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Description of an upland oak-hickory forest in the Black Belt from Osborn Prairie, Oktibbeha County, Mississippi.


The Black Belt Prairie physiographic region extends from McNairy County, Tennessee in an arc south through eastern Mississippi to Russell County, Alabama (Figure 1). This region is primarily characterized by the Selma chalk that forms much of the soil in the area. This chalk was formed from marine sediments that were deposited when the Mississippi embayment occupied the region during the Cretaceous period (Logan, 1904; Kaye, 1955 and 1974). Over time it weathers into a fertile, heavy and tenacious, calcareous, loamy clay soil (Lowe, 1921; Schauwecker, 1996). The secondary edaphic feature of interest in this region is that in some areas, a red acidic soil of the Oktibbeha Series, called "Post Oak Soils" is situated atop the Selma Chalk. This soil is formed from a bed of heavy clay that overlays the Selma Chalk, does not retain and supply sufficient moisture to plants in dry weather and is rather low in plant nutrients (Scott 1939).


The soil formed from Selma Chalk generally supports grasslands, while the acidic soil typically supports a post oak (Quercus stellata Wang., Fagaceae) forest (Lowe, 1921 and Kaye, 1955). This dichotomous feature of the landscape has been reported since European settlers first arrived in the region (Barone, 2005). These observations are further substantiated by studies using historic documents, soil maps, and General Land Office (GLO) surveyor's notes from Montgomery (Rankin and Davis, 1971) and Sumter (Jones and Patton, 1966) Counties in the Black Belt of Alabama to locate areas of forest and prairie. These studies found a high correlation between alkaline soils and open prairies (low tree density), and acidic soils and forest (high tree density).

However, descriptive studies of the forests that occur on these acidic soils are generally lacking, as the most recent research on the native flora in the Black Belt region of Mississippi has focused on the open prairie remnants (Schuster and McDaniel, 1973; Schauwecker, 1996 and 2001; Leidolf and McDaniel, 1998; Forbes, 1999; Peacock and Schauwecker, 2003; Hill, 2004; Barone, 2005; Barone and Hill 2007, and Hill and Seltzer, 2007). Works on the forest vegetation of the Black Belt region have been limited, and consist mostly of a list of the characteristic species (Lowe, 1913; 1921; Rankin and Davis, 1971, Leidolf et al. 2002).

In this study we describe the flora (presence/abundance) of a one ha xeric forest located at Osborn Prairie, also known as Sixteenth Section Prairie, Oktibbeha, County, Mississippi. Osborn Prairie is one of the larger intact examples of Black Belt Prairie biota remaining in Mississippi. This tract of land is permanently owned by the Oktibbeha County School Board, and as mandated by the state constitution, is leased at a percentage of its assessed value to generate funds for the school district. In 2002 a group of concerned citizens organized a group "Friends of the Black Belt" and entered into a 40-year lease covering approximately 24 ha, which in 2005 was expanded to encompass approximately 57 ha. that is frequently used as a study site for researchers "outside laboratory" for teachers at Mississippi State University. Leidolf and McDaniel (1998) described three plant communities (open prairie, prairie-cedar woodland, and chalk outcrops) from 16 hectares along a power line right-of-way at the site. This study provides more detailed information on the flora of a forest in the Black Belt than was previously available and also should be useful to researchers working at Osborn Prairie, as we describe an additional vegetation type that occurs on the newly leased acreage


Study site: In 2003, a 1 ha forest at Sixteenth Section (33[degrees]30'51"N 88[degrees]43'52"W) was surveyed for herbaceous and woody plant species composition, basal area, and trees per hectare (Table 1). This forest is situated on an elevated area of reddish soil belonging to the Kipling-Savannah-Oktibbeha association, and is bordered on the east and south sides by prairie and on the west by a chalk outcrop. The north side slopes downward, eventually turning into a bottomland hardwood forest.

The climate of Oktibbeha County is humid and warm and is influenced by its subtropical latitude, the extensive landmass to the north, and the warm temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico (Brent 1973). The mean annual temperature is approximately 17[degrees]C, and precipitation is relatively evenly distributed throughout the year with an average high in March of 15.42 cm and an average low in October of 8.51 (Office of Climate Divisions of Mississippi, 2005). There is an annual average of 226 frost-free days (above 0[degrees]C) (Brent 1973).

The forest inventory was conducted by performing a 24 % cruise, consisting of six, 400 m2 round plots with a radius of 11.28 m. Diameter at breast height (dbh), measured at 1.4 meters above the ground, was recorded for all living trees whose diameter was [greater than or equal to] 1 cm. For analysis, the trees were placed into diameter classes based on 2.5 cm intervals. Basal area and trees per hectare were calculated following Wenger (1984). A general survey of other woody and herbaceous vegetation occurring in this forest was also conducted. Voucher specimens have been deposited in the Mississippi State University Herbarium (MISSA) and the Cobb Institute of Archeology comparative collection. Specimens were identified using Radford et al. (1968) and Smith (1994), and nomenclature follows Kartesz (1994). Three soil samples were taken from the site and analyzed by the Mississippi State Soil Testing Laboratory. Seven of the mature pines were cored with a Suunto[R] (Vantaa, Finland) increment borer to determine the approximate age of the forest.


The general survey of the site revealed a total of 36 taxa, with 23 being woody and 13 being herbaceous (Table 1). The most diverse genus in this forest was Quercus (Fagaceae) represented by 7 species. Ground cover was almost non-existent, however when present it was typically represented by a few scattered individuals of the shrub or herbaceous species listed in Table 1.

The inventory of the forest resulted in a total of 405 trees from 17 species being measured within the six, 400 [m.sup.2] plots. Total basal area measured 24.44 [m.sup.2]/ha with 1470 trees per ha. Numerically this forest was dominated by small eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana L., Cupressaceae), post oak (Quercus stellata), and blackjack oak (Q. marilandica Muenchh.), respectively. However, basal area was dominated by Q. stellata, J. virginiana, and Q. marilandica, respectively (Table 2).

While eastern red cedar and post oak were the most abundant tree species in this forest, many of the eastern red cedars were small ([approximately equal to] 1 cm dbh) and contributed significantly less to the total basal area of the forest (Table 2). These cedars are likely remnants of an early successional stage that occurred after the forest was cut approximately 50 years ago based on the age of the cored pines. The majorities of these cedars lacked the typical conical shape of a cedar, and instead have trunks with branches only occurring near the top of the tree, which is probably a result of shading.

Other authors have noted the abundance of eastern red cedar in the Black Belt, and have suggested that an increase in abundance of this tree happened within the last century. Based upon General Land Office surveyors notes dating to the early 1830's, Peacock and Miller (1990) provide the following account of eastern red cedar in the Black Belt prior to European settlement "the data speaks clearly: out of 2,304 witness trees recorded in the early survey reports from the Black Prairie in Mississippi, only one cedar tree was noted". By the early 1900's eastern red cedar is mentioned by Lowe (1913 and 1921) as occurring on ledges where the limestone comes to the surface or as scattered clumps in low or wet areas. Leidolf and McDaniel (1998) describe cedar woodlands as a community type that is characterized by almost pure stands of cedar. However, a plant community resembling a cedar woodland was not mentioned by Lowe (1921) or in any other early descriptions of the region. This implies that the profusion of cedar as well as the emergence of cedar woodlands are of recent origin, likely resulting from human impact.

The Black Belt was once the major agricultural center of Mississippi and Alabama, but large tracts of land formerly in production are now severely eroded with exposed chalk, or sit vacant (Harper, 1857; Lowe, 1913; Wilson, 1981, Webster and Sampson, 1991). Once abandoned, these disturbed areas subsequently grow up in cedar (J.G. Hill pers. obs.). These factors point to human disturbance of the soil as well as a lack of fire as the possible reason for the increasing abundance of cedar since pre-European settlement times. In addition, prehistoric evidence of cedar has been found at Lyon's Bluff, which is located approximately 6.44 km north of Osborn Prairie (Seltzer, 2007). Lyon's Bluff is situated along Line Creek and was an area with significant amounts of prehistoric human impact, both of which factors influenced the likelihood of cedar's presence.

Eastern red cedar is a fire intolerant species and prescribed burns are a typical method of removal from a site (Solecki, 1997). Lowe (1913) called for action to prevent the severely damaging fires that were frequent in the Black Belt during periods of drought. His rational was that fires damaged trees making them unusable for building material and firewood, and the removal of leaf litter by fire resulted in runoff of the less fertile forest soil onto the surrounding rich prairie soil.

The results of the soil samples revealed an acidic soil with a mean pH of 5.2. In moderately acidic soils (pH 4-5.5) some nutrients and solutes, such as Al, may be present in toxic levels, which can limit plant growth. The mean age of the pine corings suggested that this forest was approximately 46 years old + 11.9 years. If this approximate age can also be applied to the deciduous species, then the low availability of nutrients, due soil to acidity, coupled with the xerophitic nature of the soil are probably the main factors influencing the poor growth of trees in these habitats, as Lowe (1913 and 1921) indicated by calling them "dwarfed forests". A reason for the low diversity of the flora of this forest may be that the acidic soils limit the types of plants that can grow in the area.

With exception of the presence of cedar, the trees found in the forest surveyed correspond in composition with the "dwarfed forests" that Lowe (1913 and 1921) described as typically "occurring on higher reddish soil" (Table 3). Based on the similarities with Kuchler's (1964) and Bryant et al.'s (1993) description of oak-hickory forests in the southeastern United States and the apparent lumping of several kinds of forests within Kuchler's "Black Belt forest" type, the name of "upland oak-hickory forest" is proposed for this forest assemblage in the Black Belt. Future monitoring and observations should be made in this forest to examine any changes in abundance of cedar or other tree species that may take place, in order to better understand the role of eastern red cedar in the landscape of Black Belt.


We thank Richard Brown and all the "Friends of the Black Belt" who have put forth the effort to conserve the natural heritage of this region. Also we would like to thank all of the people, be they settlers, explorers, or scientists who recorded their observations for future generations. We would also like to thank John MacDonald for his efforts in verifying several plant identifications. Thanks to Joe MacGown for producing the map and for comments on the manuscript. Thanks also to Lucas Majure, Dr. Richard Brown, Dr. Evan Nebeker and Dr. Gerald Baker for their valuable comments on this manuscript. This research has been partially funded by, and approved for publication as Journal Article No. J-11339 by the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, Mississippi State University.


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JoVonn G. Hill (1) W. Douglas Stone (2), and Jennifer L. Seltzer (3)

(1) Mississippi Entomological Museum, PO BOX 9775, Mississippi State University, MS 39762 Email:

(2) Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology PO BOX 9775, Mississippi State University, MS 39762 Email:

(3) Cobb Institute of Archaeology, BOX AR, Mississippi State University, MS 39762 Email:

Corresponding Author: JoVonn Hill
Table 1. List of plants found in a xeric oakhickory
forest at Osborn Prairie, Oktibbeha
County, Mississippi.

Pleopeltis polypodioides (L.) Andrews and Windham

Juniperus viginiana L.

Pinus echinata Miller
Pinus taeda L.

Toxicodendron radicans (L.) Kuntze

Ilex decidua Walt.

Podophyllum peltatum L.

Lonicera japonica Thunb.
Symphoricarpos orbiculatus Moench.

Vaccinium arboreum Marsh.

Cercis canadensis L
Clitoria mariana L.
Lespedeza cuneata (Dumont) G. Don

Quercus alba L.
Quercus durandii Buckley
Quercus falcata Michx.
Quercus marilandica Muenchh.
Quercus muehlenbergii Emgelm
Quercus stellata Wang.
Quercus velutina Lam.

Carya myristiciformis (Michx. f.) Nutt.
Carya ovata (Mill.) K.Koch
Carya tomentosa (Poir.) Nutt.

Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees

Cocculus caroliniana (L.) D. C.

Fraxinus americana L.

Oxalis violacea L.

Passiflora lutea L.

Berchemia scandens (Hill) K. Koch

Prunus serotina Ehrh.

Ulmus alata Michx.

Callicarpa americana L.

Vitis sp.

Carex cherokeensis Schwein

Panicum dichotomum L.

Montropa sp.

Smilax bona-nox L.

Table 2. Basal area and trees per hectare in a Mississippi Black Belt
Prairie xeric oak-hickory forest.

                                               Basal            Trees
Species                                        Area             per ha

Post oak, Quercus stellata Wang.               11.507           514.08
Cedar, Juniperus viginiana L.                  3.73             552.45
Blackjack Oak, Quercus marilandica Muenchh.    3.60             112.24
Durand Oak, Quercus durandii Buckley           1.725            32.13
Loblolly pine, Pinus taeda L.                  1.134            82.11
Southern Red Oak, Quercus falcata Michx.       1.029            21.42
Shagbark Hick, Carya ovata (Mill.) K.Koch      0.900            42.84
Black oak, Quercus velutina Lam.               0.401            14.28
Ash, Fraxinus americana L.                     0.125            28.06
White Oak, Quercus alba L.                     0.124            3.75
Nutmeg Hickory, Carya myristiciformis
  (Michx. f.) Nutt.                            0.114            7.14
Mockernut Hickory, Carya tomentosa (Poir.)
  Nutt.                                        0.027            21.42
Winged Elm, Ulmus alata Michx.                 0.016            21.42
Sassafrass , Sassafras albidum (Nutt.) Nees    0.004            3.57
Deciduous Holly, Ilex decidua Walt.            0.003            7.14
Black Cherry, Prunus serotina Ehrh.            0.003            3.57
Red Bud, Cercis canadensis L                   0.001            3.57

Totals                                         24.443           1471.19
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Author:Hill, JoVonn G.; Stone, W. Douglas; Seltzer, Jennifer L.
Publication:Journal of the Mississippi Academy of Sciences
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2009
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