Floracliff Nature Sanctuary


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Photo of Elk Lick Falls by Thomas G. Barnes
Floracliff Nature Sanctuary is a 346-acre nature preserve located in the palisades region of the Kentucky River in southern Fayette County. The preserve is comprised of steep slopes, mixed hardwood forests, Kentucky River bottomlands, swiftly running tributary streams and limestone palisades. Of geological significance is a 61-foot tufa deposit known as Elk Lick Falls.

The preserve was founded by Dr. Mary Wharton who purchased the land in a series of parcels between 1958 and 1989, acquiring a total of 287 acres. She died in 1991, leaving behind a non-profit foundation governed by a Board of Directors. In 1996, the preserve was dedicated as a Kentucky State Nature Preserve, giving it perpetual protection from development. In 2017, an additional 59 acres was purchased and protected with an easement provided by the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund.

Elk Lick Creek, a tributary of the Kentucky River, flows through the middle of the preserve. Rich in aquatic life, the stream is home to many different kinds of animals such as snakes, salamanders, frogs, turtles, fish, and aquatic insects. Along the ravines of Elk Lick Creek are perhaps some of the richest sites in Central Kentucky for wildflowers. Bloodroot, shooting star, celandine poppy, and Virginia bluebells are just a handful of species that are a common sight in early spring.

Elk Lick Falls, the 61-foot waterfall at the junction of Kettle Springs Branch and Falls Creek Branch is of significant interest because it is also one of the largest known surface deposits of tufa in the eastern United States. Tufa is composed of calcium carbonate, and is more common in areas with karst topography, such as the Inner Bluegrass. Groundwater flowing through seeps and springs becomes mineral laden due to the surrounding limestone. When this water comes to surface, the minerals get redeposited as tufa in a manner similar to the way stalactites and stalagmites are formed in limestone caves. Another geologic feature, the Elk Lick graben, extends through the southeast portion of the preserve. A graben is a depression between two faults and this one is part of the Kentucky River fault zone. It is not known how the Elk Lick area got its name because there are no known salt licks nearby, but some suspect that the Elk Lick graben would have been a probable place for a lick that has since dried up.

Floracliff lies in an area which, according to renowned botanist Lucy Braun, is transitional between Mixed Mesophytic forest to the east and Oak-Hickory forest to the west. The overstory of the gorges along Elk Lick Creek is comprised of sugar maple, bitternut hickory, northern red oak, chinkapin oak, white ash, blue ash, shagbark hickory, Ohio buckeye, and others. Dominant species in the understory are flowering dogwood, ironwood, spicebush, bladdernut, and pawpaw as well as exotic species such as bush honeysuckle. The upland areas of the preserve, which have been previously logged and farmed, are an early successional forest comprised of eastern red cedar, Osage orange, black cherry, black walnut, American elm, and honey locust. A limestone outcrop on the uplands provides habitat for Malvastrum hispidum, or hispid false mallow, which is a state threatened species. Other species common in the rock outcrop are eastern red cedar, redbud, dwarf hackberry, prickly pear, and false pennyroyal. Along the Kentucky River portion of the preserve is a floodplain where silver maple, sycamore, and box elder dominate.

Floracliff Nature Sanctuary • P.O. Box 21723 • Lexington, KY 40522 • (859) 296-0986 • info@floracliff.org
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