The Oak Openings Region of Northwest Ohio

The Oak Openings Region of Northwest Ohio is one of those hidden gems.  Unless you are a resident of or an avid researcher of rare plants you may not have even heard of it.  You may not even know what it is.  Many people who live here don’t realize what it is.

Did you know?:

  1. The Oak Openings region is globally rare.  It is considered by the Nature Conservancy to be one of the last great places on earth.  That designation is the same as places like the Florida Everglades.
  1. Over one third of the rare plants in the state of Ohio can be found here.  What makes this region special is the spectacular array of different plants and plant communities that thrive here.

  1. There are plants here that don't grow anywhere else in the state of Ohio.
  1. Private landowners can do small things that make a huge difference in preservation.

Where Is It?

Oak Openings MapMap of the OOR from the book "Living in the Oak Openings"

This Region in Northwest Ohio is much more than the Metropark.  The region is an area that starts southwest of Toledo and runs up to the Ohio – Michigan border.  It continues in to Michigan along the western part of Lake Erie nearly all the way to Detroit.

The portion in Ohio is a narrow strip of sandy soil intermixed with low swampy areas.  It is about 22 miles long and only 3 to 5 miles wide.

What Makes It Rare?

The reason for the plant diversity here is because of the way the land was left by the last ice age nearly 15,000 years ago. 

Sand dunes left over from a receding glacial lake (Lake Warren) are now covered with hardwood forest and tall grass prairie.  Within feet of those sand dunes are often very low areas that hold standing water for much of the year.

Combine the dry areas with the wet areas all within the same geographic spot and you have amazing and rare diversity of plants and animals.

Oak SavanaOak Savanna in the fall
grass pink orchidGrass Pink Orchid
rattlesnake masterRattlesnake Master in a wet prairie

Lots of Scientific Information

A lot of scientific information and research has been written by botanists, educators, and Oak Openings enthusiasts.  This area is still a hot spot for the scientific community.

I won’t be duplicating that information on this site.  I’ll leave all of that to the experts.  You can find much of it in the various links I have included.

The purpose of my pages is to bring awareness and appreciation.  I also want to show private land owners what they can do to preserve their piece of this globally rare area.

An amazing publication "Living in the Oak Openings" that tells all you need to know about the region can be downloaded HERE.

The Sand Dunes

Sand CherrySand cherry growing on the dunes at OO Preserve. This may be the only place in Ohio that it grows.

The dry, hot sand dunes are not very hospitable places for most plants to grow. The plants that do grow in that kind of habitat are unique to Ohio. 

Plants such as prickly pear cactus have very deep roots that allow them to get to the water which is on top of the clay layer several feet down.

Other plants like wild lupine and bluestem grasses were once quite abundant. Open prairies full of colorful wild flowers, tall grasses, and sparse oak trees must have been quite a sight to early settlers.

Black oak is the most prevalent oak tree that grows here. It likes the sandy soil and has adapted to the conditions.

Wet and Swampy Areas

fringed gentianFringed gentian is a rare plant that likes wet meadows

The same holds true for the wet, swampy areas adjacent to the dunes. The wet prairies are also home to many rare species of plants and animals not found anywhere else in Ohio.

The swampy spots come in a couple different forms.

  1. Some swampy areas are covered with forest. These areas are typically full of pin oak trees, maple trees, black tupelo, and others.There are still many swamp forest areas scattered throughout the region. They can be found on many privately owned wooded lots as well as parks and preserves.

  1. Other swampy locations are open areas and considered to be wet meadows or wet prairies.

The best example of a wet meadow / wet prairie is Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve. This prairie once extended for miles across western Lucas County.  Toledo Express airport was once part of this wet prairie area. Only a small portion of the original prairie remains today.

Unfortunately, many of them have been destroyed by land owners and development of the area. Most of the wet meadows have been drained and filled in.

Spring PeeperA spring peeper on a wild blueberry bush
Swamp ForestStanding water in a swamp forest area on my property
calico pennant dragonflyCalico pennant dragonfly

How The Region Got Its Name

The name comes from early settlers who traveled through here on their way west.

After spending horrid days and nights trudging through the deep, thick muck of the Great Black Swamp they would have made their way to this area. What a welcome change the dry, open ground must have been.

The sand dunes would have had oak trees (mostly black oak) growing sparsely on the sand dunes.

Growing below the oak trees would have been sedge grass and little bluestem grass. These “openings” were referred to the settlers as Oak Openings.

Native American Influence

Prairie RosePrairie Rose

Humans have played a role in this region for thousands of years. The Native Americans helped preserve the prairies and black oak savannas.

The natives saw the benefit of fire to the landscape. They saw that it was a critical component to maintaining the natural habitat. Fire would keep invasive plants and other woody plants from taking over the oak savannas.

With periodic fire the native prairie species, like wild lupine, could thrive without being choked out by larger woody plants.

Native Americans would set fire to the prairies to maintain food sources like wild blueberry. The open savannas attracted wildlife which made hunting easier. Food was more abundant.

Development and Destruction of the Oak Openings

It wasn’t until the Europeans began settling this area and the Native Americans were pushed out that the practice of fire suppression began.

Invasive plants began to take over when the land was no longer managed by the natives. Over time the savannas became overgrown. The grasses and wildflowers were choked out.

The rare ecosystem that had been thriving for thousands of years was starting to disappear.

The development of Northwest Ohio lagged behind the rest of Ohio as a result of the Black Swamp. This just wasn’t a great place to be in the early to mid-1800s. Standing water was a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Malaria was rampant.

As the area became more populated in the late 1800s and early 1900s drastic changes began to take place in the OOR. The main objective of settlers was to create as much tillable farm land as possible. Standing water was in the way.

Hundreds of miles of ditches were dug in Lucas County to drain the water. Ponds were created. Pine trees were planted.  The wet meadows and prairies were filled in. Residential homes were built, and then commercial development began.

It's sad that every time a sand dune is leveled or a low area is filled in that rare habitat is destroyed.

Oak Openings PrairieSummer Solstice on the Prairie
SundewThe fly-eating sundew plant
Oak Openings SunriseSunrise over a tall grass prairie

Public Awareness

The destruction of the Oak Openings isn't necessarily being done deliberately. Many people just don't know what it is or why its special. A rare plant to some is a weed to others. A sand dune capable of sustaining a globally rare habitat is also a nice dry spot to build a house. 

Fortunately the number of local residents who are familiar with the significance of the area continues to increase. Local programs by the Nature Conservancy, Toledo Metroparks, Toledo Zoo, and other local organizations continue to promote awareness.

The local Nature Conservancy office, located at Kitty Todd Preserve, operates a land registration program for home owners in the Oak Openings Region. This program recognizes home owners who make a conscious effort to conserve all or a portion of their land.

Hopefully man and nature can find a balance and what is left of the region will still be here for future generations.

Spring BeautySpring Beauty, one of the earliest spring wildflowers.

Private Ownership

Most of the land in the Oak Openings region is in private ownership.  There are a lot of land owners who appreciate the significance of where they live and manage it accordingly.  There are also many who want to learn more. 

Much of the Oak Openings has been transformed over the years.  The pre-European oak openings is gone.  The good news is that the OOR is very resilient. 

Land that has been overgrown by invasive non-native species will respond quickly to some basic land management techniques.

Low areas that have been drained will quickly respond to water being left to where it once was.  Plants and animals that like the low areas will return.

What Can Landowners Do?

People often buy land here that has low spots on it and immediately dig a pond or bring in dirt to fill it in.  That’s a natural thing to want to do.  Unfortunately, a lot of extremely rare habitat and plants are being destroyed in the process.

I am guilty of some of that before I realized that I lived in a globally rare area.

After some self-education, I began a restoration project of my 8 acre lot and have had amazing results.  The land has responded in ways I never imagined and I have found plants that I never knew would be here.  Some of them are extremely rare.

Other land owners can do the same thing.

Oak OpeningsSunset on the prairie
Oak OpeningsWild blue lupine. The pride of the OOR in early May

Learn More

There are many great ways to see and learn more about this amazing area. A few are listed below.

Download the book, "Living in the Oak Openings" (The most complete publication about the Oak Openings)

The Green Ribbon Initiative

Kitty Todd Preserve

Irwin Prairie

Oak Openings Preserve

The Oak Openings Trail

Maumee State Forest

Wabash-Cannonball Trail (The sections that run through the region. Most of the south fork is in the region)