylvania.  This is a place that really gets a naturalist’s heart-a-thumpin’. 

Our walk focused on botany and geology of the area.  Here is what you need to know about Serpentine Barrens:  they are rocky, dry places with soils high in toxins like magnesium and zinc and low in potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorous…the bread of life for plants.  Botanically, these barrens are like stepping into a foreign world.  There are no towering tuliptrees and red oaks here or most of the other plants that are familiar to you in our local woodlands.  Say hello to prairie grass, pitch pines, post oaks, blackjack oaks, and a myriad of wildflowers you probably have never heard of.  

In a remnant native prairie within the barrens, we identify a type of three-awn or poverty grass called Aristida dichotoma.

The Delaware Nature Society leads one or two trips to nearby serpentine barrens annually.  Botanically, the flagship species for this habitat is the serpentine aster, Symphyotrichum depauperatum, whose worldwide existence is within the barrens of our local area.  Although recently, this species has been found in a disjunct ecosystem in North Carolina. 

The globally rare Serpentine Aster of the Nottingham Barrens. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

 Other unusual wildflowers were identified by botanist, Janet Ebert.  My favorite plant of the day was the starry campion, Silene stellata.  I usually see the white campion, Silene latifolia around here, which is not native.  

Three cheers for a native campion! Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Other native wildflowers that we found include New York ironweed, calico aster, boneset, oxeye (Heliopsis helianthoides), slender gerardia, gray goldenrod, whorled milkweed (in fruit), giant sunflower (Helianthus giganteus), and many others.  Yes, I realize I am inconsistent with my scientific name use.

This slender gerardia was found blooming at Nottingham County Park. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

The grasses at the Nottingham Barrens are very diverse, and Janet Ebert identifies them confidently, sometimes using a small magnifying glass to see tiny details.  We started off easy…Indian grass, little bluestem, and panic grass of some sort.  Deer tongue grass was very distinctive.  Can you guess what it looks like?  We found the rare prairie dropseed (Aristida purpurescense), which is an endangered plant in PA, along with its more widespread cousin, poverty grass (Aristida dichotoma).  These are small, beautiful and delicate grasses more at home on the wide-open prairie of the mid-west, but here they are…a relict of a different age thousands of years ago. 

The Barrens are a refuge for plants of dry, rocky, sterile, toxic soils and contain many endangered and threatened species. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Several of the grasses and many of the other plants here at the barrens have remained through time, as the landscape around them changed since the last ice-age.  The rock and barren soil is their guardian against being out-competed.  Their trick?…Survive where no one else can. 

If you would like to learn about another interesting and little known group of plants…register for the following program taking place at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve, this Saturday, September 23rd…

Outstanding Mosses and Liverworts
Program #: F10-012-BK       Max: 15
Saturday, September 25, 9 am – 3 pm
Member/Non-Member: $15/$22
Leader: Susan Munch, Albright College Professor and Author of Outstanding Mosses and Liverworts of PA and Nearby States
Note: Program meets at Bucktoe Creek Preserve.

Identify and learn the natural history of the little-known mosses and liverworts with a local authority on the topic. Start your experience at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve and take a slow-paced walk to identify several species. After lunch, travel to another nearby area to see species that live in cool, north-facing slopes and ravines. Bring a lunch and a drink, and meet at the Bucktoe Creek Preserve. All participants will receive a free copy of the author’s book.  Register here.

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