Monday, June 24, 2013

The Quest for the Western Wallflower

So much to see and do with so little time.  The theme my life revolves around more and more it seems as my list of plants and places ever grows.  For every successful sighting and experience I scratch off the list, two more are sure to be added.  It's the law of nature for this botanist but how could I complain?  I count myself among the lucky and am very thankful my passion and career only seems to grow in the number of things I want/need to accomplish; a product of the "more you know, the more you don't know" line of thought.  That being said, I made sure to make some time this late spring for an attempt at seeing one plant that had been on my radar for years.

Looking east along the top of the limestone bluffs along the Ohio River 

Back in late May, myself and good friend Dan Boone, who is one of the best field botanists in the state decided to hunt down one of the rarest of the rare: the western wallflower (Erysimum capitatum).  Its only known site in the entire state of Ohio is along a stretch of steep limestone bluffs that hang a couple hundred feet above the Ohio River near the small town of Aberdeen.  Dan and I had a pretty good idea of where to look and were greeted by a very precipitous slope that made for a harrowing search.  In an awkward catch 22 situation, the dense thicket of bush honeysuckle (Lonicera mackii) allowed for something to grab and steady yourself on as our eyes scanned for a blip of unmistakable orange.  I never thought I'd be so thankful to have an invasion of honeysuckle around me.

The western wallflowers clinging to the steep bluff's slopes.

They took a while to find with some moments of nervousness that the plants had been crowded/shaded out but in the end our search was not in vain.  What had been recorded as an occurrence of over 30 plants a decade ago had unfortunately dwindled to just five flowering plants and six vegetative rosettes by our count.  Regardless of the low numbers it only takes one specimen in full flower to see just how striking a wildflower it is!

Close up look at the western wallflower's unique shade of orange

I can't say I've seen every plant known to Ohio, but I think proclaiming the western wallflower as the most unique and vibrant shade of orange in the vascular flora to be an accurate assessment.  It's definitely the most showy of its fellow mustard family (Brassicaceae) brethren!  Even under the thick shade of the oaks, maples, and honeysuckle its fire-orange petals beckoned us to them like a moth to a flame.

North American distribution map (courtesy: BONAP)

As mentioned earlier, the western wallflower is only known from this single site in Brown county along the Ohio River.  Even looking back over 150 years into Ohio's past the only other record for this plant was an 1838 collection from Franklin county by famed Ohio botanist (and Ohio University alum; yay for a fellow Bobcat!) William Starling Sullivant.  That ancient record, at least ancient in botanical terms, is probably what gives the most credit to our flora recognizing it as an indigenous species rather than adventive/introduced.  Looking at its distribution above you can see that once you get east of the Rocky Mountains the species tapers out almost instantly before popping up in a seemingly random scattered pattern as far east as the Virignias.

Dan standing with two of the handful of flowering western wallflowers we found

The photograph above shows Dan standing with two of the handful of blooming wallflowers.  Like I mentioned earlier the slopes really were a challenge to navigate and keep upright on.  Dan isn't holding on to the honeysuckle trunk for the sake of a pose.  The white colored background beyond the trees is actually water of the Ohio River, not sky if you can believe that.  I guess the common name of 'wallflower' was a valid one as its preferred habitat of limestone bluffs, slopes, and outcrops was being displayed picture perfectly.

Western Wallflower - Erysimum capitatum

With any luck this piece of priceless Ohio biodiversity will one day be under the management and protection of the state.  Better sooner than later, as the site could use much-needed habitat management to remove honeysuckle and open back up the upper slopes.  Hopefully long-dormant seeds that have been biding their time in the soil will germinate and spring forth with an increase in sunlight.

Once satisfied with our scouring of the river bluffs and getting an accurate count of the western wallflower, we climbed our way back up to the ridge top and walked back to the car with a very satisfied feeling of accomplishment.  Dan had never seen this particular taxa before either and was just as pleased as I was to finally have it on his life list.  Between what Dan and I have seen in our respective botanical experiences, it's not every day we both get to see something we've never seen at the same time.  The day seeing something as rare and breathtaking as this starts to bore me is a day I never want to know.


  1. Tara LittlefieldJune 24, 2013 at 4:20 PM

    I love the western wallflower. sounds like a great day and i agree about it being the most beautiful orange flower. I found it in Kentucky in 2009 along the Cumberland River in Cumberland county, my first state record, so BONAP needs some updating. I went to Idaho that same year for some rocky mountain botanizing and felt as if i was chasing the wallflower west, as it is much more common out there. It is sad that bush honeysuckle is taking over its habitat in Ohio. That is not the case yet for the only Kentucky site, tree of heaven is more of a problem. BTW, your posts are interesting to read. Keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Tara! It means a lot coming from a botanist of your knowledge and experience. That's an awesome find on your part with a Kentucky location; I had a feeling it had to be hiding somewhere in the state with all the surrounding states having a record or two.