In an effort to gain a better understanding of the natural history of Polk County, the Pacolet Area Conservancy is interested in relocating rare and unique plants (habitats and animals) that have been found in the County but not reported for many years.
The last significant plant collection in Polk County was done in the 1950s and 1960s by Oliver Freeman. Freeman was the curator of living plants at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. and later became a resident of Tryon. During his time in the county, he collected nearly five thousand specimens. The specimens were given to the Tryon Garden Club and housed in the Pearson’s Falls Herbarium (created to house the large collection) for many years. In order to preserve Freeman’s work and the historical record of plants found in Polk County, the Tryon Garden Club decided that the specimens would be best housed at a university where they could be better accessed for scientific study. His collection was transferred to UNC Asheville’s Biology Department where it resides to this day.
PAC and botanist, David Campbell are interested in continuing the work of Freeman, revisiting some of the sites where rare and unique specimens were collected to see if they are still there. We are also interested in expanding the floristic representation of Polk County in the state herbaria, where Polk County is poorly represented.
For clarification, an herbarium is a collection of preserved plant specimens, essential for numerous scientific studies, including geographic distributions of plants and tracking changes in climate and human impact. Herbaria can also be a repository of viable seeds for rare species. Herbaria specimens are also essential for the preservation of the historical record of plants found in a specific area; preserving a record of plants found in a region should they ever become extinct in one area, or extinct altogether. In such cases, specimens preserved in a herbarium can represent the only record of a plant’s original distribution.
PAC and Campbell are asking for help from the community. To get started, PAC has been spotlighting species of interest in the county, a “Polk County’s Most Wanted – Plants” article printed in the Tryon Daily Bulletin and Polk County News Journal monthly. Each article spotlights one species, giving a description of the species, and asking for your help in locating it (in an environmentally responsible way). PAC and David Campbell hope that this will not only enable the documentation of the species in the county, but also get the community involved and interested in the unique and wonderful organisms found in the region, and encourage the preservation of the biodiversity that makes this county special and unique.
Polk County is unique. Part of the county is located within the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment, an area where the Blue Ridge Mountains rise nearly 4,000 feet above sea level from the rolling piedmont, and it contains some of the highest natural diversity of rare plants and animals found anywhere in the world. Parts of the county are also located in a thermal belt, an area in the mountains or foothills that experiences a milder slope climate and longer growing season. There are also numerous areas with unique geology that result in a rich diversity of plants.
Because of these unique qualities, the county is anomalous in the state and there are several species that have been found here and nowhere else in North Carolina (that we know of), such as Allegheny-spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), Whorled Horsebalm (Collinsonia verticillata), and False Hellebore (Veratrum woodii). These three species are disjunct from their typical distribution in the Ozarks. There is also an amazing historical record from Polk County; Largeleaf leather-root (Orbexilum macrophyllum) was found on White Oak Mountain, near Tryon Peak, in the latter part of the nineteenth century – and never seen again!
Below are images of plants and links to articles that spotlight “Polk County’s Most Wanted – Plants.” This is an exciting project that requires community involvement. Contact PAC at 828-859-5060 or e-mail email@example.com with questions, comments, photos, or if you know where one (or more) of these species occur in the county.
Click here to download and print the Polk County’s Most Wanted “pocket guide” to Plants
Click here to download and print the Polk County’s Most Wanted “pocket guide” to Animals and Habitats
PAC’s Pam Torlina Discovers a New Species for Polk County!
During a joint native plant rescue performed by the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) and the Tryon Garden Club (TGC) at Pearson’s Falls this spring (in preparation for the “Green Restrooms”), PAC’s Director of Stewardship and Land Protection, Pam Torlina, discovered a new species of plant for Polk County! Georgia Holly (Ilex longipes) was found growing at Pearson’s Falls and prior to this sighting no one had ever identified (or vouchered) this specimen in the county before. Torlina took a couple of cuttings and preserved them to voucher the specimens. Just recently, the specimens were verified by botanist, David Campbell.
Prior to March 31, 2013, Georgia Holly had never been reported as growing in the county. The shrub/small tree is native to the Carolina’s and Georgia but uncommon, even rare in the Carolina’s. The plant has been found and collected from nearby counties, such as Rutherford County in N.C. and Cherokee County in S.C., and now specimens from Polk County are on their way to Charlotte to be filed in the database of the UNCC Herbarium housed at the Dr. James F. Matthews Center for Biodiversity Studies.
Campbell says, “This is proof that there is much to be discovered in Polk County. It is very interesting botanically.”
A New State Record, found here, in Polk County!
In 2013, while botanizing in Polk County, botanist David Campbell discovered a species that has never been known to grow in North Carolina, Thicket Creeper (Parthenocissus inserta)!
Thicket Creeper, a woody vine native to the northern and western US and Canada, was found for the first time in North Carolina last summer by David Campbell, a botanist at the Dr. James F. Matthews Center for Biodiversity Studies, UNC-Charlotte. This appears to be a native occurrence, not an escape from cultivation, even though the nearest known population is far away, in Allegheny Co., Virginia. This vine is similar to the familiar Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), but the leaves are shiny. Another difference, not seen in the photo (below), is that the tendrils are twining and do not end in adhesive leaf pads. Virginia Creeper can use its adhesive pads to climb smooth vertical walls; Thicket Creeper can only scramble up vegetation.
False Hellebore (Veratrum woodii)
Images used with permission from: The Illinois Natural History Survey, Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin Article and learn more about this plant: Polk County’s Most Wanted Plant – False hellebore
Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris spicata)
Images used with permission: from © Daniel W Reed – www.2bntheild.com.
Click on the link to read more about this plant: Polk County’s Most Wanted Plant – Crested Coralroot
Allegheny Spurge (Pachysandra procumbens)
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin Article and learn more about this plant: Polk County’s Most Wanted Plants – Allegheny Spurge
Adam’s Needle (Yucca filamentosa)
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin article to learn more about this plant: Polk County’s most wanted – plants, ‘Adam’s needle’
Carolina Hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana)
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin Article and learn more about this plant: Polk County’s Most Wanted Plant – Carolina Hemlock
Common Juniper (Juniperus communis var. depressa)
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin Article and learn more about this plant: Polk County’s Most Wanted Plant – Mountain Juniper
Bog Turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergi)
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin Article and learn more about this animal and it’s habitat: Polk County’s Most Wanted, Animal – Bog Turtle
Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus)
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin Article and learn more about this animal and it’s habitat: Polk County’s Most Wanted – Green Salamander
Spring Coralroot (Corallorhiza wisteriana)
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin Article and learn more about this plant: Polk County’s Most Wanted – Spring Coralroot
Small Whorled Pogonia (Isotria medeoloides)
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin Article and learn more about this plant: Polk County’s Most Wanted – Plant: Small Whorled Pogonia
Diana Fritillary (Speyeria diana)
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin Article and learn more about this animal: Polk County’s Most Wanted – Animal: Diana Fritillary
Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia grandiflora)
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin Article and learn more about this plant: Polk County’s Most Wanted – Plant: Barbara’s Buttons
Northern Pine Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus)
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin Article and learn more about this animal: Polk County’s Most Wanted – Animal: Northern Pine Snake
Walter’s Crownbeard (Verbesina walteri)
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin Article and learn more about this animal: Polk County’s Most Wanted – Plant: Walter’s Crownbeard
Thanks to a lead from a Polk County resident, this plant has been relocated in the county! Over 40 plants were located off Meadowlark Lane!
Small-flowered Blazing-star (Liatris microcephala)
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin Article and learn more about this plant Polk County’s Most Wanted-Plant: Small-headed Blazing-star
Bradley’s Spleenwort (Asplenium bradleyi) & Lobed Spleenwort (Asplenium pinnatifidum)
In a joint effort to expand the knowledge and understanding of the flora of Polk County, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) and botanist, David Campbell need your help in locating this month’s “Most Wanted—Plants.” This month’s installment will focus on two species of Ferns: Bradley’s Spleenwort (Asplenium bradleyi) and Lobed Spleenwort (Asplenium pinnatifidum).
Both of these species will be found growing on exposed rock surfaces, such as cliffs and large boulders. At first glance, it might seem odd that a fern would choose to grow on a sunny, seemingly dry rock cliff. However, the ferns themselves will be found growing in tiny crevices that remain relatively moist and contain small amounts of organic debris that accumulates in the crevices over time. Being able to inhabit crevices in rock surfaces helps these two fern species avoid competition from other plants. Bradley’s Spleenwort will be found growing on rocks that are acidic, whereas the Lobed Spleenwort prefers rocks with a more basic or circumneutral pH.
There are several species of ferns that may be found growing on rocks or cliffs in Polk County. However, it is relatively easy to distinguish our two species based upon the accompanying photographs in this article. Bradley’s Spleenwort can be identified by noting that the base of the fern’s stem (referred to by Botanists as the ‘stipe’) is dark in coloration, gradually becoming light green near the tip of the fern’s leaf, matching it in coloration. The Lobed Spleenwort lives up to its name, it is the only fern in our area with the well-developed rounded lobes that occur on its leaves, particularly near the base of the plant.
Both of these fern species have been documented as occurring in Polk County. However, as these are uncommon species, we are interested in learning about new sites and occurrences for them.
Much remains to be learned about the rock-loving ferns of western North Carolina, and many new discoveries may be made.
As an aside, any plant bearing the name ‘wort’ is one which has been reputed (in the past) to possess medicinal qualities.
Eastern Spotted Skunk (Spilogale putorius)
In a joint effort to expand the knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna of Polk County, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) and botanist, David Campbell need your help in locating this month’s “Most Wanted—Animal,” Eastern Spotted Skunk (Spilogale putorius), which essentially means, “stinking spotted weasel.”
The Eastern Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis) is far more common than the Eastern Spotted Skunk. The range of the Eastern Striped Skunk is throughout the United States, north to the center of Canada, and south, into the northern portions of Mexico. Whereas the range of the Eastern Spotted Skunk extends from southern Pennsylvania, down the Appalachian Mountain range and into Florida, with a portion of the eastern edge of its range encompassing the western portion of North and South Carolina. The species is considered rare or vulnerable in North Carolina; however, there have been reports of the species in nearby Greenville, Oconee, and Pickens Counties in South Carolina.
The Eastern Spotted Skunk is smaller than the more common Eastern Striped Skunk. They are relatively slender with a weasel-like body. They weigh 1-4 pounds and have a body length of 10-27 inches (with tail). (The Eastern Striped Skunk ranges from 2.6-11.7 pounds and 22.6-31.5 inches.)
They have a fine, dense, medium length, dark black coat with 4-6 broken white stripes, giving the appearance of spots. They usually have a white tip on their tail and a white, inverted triangle-shaped patch on their forehead. Like all skunks, they have anal glands, which they can aim accurately up to 16 feet, that they can emit musk from if they are threatened or agitated.
The Eastern Spotted Skunk is found in woodlands, brush, prairies, and sometimes rocky areas. They also like old fields, open forests, and hedgerows, and they are often found near farmlands. They prefer dense cover like that which occurs along fences, embankments, gullies and hedgerows. Eastern Spotted Skunks will also use barns and out buildings for cover. Dead and downed trees and abundant course woody debris are also important microhabitats for spotted skunks, and they are also found in rock outcrops. Eastern Spotted Skunks are generally less tolerant of humans than the Eastern Striped Skunk.
The spotted skunk is omnivorous, feeding on small mammals, insects, birds, eggs, reptiles, amphibians, and seasonal fruits. Their diet may vary seasonally with the availability of food items. They are mainly solitary animals but up to 8 individuals may share a den in winter and their home range is approximately 158 acres. They breed in late winter or early spring. Young are born from April through July and are weaned in about eight weeks. Predators of the Eastern Spotted Skunk are humans, dogs, cats, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and owls.
Click on the link to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin Article and learn more about this habitat: Polk County’s Most Wanted-Habitat: Vernal Pools
Click here to read “Reports from the Field” about vernal pools.
Winter Grapefern (Sceptridium lunarioides)
Click here to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin article
Sweet Pinesap (Monotropsis odorata)
In a joint effort to expand the knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna of Polk County, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) and botanist, David Campbell need your help in locating this month’s“Most Wanted-Plant,” Sweet Pinesap, (Monotropsis odorata).
As the name suggests, Sweet Pinesap has a sweet fragrance, not unlike that of cloves. Indeed, due to the cryptic coloration, Sweet Pinesap is most often detected initially by its fragrance, rather than actually seeing the plant. Sweet Pinesap is light brown or tan, with a purplish coloration on parts of the flowers. In addition, Sweet Pinesap is often partially obscured by leaves or Pine needles, as it barely pokes up above the leaf litter (at the beginning of its life cycle, at least).
Sweet Pinesap begins flowering in late February and continues on into March. Pollination of Sweet Pinesap appears to be accomplished by Bumblebees (newly emergent queens in the early spring). As the season progresses, one may see the stem of Sweet Pinesap elongate until seed maturation – it is sometimes easiest to discover at this time.
Sweet Pinesap prefers dry, acidic habitats referred to by Botanists as ‘Pine-Oak Heaths.’ Such sites usually have a relatively low diversity of plant species, but will typically include members of the Heath Family (Ericaceae) such as Blueberry, Huckleberry, and Mountain Laurel. Sweet Pinesap is also a member of the Ericaceae, but unlike the preceding species, it is a saprophyte. Saprophytes are plants that do not perform the functions of photosynthesis, as most plants do. Saprophytic plants gain nutrition from decaying organic matter, often in conjunction with the help of fungal partners. The complete details of the saprophytic lifestyle are not completely understood, even at this time. A more common relative of Sweet Pinesap is Indian Pipe, whose ghostly white appearance is well-known to many hikers and naturalists.
Prior to recent investigations, Sweet Pinesap had not been definitively recorded in Polk County for several decades. Although previous investigators ‘smelled’ the presence of the plants, they did not succeed in actually locating the plants – a maddening situation known to all who have sought this elusive species. However, last year this author succeeded in locating Sweet Pinesap in two locations within Polk County. Doubtless, other sites exist in the county.
March is the preferred month to search for Sweet Pinesap in our region. Seek out dry, sunny ridges dominated by Pines (particularly Virginia Pine or Table Mountain Pine) with an abundance of Heath plants, especially Mountain Laurel. Follow your nose…and you may be rewarded by discovering a colony of one of the areas most unique plant species.
–by David Campbell
Cerulean Warbler (Setophaga cerulea)
In a joint effort to expand the knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna of Polk County, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) and David Campbell need your help in locating this month’s“Most Wanted-Animal,” Cerulean Warbler, (Setophaga cerulea, formerly of the genus Dendroica). With the arrival of spring – the blooming of wildflowers, the emergence of leaves on the trees, and the rise in insect activity – many of “our” songbirds are returning to the area, either passing through on their journey farther north, or to stay and establish territory for raising their young.
Cerulean Warblers, which are Neotropical migratory songbirds, are an early migrant, arriving on their breeding grounds up to 2 weeks before other wood warblers. After spending the non-breeding season concentrated on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in western South America, many individuals make the risky, one night journey over the Gulf of Mexico in spring, reaching the United States and returning to their breeding grounds in mid-April.
The breeding range of this species extends from the southeastern and south central United States, north to southeastern New York and Ontario and west to the Mississippi Valley. Although less common in North Carolina than other areas, there have been reports of breeding activity and nest sites in western North Carolina, mostly along the Blue Ridge Parkway. However, there are 6 North Carolina Natural Heritage Program (NHP) Element Occurrence’s for this species in Polk County! (An Element Occurrence is a basic unit of record for documenting rare plants and animals, exemplary or unique natural communities, and important animal assemblages.)
The Cerulean Warbler was first documented by NHP in Polk County in 1974 and last documented in 2010. It has been spotted on ridges and slopes with mature oak-hickory forests dominated by Tulip Poplar along Cove Mountain, Warrior Mountain, Round Mountain, and White Oak Mountain from late April through mid-June.
Cerulean Warblers are small canopy-foraging insectivores; wood warblers. They prefer large forest tracts of tall, deciduous, broad-leafed trees near stream bottoms, lakes, or rivers and can often be found high in the canopy of these mature forests.
They are about 4-5 inches in length, with long pointed wings, a short tail, and long under tail coverts. As with most songbirds, males and females look quite different from each other. Males have blue upper parts and are white below. They have black streaking on their back and sides and a black line, or “necklace”, across their neck. Females are bluish-green to olive-green above with white under parts and a white or yellowish eyebrow stripe and they have no “necklace”. Both sexes have 2 white wing bars and white tail spots.
With the emergence of leaves on the trees, it will become more difficult to see birds, so listen for the distinctive song of the male – rapid buzz-like notes on one pitch followed by a short series of rising and accelerating notes, ending with a high buzz-like trill, ZHEE ZHEE ZIZIZIZI zzzzeeet. (Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website, http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Cerulean_Warbler/sounds, to listen to the song of this bird and to learn more about the species.)
The Cerulean Warbler was once among the most abundant breeding warblers in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys. However, in the late 1900s, its numbers plummeted, making it one of the species of highest concern in the eastern United States because of its small total population size and significant declines throughout its range. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists this species as Vulnerable, it is federally listed Special Concern, and ranked as Imperiled in North Carolina.
– article written by Pam Torlina
French Broad Heartleaf (Hexastylis rhombiformis)
In a joint effort to expand the knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna of Polk County, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) and David Campbell need your help in locating this month’s“Most Wanted-Plant,” French Broad Heartleaf, (Hexastylis rhombiformis).
French Broad Heartleaf is known to occur in deciduous woodlands, ravines, or bluffs that typically include a component of Mountain Laurel and/or Rosebay Rhododendron. The leaves of this species of Heartleaf, like other members of the genus, are evergreen and leathery in appearance. The flowers, emerging in Spring, are small and cryptically colored; sometimes obscured by the leaf litter in which they live. Locally, these flowers are sometimes referred to as ‘Little Brown Jugs’ or similar names-an allusion to the appearance of the flowers.
French Broad Heartleaf is a species endemic to the southern Blue Ridge within North and South Carolina. The only known counties of occurrence in North Carolina are Henderson, Polk, Buncombe, and Transylvania counties. Several sites are known within Polk County, but other, unknown sites are certainly possible.
Scarlet Kingsnake (Lampropeltis triangulum elapsoides)
In a joint effort to expand the knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna of Polk County, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) and David Campbell need your help in locating this month’s “Most Wanted-Animal,” the beautiful and secretive Scarlet Kingsnake (Lampropeltis triangulum elapsoides).
The Scarlet Kingsnake is known for its vivid coloration of red, black, yellow or white bands that encircle its body. Although entirely harmless to humans, it has been suggested that the coloration of the Scarlet Kingnsnake is a form of mimicry whereby the Kingsnake strongly resembles the venomous Coral Snake. Many species of inoffensive animals physically resemble or ‘mimic’ the appearance of venomous or toxic species with bright ‘warning’ coloration- the advantage to the harmless species is that they fool potential predators into thinking they are potentially harmful or deadly. Certainly, the Scarlet Kingsnake is a very brightly colored snake. However, one may distinguish between the harmless Scarlet Kingsnake and the venomous Coral snake readily enough…with the Kingsnake, the red bands touch the black bands, whereas with the Coral Snake the red bands touch the yellow bands…thus, many of us are familiar with the old rhyme: “Red touch black, friend of Jack. Red touch yellow, kill a fellow.” Within the state of North Carolina, Coral Snakes are very rare and only known from the southeastern portions of the state. Scarlet Kingsnakes are more generally distributed, but still centered very much within the Coastal Plain area.
Scarlet Kingsnakes are relatively small, slender snakes, approximately 18 inches in length. Scarlet Kingsnakes are often found (when they are found at all) beneath the peeling bark of Pine stumps or logs. Preferred habitats are mixed sandy woods, with Pines and broadleaved tree species such as Oaks. Occasionally, these reptiles are also found on roads after dark, particularly after a period of rain. The primary source of food for the Scarlet Kingsnake is other small snakes and lizards, such as skinks.
There is some disagreement as to the relationship between Scarlet Kingsnakes and the Eastern Milksnake. Some biologists feel that the Scarlet Kingsnake is merely a ‘race’ or variant of the Eastern Milksnake, while some other scientists feel the two species are distinct, but hybridize over certain areas where their ranges overlap. Whatever the case may be, the Scarlet Kingsnake (whether species, subspecies, or variant) is a very rarely encountered snake outside of the Coastal Plain and eastern Piedmont regions of North Carolina. However, there are records (including specimens) that are attributable to this snake having been taken in Rutherford County, Macon County, and from Polk County (from Tau Rock Vineyards near Tryon). Alas, these records are many decades old. The possibility exists that this snake may still be found in our area, but the status of this snake in our region needs clarification.
Spotted Bee Balm (Monarda punctata var. arkansana)
In a joint effort to expand the knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna of Polk County, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) and David Campbell need your help in locating this month’s “Most Wanted-Plant,” the flowering plant known as Spotted Bee Balm, in particular, a variety of this species known as Monarda punctata var. arkansana. This variety of Spotted Bee Balm, also known as Arkansas Horse-mint, differs from the usual form in the number and placement of hairs on the plant.
As is apparent from the scientific name, this is a variety of Spotted Bee Balm that is typically found in the Ozarks. Like several of Polk County’s special plants, there is a consistent “Ozarkian connection.”
This variation of Spotted Bee Balm prefers to grow in dryish forest habitats and areas that are open, sunny, and well drained. A member of the Mint Family (Lamiaceae), Spotted Bee Balm has aromatic leaves and flowers and square stems. The flowers are a beautiful blending of purples and yellows. As mentioned above, this variety of Spotted Bee Balm differs from the usual form in the number and placement of hairs on the plant. The stems have many coarse horizontal bristles and fine, short, downwardly-curved hairs. The leaves are typically 50-70 mm long and 10-28 mm wide (approximately three times as long as wide).
This plant has botanists a bit puzzled – so far, Monarda punctata var. arkansana has only been found around the Town of Columbus in Polk County (in NC at least). This is not to suggest that the plant could not be found elsewhere in the county, but residents in the Columbus area, in particular, are asked to keep their eyes open for this Ozarkian beauty during the months of July and August.
Yellow Giant-hyssop (Agastache nepetoides)
In a joint effort to expand the knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna of Polk County, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) and botanist, David Campbell need your help in locating this month’s “Most Wanted-Plant,” Yellow Giant-hyssop (Agastache nepetoides).
This native plant occurs in woodlands and forests, generally over calcareous or mafic rocks. It is a fast-growing, woody-stemmed, perennial member of the Lamiaceae family; a mint. Its range includes much of the eastern and central United States. Regionally, the plant has been located in North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina.
Yellow Giant-hyssop is relatively common in some mid-western states and is not considered rare on a global scale; however, it is rare in some eastern and southern states. In North Carolina, it is ranked “critically imperiled” (S1) due to its extreme rarity. There is, however, a record of the plant from Polk County! In 2008, a pair of botanists discovered at least 50 individuals in the along the Green River in the Green River Game Lands.
Yellow Giant-hyssop is a fast-growing perennial with an upright growth habit and woody, square stems that usually grow 4-7 feet tall and are sometimes branched in the upper parts. The stem are slightly winged at the corners, green in color, and mostly glabrous (smooth, having no hair-like structures) but with slight pubescence (down or fine short hairs) near the top.
Leaves of this plant are opposite and coarsely toothed, up to 6 inches long and 3 inches wide, green, and hairless. The central stem and major secondary stems terminate in individual spikes of flowers. Each spike is about 4-16 inches long and ¾–1 inch wide; though highly variable. The stalkless flowers are pale greenish-yellow and densely crowded together around the spike, although only a few flowers are in bloom at the same time. Each flower consists of a tubular corolla (whorl of petals) about 1/3 inches long. The lobes of the corolla are short and rounded with 2 upper lobes, 2 lateral lobes, and a larger, single, lower lobe. The blooming period occurs from mid-summer to early fall and lasts 1-2 months, though individual flowers are short-lived. The flowers are not very showy because they seem small in comparison to the rest of the plant and only a few flowers are in bloom at the same time. Thus, the attractiveness of Yellow Giant-hyssop consists primarily of its foliage.
The flowers of Yellow Giant-hyssop are visited by bees (e.g., honeybees, bumblebees, & Halictid bees), bee flies, and butterflies. These insects suck nectar, although some of the bees may collect pollen. Syrphid flies also visit the flowers to feed on pollen, but they are less effective at cross-pollination. The dense foliage attracts its fair share of predatory insects, including parasitic wasps, spiders, ladybird beetles, and others. White-Tailed Deer tend to leave the foliage alone because of its bitter taste.
Largeleaf Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia grandifolia)
First, Largeleaf Grass of Parnassus is not a species of Grass at all; it is a member of the Parnassiaceae family of flowering plants. There are over one dozen species of Parnassia known to science, and they are mostly distributed within areas to the north of our region. However, three species of this beautiful group are known from North Carolina, and all are uncommon to rare. Parnassia are wetland plants, preferring seepages, bogs, or streamside situations (in our area at least). Additionally, these plants prefer sunny areas, or openings within more wooded areas that admit a good deal of light.
There are two species of Parnassia that could potentially be encountered in our area: Kidneyleaf Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia asarifolia) and this months “Most Wanted,” Largeleaf Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia grandifolia), with the latter being the most likely as it favors the type of soils that are common in Polk County. Both species are very similar in appearance and, to the layperson, would be difficult to distinguish. Therefore, if you see any species of Parnassia, please do not hesitate to contact the PAC; any Parnassia is a good find!
The flowers of Grass of Parnassus are very beautiful and distinctive, with the inflorescence (a cluster of flowers arising from the main stem) being held above the low-growing leaves on long scapes (stems) that give the appearance of the flowers “hovering” above the ground when viewed from a distance. The flower petals are a waxy white, and are adorned with fine, distinct green lines. Flower petals open wide to allow pollination by small insects that inhabit the same wet areas where Parnassia grows. Largeleaf Grass of Parnassus typically flowers from late August into October in western North Carolina, so now is the time to search for these truly lovely wetland denizens.
Pink Thoroughwort (Fleischmannia incarnata)
Pink Thoroughwort (Fleischmannia incarnata) is a member of the Aster family of flowering plants and is closely allied to the ‘Joe Pye Weeds’ of the genus Eupatorium. The leaves of Pink Thoroughwort are coarsely toothed and triangular and the stem is pubescent (hairy). Flowers are pink to purple and consist of many small ‘heads’ atop a multi-branched main stem that can reach approximately one meter in height. In our region, the preferred habitats for this species are roadsides, alluvial areas, and other open sites that are underlain by rich soils derived from amphibolite, diabase, and other mafic rocks.
Pink Thoroughwort is much more abundant to the south and west of NC, but the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program states that Pink Thoroughwort has been recorded from eight counties in North Carolina, with recent records from only five of these, including Polk. Pink Thoroughwort blooms from late September into early November, so now is the time to seek out this western rarity along roads and woodlands in Polk County.
Click here to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin article
Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix)
Poison Sumac is in the same family as Poison Ivy, and as such should not be handled. Indeed, most authorities consider Poison Sumac to be much more virulent than Poison Ivy. Poison Sumac is a shrub or small tree with compound leaves. The leaves of Poison Sumac turn brilliant scarlet and orange in autumn, and it is at this time of year that it is the easiest to pick out amid other trees with similar leaves, such as Green Ash. White berries (eaten by many species of birds) are also prominent along with the bright fall foliage.
Poison Sumac prefers low woods, swamps, bogs, and other areas with very wet soils. The plant is much more common in the Coastal Plain; however, there are a number of known occurrences in the mountains, including some already identified in Polk County.
Poison Sumac is a beautiful and interesting species in its own right, albeit one that should be treated with great caution. However, Poison Sumac almost always shares its habitat with other rare and intriguing species such as Bog Turtles, Orchids, Pitcher Plants, and others. It is for this reason that we are choosing to highlight Poison Sumac, especially so at this time of year, when it is most visible and easy to spot. Therefore, finding a locality for Poison Sumac may also reveal localities for other ‘Most Wanted’ species.
As stated earlier, field marks include compound leaves of bright scarlet and orange, white berries, and a wetland habitat. If you see this plant (or think you have seen it) please take a photograph, or call the offices of the Pacolet Area Conservancy to inform staff there. Do NOT touch any part of this plant.
American Bluehearts (Buchnera americana)
A most unusual and rare plant, American Bluehearts is a beautiful member of the Orobanchaceae (Broomrape) Family of flowering plants. With a height of 15-30 inches and blue/lavender petals, American Bluehearts could be mistaken as an unusual species of Phlox by a casual observer, as both species have oppositely arranged leaves and may superficially resemble one another. However, unlike Phlox, American Bluehearts is a hemiparasite – a plant capable of photosynthesis, but also requiring a host (other examples include Indian Paintbrush and Mistletoe).
American Bluehearts prefers to grow in open areas such as glades, stream banks, prairies, and sunny hillsides that are underlain by calcareous substrates such as limestone or mafic rocks. In order to thrive, there is evidence that this species benefits from periodic burning of its habitat. In the southeastern United States, this species flowers from mid-summer to early fall.
American Bluehearts is declining throughout its range, which includes large portions of eastern North America, from southern Ontario, south to Florida, and west to Texas. Within North Carolina, American Bluehearts is known historically from nine counties, including Polk. The Polk County record is from the 1920s, in the Tryon area, and the species has not been reported from our region since.
Golden Club (Orontium aquaticum)
The genus Orontium derives its name from the River Orontes, in Syria, although the plant itself does not grow there. Also of interest, Orontium is a monotypical genus, meaning that there is only one species of Orontium in the world.
Golden Club (Orontium aquaticum) is a beautiful wetland plant, as its specific name, aquaticum, suggests. Preferred wetland habitats include ponds, marshes, lakeshores, and the margins of slow moving creeks. Occasionally, Golden Club may also be found growing in permanently wet muck found in open, boggy meadows.
Golden Club has attractive bluish-green, lance shaped leaves that may reach up to 12 inches in length. The leaves may float on the water or they may be partially submerged, depending on the depth of the water. The leaves also have a waxy surface that causes water to bead off of them immediately upon contact, earning this species another common name, Never-wet.
Golden Club blooms from late spring into the summer. In the spring, long white stalks emerge that bear the tiny yellow flowers that are aggregated near the tip of the stalk, hence the name Golden Club. Flowering and growth are best in wet, sunny locations.
Given Golden Club’s preference for the types of habitats listed above, it is very much a plant typical of the Coastal Plain in the southeast, however, it does occur as far north as New York, and there are several known records of this species inland. However, there are currently no known records of this species growing in Polk County, but its presence here is certainly a possibility.
In “Plants of the Tryon Region,” Donald Culross Peattie, a noted botanist of the early to mid-twentieth century, cited a report of Golden Club from Landrum, SC. Too, the author of this article has personally seen this plant growing in Catawba and McDowell counties in North Carolina, and there are records of this species from Henderson County, NC and Greenville County, SC; all locations quite close to Polk County.
The presence of Golden Club invariably coincides with the occurrence of other, often rare, species in our area and could lead to additional unidentified species in the county.
Sweet Betsy Trillium (Trilllium cuneatum)
In a joint effort to expand the knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna of Polk County, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) and botanist, David Campbell need your help in locating this month’s “Polk County’s Most Wanted-Plant,” the uncommon, yellow-flowered Sweet Betsy Trillium (Trilllium cuneatum).
This edition of “Polk County’s Most Wanted” highlights a group of our loveliest spring wildflowers, the Trilliums; specifically, those Trilliums that are sessile and with yellow flowers.
Trilliums are well-known denizens of our spring woodlands and are referred to by botanists as ‘Ephemerals’ due to their relatively brief period of flowering. Spring Ephemerals grow and flower rapidly in late winter or early spring in response to increasing temperatures and longer periods of daylight. It is the strategy of these species to make maximum growth before the trees in the canopy leaf out, reducing the amount of sunlight that is available to plants on the forest floor. It is a good strategy, as the incredible abundance of the Ephemerals demonstrates.
Broadly speaking, Trilliums may be divided into two groups: those species that have flowers with stalks (the pedicellate species), and those that do not have flowering stalks (the sessile species). There are a great many species of both groups of Trillium in the southeast, with the pedicellate species dominating in Polk County. The taxonomy (classification) of the sessile species can be problematic, and there is not always universal agreement among botanists concerning the number of species in this group, as differences may be slight.
In our area, the most common sessile species is ‘Sweet Betsy’ or ‘Stinking Betsy’ (Trillium cuneatum). The common names are a reference to the floral aroma, considered sweet by some or offensive by others. The color of the petals is typically a deep burgundy or maroon with other rare variants being known, such as yellow or greenish yellow. Yellow-flowered forms are not common and we are asking readers to contact PAC if they have seen any such plants in our area. David Campbell has seen yellow-flowered (Trillium cuneatum) but once in Polk County, on property owned by PAC. It was a single yellow plant growing among hundreds of the much more common maroon colored form.
Other species of yellow flowered sessile Trillium include Yellow Trillium (Trillium luteum), typically found in limestone regions, and Pale Yellow Trillium (Trillium discolor). Both of these species occur to the west of our area; with T. discolor only being found in the Savannah River drainage, as far as is known. Differences between species are typically based on floral characters such as petal shape. Leaves are not reliable as there is great variation among pattern, shape, etc.
Search for our sessile species along floodplains and the lower slopes of rich cove forests. Keep a sharp eye out for any yellow individuals; one never knows what might be found!
3/25/15 – Thanks to a lead from an area resident, this plant has been located!
Ten-petal Anemone (Anemone berlandieri)
Ten-petal Anemone is a beautiful member of the Buttercup family. It displays flowers (lavender, white, or pink) from late February into mid-April in our region, so one must be on the lookout for this species early in the season. Flowering stalks are typically about 12 inches in height, but may be somewhat taller. Leaves are mostly trifoliate (divided into three leaflets) and basal (arising from the base, not the stem), although dissected leaves (divided into many deep, narrow segments) are also found just below the inflorescence (cluster of flowers).
Ten-petal Anemone prefers open, sunny sites in glades, hillsides, and around the margins of rock outcrops. Soils should be basic to circumneutral. This species is far more abundant to the southwest of our region. In North Carolina, this is a piedmont species recorded thus far from only nine counties, and is considered to be endangered. There is a historical record from Polk County in the mid-twentieth century.
Ten-petal Anemone (Anemone berlandieri) (used with permission from http://mylandrestorationproject.wordpress.com)
Click here to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin article.
Curlyheads (Clematis ochroleuca)
In a joint effort to expand the knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna of Polk County, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) and botanist, David Campbell need your help in locating this month’s “Polk County’s Most Wanted-Plant,” Curlyheads (Clematis ochroleuca).
As the genus name indicates, Curlyheads is a member of a group beloved by gardeners the world over, Clematis. However, unlike many species of Clematis in cultivation, Curlyheads is not a vine, but an upright, herbaceous plant from ten to twenty inches in height on average. Mid to late spring is the season to look for the blossoms of this species, which are a lovely white color.
With a distribution centered in the southeastern U.S., Curlyheads prefers soils that are relatively basic to circumneutral in pH and on the drier side of the moisture spectrum. Open hillsides, ridgetops, bluffs, and glades are preferred habitats for this species. Locations with an abundance of sunshine will produce the most flowers. Sometimes, populations of this plant show no evidence of flowering due to shade or herbivory from deer that have eaten all of the flowers before they can produce seed. Like other species of Clematis, Curlyheads has spectacular looking seeds that are surrounded by ‘hairy’ appendages that help to disperse the seed from the parent plant; often the seed heads are more obvious than the flowers.
There are historic records of Curlyheads from Polk County, but these records are many decades old. Searching in relatively open and dry, Basic Oak-Hickory forests, in glades or along ridgetops, might be the best bet to find this beautiful and elusive species.
If you think that you have seen this plant, know where it might be located, or know of a likely habitat for it, please contact PAC at 828-859-5060, or e-mail comments, questions, or photos to, firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a joint effort to expand the knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna of Polk County, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) and botanist David Campbell need your help in locating this month’s “Polk County’s Most Wanted-Plant,” Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea), a unique and beautiful plant that blooms during the month of May.
The genus Castilleja contains only a single species in North Carolina, but there are many additional species of Castilleja that are found in western North America. Castilleja belongs to the Broomrape family, Orobanchaceae.
A colorful plant adorned with red, yellow and green, Indian Paintbrush has a preference for the types of basic soils that are not uncommon within Polk County. Preferred habitats are always sunny and include sites that can be quite wet (even around waterfalls) and even dry fields and open glades. Indian Paintbrush ranges from four inches in height to just over two feet. The colorful ‘flowers’ are actually the calyces (singular is calyx) that serve to attract pollinators (often Hummingbirds) drawn in by the red coloration of the ‘flower.’
An interesting aspect about Indian Paintbrush is that it has a hemiparasitic lifestyle. Hemiparasites are plants that are capable of photosynthesis, but also require a host plant to complete development. Host plants utilized by Indian Paintbrush often include various species of grasses, such as Little Bluestem. The life cycle typically requires two years to complete, with the first years spent as a small rosette of leaves close to the ground. Flowering occurs during the second year of the plant’s life.
Indian Paintbrush has a wide distribution throughout eastern North America and can be quite numerous at certain localities; however, fire suppression and the historic loss of large grazing mammals has rendered this species uncommon to rare in some parts of its range.
There are several reports of Indian Paintbrush from Polk County, but none are recent. Keep an eye out for this species in open grassy areas, streamside edges, power line rights of way, and rocky, open situations that receive large amounts of sunlight. Plants are conspicuous and readily seen from a distance.
If you think that you have seen this plant, know where it might be located, or know of a likely habitat for it, please contact PAC at 828-859-5060, or e-mail comments, questions, or photos to email@example.com.
Click here to read the Tryon Daily Bulletin article
Pale Coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
In a joint effort to expand the knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna of Polk County, the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC) and botanist, David Campbell need your help in locating this month’s “Polk County’s Most Wanted-Plant,” a well-known group within the Aster family – the Coneflowers of the genus Echinacea.
Although popular and widely used as ornamental (and medicinal) plants that may be purchased at many garden centers, our wild populations of Echinacea are greatly reduced and under threat due to habitat loss, fire suppression, and/or over-collection.
Three species of Echinacea are native to North Carolina: Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), Pale Coneflower (Echinacea pallida), and Smooth Coneflower (Echinacea laevigata). All of our species of Echinacea have purple or pale pink flowers that, at maturity, are often greatly reflexed (pointing backwards). Plants range from 30-90 cm in height, and stems may be hairy or smooth, depending upon the type of Coneflower. Soils in which these species occur tend to be derived from nutrient rich mafic rocks. Echinacea species require open situations with many hours of direct sunlight in order to thrive. Typically denizens of prairies to the west of North Carolina, our Coneflowers may be found persisting along road banks, power line right of ways, railroad tracks, and open glades.
At the present time, none of these species have been verified as being native to Polk County, although the first two species, E. purpurea and E. pallida, do have surviving native populations in nearby Rutherford and McDowell Counties.
Interestingly, botanist Keith Bradley reports that his brother collected seed of Echinacea pallida in the Tryon region several years ago, with plants still surviving in his parents’ garden from this original collection.
One must be careful in ascertaining if occurrences of Echinacea in our region are natural or occasional garden escapees. In the author’s experience, this genus has difficulty persisting for long as a ‘refugee’ of our planted landscapes.
Echinacea species are obvious and distinctive when seen. If you feel you have observed any of our native species of purple-flowering Coneflowers, know where any might be located, or know of a likely habitat for them, please contact PAC at 828-859-5060, or e-mail comments, questions, or photos to, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Giant Stag Beetle (Lucanus elaphus)
The Giant Stag Beetle is found throughout the wooded regions of the eastern United States and is probably most abundant in the southern Appalachian’s broad-leaved deciduous forests. Therefore, Polk County represents prime habitat for this species, as appropriate habitat is abundant here. Peak months of adult activity are May-July.
In common with other members of the Stag Beetle Family (Lucanidae), Giant Stag Beetles are sexually dimorphic, with males and females being physically distinct from one another. The males are much larger than females and possess large mandibles for use in battling other males for mates (the name ‘Stag’ being derived from the resemblance of these jaws to the antlers of a deer). Male Giant Stag Beetles may reach 60 mm in length, including their mandibles. Although a male’s mandibles look formidable, they are relatively harmless as ‘pinchers’ and their diet consists primarily of sap flowing from wounded trees or rotting fruit. Females, however, can give quite a good ‘pinch’ with their smaller jaws, these being used to chew holes in wood for egg-laying purposes.
Giant Stag Beetles have a long lifespan for an insect, with up to 6 years (or more) required for the larva to complete development and reach the adult stage. This species requires large rotting deciduous trees and stumps within which to complete its life cycle. Females lay eggs in the appropriate type of wood that the larvae will feed in, and the larvae (‘white grubs’) undergo several molts and eventually become quite large prior to pupation. These beetles do not harm timber, as they only breed within wood that is already dead and beginning to decay.
Although not officially listed as threatened or rare in NC, some states are now keeping track of the decline of this beautiful and unique species. There appears to have been a decline in this species’ numbers over the years due to habitat loss and the propensity of this species to be attracted to lights at night where they may become victims of foraging raccoons, opossums, and (by early morning) birds. However, precise data are lacking, as relatively few observations have been made on this species range-wide, and there are some regions where one may still encounter it with some frequency. There is simply no detailed representation of this species over its range.
Cuthbert’s Turtlehead (Chelone cuthbertii)
Cuthbert’s Turtle head is a perennial herb of mountain bogs, wet meadows, sphagnum seeps, and swamp habitats. It grows to be about 16-39 inches tall; its leaves are 2-5 inches long and ⅜-2 inches wide, lance-shaped with rounded bases, slightly toothed edges, and no leaf stalks. The leaves are hairless except along the veins and pale green on the underside. Flowers are ¾-1¼ inches long, pinkish-purple, tubular, inflated, two-lipped, and nearly closed at the tip; inside the flower is a tuft of yellow hairs, 4 fertile stamens, and a short, purple, sterile stamen. The flower spikes are distinctly 4-sided when viewed from above.
Turtlehead flowers are cross-pollinated by bees that are specialized and large enough to push the nearly closed lips of the flower open, accessing large amount of nectar produced by the flower. It’s best to look for this species during flowering; late July–September.
Little is known about the life history of this species in our area. As far as we know, Cuthbert’s Turtlehead has never been found in Polk County; however, it is known from as close as Henderson County. It is listed as “Significantly Rare and Limited” in N.C. and is a species of “Federal Concern.”
Cuthbert’s Turtlehead is similar to other Turtlehead’s that grow in our area and should not be confused with (1) Smooth Turtlehead (Chelone glabra), whose flowers are white with pink or purple tips, leaves that have tapered bases, shortleaf stalks, and sterile stamen that is green, or (2) Purple Turtlehead (C. obliqua) has purple flowers, its leaves have tapered bases, and the leaf stalks are up to ½ inch long.
Three Birds Orchid (Triphora trianthophora)
Three Birds Orchid is a beautiful and elusive native orchid. The common name of this terrestrial orchid is an allusion to the appearance of the flower, said to resemble a bird. The flower is snow white with highlights of lavender and green. The leaves are simple and small. It is a diminutive (6 inches tall, maximum) and easily overlooked orchid that prefers the shaded environs of rich woodlands. It grows in dark, damp humus and leaf litter under American Beech and other broad-leaved trees. Flowering occurs in during the months of August and September, usually following a drop in temperature, when nighttime temperatures fall 15-20 degrees lower than daytime highs.
Three Birds Orchid is not a common species but it is likely more abundant than records suggest. Due to its cryptic appearance when not in flower, its sporadic and unpredictable occurrence, it is often overlooked. There are historic records of this species from Polk County, but they are many decades old. To look for this elusive woodland gem, it is often best to get on hands and knees and carefully scan the ground; an endeavor well worth the time if successful.
(photo used with permission of the USDA Forest Service and photographer, Eleanor Saulys)
Eastern Wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus)
Eastern Wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus), our native Burning Bush, should not to be confused with the non-native and invasive ornamental shrub, Winged Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) which is native to Northeast Asia and fairly common in residential areas.
Wahoo is only known from a handful of counties in NC and it is ranked as “Imperiled.” It is a large shrub or small tree, which is typically found in areas to the east of Polk County.
Wahoo is not a ‘stand out’ species in terms of general appearance. It has simple, opposite, and finely toothed leaves with erect-hairy lower leaf surfaces and petioles (the stalk that attaches the leaf blade to the stem).
One unusual feature of this species is the green coloration of the twigs, which persist even in winter. The fruits of Wahoo are bright pink and red, which enables them to be seen easily from a distance; a good clue when searching for the plant this time of year. The fruit is a smooth, 4-lobed capsule.
Wahoo’s preferred habitats are rich bottomlands or streamside flats. Occasionally, this species may be encountered on rich slopes with circumneutral soils.
Shingle Oak (Quercus imbricaria)
Shingle Oak (Quercus imbricaria) is an interesting woody species. The specific name ‘imbricaria’ refers to overlapping, as the wood of this tree was originally used in the production of shingles. Shingle Oak is a medium sized tree, reaching heights between 30-60 feet. It has a rounded crown and a pleasing appearance. An unusual and distinctive characteristic of Shingle Oak is that it has a large, unlobed leaf (unlike most other Oak species in our region that do possess lobed leaves). Shingle Oak leaves are between 3.5-7 inches in length and between .75-2 inches in width. The leaf margin is smooth and untoothed. The tip of the leaf possesses a single bristle. In addition, the underside of the leaf of Shingle Oak is tomentose (hairy), serving to distinguish it from a similar hybrid species of Oak that is sometimes encountered in our region.
Shingle Oak typically prefers to grow in rich, moist soils along the banks of streams or rivers but it may occasionally be found upslope in areas where soils are nutrient rich. Generally found in areas to the west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shingle Oak is known from a handful of counties in the western portion of North Carolina, including some neighboring counties surrounding Polk. Fall color can range from brilliant red to gold.
David Campbell has personally encountered Shingle Oak in Burke and Henderson counties, and he feels that there is a good possibility that this species could be found in Polk County as well. When searching for Shingle Oak, look along rich stream bottoms and the lower slopes of small to medium sized rivers.
Butternut (Juglans cinerea), one of eastern North America’s most threatened tree species.
Butternut, sometimes referred to as White Walnut, is a medium-sized tree species that may attain heights of between 50-70 feet tall. Butternut leaves are compound, toothed, and alternate, with an aromatic scent if bruised. This species is deciduous, with leaves turning a pleasing yellow coloration in autumn. Butternut fruits are distinctive, with rough longitudinal texture, and pointed ‘tip’ at one end. Fruits of Butternut are edible and highly sought after by squirrels and humans alike.
In our area, this species prefers moist, rich, well-drained bottomlands, streamside terraces, or slopes just up from such habitats. In the mountains to the west of Polk County, Butternut may be encountered in more upland situations.
Butternut is a readily identifiable tree, with a distinctive silhouette, leaves, and fruits. Many citizens of Polk County are familiar with this tree and may remember it as being more abundant in their youth.
Butternut is not a common tree in North Carolina, but does occur sporadically in the western mountains of our state. Butternut is still known to survive in Polk County in a handful of locations, but it has suffered a drastic decline throughout its entire range due to a fungal blight known as Butternut Canker. In some areas, Butternut has been extirpated; even isolated trees have been known to become diseased and die. At present, there is no known cure for this disease.
Butternut fruits (photo by JK Marlow)
Tawny Cottongrass (Eriophorum virginicum)
Technically, Cottongrasses are not grasses at all; species of Cottongrass actually belong to the Sedge Family. Sedges are superficially similar to grasses, but differ from true grasses in a number of aspects, particularly the fruits. Cottongrass is so-named due to the resemblance of the mature fruiting inflorescence (the complete flower head of a plant including stems, stalks, bracts, and flowers) to a ‘ball’ of cotton, making it readily visible to observers, even from a distance. Although the leaf blades are very thin, Tawny Cottongrass can reach over two feet in height.
In the western part of our state, Tawny Cottongrass is scattered and rare in the southern Appalachians. It is found in isolated and widely dispersed mountain bogs and fens (low land that is covered wholly or partly with water). Due to its preference to open locations in peaty soils, Cottongrass can produce a remarkable and highly visible display when fruiting in large numbers. As the cottony ‘tufts’ are often retained throughout the winter; therefore, now is a good time to search for this unusual species in our region.
Tawny Cottongrass exists in bogs in the neighboring counties of Henderson and Burke, in North Carolina and in Greenville County in South Carolina. If this plant does occur in Polk County, it would likely be in the higher elevations in the western part of the county. Look for it in wet meadow-like situations (bogs or fens) that are sunny and not heavily treed.
American Snowbell (Styrax americanus)
American Snowbell (Styrax americanus) is a beautiful deciduous flowering shrub that ranges from 1-3 meters in height. It prefers to grow in swampy or streamside locations that may experience occasional to frequent flooding. Flowering in our region typically occurs in April and May. The twigs of American Snowbell often appear cracked and in a zigzag pattern. The buds are located above the leaf scar and appear scurfy or scaly. Leaves are alternate and typically narrowly elliptic (oval) to ovate (egg shaped) or obovate (egg-shaped with the narrower end at the base) and are usually 2-8 cm long. The leaf margins, or edge, may be wavy or toothed. The flowers are bell-shaped, white and have five 1/2″ long, recurved lobes (petals).
The casual observer may confuse this species with the more abundant Bigleaf Snowbell (Styrax grandifolius) or Carolina Silverbell (Halesia carolina); however, these species differ in size, leaf shape, flowers, and habitat.
American Snowbell is a species more typical of the Coastal Plain. Its occurrence in Polk County is another example of a disjunct species that our region is well-known for among botanists. American Snowbell has been reported from the White Oak Creek area, where it occurs in association with other interesting species of coastal affiliation, such as Climbing Hydrangea (Decumaria barbara).
American Snowbell is easy to spot when it is in flower. In the weeks ahead, look for it in low woods and bottomlands, particularly in the eastern portions of Polk County.
Thin-pod Wild White Indigo (Baptisia albescens)
A member of the Pea Family, Baptisia albescens may give the appearance of a Lupine species to the casual observer, but much larger, with total heights of some plants exceeding one meter. Flowers are white and occur in a ‘spike’ that surmounts a stem with numerous trifoliate (‘in threes’) leaves. When occurring in a group of several plants, Thin-pod White Wild Indigo forms a striking display that is not soon forgotten.
Bumblebees are among the principal pollinators of this species. Unlike other types of Wild Indigo, seed pods are light brown, instead of black. This latter point is an important diagnostic feature that may distinguish Baptisia albescens from similar while-flowering Wild Indigos.
Preferred habitats include open glades, powerline right-of-ways, and roadsides; abundant sunshine is very important for this species. Baptisia albescens also prefers circumneutral and basic soils.
Thin-pod White Wild Indigo has been reported for Polk County, but not for several decades. However, given the soils and topography of our region, it is still to be expected, and should be sought after. It is a distinctive species when in flower, or in fruit.
Rusty-patched Bumblebee (Bombus affinis)
Most of us are well acquainted with the Bumblebees that frequent or gardens, fields, and yards. Not surprisingly, there are a great many species of Bumblebees native to our region, and unfortunately, some of those species are in decline; the Rusty-patched Bumblebee is one such species.
Formerly widespread throughout large portions of eastern North America, the Rusty-patched Bumblebee is now confined to a handful of sites, including areas of Wisconsin. Extinction is a very real possibility for this species. Reasons for the decline of some species of Bumblebees are not always well understood, but likely involve habitat loss, declining sources of nectar, and non-targeted spraying of insect pests that also harm beneficial species such as bees.
The Rusty-patched Bumblebee is aptly named, as it bears an orange colored spot on its abdomen that serves to distinguish it from other species of Bumblebees found in our area. Collection records indicate that this species has been found in North Carolina, and may very well still be present here. Open, sunny areas that contain an abundance of wildflowers serve as an excellent place to search for this, and other, species of Bumblebees.
All species of Bumblees (and other native pollinators) greatly benefit from the addition of native plants to our gardens, such as Milkweed, Beebalm, Penstemon, and many others. Please consider adding a species or two of native flowering plants to your garden to help our hard-working native pollinators. You may be fortunate enough to observe a Rusty-patched Bumblebee in your own backyard!
Red-legged Purseweb Spider (Sphodros rufipes)
The Red-legged Purseweb Spider is a beautiful and unusual invertebrate. Although strictly speaking, it is not tracked as Rare or Endangered, there is little known about the distribution and abundance of this unusual species.
Purseweb Spiders are close relatives of the Tarantulas and they have a unique natural history. Instead of constructing the classic spider ‘web’, these spiders make silken tubes running up the lower bases of tree trunks, rocks, etc. These silken tubes become well camouflaged over time, as bits of twigs, algae, etc. become incorporated into the tube itself. The spider hides inside of the tube, and if an insect is unfortunate enough to walk across this silken death-trap, the spider pierces it from within its lair with its large fangs, and pulls it inside for slow digestion. It is worth pointing out, that Purseweb Spiders rarely leave their tubes – except for mating.
The Red-legged Purseweb Spider is only red-legged if it is a male; females are all black. Both sexes are approximately one inch in length. There are other species of Sphodros in our region, but they appear to be uniformly black in coloration.
The Red-legged Purseweb spider is more abundant in the southern United States, but there are records further north into New Jersey, Massachusetts, and even the Great Lakes region. Search for the tube-like lair of this species at the base of trees in forested areas. Tubes are often cryptically colored, so look carefully. Although not a deadly species by any means, a Purseweb Spider could give a good bite, so avoid handling. Instead, consider taking a photograph of the spider and/or its fascinating tube-like home. Although not as colorful as some of our wildflowers or birds, these spiders are beautiful and interesting in their own right and are well worth seeking out to appreciate.
Large Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens)
Anyone fortunate enough to see a stand of Large Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchids in full flower in its woodland habitat will not soon forget the breathtaking beauty of this elusive plant.
Attaining heights of over 24 inches, with prominently alternate, veined (plicate) leaves and a bright yellow pouch, there is no mistaking this plant for anything else in our flora. Plants often occur singly or in small groups, and occasionally, a large clump of plants may be observed.
Plants at a given site may not bloom every year, so it is helpful for an observer to acquaint themselves with the appearance of this plant when it is not in flower, making a note to return the following year. Preferred habitats are moist (mesic) forested slopes under light shade and over circumneutral soils. The large yellow flower (pouch) is accompanied by lateral petals that are typically twisted and brownish in coloration. Leaves, and particularly stem, are noticeably hairy (pubescent). Flowering typically occurs in the month of May.
Large Yellow Lady’s Slipper Orchid is widely distributed throughout North America but it is usually uncommon to rare wherever it occurs. This species is always considered a ‘good find’ when encountered. In the past, people would often dig up these plants in an effort to establish them in home gardens, almost always resulting in the death of the plants; it is a practice to be much discouraged at this time.
Within North Carolina, these orchids are most often seen in the mountains, but there are known localities in the piedmont also. Polk County has a handful of known sites for Large Yellow Lady’s Slipper, and suitable habitat and soils are abundant here, so more colonies of this species should exist. Purposeful searching on north and northeast-facing slopes in moist hardwood forests underlain by mafic rock would be the best strategy to find this spectacular orchid in our region.
Slender Glass Lizard (Ophisaurus attenuatus)
The Glass Lizards are so-named due to the fact that they readily lose or ‘drop’ their tails in order to avoid capture – a common occurrence. Interestingly, Glass Lizards are able to regenerate their lost tails, but they are never as perfect in appearance as the initial tail that they are born with. Another noteworthy (and obvious!) feature of this group of lizards is that they lack legs; hence, another name for them is Legless Lizards. Due to the fact that these lizard species lack legs, they are often mistaken for snakes – which may lead to tragic results as many people still kill all snakes on sight, a practice that is to be discouraged, as snakes (and lizards) are beneficial creatures with vital roles to play within our ecosystems.
Glass Lizards may be differentiated from snakes due to the fact that unlike snakes, they do not have a head that is distinctly ‘set off’ from the main body of the organism. Also, unlike snakes, Glass Lizards have ears – small openings in the side of their head, just as other lizards do.
Slender Glass Lizards are usually brown or light yellowish brown in overall coloration, with darker bands being prominently displayed over their backs and tails. Overall lengths vary from two to three and a half feet in length. Their scales are smooth and give a somewhat glossy appearance. Reproduction is accomplished through the laying of eggs (typically around a half dozen, or slightly more). Sandy areas are favored as sites for oviposition. Typical dietary items include insects, snails, and small reptiles.
Slender Glass Lizards are most abundant in the Coastal Plain and Sandhills region of our state. However, there are a few records from areas just east of Polk County, and also in those areas of South Carolina immediately adjacent to Polk. Indeed, Pam Torlina of PAC reports seeing a Glass Lizards in Gowensville, South Carolina. Preferred habitats of this species are old fields and openings in sandy pine woodlands. Given the proximity of known and reliable sightings so near to our area, residents are encouraged to keep an eye out for this harmless and unusual denizen of our forests and fields.
Eastern Figwort (Scrophularia marilandica)
Eastern Figwort is not a rare species in North Carolina, but it is not often encountered in Polk County. However, this plant is a conspicuous inhabitant of environments that often do contain rare or unusual species in our region (nutrient rich, basic-mesic forests over mafic rock or other calcareous substrates).
Eastern Figwort can attain heights of between 3′ and 8′, which is very tall for an herbaceous plant species in our area. Stems are four-angled and grooved, giving rise to another common name, Carpenter’s Square. Leaves are opposite, ovate, dentate (toothed), slender-petiolate (leaf stalk), and may reach lengths of over 6” with widths of almost 4”. Leaves and stems are largely (although not exclusively) hairless. The interesting and remarkable flowers are borne in slender, lengthy panicles (branching cluster of flowers) up to a foot long and occurring at the top of the plant. This results in a very distinctive appearance. Each tubular flower is small (not more than half an inch), with green leafy bracts subtending (under; supporting) maroon “petals.” Anthers are yellow and the mature seed capsule contains many tiny seeds. The flowers are pollinated by many species of native bees, wasps, flies, and beetles. This is a species worthy of cultivation in the native plant garden.
Look for Eastern Figwort in low damp woods, upslope from floodplains, or growing around seepage in areas dominated by mafic rocks. If you are fortunate enough to find this species, you will likely find other interesting types of plants growing with it as associates.
Whiteleaf Sunflower (Helianthus glaucophyllus)
Reaching heights of over three feet, with clearly visible small, yellow flowers borne in terminal clusters; this species is a denizen of the western portions of our state. Although there are many native species of Sunflowers in the North Carolina flora, and many are quite similar in appearance, the Whitleaf Sunflower is relatively easy to identify due to the markedly white and glabrous (smooth) under surfaces of its leaves. In common with most members of the Aster family, this species has both ray (the ‘petals’) and disk (the ‘center’) flowers, and is frequented by many native pollinator species. Leaves are three to six inches in length, dentate (toothed), greenish above, and whitish beneath (the key identification feature).
This plant is typically associated with mid-elevation forested areas occurring in glades, canopy openings, powerline right-of-ways, or road banks. Whiteleaf Sunflower has been reported from Polk County and nearby Rutherford County. In Polk County, it is to be expected more commonly in the mountainous western portions of the county. We are particularly interested in hearing from readers about low elevational records for this species in Polk County.
Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)
In spite of the second part of its scientific name, ‘horridus,’ the Timber Rattlesnake is typically a shy, inoffensive snake that is not likely to bite, unless molested or provoked. However, if one is bitten by this species, it is a very serious matter, and fatalities (although rare) have been documented.
Timber Rattlesnakes once ranged throughout much of eastern North America, from southern Ontario in Canada, to eastern Texas. Today, the range of this serpent of wilderness areas has experienced some significant contractions due to habitat loss, road fatalities, and thoughtless persons who kill these snakes on sight. In North Carolina, the mountains and coastal plain are the areas that one is most likely to encounter a Timber Rattlesnake, with this species now being largely absent from the Piedmont, where it formerly occurred.
A medium to large-sized snake, occasionally reaching over five feet in length (although usually around 3 1/2 to 4 feet), this snake can be quite variable in appearance. Some individuals have a light background with slightly darker mottling/chevrons, a pattern predominating in Coastal regions. Darker colored individuals are more abundant in mountains and northern areas of the continent. However, both light and dark colored snakes may occur within the same population. Lighter colored forms in the Coastal Plain are often referred to as ‘Canebrake Rattlesnakes.’ In all cases, the camouflage of Timber Rattlesnakes is superb, and serves them well in their role as ambush predators. Their diet consists largely of rodents. As with other members of its genus, these snakes will utilize the rattles on their tails to warn you of their presence if you should approach too closely.
In Polk County, Timber Rattlesnakes are usually (although not exclusively), encountered in large wooded tracts, with rocky outcrops that are relatively free of human activity. The higher elevations, in western portions of the county, likely contain more of these snakes than lower elevations, in the eastern portions of Polk County. Timber Rattlesnakes will congregate at rocky den sites in the fall for the purposes of hibernation and mating, often on south and southwest-facing rocky slopes. The young are born (live birth, not eggs) the following year. In spring, individuals emerge from their winter ‘sleep,’ followed by dispersal to surrounding wooded areas during the summer months.
Timber Rattlesnakes do not achieve sexual maturity for several years, and they do not necessarily produce young every year. Thus, the loss of adult snakes through mortality, along with the destruction of known den sites, can have catastrophic consequences to populations of this species, which is an integral member of the ecology of our forests and other wildlands.
As a venomous reptile with powerful venom, one should treat this species with great respect. When out in the woods, watch the placement of your feet, hands, and legs, particularly in rocky areas. If you are fortunate enough to encounter a Timber Rattlesnake in the wild, consider yourself lucky, give it a wide berth, and continue on with your day.
Eastern Shooting Star (Primula meadia)
A very beautiful, distinctive, and uncommon member of North Carolina’s flora, Eastern Shooting Star is unique in appearance and unlikely to be confused with anything else. With its basal rosette that is amply supplied with elliptic to oblong leaves that are entire (untoothed) and can grow up to a foot in length, its scape (flowering stalk) that can reach over two feet in length, and flowers that are starkly white with heavily reflexed (‘swept back’) petals exposing the united and pointed stamens, the aptness of this plant’s name becomes apparent.
In our region, Eastern Shooting Star blooms from March until May, with fruiting taking place from May until June. Favored habitats include rich woodlands, bluffs, ridges, and occasionally bottomlands, with all localities being underlain by rocks that produce circumneutral soils. When found, colonies of this plant may contain many individuals often numbering in the hundreds.
Although reliably reported from two known sites in Polk County, these records go back many decades. Interestingly, although tracked by the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program as significantly rare, none of these historic Polk County records have made it into plant conservation databases.
Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
The Barn Owl, a ghostly nocturnal denizen of our fields and farmlands, is a distinctive species, buff in coloration with a slightly darker back. They have a white, heart-shaped face and stand approximately one and a half feet in height. The Barn Owl is an unmistakable member of our avian fauna. In flight, it often looks entirely white. The preferred prey of the Barn Owl includes mice, voles, and other rodents.
As its common name suggests, the Barn Owl often frequents farmlands and fields. In pre-Colombian times, this species likely nested in large, hollow trees; however, with the settlement of the land by Europeans, Barn Owls happily took up residence in silos, tobacco sheds, various outbuildings, and of course, in barns. When present, Barn Owls can be difficult to detect, and purposeful searching may be required to find them.
An uncommon and rarely observed species, the Barn Owl has been declining in abundance for the past several decades. Likely reasons for the decline include a loss of habitat, the destruction or decay of old barns, the switch by farmers from wooden barns with gaps or openings to fully-enclosed metal barns, and also the possible displacement or predation of the Barn Owl by Great Horned owls.
The Barn Owl occurs widely throughout North Carolina, but is not common. To our knowledge, Polk County has never reported an occurrence of this species, but it has been observed nesting just across the state line in Spartanburg County, South Carolina. There is a recent record of nesting in Burke County also. Barn Owls could very well be found in Polk County, and as an easily identified species, there should be no mistake in identifying it. The Pacolet Conservancy would be very interested in hearing from readers who may have knowledge of Barn Owls spotted in the county.
Spreading Rockcress (Arabis patens)
Uncommon throughout most of its range in Eastern North America, Spreading Rockcress favors moist and shady sites along streams, rock ledges, and bluffs in wooded areas, or floodplain forests. Limestone regions are favored, however, this species may also be found in nutrient rich seepage growing on thin soils over mafic rocks. Polk County does indeed have the appropriate rocks and nutrient rich sites, so the occurrence of Spreading Rockcress here is plausible (especially considering that there are nearby occurrences of this species in Rutherford and McDowell Counties).
This is a distinctive species, and flowering stalks may reach heights of approximately one meter, so spotting it in the field should not be a problem. A basal rosette of pubescent (hairy) and serrate (toothed) leaves gives rise to the flowering stalk which terminates in a branched raceme of white flowers in late March to early May.
Currently only known from Madison, McDowell, Rutherford, and Swain Counties, there is an extremely good possibility that this distinctive beauty may be found growing in Polk County. Study the accompanying picture carefully, and keep your eyes peeled in the coming months and see if you will be the first to discover this rarity to add to the list of Polk County’s highly diverse flora.
Virginia Stickseed, (Hackelia virginiana)
Virginia Stickseed belongs to the Borage, or Forget-Me-Not, family of flowering plants. It is an herbaceous biennial or perennial with simple, oblanceolate, and alternate leaves reaching approximately one to three feet in height. At the time of flowering, basal leaves are usually absent. Small white flowers occur in a loose raceme-like panicle, typically between June-August, but sometimes later. The Cherokee utilized this plant to treat cancer, and to help prevent memory loss.
Preferred habitats are rich forests and woodlands over mafic soils that are basic or circumneutral in pH. Virginia Stickseed is a rare plant in North Carolina, with a spotty distribution that is mainly centered in the mountains, but with some piedmont localities also known. This species has been previously recorded in Polk County, but not for several decades. Suitable habitat is common in our region, so rediscovery of Hackelia in Polk is a very real possibility. Study the accompanying picture carefully, or look online for photos, and keep your eyes open for this elusive denizen of our wild areas. Although not a showy species, much remains to be learned about the distribution of Virginia Stickseed in North Carolina.
American Barberry (Berberis canadensis)
In spite of its scientific name, Berberis canadensis, this plant is not to be found in Canada, but has as its center of abundance in the southern Appalachians, with some outlying populations in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. This enigmatic and rarely seen shrub prefers habitats that include rocky woodlands, bluffs, roadsides, and glades on mafic/circumneutral soils that are relatively high in pH.
American Barberry is a small shrub that may attain heights just slightly in excess of six feet, with leaves that are ovate, simple, alternate, and deciduous. A notable feature is numerous thorns; each node possesses three obvious ‘spikes.’ A closely related species that sometimes escapes cultivation is Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii); Japanese Barberry usually has a single thorn opposed to American Barberry’s thorns in ‘threes.’ American Barberry has yellow flowers that are radially symmetrical, with six petals and six sepals. In our region, flowering occurs in April. Mature fruits are red, elliptic, and are seen in late summer to early fall.
American Barberry has never been recorded in Polk County, but does occur in nearby Rutherford and McDowell Counties. Suitable habitat is not uncommon in Polk, and this species should plausibly occur here. This is not a plant that ‘jumps out’ at the casual observer, and when young, or not in flower or fruit, may be easily overlooked. The flowering period is almost upon us, so keep a look-out for this rare, but likely, under-reported shrub when you are out walking the woodlands in the next few weeks.
Mountain Witch-alder (Fothergilla major)
When in flower, Mountain Witch-alder is hard to miss; it is covered in rounded masses of flowers with white stamens (and no petals). In recent years, this distinctive species has become popular in the nursery trade. This deciduous shrub is small to medium-sized (up to 3 meters in height) with lobed, large-toothed and prominently veined leaves. The leaves of Mountain Witch-alder also bear a very strong resemblance to the far more abundant Witch-hazel, not surprisingly, perhaps, as both are in the same plant family. Indeed, when not in fruit or flower, it can be very easy to confuse Mountain Witch-alder for Witch-hazel.
A plant of medium elevations, found in the Piedmont and western parts of NC, Mountain Witch-alder prefers sites that are dry to dry-mesic and on the acidic side of the pH scale. Sunny, open sites suit it best. This is also a plant that responds well to fire, with prescribed burning often being utilized to help populations in the wild. The site of a blooming thicket of Witch-alder is breathtaking and hard to forget. Flowering typically takes place from late March to early May, depending on elevation.
This species has been found in Polk County, with reports from the Green River Game Lands and Melrose Mountain; however, these records are several decades old. The continued existence of Mountain Witch-alder in Polk County seems likely, as sufficient habitat exists here and it is also known from nearby counties. This species is so spectacular and distinctive; we are hoping that residents will be able to provide us with information regarding the whereabouts of this rare and unusual species in our community.
Southern Nodding Trillium (Trillium rugelii)
With large white flowers and strikingly recurved petals, Southern Nodding Trillium is a distinctive and readily identifiable species of our spring flora. Between 12-18 inches in height, with a flower that is found underneath the three leaves, one must often get on hands and knees to fully appreciate the beauty of this plant (and to gain an appreciation for its common name as a result). The anthers are typically dark purple, although sometimes a somewhat lighter shade. Occasionally, one may encounter specimens with maroon flowers. Leaves are plain and are not mottled. Flowering occurs from late March to early May, depending on elevation.
Southern Nodding Trillium is a denizen of rich woodlands with circumneutral to basic pH levels. Known from approximately one dozen counties in North Carolina, Southern Nodding Trillium is infrequently encountered and it exists in scattered locations. Polk County has many areas underlain by mafic rocks that give rise to the type of soils favored by this species. When searching, look for alluvial terraces adjacent to streams, creeks, and rivers, especially if Spicebush is growing there.
The purpose of this project is to gain a better understanding of the flora and fauna in Polk County and document the species present in the county.
PAC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit conservation organization (land trust) founded in 1989 to Protect and Conserve the area’s natural resources (PAC’s mission). PAC works with area landowners to ensure the long-term protection of their property through voluntary conservation easements (agreements) which enable landowners to maintain ownership of their property, preserving precious natural resources (open lands, forests, wildlife habitat, scenic vistas, farmland, stream banks, etc.), and potentially obtain significant federal, state, and local tax benefits. PAC’s vision is a community living and growing in harmony with our natural resources and or goal is to provide a legacy that will endure and be valued by generations to come. PAC works diligently to provide leadership to encourage conservation and provide education programs emphasizing native species appreciation and responsible land use practices to help – save the places you love.
For more information on any of the plants described above, check out the NameThatPlant.net