Middle Aged Meadows and the Middle-Loving Plants

16 Nov

I’ve always loved sunshine, butterflies, goldenrods, and fragrances in cheerful meadows evocative of childhood memories.

Meadow Peacock

Meadows and butterflies, it’s only natural!

Attractive meadows in the Cypress Creek Natural Area near Jupiter, Florida, reflect several years of recovery after clearing and abandonment.   They represent a middle-successional stage.   Let me explain:

A textbook topic in Ecology is succession. Setting aside a couple controversies, the concept of ecological succession traces the history of a cleared area from its recolonization by annual pioneer weeds through a series of  plant communities onward and upward stepwise to a stable “climax” forest.      The stages and “final” outcome depend on the starting conditions, the basic habitat, and events.   The general trend with passing decades is from small and ephemeral toward large, heavy, and long-lived.


Today’s meadows represent a middle stage in succession.  A fairly predictable clique of species dominates such a mid-successional moist meadow.  What do the middlers have in common?    They are not just midway in successional time, but also in structure,  not exactly weeds,  pretty big, but not exactly hunky woody shrubs or trees either.   Tweeners adapted to life in the middle, just like 8th graders in Middle School.

As succession begins the pioneer weedy species compete mostly simply to arrive, persist briefly, and disperse seeds.   But conditions change, becoming more crowded with the incoming  species being ever-taller and broader.  Mid-succession competition becomes a fight for the light, the winners rising above those who came before.    Then still later at the climax community the competition shifts again, to bearing  youngsters able to cope with the canopy shade.

Let’s go back to mid-succession and that contest to rise into the life-giving light.  The perennial weeds in our meadow are fairly tall:   goldenrods, musk-mints, and bluestem grasses as tall as I am.    The species able to surpass those perennials often are bare toward the base where the sun don’t shine,  the foliage held at 4-10 feet as required to overtop the big weeds.   Achieving comes to require some degree of woodiness.

Meadow fennel

Dog Fennell with bare “bamboo” stems lifting the foliage above competitors.

The “beginner” of woodiness is Dog Fennel,  often with stems resembling bamboo, even by having “tubular” construction the stem becoming a slightly woody cylinder around a soft pithy core.   The stems live just one season yet become just woody enough to carry the canopy aloft.   The perfect balance between “fast cheap expendable growth” and height.  It can’t decide if it is a pioneering weed or a woody shrub, a little of both.

Meadow fennel pith

Dog Fennell almost hollow.

Also dominant are Saltbushes.   Along with Dog Fennell they represent the Aster Family which is usually non-woody, yet these Baccharis species have just enough woodiness to stand up and fight.    Relevantly, biologist P.B. Tomlinson, in his “The Biology of Trees Native to Tropical Florida” noted how  despite having a woody trunk, Saltbushes “more resembles an herb.”  He observed further that, “most of the woody branches are short-lived so that older plants are characterized by a mass of dead twigs.”

Meadow Baccharis

Saltbush, alive up high, shedding dead branches down low.

That tendency toward dead twigs sounds like abandoning crowded older growth in favor of new growth where sunlight is plentiful.   Saltbushes are not alone in tending to go bare down low.   Slash Pines appear as saplings early in succession, growing with the successional stages.  As they rise, the pines have an early bare base, and then begin a lifelong habit of shedding lower branches.  Observers usually interpret this as protection from ground fires, but that does not rule out a secondary benefit of lifting the leafy crown above rising competitors (which could fuel a ground fire).

Meadow pine

Another species sometimes prone to die down low  and  renew with tufts of leaves up high is Wax Myrtle, one of the dominant mid-successionists.   It and Saltbush have separate male and female individuals.

Meadow Wax Myrtle older

Wax Myrtle can dare to be bare below, with tufts above.

Wax Myrtle is one of the select few plants other than Legumes to have nitrogen-fixing root nodules,  giving it a competitive advantage on the terrible soils underlying the entire meadow.

Meadow nodule

On the Wax Myrtle root.


Posted by on November 16, 2018 in Meadow Succession, Uncategorized


8 responses to “Middle Aged Meadows and the Middle-Loving Plants

  1. theshrubqueen

    November 17, 2018 at 9:13 am

    I better understand the Piedmont forest succession. Does fire help to complete the transition to climax forest?

    • George Rogers

      November 18, 2018 at 6:11 pm

      Well, not generally I would think…it sets succession back, which can be deliberate in order to support early-succession species such as scrub jays or certain wildflowers. Repeated fires create their own “fire climax” dominated, say, by pines, in contrast with a situation if fire never ever happened the climax may be hardwoods. All that ignores the presence of invasives.

  2. Robert Stevenson

    November 17, 2018 at 11:48 am

    Could you please identify the type of butterfly at the top of this post? Thx.

    • Diane Goldberg

      November 20, 2018 at 12:18 pm

      The butterfly is a White Peacock. Its host plants are Turkey Tangle Fogfruit, Wild Petunia and Bacopa.

  3. FlowerAlley

    November 17, 2018 at 1:28 pm

    Fascinating. I did not know that the Wax Myrtle was an N fixer.

    • George Rogers

      November 18, 2018 at 6:13 pm

      Beyond legumes, Wax Myrtle, Silverthorn, Casuarina, Alders, some Cycads, many grasses…maybe in a sense…and others.

  4. Diane Goldberg

    November 19, 2018 at 8:49 pm

    I’m giving lectures asking everyone to take out as much grass as possible and plant native trees and shrubs to sequester more carbon into the ground to help with climate change. I also ask them to not use grass as a monoculture and allow native groundcovers to grow in it or to use the native groundcovers instead of the grass, so herbicides are only used on invasives that can’t be pulled out. I show them which natives are host plants for caterpillars that are needed to feed our wildlife as well as being pretty and brings more birds to their yards too. This also means not to using insecticides. If we get people to use less herbicides and insecticides we all will be helping to stave off the vast declines in wildlife populations and promote clean water, since these products are seeping into our groundwater and shallow aquafers, which harms us too. We are also part of the problem with the St Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon. Anyone wanting to see one of these lectures can go to the Paula Lewis Library, 2950 Rosser Blvd in Port St Lucie on Feb. 2nd, 2019 at 10:30 am.

    • George Rogers

      November 19, 2018 at 10:51 pm

      Diane, sounds great!


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