Vascular Plants of the Gorge at
Buttermilk Falls State Park (Ithaca, NY)

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Project Overview

This report describes the results of a five-year effort to survey and catalog the vascular plant species of the gorge at Buttermilk Falls State Park. The surveyed area was visited during the growing seasons between April, 2017 and May, 2022.

Buttermilk Falls State Park

Buttermilk Falls State Park is an 811 acre natural area located at the southern end of the town of Ithaca, in Tompkins County, New York. The state park was established in 1924 with a 160-acre donation by Robert H. Treman. Subsequently, additional parcels were added to the park to protect the watershed of Buttermilk Creek, which meanders down hill for five miles from its origins at Jennings Pond, in the town of Danby. 

The majority of the park acreage is located on the lower portion of the western slope of South Hill. West King Road crosses Buttermilk Creek, thus dividing the two major portions of the state park. The territory south of King Road is referred to as the “Upper Park”. The territory north of  King Road is referred to as the “Lower Park”. There are parking lots, comfort stations and picnic areas at both the upper park and the lower park. The area surveyed during this project is located entirely within the Lower Park, and comprises less than half the acreage of the Lower Park.

There are actually two gorges within the lower park, referred to as the “old gorge” (or “owl gorge”) and the “new gorge” (or "main gorge"). Both were created by glaciers during the most recent ice ages. The old gorge was created by the glaciation that preceded the most recent glaciation. The main gorge, created during the last glaciation, is wider and deeper than the old gorge, and delivers vastly greater amounts of water to Cayuga Lake. The main gorge is basically a gouge in Earth's crust, cut through shale and sandstone bedrock by Buttermilk Creek over thousands of years.

Scope (The Area Surveyed)

Only the main gorge was surveyed during this project. The geographic scope of the survey includes the gorge trail and the rim trail, the gorge corridor itself, and immediately adjacent lands on either side of those two trails. The scope also includes the creek “outlet” below the falls, a quarter-acre “vacant lot” adjacent to the beginning of the gorge trail, and the area in the vicinity of the park office (i.e., the visitor center, main parking lot, amphitheater and picnic grounds).

The area surveyed is approximately 45 acres in size, stretching from the park entrance at Elmira Road to the stairs that ascend to King Road. The gorge trail is approximately 0.6 miles (0.95 km) long. The rim trail is approximately 0.87 miles (1.39 km) long.

Tracts not surveyed include regularly mowed lawns at the visitor center, the old service road that runs roughly parallel to the rim trail for part of its length, and the campground road, except where it intersects the rim trail. 

Geography and Ecology

The surveyed area is hilly. It lies entirely on the western flank of South Hill. Both the gorge and rim trails steadily ascend from their origins at the base of the falls (approximate elevation, 412 feet / 126 meters) to their termini near King Road (approximate elevation, 900 feet / 274 meters). Relatively level sections of trail are few. 

The primary slope is oriented from southeast-to-northwest. Water drainage along the primary slope is continuous from the high point at King Road, to the low point below the falls. Secondary slopes, perpendicular to the primary slope on the northern and southern flanks of the creek, drain directly into the creek. Eventually all water drains into Cayuga Lake. 

Nearly all of the area surveyed is forested. The forests are mature, but probably do not date back to pre-settlement times. Open (unshaded) areas comprise but a small fraction of the total area surveyed. Apart from the lawns around the visitor center, there are two sections of trail, each about 100 yards long, in which tree density is somewhat lower, and the forest canopy is thinner. Both of those are located close to King Road access points for the gorge and rim trails. Greater availability of sunlight in these two areas enables a higher number of weedy species to proliferate.

Growing conditions for plants are variable, depending on soil depth, soil acidity (pH), bedrock characteristics, drainage, water flow (within the creek corridor itself), aspect (direction that a slope faces), relative availability of light, and chemical properties of dominant species, which may promote or retard growth of other members of the plant community.

While there are no ponds or marshes within the surveyed area, there is one small swampy site along the rim trail, fed by a seep, that supports a different set of species, such as skunk cabbage, marsh marigold, spicebush and sensitive fern.

The only other wetland ecological zones are located along the margins of Buttermilk Creek, within the gorge. These narrow areas, just slightly higher than the creek bed, include river bars and low terraces, which afford numerous species with an opportunity to thrive between floods. During floods, many plants are swept away by powerful currents.

For a more detailed discussion of specific ecological conditions, refer to the Detailed Ecology page.

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