Golf course succession

A friend’s property, in the county my parents live in, is surrounded by a nine hole golf course that went out of business several years ago, and is about to be acquired by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It is undergoing rapid ecological succession to a less managed state since they stopped mowing a few years back. This process is very common with abandoned farm land, but this is the first I’ve looked at a golf course. The place is interesting because the area is naturally wet, being originally part of a very large swamp/wetland complex (the “Great Black Swamp”) that stretched over many counties and caused this area to be the last settled in Ohio. The original vegetation, documented in 1820, was dominated by intermixed treeless wet prairie, and swamp or other northern wetland hardwoods, with standing water over the entire year common. The inherently wet soils might well have affected the course’s success, I don’t know.

Several tree species mentioned in the 1820 GLO land survey notes (see bottom image) are still present, including swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), american elm (Ulmus americana), pin oak (Q. palustris), green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), hickory (Carya cordiformis), eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides), and unspecified willows (Salix spp.). Others have clearly come in post-settlement, including black walnut (Juglans nigra), northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa), weeping willow (Salix babylonica), possibly silver maple (Acer saccharinum), and the completely misplaced jack pine (Pinus banksiana) and eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) (most likely both as yard markers and fairway dividers). How the USFWS will manage the property will be interesting; it may be difficult to recreate the wet prairie habitat given that the natural drainage pattern is now highly altered by ditching and drain tiling.

Wet prairie and hardwood swamp, to farm, to golf course, to...

Wet prairie and hardwood swamp, to farm, to golf course, to…


Goldenrod (Solidago spp), a notorious and obvious late bloomer.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp), a notorious and obvious late bloomer.

Sumac (Rhus glabra)

Sumac (Rhus glabra)


Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) in fruit

Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) in fruit


Active bald eagle nest in eastern cottonwood, Populus deltoides

Active bald eagle nest in eastern cottonwood, Populus deltoides


Burr oak, Quercus macrocarpa

Burr oak, Quercus macrocarpa


Northern catalpa bole base, with yard marker

Northern catalpa with yard marker


Catalpa invasion

Catalpa invasion


Eastern cottonwood, Populus deltoides

Eastern cottonwood, Populus deltoides


Swamp white oak sapling with visitor.

Swamp white oak sapling with visitor.


Jack pine (Pinus banksiana), first year (l) and second year (r) cones.

Jack pine (Pinus banksiana), first year (l) and second year (r) cones.


The Portage river forms one boundary.

The Portage river forms one boundary.


The bearing tree list and associated data for the township, circa 1820.

The bearing tree list and associated data for the township, circa 1820.

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15 thoughts on “Golf course succession

  1. Interesting that green ash are still there. Emerald Ash Borer has been taking ash trees out like there’s no tomorrow.

    The active eagle’s nest is no surprise. While still not common, one can usually see a bald eagle or two now and then – and a wetland would be a natural place to find them.

    Catalpas on the fairway… makes one wonder what their handicap is.

    • The borer is in full force there. Most, if not all, of the larger ash are dead or dying; only the small ones are healthy.

      There are quite a few eagle nests in the county, not sure of the number but at least 20 I’d think. And now, also two pairs of nesting peregrine falcons, one in the county courthouse and one at the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant.

      And also, as I wrote about here, the first fertile grass carp in the Great Lakes, which were found just a few miles from this site, in a Sandusky Bay headwaters location, about two years ago.

  2. Former golf courses have a lot of potential for nature conservation as the original developers often leave behind fragments of native vegetation, as you indicate. One of my favourite reserves and urban parks in my home town of Northampton (UK) used to be a golf course: http://www.bradlaughfieldsandbarn.org.uk/

    Something i do wonder about is wether intensive use of fertilisers and pesticides may cause persistent problems in some f the more highly managed sections of these sites.

    • Hi Jeff. That’s a really nice and interesting looking place with an interesting history. What are the dominant tree species in there?

      The fertilizer issue does matter here, in the larger sense that everything here drains directly into Lake Erie, which now has pretty serious problems with Microcystis blooms in the summer and fall due to heavy, soluble P inputs–in fact this forced a shut down of the water supply in my home town earlier this summer. However, much of the input comes from agricultural, not lawn, runoff. There are two N fixing trees on site–black and honey locust, so it will be interesting to see how they do.

    • Hi Jim – thanks, it is fascinating. Some of the hedgerows are thought to be over 1000 years old. There’s quite a diversity of trees on the nature reserve part of the site, for which we have a complete list of all flora. Main ones are (with non-natives marked*):

      Field Maple Acer campestre
      Sycamore* Acer pseudoplatanus
      Alder Alnus glutinosa (dominant in wetter areas)
      Hazel Corylus avellana (co-dominant in hedgerows)
      Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna (co-dominant in hedgerows and in drier areas, where it is a pioneer invasive)
      Ash Fraxinus excelsior (would be a dominant it succession followed its course)
      Crab Apple Malus sylvestris
      Hybrid Poplar* Populus nigra x P.deltoides
      Blackthorn Prunus spinosa
      Buckthorn Rhamnus catharticus
      Corkscrew Willow* Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’
      Willows Salix spp.
      Elm Ulmus sp. ( (would be a dominant if not for Dutch Elm Disease and if succession followed its course)
      White bulllace* Prunus domestica insititia var.

      Plus there’s a few planted pines:

      Scots pine Pinus sylvestris
      Black pine* Pinus nigra

      I was thinking more of the fertilisers affecting succession and only allowing dominant grasses to flourish; phosphates can be very persistent.

      Best,

      Jeff

    • Nice diversity there Jeff. Clearly you’ve got some wet areas with the sycamore, alder, poplar and willows, and some upland stuff too. And I had no idea there was Rhamnus in GB. There’s a very important Rhamnus in the California chapparal (R. californica, “toyon”). Is the elm more mesic or hydric?

    • Yes, there are several places where natural springs appear at the surface; the underlying geology comprises alternating ayers of limestone/sandstone and clay.

      In the UK we have two species of Rhamnus in fact – R. frangula is the other one.

      The elm would tend to be more mesic.

  3. “…the completely misplaced jack pine (Pinus banksiana) and eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) (most likely both as yard markers and fairway dividers).”

    I’m curious as to why you consider these trees misplaced given that they are both native to Ohio and would not be unexpected on the margins of a swamp.

    • Mainly because of the high soil moisture Matt. Neither species is listed in any survey notes for a number of counties in NW Ohio that I’ve looked at, and the Black Swamp had no conifers at all as far as I’m aware. Jack pine in particular is very fire adapted and loves dry, sandy soils. And junipers are of course notorious for their drought tolerance, although there are some limestone barrens not too far away, with very thin soil that could have supported them. I’m 99.9% certain there were no jack pines though. I’m not even sure there were any in the sandy oak openings to the west of this area (right where I grew up, west of Toledo). If anywhere, that’s where they would have been.

      Now having said that, I need to go back and check to make sure those are not in fact Scots pines there (Pinus sylvestris) which was planted very commonly all over the place.

    • I went to look at the P. banksiana range map and just discovered that the USDA maps have zoom capability to the county level! Now I have some entertainment to get me through the long winter! Unfortunately, there is no P. banksiana county data for Ohio, but it is shown as native there. So it must be quite rare in Ohio, although it goes as far south as West Virginia and the Ozarks. I was thinking it might be a wetland colonizer like Lodgepole Pine since they are otherwise so similar in habitat and lifestyle preferences, but that appears to not be the case (as you already knew). Here in Washington Lodgepole Pine forms drunken forests rooted only in vegetative mats in swamps. I also see that despite the rot-resistant wood J. virginiana also shuns wet soils. I remember vast areas of what the locals called “redcedar” with an understory of shrubby black locust on the soilless limestone barrens of western Tennessee.

    • I’ve actually been wondering about the niche displacement between lodgepole and jack pines Matt. There’s no question about lodgepole’s ability to tolerate wet (and cold) soils, just as you describe there. As we know, it’s typically the only tree species one finds high in the western mountains when the soil is wet. And yet it also has some serious drought tolerance as well. I have much less experience with jack pine, but in Michigan, it is almost exclusively on those dry sandy soils of the northeastern lower peninsula–covering vast stretches, sometimes in combo with red pine, depending on time since last fire. Serotinous cones and the whole nine yards–very fire tolerant/dependent. And I can picture exactly what you’re talking about on the limestone barrens also. The only tree that can grow on the limestone barrens here is Juniperus.

    • No, not really the same Dave. The Emerald Ash Borer is a ferocious pest, as lethal as are the western US bark beetles, such as the Mountain Pine Beetle (but non-native). Literally any ash of any species over about 5-6 inch diameter is being killed, the worst areas being S Michigan and N Ohio and Indiana, as the borer gained entrance at Detroit. There is some resistance to Dutch Elm disease and one definitely sees mature ones that appear healthy, which is great because it’s a beautiful, sort of classic tree IMO. There are a couple, at least, on this property.

      Yeah the burn question is interesting. Presumably they will not be able to re-create the wet prairie habitat, and so will have to burn if they want to keep the whole area from going to forest. And thanks for the link, that looks interesting.

  4. Re Jack Pine and Lodgepole, you might check on what is known in Alberta where they intermingle and hybridise. As I recall there is some fear that Mountain Pine Beetle will jump to Jack Pine through the hybrids and continue its march across the continent.

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