At first sight, the stretches of exposed rock in the park might just look like a wasteland. In fact, it’s one of the most interesting – and most overlooked – ecosystems in the region.
The swathes of sandstone are called glades. Here, the visitor can see the constant battle between the bedrock and the vegetation it supports. The plants try to set roots and find soil and water; the rock resists. It reflects the sun’s rays, and in summer the glades are bright and hot like beach dunes.
On bare rock, only lichens can live, and there’s a diverse array of them here. But in some of the cracks and crevices, there’s enough gritty soil for plants to grow, and some of them are rare, like Nuttall’s Rayless Goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii) and Pineweed (Hypericum gentianoides). There’s also Eastern Prickly Pear (Opuntia humifusa), a testament to how hot and dry the glades can get. Even the occasional pine trees are twisted and stunted, like giant bonsai trees. They wait for the few days each year when enough rainwater fills the small spaces around their roots, and they’re rewarded by slow growth and a long life. Many may already be more than 200 years old.
Why do some plants live in such harsh conditions? Because there are no trees amongst the rocks, there’s less competition for sunlight, making it easier for small plants like grasses and herbs to grow. Over millions of years, some plants have adapted to the glade’s tough conditions – in some cases, changing so much they became distinct forms that can only live in the glades.
Watch where you step – the fragile plants in the glades have already been badly damaged by trampling in some areas. In the future, Moss Rock’s supporters hope to create special trails to allow people to see the glades without injuring them. For now, it is best to visit with a naturalist; if you do visit, be careful to step only on the rock, not the fragile plants.
Sandstone glades often appear on the south-facing ridges of the taller peaks in the Ridge and Valley Ecoregion, but few are on public land. Other examples can be seen at Oak Mountain State Park, where they extend across the southeastern slopes of Double Oak Mountain.
– R. Scot Duncan