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From the Field: Mosquitoes, Pondberry, and Appreciation

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Friday, September 28, 2018

by Leslie Patrick

St. Francis Sunken Lands Natural Area is a bottomland forest in northeast Arkansas in Poinsett County, on the east side of the St. Francis River. The area is slightly elevated; like an island above the swampland and tributaries of the river. The entrance to the natural area is at the end of an unpaved road that cuts through cotton and bean fields.

Farmers were harvesting cotton before weekend rains, on the hot and humid morning that I visited the area with co-workers Brent Baker, ANHC botanist, and Brian Mitchell, ANHC stewardship coordinator. Brian was there to check and replace boundary markers. Brent planned to update the natural area plant inventory list and check on a known population of pondberry (Lindera melissifolia), a federally endangered shrub that would be in fruit this time of year.

Goldenrod and ragweed were in full bloom along the entrance road, a rough ride that requires a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle to navigate the deep ruts and mud holes. I learned that some of the holes were being used by feral hogs as wallows. Reaching the end of the road, we stepped out of the truck into swarms of large mosquitoes. Brian had on an orange t-shirt that immediately became visibly covered in mosquitoes. Retreating into the truck was of no use, as the insects had quickly filled the cab as soon as we opened the doors. The mosquitoes continued to plague us for the entire day. Photo at left: Brian Mitchell, ANHC Stewardship coordinator, gearing up to mark boundaries at St. Francis Sunken Lands Natural Area, photo by Leslie Patrick.

Much to my surprise, there was no mention of abandoning the day’s work because of the mosquitoes. We sprayed our clothing and exposed skin with repellent, covered our heads and faces with hats and kerchiefs, and set out. We immediately came across pondberry. Brent explained that this rare plant is a dominant shrub on hundreds of acres in this area.

Pondberry spreads by underground runners forming sometimes extensive colonies of stems that are genetically identical (i.e., clones). The shrubs are either male or female and the female shrubs were easily spotted because they have bright red berries this time of year. A similar bush, Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), was also present. Both have oval pointed leaves, but Brent demonstrated how the two are different. The leaves of pondberry are smooth-margined (not toothed), slightly more elongated, and they release a strong, wonderfully citrus-spicy scent when torn or crushed. Pondberry, a relative of the common and widespread spicebush (Lindera benzoin), was possibly noted in historical surveys from the 1800s as “spicewood” or “swamp spice.” Photo at far left: Pondberry (Lindera melissifolia) at St. Francis Sunken Lands Natural Area.

Brian headed off to mark boundaries, joking that he hoped to return and not be “exsanguinated,” or drained of all his blood, by the mosquitoes. Brent and I made a loop within the area to survey plants. The trees were tall and spaced apart. Walking was easy, except when we had to make our way through thick patches of briers or climb over fallen trees. I had expected the landscape to be perfectly flat, but discovered that it is actually slightly rolling with a network of slight rises of a foot or two surrounding small depressions. I saw many plants that I had never seen before, plants adapted to the area’s moist sandy soils and seasonal flooding. I saw swamp dogwood (Cornis foemina); swamp chestnut oak (Quercus michauxii); sedges like Louisiana sedge (Carex louisianica) and cat-tail sedge (Carex typhina); flowering plants such as marsh St. John’s-wort (Triadenum tubulosum), climbing hempweed (Mikania scandens), and the beautiful blue blooms of Virginia dayflower (Commelina virginica). Brent also found a colony of three-birds orchid (Triphora trianthophoros) in fruit, a species previously undocumented on the natural area. Photo at right: Virginia dayflower (Commelina virginica) at St. Francis Sunken Lands Natural Area, photo by Leslie Patrick.

The mosquitoes continued to swarm us, seemingly more vicious as we went deeper into the natural area. We stopped to re-spray and continued. Brent surveyed, making notes on his plant list and pointing out plants of particular interest. I made notes of my own and took photos while looking through the netting on my bug hat (that I was thankful to have packed).

Amid the buzz of the mosquitoes, I heard birds in the treetops and could identify the call of woodpeckers. There were other signs of wildlife - a few crawfish mounds and scat along a narrow beaten path. I chased a leopard frog (Lithobates sp.) trying for a photograph, but he made several big leaps before settling in at the base of a tree -- perfectly camouflaged. Photo at left: leopard frog (Lithobates sp.) at St. Francis Sunken Lands Natural Area, photo by Leslie Patrick.

After several hours, Brent and I rendezvoused with Brian. We were hot, sweaty, covered in bug spray, and beggar’s lice. The mosquitoes were relentless, even in the heat of midday. Brent commented on the plight of the animals in the area that suffer from the insects every day. I can appreciate now why people in the “old days” smeared themselves with bear grease, kerosene, or anything else they could find that might repel the bugs. I can also appreciate the work that my co-workers do year-round. They experience many beautiful places and sometimes have the thrill of discovery, but they also brave the elements and the surrounding environment as part of their routine work for the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission.

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