Thursday, February 5, 2015

Top Ten Life Plants of 2014

Ah.  It's good to hear the clack of the keyboard again.  I'd like to apologize for the lack of activity on here the past few months. Lately too many things have come together to steal my attention and free time but rest assured your blogger is alive and well.  I'm still as busy as ever but hope to manage and keep a presence on here until the less burdened summer months return.  Regardless, it's nice to get something fresh out there for those who have anxiously awaited a new post.  In a perfect world I would have had this post written and published around the turn of the new year but better late than never, right?

The 2014 field season was one to remember for your narrator.  There's never enough time to see and do everything on your list during a calendar year but then that's what makes each and every new experience you do have all the more enduring.  For a botanist, or at least this botanist, one of the most rewarding tasks at the conclusion of a growing season is updating the life list.  As time goes on and I become more and more acquainted with my local and regional flora, the frequencies of making new floral friends decreases.  This makes each additional life species marked off the list feel just a bit more gratifying than the last.

With that being said, I'd like to reminisce on my personal top ten favorite "lifers" from 2014's botanical forays. It was not an easy task to achieve, believe me.  Many worthy contenders just couldn't make the last cut.  All ten plants were species I'd never had the pleasure of seeing in the flesh before; many only dreamily through a computer monitor.  Some I specifically set out to see, others I came across by complete chance.  If you're a regular reader of my blog, you might recognize a number of the forthcoming plants; some just deserve their own separate 15 minutes of fame at the time.

#10  -  Long Beech Fern (Phegopteris connectilis)

Number ten takes me back to the Hocking Hills this past June.  As a field botanist for the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, my job sees me work with hundreds of our state's rare plant species.  Surveying, monitoring and managing their occurrences is a large component of that work and is what had me finally face to face with the state-rare long beech fern (Phegopteris connectilis).  Typically found further to the north, it manages to persist in a rather disjunct fashion in the Hocking Hill's more secluded cool, moist hollows.  It looks strikingly similar to its close relative (and much more common) broad beech fern (P. hexagonoptera).  Looking at the bottom pair of pinnae helps separate the two: long beech's rachis between the bottom two pairs of pinnae lacks any wings; while broad beech's rachis is winged between every pair of pinnae.  

#9  -  Catesby's Trillium (Trillium catesbaei)

The mountains of northern Georgia produced dozens of new lifers during my visit in mid May, and I don't think much of anything impressed more than the trillium.  If I had to play favorites of the four-five new species I encountered, Catesby's trillium (T. catesbaei) will do nicely.  To see and read more on the other lifers from this trip you can check out this link right here.  There's still more to come on this list from Georgia though.

#8  -  Limestone Adder's Tongue Fern (Ophioglossum engelmannii)

If you didn't already know what you were looking at, number eight might have you thinking little green ogres had been buried up to their ears.  This alien-looking organism is actually a species of fern known as limestone adder's tongue (Ophioglossum engelmannii) and is quite rare in our state.  In fact, it's only known to occur in a handful of limestone barrens and glades in Adams county and that's it.  The spore-containing fertile frond was thought to resemble a snake's tongue, hence the common name of adder's tongue fern for this genus.

#7  -  Rough Boneset (Eupatorium pilosum)

Lifer number seven has the distinction of being a very, very new lifer for any Ohio botanist, well their state list anyway.  Rough boneset (Eupatorium pilosum) was never known from our state until late summer 2013, when exceptional field botanist and good friend, Brian Riley discovered it growing (apparently) wild in Athens county. Come August 2014, Brian led your blogger and a few other distinguished Ohio botanists to the sites to discuss its native status.  After weighing and debating the topic we concluded it was very likely a natural occurrence and not an intentional (or accidental) introduction.  Just another excellent find by Brian!  For a more detailed account on our day with the rough boneset, you can check out Jim McCormac's post here.

#6  -  Bradley's Spleenwort (Asplenium bradleyi)

Here we are halfway through the countdown and we're on fern species number three.  Needless to say, they've recently become a bit of a hot topic for me and one I put more focus into studying during the 2014 field season. Bradley's spleenwort (Asplenium bradleyi) is one I'm quite pleased to finally have a check mark next to as it's arguably one of Ohio's rarest pteridophytes.  Listed as endangered, it's only known to occur in a handful of sites in southeastern Ohio, often on sheer, inaccessible sandstone rock faces.  That type of habitat niche made getting a photo of even a single fertile frond or two difficult and involved a bit of free hand rock climbing.

#5  -  Swamp Valerian (Valeriana uliginosa)

As I  alluded to earlier, some great plant finds come out of nowhere and catch you by complete surprise.  Those are the ones that are even harder to forget.  Enter life plant number five in the absolutely stunning swamp valerian (Valeriana uliginosa).  While wading through a sprawling fen meadow in southeast Michigan last June, my botanical cohorts and I came across a scattering of these snow white-capped flowers and despite never seeing them before it clicked almost instantly what they were.  Swamp valerian was a plant I'd only ever dreamed of seeing and wasn't sure where, if or when I'd ever get to mark it off the list.  It was only known from a single site in northeast Ohio and hasn't been seen since the end of the 19th century.  For more on this species and the other botanical goodies within its remarkable fen, you can check out this link here.

#4  -  Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)

In terms of new species added to the life list in 2014, nothing came close to my time on the Florida panhandle. I could have just as easily made this entire list out of Florida flora but I did my best to refrain from such a biased approach.  Of the hundreds of lifers I encountered in the swamps and pine lands of the panhandle, the fabled Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula) was the most anticipated. The plants were admittedly planted at the site I knew about decades ago and have persisted in the boggy habitat but that did little to take away from the experience.  For more photos of the fly traps and their other bog associate denizens you can check out this link here.

#3  -  Sweet Pinesap (Monotropsis odorata)

Most wildflowers people remember with their sense of vision.  The same could be said for lifer number three but I personally will always recall them most fondly with my olfactories.  Sweet pinesap (Monotropsis odorata) was the target of a late April excursion to the Red River Gorge of Kentucky, with the motto being, "follow your nose!".  Sweet pinesap gets its name from the intoxicating aroma emitted from its perfectly purple flowers.  I've never smelled anything more enchanting than these oddities and in fact smelled their presence before visually locating them.  For more photos and info on this trip and these odorous wonders you can follow this link.

#2  -  Pine Lily (Lilium catesbaei)

We're down to the two biggest plant finds of my 2014 and it's back to the hot and steamy confines of the Florida panhandle.  After my time with the Venus fly traps, I decided to explore the nearby depths of Apalachicola National Forest's longleaf pine savannas. Gazing out across their open expanses of graminoids and pitcher plants invoked feelings of nirvana and utter tranquility.  The cherry on top of the savanna sundae was stumbling across lifer number two dotting the seas of green with their fire orange-red tepals.  I adore lilies but had no idea just how much until the pine lily (Lilium catesbaei).  Much like the aforementioned swamp valerian, I hadn't even considered encountering such a remarkable wildflower but am overjoyed that I did.  There wasn't much else to compare the feeling of their discovery to except for the last species left.

#1  -  Small Whorled Pogonia (Isotria medeoloides)

If you know me and you read this blog, it probably isn't hard to surmise that my number one life plant from 2014 was hands down, no contest, how-could-it-not-be the federally threatened small whorled pogonia (Isotria medeoloides).  I made the 500+ mile trek to Chattahoochee National Forest in the mountains of northern Georgia last May to specifically see this most elusive orchid.  Many might wonder why a small, bland and green "if you can even call it a flower" would illicit such a strong reaction from me, and honestly I might ask myself the same.  Its genuine distribution-wide rarity, sporadic and poorly understood life cycle, and mythic nature all combine to make it an arduous chase.  I could go on and on about this particular experience and plant but I'll leave that up to you. An entire post dedicated to this little green blob can be found here.

I hope you enjoyed this retrospective look at my favorite field finds of 2014.  Perhaps one of these made your life list last year? Maybe one of these will be a target for your 2015?  I look forward to bringing you more botanical forays and treatments in 2015 and know I have a lot of catching up to do from years past.  So stay warm and dream of spring!  The snow trillium and hepaticas will be out before we know it.



  1. Excellent recounting, Andrew! At least I can say I was with you on two of those finds. Can't wait to see what you come up with in 2015!

    Jim Fowler, Greenville, SC

  2. Really enjoyed your review! Great to be able to read some serious botany. Only improvement would be to post more often and come to visit Ontario more. I always look forward to your posts.

  3. Oh, how wonderful to go tromping with you once more through your blog! Quite a year, Andrew! Your photos are spectacular, and your account is riveting. I sure do look forward to botanizing with you again this summer.

  4. A friend took me to see two small colonies of small whorled pogonia years ago. I haven't been able to relocate them and I'm not sure I'd even want to. However, it was quite a thrill to see them and I have some good photos from that trip.

  5. Thank you so much for your blog. Photos are excellent and your intriguing account makes me feel like I was there. My sister and I have been exploring West Michigan once a week for the last nine years. Your enthusiasm reminds me why we go. It's great fun! My Life List of plants adds to our adventures but even wildflowers we see each year are delightful. She keeps a blog called Plants Amaze Me so I know how much time it takes to post. Just think of all the people you inspire to take a walk and enjoy the outdoors. No small accomplishment. Thanks again. Marie :)