The Oak Openings Region is a tract of land a little larger than the state of Rhode Island between Toledo, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan, that was formed by ancient glaciers. The Region was formed during the last ice age between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago. When the glacier that covered this part of the state began to melt it created a large lake.
The Nature Conservancy has called the Oak Openings one of America’s Last Great Places. It’s as rare as the Everglades in Florida, the temperate rain forests of Washington state, and the Redwood Forests in California. About 99 percent is developed and most people don’t even realize they’re in it. Some of the remaining one percent is owned by conservation parks, but the majority of what’s left is hidden in the hands of private landowners, like us. The Oak Openings Region is home to more endangered native plant species than any other place in Ohio. More than one third of all rare plant species in Ohio can be found here.
The sandy soil left by the receding lake helped to create one of the most unique ecosystems and habitats in the state of Ohio as well as globally. The depth of the sand is anywhere from inches to 20 feet deep. Beneath the sand is a thick layer of blue clay that water cannot penetrate.
That’s why in some areas there is standing water for much of the year and in other areas it is almost desert-like. On the sand dunes the water quickly filters through the sand down to the clay layer.
Where the sand is thin and the clay is only inches below, there is standing water and swampy areas for much of the year. It is only during the warm, dry days of summer and fall that the water dries up.
You’ll see high, dry sandy areas which quickly give way to wet, swampy areas. This transition is in a matter of feet. You can be standing on top of a sand dune looking down at a swamp.
The entire Oak Opening Region is like this, yellow sand dunes giving way to swamp forest or wet prairie.
These unique characteristics are the reason so many rare plants and animals live here.
A spring peeper and wild blueberry
This patch of Sand cherry is the only one known to exist in Ohio
Yellow Sand Dunes
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. Many of them don’t grow any where else in Ohio.
Plants like the prickly pear cactus thrive in the hot sand. They have long roots that work their way down to the water table below.
Other plants like wild lupineand 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.
Wet Swampy Areas
The wet prairies are also home to many rare species of plants and animals. The swampy spots come in a couple different forms.
Some swampy areas are covered with forest. These swamp forestareas (appropriately named) 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.
They have remained over the years since the land was too wet to farm in the early days. Land owners didn’t bother to remove the trees.
Other swampy locations are open areas and considered to be wet meadows or wet prairies.
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.
The best example of a wet meadow / wet prairie in Northwest Ohio is Irwin Prairie State Nature Preserve. This prairie once extended for miles, but only a small portion of of the original prairie remains today.
Oak Openings Sunset
The Name "Oak Openings"
The name Oak Openings was given to this area by early settlers who came 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 dry, open ground and sand dunes.
The dunes would have had oak trees (mostly black oak) growing sparsely in the sand. Growing below the oak trees would have been sedge grass and little bluestem grass. The settlers referred to these “openings” as Oak Openings.
Humans have played a role in the Oak Openings Region for thousands of years. The Native Americans helped preserve the prairies and black oak savannas.
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. They 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 brushy, woody plants from taking over the oak savannas.
Development of the Oak Openings
It wasn’t until the Europeans began settling this area and the natives were pushed out that the practice of fire suppression began.
When management of the land was no longer practiced, the invasive plants began to take over. Over a period of time the savannas became overgrown choking out the grasses and wildflowers.
The rare ecosystem that had been thriving for thousands of years started to disappear.
A very serious bullfrog
These gay wings are the only ones know to exist in Ohio
The local Nature Conservancy office operates a land registration program for Oak Openings Region homeowners. This program recognizes homeowners who make a conscious effort to conserve all or a portion of their land.