By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
The Ozarks are famous for their grist mills in the way Vermont is famous for its fall colors, or Maine for its maple syrup and Pennsylvania for its covered bridges. Last week we talked about the history and historic significance of Alley Mill and one cannot talk about the mill and not mention the stunningly beautiful spring-fed mill pond. Yet, as impressive as those things are, what I really love about Alley Spring – and what my little botanists’ heart craves most – is the plant-watching.
The Ozarks represent one of the most ancient and diverse landscapes in North America. During the last great ice age, the massive Kansan glaciers stopped at the edge of the Ozarks, which not only spared the land from the ravages of ice, but pushed ahead of it a rich diversity of northern plant and animal species not previously found in the Ozarks. After the ice retreated, many of these species remained and are found here to this day.
In fact, according to the Nature Conservancy, the Ozarks are home to 407 species of plants and animals of “global conservation significance”, with more than 160 endemic or native species found nowhere else on earth! In order to support such a diversity of life there must be many specialized niches – or micro-environments – for them to exist in.
At Alley Spring, there are at least a dozen such areas. The forestland around the park contains oak-hickory forest, an old growth pinery, glades, sinks, springs, caves, ridges and hollows. Those found near the mill include the Alley Spring, the cave system from which the spring arises, the mill pond, the weeping cliff faces (known as seeps), the dry caves, the very cold spring branch and the much warmer Jack’s Fork River – all of which support a myriad of flora and fauna.
When the cold water from the spring and spring branch meet the relatively warmer air, the entire area becomes saturated with heavy mists and fogs. This moisture-laden air, together with the many small seeps dripping from the rocky faces around the stream, create a very unique micro-climate that supports a wide variety of plants that cannot be found elsewhere.
Meandering along the spring branch trail, one can see masses of wild columbine clinging to tiny fissures in the rock face. Their profuse red and yellow blooms shine against the stony shadows. The constantly moist seeps are draped with graceful curtains of dainty maidenhair fern and dotted at their bases by moisture loving trilliums and trout lilies. The entire trail is shaded by old hawthorn, locust and sycamore trees.
Emerging from the rich sedimentary soil are wild ginger, bloodroot, wild hydrangea, jewelweed and monarda. All grow in happy profusion amidst a bevy of mosses and ferns. Along the edges of the swift cold spring branch, watercress and Virginia waterleaf create dense floating carpets of green.
Even boulders protruding from the crashing white water become islands of life in this exceptional place. One boulder in particular always captures my attention because it is covered with a miniature garden of moss, mint, grass and ferns. As if to prove to the world that beauty and severity go hand in hand, a small dwarfed tree has managed to get a foothold in a small crack in the rock itself. After years of struggling against the crashing water, its thick gnarled roots have buried themselves impossibly in the stone and the stunted trunk is in perpetual motion, swaying in the steady rush of breath created by the current’s force.
High above the spring branch, on top of the rock bluff behind the mill pond, is a trail whose flora is the antithesis of the one down below. This trail leads one upwards into a dry upland forest filled primarily with oak, hickory and pine, and a smattering of understory trees such as dogwood, redbud, hackberry and black cherry. With so many trees blocking the suns rays from entering the woods, it is always a nice surprise to find the occasional colony of mayapples, bluebells or St. Andrew’s Cross.
On this day, I stop for a moment in the filtered light to admire a patch of Spotted Horsemint (Monarda bradburiana) in bloom. The pretty whorls of purple flowers are being worked over by the dark and lovely woodland swallowtail butterfly. I breathe in the rich smell of earth and rotting leaves and a twisted grove of paw paw trees, which are out of place on this high ridge.
The oddly beautiful, fly-pollinated flowers of paw paw are small, ambiguous maroon-colored blooms that give way to a luscious, custardy-sweet fruit that birds, animals and humans all compete for. These trees are too young yet to bear fruit, but their large, thin ovate leaves play with the sun in a magical way. As I take in my solitary moment among the trees, the chatter of woodland birds chimes against the ancient shelves of layered and eroded limestone hugging the path. I close my eyes and listen for a moment, appreciating where it is that I stand.
Following the main trail brings the hiker back to the main parking lot. From there you might like to set off on another trail, walk about the historic buildings or mosey on down to the Jacks Fork River for a bit of swimming, rock hunting or – in my case – more plant watching!
Those of us who live in this neck of the woods know that Alley Spring is a treasure trove of history, culture and natural beauty and we are undoubtedly the richer for it.
If you long for the country life or love the outdoors, you will appreciate this beautiful and inspiring book. Set in the rugged heart of the Missouri Ozarks, A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted memoir filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Available in print and eBook through the Show Me Oz bookstore.