Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ionactis (Aster) linariifolius: The Narrow Leaved Aster

This is becoming one of my favorite fall flowering plants among the native flora of Ohio and commands interest on all fronts; being botanically, ecologically, and horticulturally engaging.  As I add more posts to this blog, this phrase is likely to be constantly repeated.  The Aster family (Asteraceae), arguably the largest family of flowering plants in the world, has among there ranks some of the most fascinating, beautiful, and highly derived plant forms to be witnessed.  Perhaps the most curious of all belong to the genus Mutisia, a group of suffrutescent or woody species that typically inhabit high elevations in the Andes mountains, with a particularly large presence in Chile.  Ionactis (Aster) is not one of these species, but if you carefully compare them, it is hard to mistake that there is something eerily similar in appearance between Ionactis linariifolius and  Mutisia linearifolia.  Considering that these species shared a relatively recent common ancestor,  it is reasonable to assume convergent evolution played a role here, but that is not the topic of my present muse.  Mutisia (and a great many other Andean alpine endemics) are notoriously intractable in cultivation.  In the ease of cultivation category, Ionactis lies at the opposite end of this spectrum, and makes an easy to grow plant given the proper conditions.  

The verdant, mound-forming habit of Ionactis (Aster) linariifolius in late summer

Formerly Aster linariifolius, this species has a unique and rugged charm not present  in some other genera of native asters.  This species named is derived from the densely pubescent narrow, linear leaves that are stiff to the touch and remiscent of conifer needles.  The flowers can appear from late summer well into autumn, are born one per stem, and can range from white, to pale lavender,  to light purple .  Flowering can last well into November and seeds do not mature until late in the season.  The first year I tried to collect seed was in Late October, and still too early!  Around mid-November is more appropriate.  This species is also unique in forming woody(suffruticose) growth at the base, much in the same fashion as some Mutisia species. 

Another reason this is one of my favorites plants is because of where you can find it growing.  In Ohio this species is rare; it occurs on uplands with Pinus virginiana, Viola pedata (bicolor form), Antennaria spp., Iris verna and other acid soil loving plants.  On the cumberland plateau, and specifically along the Big South Fork River in Southern Kentucky this species occurs in a completely different and utterly unique habitat.  The boulder bars that have formed along the river harbors one of the most unique plants communities to be found in the eatern United States.  Here, Ionactis grows in hummocks of peaty sand between large boulders.  These hummocks support several plants species; Phlox amoena Liatris microcephala, Solidago arenicola, Conradina verticillataAndropogon gerardii, and Baptisia australis.  Along the Cheat River in eastern West Virginia, the boulder bars persist, but there is a slightly different assemblage; Marshallia grandiflora, Trauvetteria caroliniensis, and Andropogon gerardii can be found here, but there are none of the cumberland plateau endemics.  So whats the point of all this?  Ionactis is a fantastic indicator plant, and finding it may lead to finding other rare species of plants.  

 Ionactis (Aster) linariifolius nestled into a sandy hummock with Marshallia grandiflora in West Virginia

I have only been growing Ionactis in the garden for a couple of years.  My material orginiates from southern Ohio and appears to be quite hardy.  Although the parent plants are growing on a steep grade below a dry pine woods, three seedlings placed in moist sand/peat bed are thriving and have formed dense, rounded mounds 30 cm tall and 40 cmm wide.  I now have many more seedlings of this species growing.  It will be interesting to assess the differences in flower color, plant habit and adaptation to average garden conditions over the coming years.  More on this to come…

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Botany on the Go: Phlox amplifolia in Tennessee

To me, finding Phlox amplifolia in the wild became something of a search comparable to that for some mythical and tantalizing treasure that always seems to be just out of reach. Initially I was told that locating it would be a menial task, but because so little is known about this plant and so few people have actually seen it, I had my reservations about the suggested ease with which it could be found.  My reservations proved to be true, as this summer I had searched several sites in Kentucky only to turn away without discovering even a single plant.  Recently, a friend gave me a location in eastern Tennessee that would be easy to find, and with best intentions, I convinced my wife to make a very abbreviated trip to the site.  Simply put, I just could not go through another winter without seeing this plant, and it didn't matter how much driving it would take to accomplish this task.  So away we went to eastern Tennessee.

The forested, talus slope habitat of Phlox amplifolia 

One can never be sure what to expect on these sorts of trips.  I half expected the plants to be dried out and dead, having shed there seeds and looked their best during the summer months.  So as we rounded the corner and a handful of flowering plants came into view, I let out a sigh of relief.   This relief was quickly followed by an immediate adrenaline rush as I clumsily started  to scour the forested, talus slope where the plants were growing.  It's always a good feeling when 7 hours of seemingly endless driving results in such unanticipated botanical bliss.  We were able to find hundreds of plants and enough (about 12) plants were in flower that we were able to assess some of the floral variation in this rarely seen and poorly understood taxon.

The last vestiges of Phlox amplifolia flowers in Tennessee

An close-up of a Phlox amplifolia flower.  Note yellow pollen (white in P. paniculata)

Mission accomplished.  But I can't take any of the credit for finding this site, as it is well known in some botanical groups.  The real task now comes in relocating this majestic species in its suspected haunts in Kentucky and beyond.  In an old paper, Phlox guru E.T. Wherry suggested that P. amplifolia is an ancient species that is dying out throughout its somewhat limited range.  Whether this is true or not remains to be seen, but it appears that this species is very limited in its ecological tolerances and that its particular ecological niche may not be that common.  Hopefully I can continue to develop this story and report more about it in the future.

From our point in Tennessee we headed east into North Carolina, camped for the night, and did some sightseeing at Linville Gorge the next day.  The fall color was in its prime.

The Linville Gorge.  Note the abundance of dead Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis and Tsuga caroliniana).

I don't normally get too excited about Red Maple (Acer rubrum), but even the most jaded plantperson can help but admire the scarlet autumn hue of some specimens.

We also found this species of Wild Ginger (Hexastylis) growing near the Linville Falls.  There were both mottled and entirely green foliage forms, but without seeing the flowers, it's hard to be sure what species.    Perhaps H. virginica or H. heterophylla?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Botany on the Go: A Whirlwind visit to West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina

In mid-September, I had the great fortune to botanize  for four days in the southern Allegheny and Blue Ridge mountains.  Of particular interest were the shale barrens that occur on the border of West Virginia and Virginia, and the mountains of  North Carolina to the South of Asheville.  We were primarily interested in studying any and all species of Phlox we might find along the way, but, per usual, there were many other plants of great interest to both botanists and horticulturists.

Among the first stops were sites along the Cheat River in in eastern West Virginia.  We were searching for Phlox paniculata populations that were reported to grow on stabilized sand bars at the river's edge. The first site we visited deviated from this description substantially, and instead was reminiscent of the boulders bars along the Big South Fork River in southern Kentucky.  Some very interesting taxa grow in these boulder bar plant communities.

Two of my favorite plants from the boulder bars are Ionactis (Aster) linariifolius and Marshallia grandiflora (seen pictured above).  Also growing here was Trautvetteria caroliniensis, a plant that I am most interested in.  Despite these other cool plants,  there were no Phlox paniculata in this area.

Further down the river we found these nice forms of Phlox paniculata with large flowers boasting a white eye.  We collected seeds from these plants, but were generally too early as most were still immature and green in color.  Unlike many plant species, the seeds of Phlox cannot be collected in an immature state and expected to ripen. We moved south along the cheat river, traveled east through Greenland Gap, and headed for Dolly Sods Wilderness.

Greenland Gap gave us our first taste of the Shale barrens.  In this area we saw plants of the choice Phlox subulata var. brittonii.  This variant is essentially endemic to the shale barrens, forms the smallest, densest cushions of all the P. subulata taxa and resembles some of the pulvinate Phlox species of the western U.S.  Growing with it was the equally choice Antennaria virginica.

The Dolly Sods wilderness is one of the truly few places in the eastern U.S. mountains where there is an 'alpine' feel to the environment.  There are scattered trees of Picea rubens, but overall the region is suggestive of the moors and heaths of Scotland.  Apparently on the high peaks are multitudes of different color forms Kalmia latifolia that would appeal to even the most jaded gardener, but I have not seen it for myself.

Quite rare in West Virginia is Clematis occidentalis var. occidentalis.  This plant is growing among rocks and absolutely enormous.  The spring/summer display of dangling lavender-purple flowers must be spectacular.

The diminutive Sibbaldiopsis (Potentilla) tridentata at Dolly Sods wilderness

The rare and elusive Heuchera alba doing its best imprssion of a western Heuchera species

There are many other interesting plants growing at Dolly Sods, but since we were just passing through, we didn't stay long.  From Dolly Sods, we headed to the vicinity of the Canaan Valley to study a currently unidentifiable species of Phlox related to P. paniculata and P. amplifolia.  Although one of the more interesting parts of the trip, this will have to be a story for another time.

The next day we headed into western Virginia into the heart of the shale barrens.  Our first stop was in Botetourt Co. Virginia and could not have been better.  

Pristine shale barrens habitat

As soon as we got out of the car, we were greeted by well-known and bizarre shale barren endemics.  

Eriogonum allenii

Packera (Senecio) antennariifolia

Clematis coactilis or albicoma

Phlox subulata var. brittonii

Cheilanthes eatonii

The plants shown above grow on hilltops and steep slopes in the shale barrens region, in the forested valleys, a different plant community abounds and a different suite of plants can be found.  In one area we found what appears to be the wild ginger Hexastylus virginica, although it could be H. heterophylla.  Whatever the species, the leaves of many plants had exquisite silver marbling and mottling, but ranged from pure green to mostly silver.  Unfortunately it appeared that the foliage of some plants had been victimized by a foraging insect.

Hexastylus spp. growing in oak-pine forest with Epigaea repens (not pictured) and other acid loving 

After leaving the shale barren we headed south to the region around Mt. Pisgah in North Carolina.  We were told about a population of Phlox carolina growing in the area that we could study. Wherry was perplexed by the Phlox carolina-glaberrima group and declared that P. carolina was the most difficult species to accurately describe and classify.  Asa Gray referred to the group as 'Almost inextricable'.  These kinds of ultra-variablevariable species excite me to no end, so I have been eager to study this species in the wild whenever possible.  The plants at this population exhibit peak flowering in mid to late July, so we were lucky to see a couple of plants with residual flowers.

The rarely seen Phlox infructescence still bearing a few capsules.  This indicates that the plants may have been flowering over a long period.

Also in this region we found a Solidago species growing at the edge of a Picea rubens forest.  Im' not sure what species as of yet, but it was quite striking in the fog of the morning.

From here, it was back to home sweet Ohio. 

Aerangis punctata

Aerangis punctata

Photographs can often mislead the casual observer about the actual size of a particular species.  At first glance, things are not always what they seem.  A picture of Aerangis punctata, an angraecoid native to the central highlands of Madagascar, is the embodiment of this.  At first it appears to possess myriad key characteristics that make the most stunning orchids so appealing; obscenely large flowers in relation to overall plant size, gray foliage punctuated with tiny, charcoal colored spots, and curious verrucose roots.  The long spur and unusual coloring for an angraecoid makes for an exceptionally elegant, if not short lived, floral display.

A secong glance confirms the fact that, for those unfamiliar with this species, this plant is impossibly tiny. 

I have never seen this plant outside of my collection, but for me, when I had supposedly received a flowering sized plant in the mail, I thought there had been a mistake.  Once accustomed to its petite size and frustratingly slow, but robust growth, I find that the diminutive stature of this plant only adds to its already unique appeal.  This is perhaps the most interesting angraecoid in my collection, but must qualify this by saying that I haven’t grown a wide range of the species.  Certainly, there are many other species I would love to try. 

I have had this plant since 2008.  At first it didn’t grow well, but after I read that it was native to areas with a prolonged dry season, I hung it (mounted plant) in a higher, more sunny position in the greenhouse.  Although it has grown quite slowly, the plants has now flowered two years running and is increasing in size.  Still, the leaf span is only 2 cm in width!  I have seen pictures of multi-growth plants with numerous flowers, and based on my experience, those plants must be quite old!