BUCYRUS: The living giants tower over the grass-filled flatland prairies.
The dead giants are found lying on the ground surrounded by colorful wildflowers.
Welcome to picturesque Daughmer Prairie Savannah, one of Ohio’s newest state nature preserves in southwest Crawford County, about eight miles from Bucyrus.
The 34-acre preserve is dominated by behemoth bur oaks. They feature thick, gnarled trunks up to 5 feet in diameter and bulky branches. They look like oak trees on steroids. Some are as wide as they are tall. They are estimated to be from 150 to more than 250 years old.
Stands of big bluestem and little bluestem grasses dominate the prairie patches.
The preserve is owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and operated by the Crawford County Park District. It is the best and most intact place of its kind remaining in what was once called the Sandusky Plains in north-central Ohio.
It is a very cool and out-of-the-ordinary place, unlike most other ecosystems you will find in Ohio. It has been hailed as the best example of a prairie oak savannah in the Midwest and perhaps in the United States. Bur oak savannahs are globally rare; scientists have studied this one for its rare plants and ecosystems since the 1940s.
“It is just an incredible remnant. It was always special and highly revered,” said Rick Gardner, chief botanist with the ODNR’s Division of Natural Areas and Preserves. “It’s one of the best oak savannahs left in the United States. In the Midwest, it’s up there in importance.”
The preserve will be at its colorful best in late July.
It is a no-frills place with a sign, a historical marker and a kiosk at a small parking lot on Marion-Melmore Road just south of Scioto Chapel Road in Dallas Township. It was dedicated last August.
A total of 157 of the majestic trees tower over the wide-open grasslands and a series of short loop trails that wind through the preserve, Gardner said. The tree count came from Do Soon Cho as part of his doctoral dissertation.
Seventeen of the trees were damaged last fall when the remnants of Hurricane Sandy struck northern Ohio. Some of the damage was significant, Gardner said.
The trees stand as lone sentinels in parts of the never-plowed preserve, and in groves in other parts of the tract. They grow on dry knolls, surrounded by heavy, wet, clay soils that favor prairie grasses.
The grassy trail through the preserve was surprisingly wet on an April visit. A few vernal pools occupied low-lying spots.
The bur oak has proved to be a compatible tree to the prairie grasses. Its super-sized acorns are able to germinate and send out long taproots that grow quickly, tunneling up to 4 feet in the first year.
The bur oak is slow-growing and long-lived. Its deep, widespread root system is drought resistant and its thick, tough, corky bark protects the heartwood from fires.
Daughmer Prairie Savannah is a remnant of Ohio’s Sandusky Plains that once covered about 192,000 acres or 300 square miles in Crawford, Marion and Wyandot counties.
The tallgrass prairie reached into Ohio from the west and created an uncommon opening in the heavily forested lands around it. Most was turned into highly productive farmland for corn, soybeans and wheat. The area, south and southwest of the Sandusky River, was marked by its black soils.
Only about 75 acres of that prairie remain, mostly in rail right-of-ways, historic cemeteries and modest plots of grazing lands. Remnants are also found at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area in Wyandot County and Claridon Railroad Prairie in Marion County.
The savannah has survived settlement and development by man and invasion by other trees.
After the last glacier, it was drier and warmer, which favored the establishment of these grasslands. Later it got cooler and wetter and that favored the forest. The prairie only survived in spots where conditions favored it over the forest.
Historically, the prairie grasses’ thick roots crowded the soil and fended off most trees and shrubs.
The grasses got help from fires, sparked by lightning or set by Indians who favored the grasslands for bison and elk. The fires spurred the regrowth of grasses and shrubs while killing off any tree saplings attempting to gain a foothold.
The Sandusky Plains and its surroundings, once the home of Wyandot Indians, remained a wilderness for decades after Ohio became a state in 1803. Some settlers thought the sea of grass would be poor for farming, the lack of trees indicating an impoverished soil. Wooden plows did not fare well against the prairie plant roots.
The Daughmer Prairie tract was settled in the 1840s by the White family. What is today Daughmer Prairie Savannah was never plowed, although it was used for grazing cattle and later sheep.
Grazing may have eliminated some native prairie wildflowers, but it appears that it played an essential role in preserving the open savannah, Gardner said.
The tract was owned by the family for at least five generations. The last family member was Hazel (White) Daughmer. She allowed botanists to study the site and offered tours. She died in 1995.
Subsequent inheritors provided some protections.
When the 1,000-acre family farm was put up for auction in 2011, the prairie savannah was purchased by the state of Ohio for nearly $192,000.
Controlled burns will be needed at Daughmer Prairie Savannah every two to four years to perpetuate the prairie community, reports the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves.
It was burned in 2011 but another is needed, Gardner said. The last time it had been burned was likely in the late 1990s, he said.
Burns keep invasives out, provide nutrients and promote grasses and forbs, another type of prairie plant.
Daughmer Prairie Savannah has five distinct ecosystems: mesic prairie, wet prairie, sedge meadow, bluejoint swales and prairie pothole marsh. Dry areas are dominated by big bluestem and little bluestem prairie grasses, while wet areas are dominated by prairie cord grass.
The preserve is home to several state-threatened species: Bicknell’s sedge, wheat sedge and flat-stemmed spike-rush, Gardner said. Botanists are finding old species that had disappeared returning to the Daughmer tract.
Several invasive species have also taken root: teasel, multiflora rose, Canada thistle, burdock and non-prairie tree seedlings. They must be removed by hand by volunteers.
Daughmer Prairie Savannah is Ohio’s 135th state nature preserve. There are two others nearby: Sears Woods and Carmean Woods, both with significant old-growth forests. They are close together on Mount Zion Road in Crawford County’s Bucyrus Township, and became state nature preserves in 1991.
Sears Woods contains 98 acres of beech-maple forest, while Carmean Woods has 39 acres of mixed swamp forest. Sears Woods sits on a bluff that slopes down to the Sandusky River.
There is a 1-mile trail through Sears Woods that is managed by the Crawford County Park District.
For more information, call 614-265-6453, or visit www.ohiodnr.gov and click on Recreation. You can also contract state staffer Ryan Schroeder at 419-445-1775.
You can contact the Crawford County Park District at 419-683-9000, www.crawfordparkdistrict.org.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.