Serpentine Grassland and Oak Savanna Ecosystem Restoration

Serpentine grasslands at Soldiers Delight.

The Serpentine Grassland and Oak Savanna Ecosystem was part of “The Great Maryland Barrens.” according to Maryland Historian, William Bose Marye (1886-1979). “Great” because they covered over 100,000 acres in the Maryland piedmont, and “Barren” because they were bare, not of trees, but of timber.

Tree species were present mostly as “gnarled and stunted oaks which dotted the landscape.” Now covering fewer than 1,000 acres in Maryland, almost all of this once widespread ecosystem lies solely within Soldiers Delight Natural Environment Area (NEA).

Due ultimately to the absence of American Indian and lightning fires, Virginia pine started to spread in the 1930s. It had overtaken most of the NEA when restoration activities began in the late 1980s. Relying on community volunteers, Virginia pine is manually cleared and chipped during the dormant season as well as burned in snow-surrounded piles. Pine management activities are restricted to the winter, November to March, to protect the more than 30 species of rare, threatened, or endangered plant and animal species.

Once the Virginia pines are removed, experienced wildland firefighters with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Nature Conservancy return fire to the ecosystem through controlled burning. To mimic American Indian and lightning fires, while assuring public and firefighter safety, each controlled burn must meet a number of criteria ranging from firebreak width to specific weather parameters such as relative humidity and smoke mixing height. Fires are repeated every 3 – 7 years, the natural fire frequency for this type of ecosystem.

Wildland firefighters

Other invasive species have invaded the NEA from surrounding residential neighborhoods. Of special concern is Miscanthus, a large aggressive bunchgrass from Asia. Like Virginia pine, it would destroy the serpentine ecosystem at Soldiers Delight if allowed to spread.

Additional Reference Resources

Basic reading material for the serpentine ecosystem at Soldiers Delight NEA can be found in:

Marye, W.B. 1955. The Great Maryland Barrens. Maryland Historical Magazine, Volume 50, pages 11-23, 120-142, and 234-253.

Anderson, R.C., J.S. Fralish, and J.M. Baskin (Eds.). 1999. Savannas, barrens, and rock outcrop plant communities of North America. Cambridge University Press

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