Manitou Cave "Botany Blitz" 2017

This is an interview with Annette F. Reynolds
adapted from  Birmingham Botanical Gardens blog “Good Things Growing."
 previously posted on June 7, 2017 on AL.com  

On Sunday, June 18,  Kaul Wildflower Garden Curator John Manion, and Annette F. Reynolds, Founder & Director of Manitou Cave of Alabama, led a “Botany Blitz” on the grounds at Manitou Cave.  Birmingham Botanical Gardens hosted a special group to the site to attempt to document all of the plants and native flora on the site.

How much area does the land cover?

        A natural spring-fed beaver pond supports a wealth of wild plants and native species.

        A natural spring-fed beaver pond supports a wealth of wild plants and native species.

The property of Manitou Cave of Alabama covers ten acres.

It is located at the base of Lookout Mountain near the Trail of Tears in historic Ft. Payne, AL, formerly known as Willstown, a Cherokee settlement and home of Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee writing system, the syllabary. These syllabary inscriptions on the walls of the Manitou Cave have recently been translated. 

The ten acres includes a mature spring fed wetland pond, walkway leading to the cave entrance, and a partially maintained grassy area that surrounds the designated “2016 Places in Peril” 1950’s mid-century modern former commercial Visitor’s Center. The remaining property is a pristine forest on a limestone boulder-strewn slope, typical of what might be found farther up Lookout Mountain at Little River Canyon. 

What type of wildlife can be found there?

A wide variety of flora and fauna can be found, from unique cave obligate species, (bats, snails, anthropods) to birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals characteristic of the Appalachian Plateau. Cave salamanders can be seen in the rock crevices and box turtles in the woods. Other turtles are in the pond, as well as beavers, frogs and fish. There are a variety of songbirds, including many neo-tropical migrants. For the past two years, phoebe chicks hatched from their nest which is located on a rock ledge inside the cave entrance. Recently, goslings hatched from their nest which was built atop the pond beaver lodge, and this geese family could be observed feeding on the grasses and swimming in the pond.

The property supports an outstanding example of southern red oak-white oak mixed forest. There are some ancient white oaks along with several other species. One black cherry is about a foot in diameter. Spring wildflowers include trillium, mayapple, liverleaf and others.

How much of the trip was spent within the cave itself?

The tour took 1-1/2 hours, which is the minimum amount of time.  The first half of the cave, which is the tour, consists of concrete steps and eight steel and wooden bridges that go over the pure cave stream. Because it is a large group tour, it will be difficult to hear me, the guide, in the cave. So, before we go on a cave tour, I  give a 20 minute talk about what attendees will see on the cave tour.

What are some of the rarer species that are found at Manitou Cave?  

With ongoing research, there are potentially species of conservation concern on the surface, such as the green salamander and eastern milk snake. The rarest species found in the cave is the Manitou Cave Snail (Antrorbis breweri), which occurs no other place on earth except in this cave. Now that an echolocation cave gate has been built and the cave is being protected and starting to heal, bats of several species are returning to use the cave. Historically, there probably was a vast colony of gray bats that produced guano, which was mined for saltpeter during the Civil War. Many of the miner’s signatures can be found on the cave walls. The bats likely abandoned the cave by the time the cave was commercialized as a tourist attraction in the 1880’s.

What species do you actively work to protect there?

MCAL is a certified NWF Wildlife Habitat. Protecting and restoring the cave species and historic record is the greatest priority. However, the goal is to manage the land for the benefit of all native species.

Through tremendous support of volunteers and local neighborhood workers, we are actively working to eliminate the overgrown kudzu and privet that got established near the old commercial Visitor’s Center since the time the property was closed commercially in 1979. One large Eastern Red cedar, hidden beneath a tent of kudzu, took a week to uncover using a large chainsaw. Recently, a large magnolia was discovered and bloomed for the first time after a group of volunteers hand pulled the kudzu.

The vision of MCAL is to have a passive walking path, a trail of peace, with labeled native plants and trees. On behalf of Manitou Cave of ALabama, please know how grateful we are to John Manion, Mark Bailey, and all the volunteers who visited and contributed their knowledge on the "Botany Blitz" day, a big step in making the vision a reality.

Annette F. Reynolds

 June 2, 2017