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Editor's Note: This is one of an occasional series of stories about attractions in the Hoosier National Forest. Information for this story on forest barrens was written by botanist Kirk Larson.
TELL CITY - Barrens are globally rare natural communities that often contain spectacular displays of wildflowers and grasses more often seen in prairie settings. Ecologists characterize barrens by their poor, shallow or excessively drained soils, often occurring over bedrock or other substrates that experience drought conditions during at least part of the year.
Barrens occur primarily on rocky, steep areas of southern and western slopes.
Limestone barrens of either bedrock or calcareous shale typically contain areas dominated by stunted trees of post oak and blackjack oak tolerant of dry conditions, with an exceptional diversity of prairie forbs found in nearby small openings.
Other barrens on sandstone and siltstone or more exposed bedrock often lack the diversity of forbs, especially prairie species, with some areas having tree stands of nearly all chestnut oak.
Wildflowers and Wildlife
Some of the more abundant barrens plants include blazing stars, rattlesnake master, prairie dock, stiff goldenrod, foxgloves and various coneflower species, along with grasses such as little bluestem and Indian grass.
Birds most often seen are prairie warbler, northern cardinal, Carolina chickadee, blue jay, eastern bluebird and summer tanager.
Butterflies observed in barrens or the surrounding openings include giant, zebra and tiger swallowtails. Because of the broad diversity of species in these areas, many rare plants and insects occur in barrens that do not exist anywhere else in the forest.
The major barrens communities are included among other Hoosier National Forest designated special areas. Management direction emphasizes the protection, perpetuation or restoration of their special features and values. Biologists believe the greatest threat to barrens ecosystems is woody encroachment due in part to many years of fire suppression and the interruption of a frequent fire regime that contributed to the creation of barrens communities.
Other threats to barrens are the invasion of non-native invasive plant species.
Since the mid-1990s, the forest has increased its effort in re-introducing fire to barrens in the Clover Lick and Boone Creek special areas through prescribed burning. Results from these projects have shown a dramatic expansion of warm-season grasses and prairie forbs, including the discovery of many species not previously seen.
Among the more recent sightings are three new populations of state endangered plants.
Several endangered and rare insects exist nowhere else in Indiana or only occur in isolated sites in nearby states. Entomologists also found two new leafhopper insects not previously known to science. A future forest project is to expand the control and treatment of non-native invasive plants in and near barrens.
The Hoosier National Forest has an ongoing partnership with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources's Division of Nature Preserves for information sharing and botanical surveys.
Larson can be reached at (812) 275-5987 or firstname.lastname@example.org.