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. 

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