Plants of the Olentangy Water Trail

A botanical survey



Site Background

The Olentangy Water Trail is a hidden gem located not far from campus. The Olentangy bike trail isn’t far, just across the bridge on King Avenue, but just far enough that most people don’t even see this little riparian haven. After parking off the main road under a highway, there is a little stone path that leads directly to the site. This can be seen in the aerial photo along with the small creek that runs through the area before the river. The area is covered in many plant species but lacks overall in trees.

An aerial view of the survey site.

A map of the survey sight


Eastern Cottonwood, Populus deltoides

Bittersweet Nightshade, Solanum dulcamara Berries

Bittersweet Nightshade, Solanum dulcamara Climbing Vine
























Eastern Cottonwood and Bittersweet Nightshade

Wrapped around an Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) was this Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara). These berries get their name from their shifting taste that starts (as I think you can guess) bitter and becomes sweet shortly after. But in large amounts, Bittersweet Nightshade’s leaves and berries can be a death sentence.  Speaking of eating plants, the Eastern Cottonwood is a suitable supplement for horses.







Common Evening Primrose, Oenothera biennis

Pennsylvania Smartweed (Persicaria pensylvanica)

Ladys Thumb, Persicaria maculos

Dotted Smartweed, Persicaria punctate









My site had a variety of species from the Smartweed family. Smartweeds are related to buckwheat which makes them a great source of food for wildlife. It has a peppery flavor that can be used by humans to season food. Here we see three different species, from left to right, Pennsylvania Smartweed (Persicaria pensylvanica), Lady’s Thumb (Persicaria maculosa), and Dotted Smartweed (Persicaria punctata). I thought it was fun reading about Lady’s Thumb the Wildflower Guide says that it is common in waste sights. Because I had identified Pennsylvania Smartweed for my Flowers Page, it was easy to quickly identify these flowers. They have a distinct flowering that is tightly packed and if looking quickly the Lady’s Thumb could easily be mistaken as a young Pennsylvania Smartweed.


Where’s the other petal?


Asiatic Dayflower, Commelina communis

Dr. Klips sent me this flower Asiatic Dayflower (Commelina communis) when we talked about my survey sight. The flower is eye-catching and beautiful on its own but the story of how it got its name made it even more enticing to me. The man who named it noticed the two bright blue petals and one smaller white petal and connected it to his life. He had two brothers, one who like him was successful and another who was less so. He named the flower after them in a jab to his less successful brother. (Thank you Dr. Klips for this fun story!)


Sneezeweed, Helenium autumnales


Hi mister fly

He’s called a Pokeweed, but he didn’t poke me?








American Pokeweed, Phytolacca Americana

American Pokeweed (Phytolacca Americana) is a toxic plant that has been used for a rich purple dye as the berries are so deep. Mockingbirds and Northern Cardinals snack on these delicious fruits (as do flies. Peep my buddy up there).  During the 1845 election supporters of James Polk wore twigs to Pokeweed into their hats because they believed that the Pokeweed was named after him.




Sweet Goldenrod, Solidago odora









White Vervain, Verbena urticifolia

The Verbena family is known for its medicinal benefits, including helping with Cancer. Vervain was used in religious ceremonies in a range of religions. The ancient Druids believed it had supernatural powers and the Greeks called it the “holy plant.” This plant is another I saw in another species on my Flowers Page.



Poison Ivy, Toxicodendron radicans

This little pest can really ruin a weekend camping trip. Poison Ivy is a flowering plant that most notably can be distinguished by its three leafs. When the flowers bloom, they are very small and white and are in clusters. Did you know that your tolerance to Poison Ivy can change over time? It’s an allergy, so just like any other allergy it can become more severe or get milder over time.

Floristic Quality of the Olentangy Water Trail

Following my Botanical Survey at the Olentangy Water Trail, it was time to find out the floristic quality of the area. There are various forms of the equation that can be used based on the site, its contents, and what we want to know about the area. Due to a fair amount of non-natives present, we will be using the formula that includes all species as opposed to just natives. I’ = ∑ (CCi )/√(Nall species) is the derivative of the original equation where the denominator is the square root of the total number of all species as opposed to just the total number of natives.  The numerator of the equation is the summation of all of the individual CC values of the species present in the area. I was able to locate 39 different species across the site that have a summated CC value of 93. Plugging these into the formula, we get I’=(93)/√(39) which results in an FQAI of 14.89 (N=39).

The plants at the Olentangy Water Trail had a wide variance. Most of the plants were of a low CoC, with a few in the midrange and just two in the upper range, coming in at a 9. Because of the wide variety in CoC, I am able to include many levels of CoC even when looking to record my highest and lowest (although many were 0, and can grow anywhere they well please).

The Highs….

There was lots of water willow on the riverfront

Water Willow

Water Willow boarders almost the entire waterway down at the Olentangy Water Trail. It is a 9/10 CoC, which makes sense as it needs to be along the waterway or not far from a water source to grow. It needs to be planted deep enough but not too deep. They require some sun but can tolerate partial shade. The roots grow laterally from rhizomes which helps this plant spread as much as 1,000 square feet. Little white and purple flowers bloom between June and September. Bees and Butterflies commonly pollinate Water Willow.

There were lots of baby sycamore trees all along the water

American Sycamore

This may be the biggest deciduous tree in the Eastern United States, and it comes in at a 7/10 CoC. The leaves are alternate, palmate-veined, and star-shaped. They remind me a lot of the Tree Stars from the Land Before Time, which makes my inner child smile. The seeds are samaras (achenes with wings) and can keep the inner child smiling as they are commonly seen as helicopters dropped from above and fluttering down. The wood of American Sycamores can be used to make pulp or for butcher blocks and furniture. Sycamore trees are a symbol of strength and protection.

Once it hits fall, the white koosh ball flowers turn a red brown


This shrub appears with leaves in pairs or threes that were roundly tapered at the end with a pointed tip. Their unusual flowers resemble a koosh ball with  their corellas erecting from their cluster. A 6/10 CoC, Button Bush can’t just grow anywhere. They require a lot of water and  a good deal of shade to thrive. Buttonbush is also tolerant to the cold, making it a great plant for Ohio weather. BRRRR! The bark has been used for home remedies regardless of their doubted medicinal benefits.

oh hi there


Wingstem has long elliptical leaves and yellow flower inflorescence. The ray flowers represent wings and sort of fly out.  They like shaded areas and organic matter rich soil. This Wingstem was well hidden buried deep among the more common species around the Olentangy Water Trail. Some indigenous cultures dry Wingstem and use it like tobacco.

The Lows….

The flower caught my eye

but these kept my attention



Jimsonweed is identified by a 0/10 CoC, although I had never seen or heard of it before. It is known to smell bad and poisonous if ingested. This affects cattle and swine most often, and occasionally horses. They have a long tubular flower that is white and almost dusted purple. It also has large spiked balls along the stem, this is the fruit that is capsuled and will break into four parts. It is seen in fertile fields and barn lots (and apparently riparian hideaways!)

Got any spray tan? I’m feeling pale.


Pale Smartweed

As we discussed earlier, the Olentangy Water trail has many species of Smartweed. The Pale Smartweed comes in at a 0/10 CoC and is easy to miss or to believe to be a young version of another smartweed. The flowers grow on a raceme and are very tightly packed together. Rather than the flowers being the pink color commonly found on Smartweed, these flowers are white which explains their name. Additionally, the droop in the raceme can be helped to determine this as Pale Smartweed. It is often found along rivers, ravines, and marsh banks as it relies heavily on the water source. Their seeds are an important part of mammal, bird, and waterfowl diets.

There was so much Water Willow at the Olentangy Water Trail

Sandbar Willow

This shrub can grow to be 20 feet tall and is found in areas that commonly flood. They are a 1/10 CoC and are utilized for their ability to grow anywhere. Sandbar Willow provides a dense covering for gamebirds and is commonly used to stabilize riparian areas from erosion.The leaves are pointed at both ends and narrow, measuring to be somewhere between 2-5 inches. The leaf edges are serrated which is a distinctive feature to Sandbar Willow. Additionally, they grow thickets that other willows do not.

Stinging Nettle

Stinging Nettle can be found in every county in Ohio, so it’s no surprise that it comes in at a 1/10 CoC. It thrives in damp environments (wow! like a water trail!) but needs soil of high nutrients, in particular phosphorous. It gets its name from the leaf and stem hairs that are said to sting.  When the plant “stings” a person, it releases histamine and formic acid which causes pain. If the plant comes in contact with areas already in pain from past stings, the chemicals become a counterirritant turning around the pain.

We’ve Been Invaded!

At my site, only two invasives could be located, although there likely are more hidden among their leafy friends. Don’t play Hide and Seek with them, you’ll likely lose.


Purple Loosestrife along the Olentangy Water Trail

Purple Loosestrife

This invasive lined the smaller stream before hitting the main waterway. It is characterized by a square-shaped stem its purple flower spikes that look like they come to a tip. Flowers can be seen between July and September (they were looking lackluster when I got to them). It needs a water source close by to grow and ranges from 2-6 feet high. Purple Loosestrife was possibly introduced through imported sheep or raw sheep wool.

Reed Canary Grass hidden among the Olentangy Water Trail

Reed Canary Grass

Hidden among the depths of the Olentangy Water Trail this tall grass stretches high above. It is found in riparian areas and moist meadows but wasn’t as easy to find as I thought it might be. It’s dense and extensive roots make it a good choice for erosion control along water edges. Originally, Reed Canary Grass was introduced to help stumps and debris from logging break down.


Red brown berries

Scratch mark bark. Ow!










Amur Honeysuckle

Lining the parking alley behind my house, every landlord in Grandview Heights is using Amur Honeysuckle as an ornamental decoration. This happens to be the same use that brought this invasive over in 1898 for the New York Botanical Garden. Amur Honeysuckle is fast-spreading and is characterized by its red berries, alternate leaves, and bark with almost scratch like marks along the length of it.

Phrag seen at Winous Point


Common Reed Grass

Commonly called Phragmites, this plant can reach up to 15 feet tall. They flower in the summer and appear almost fluffy. Through the winter they appear yellow and dry. Common Reed Grass spreads thousands of seeds each year but seeds have a low viability rate. This grass was found at Winous Point in 2019. I was incredibly surprised to not find Phramites anywhere at my site, but I am convinced it was good at hide and seek.

Substrate Associated Species and Geobotany

White Ash is the only species mentioned specifically by name in Jane Forsyth in Linking Geology and Botany…a new approach. When looking further into the article she mentions that this is because White Ash prefers quite moist places where standing water often occurs. Forsyth talks about how the clay-like soil that is created due to the moisture creates an ideal habitat for plants such as the White Ash, Beech, and Shagbark Hickory to name a few. Unfortunately, these species weren’t at the Olentangy Water Trail (or hidden, again we were playing a great game of hide and seek). Due to this, I opted to find 3 other species that also grow best in high-lime claylike soil.

White Ash? This ash doesn’t look white?


White Ash

Thick grey bark with diamond ridges characterizes White Ash. Leaves are opposite and pinnately compound. It is found it moist well-drained soil. It is used for handles, oars, and baseball bats. White Ash trees bear green to purple flowers in small clusters and each tree typically bears either male or female parts. Their fruits are also Samaras, yay helicopters!

Black Locust? What are we color blind?

Black Locust

Black Locust is also known to grow in high lime clay-heavy substrates. They have pinnate opposite leaves that are oval-shaped with a terminal leaf at the tip. They need a lot of ground and sunlight to become established and unfortunately didn’t seem to have enough of that as none in the area were heavily established. Black Locust’s wood is resistant to rotting and often found in railroad ties and fences. 

Do you think it’s sweet?


Honey Locust

Honey Locust can be seen through parking lots and along sidewalks as it makes for great erosion control and windbreaking. It has small pinnate leaflets. Its wood was at one time highly sought out for the making of bows. Even though the pulp of Honey Locust is somewhat toxic and irritates the throat, Indian’s would dry it’s legumes and used them as a sweetener.

Alright. Now you’re saying this is silver?!

Silver Maple

Like the previously mentioned plants, Silver Maple is used as a riparian buffer and thus also has the nickname River Maple. It also requires a good amount of space to grow and can easily take over an area. It creates a great deal of shade for wildlife. Silver Maple is one of few tree species that has a fast enough growth rate to be considered for use as biofuel. Similar to the Red Maple, the Silver Maple has distinct lobes however the leaves are larger than the aforementioned and the lobes have deeper indents. It also is said that this plant doesn’t grow well in windy and icy areas. I thought this was interesting because this was the only Silver Maple I saw and it was after a lot of digging. It was tucked back quite a bit and very close to a pole that led to a highway bridge. I wondered if this kept the tree warmer and thus kept it alive? Just a thought.

This hidden world is located just across the river from a popular bike trail and yet, it is almost always empty. No humans in sight, but many pollinators, reptiles, fish, and waterfowl. Every trip I took back I was surprised by the number of new species I found. It took some adventuring into depths of the area but I found many plants I’d never seen or grew to really love. My favorite was the American Pokeweed. The way the fruit form is so pretty and the berries look so juicy, I bet bugs love them as treats!