Sunday, March 27, 2022

Top Ten Life Plants of 2019

Resurrection! Spring is a time of rebirth and new life so what better time for The Buckeye Botanist to awaken from his blogging coma. I miss posting on here. I sincerely do. But life always seems to find a way to prevent that perfect combination of free time and energy to actually sit down and catch up on the 101 different posts I'd like to do. C'est la vie...

In the three years since I last published on here not too much has changed. Which the older I get, the more I like being able to say. My wife and I did buy a house in a small village outside the concrete jungle of Columbus in summer 2020. It fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine to have a yard to call my own and paint with native plants. That's a project forever in progress but it's been very fun and rewarding thus far. Maybe one day I'll be able to do a yard tour themed post on here? We now have two adorable feline children: Leela - a black cat with one eye, and Lily - an adorable tripaw (she's missing her front left leg). I guess we just like cats that aren't physically 100% complete haha. We unexpectedly lost our beloved tuxedo kitty Arya in August 2019 and the loss still pains us to this day but we're so enamored with and thankful to have Leela and Lily in our home. I'm still a field botanist and ecologist with the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves and am very much looking forward to another field season spent in the depths of Ohio's wilderness. Busy is the theme here: always busy. And as already mentioned this blog was the first thing to be lost in the shuffle. Especially since I do regularly post my adventures and botanical highlights on Instagram or Facebook.

That all being said let's start catching up by doing the countdown of my top ten life plants from 2019. It's only going on three years later but better late than never, eh? Plus it's a fun way to reminisce on pre-pandemic life and the "before times". This annual post was always the one I managed to get out each year and I have three years to make up for.

2019 was a botanically exciting year for me. Field work all over the Buckeye state produced some memorable discoveries and lifers. Likewise, family vacations to northern Michigan in July and coastal North Carolina in August produced plenty of action. Finally experiencing the famed Green Swamp and its plethora of orchids, sedges, and carnivorous plants was a treat! As always, I'd love to highlight those trips in blog form someday. promises there. I still have trips to Wyoming (2015), Colorado (2016), Lake Superior (2018), Florida (2018/2021), and Michigan's UP (2017/2021) to name a handful that I need to document. Sigh. So without any further delay lets dive into the top ten life plants I encountered during the 2019 growing season. 

#10 Pennsylvania Catchfly (Silene caroliniana ssp. pensylvanica)

Silene caroliniana ssp. pensylvanica bearing more pink-colored flowers

Life plant #10 takes us the shale region of eastern Ohio in late May. I was in the area doing rare plant monitoring with the Pennsylvania catchfly (Silene caroliniana ssp. pensylvanica) being one of my main targets. It's a very attractive wildflower with its pale pink to white colored flowers and sticky stems and calyces. Also known as Pennsylvania wild pink, it's a state threatened species here in Ohio with most extant populations clustered in Columbiana and Jefferson counties.

Silene caroliniana ssp. pensylvanica on a roadside shale bank

I managed to relocate a number of populations that day and took great pleasure in finally seeing this plant that I'd long wanted to. We also have its equally rare kin, Wherry's catchfly (S. caroliniana ssp. wherryi) in Ohio but it has much darker pink flowers, non-glandular hairs on its calyces, and is restricted to south-central Ohio. I've shared that species on here before so feel free to use the "search this blog" tool on the right to check it out.

#9 Coville's Scorpion-weed (Phacelia covillei)

Phacelia covillei in flower

I love the rare, unusual, and inconspicuous in the plant world. 2019 life plant #9 is most certainly all three. In fact, it's so rare, unusual, and inconspicuous, I'll bet few people reading this post have ever even heard of Coville's scorpion-weed (Phacelia covillei) before. It's a globally rare [G3] annual species of the borage family that flowers early in spring before senescing and disappearing by early summer. In fact, my visit to this site in early May had almost all the plants already in fruit and some even beginning to yellow and wither away.

Phacelia covillei in fruit

In Ohio, Coville's scorpion-weed is only known from a few sites in Lawrence Co. where it grows in mesic valley woodlands, low slopes, and stream terraces. Globally it's only known from about 20 counties in 8 Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. It's possible this species is overlooked but it's rather unique and unlikely to be overlooked by botanists. Curiously, while rare overall it can be extremely common at a given site. One of the Ohio's populations occupies over a mile of stream valley with millions of plants! At least during a boom year for the site. Coville's scorpion-weed was once synonymous with Phacelia ranunculacea, but research has shown the latter to be a Midwest endemic with genetic/morphological/geographical differences. That's all probably more than you needed or wanted to know about such an unshowy plant but I live for stuff like this. Very cool to finally see this oddity and rarity!

#8 Cooper's Milk-vetch (Astragalus neglectus)

Astragalus neglectus in flower

Continuing on with my countdown on 2019's top ten life plants is #8 and Cooper's milk-vetch (Astragalus neglectus). You'll notice a theme so far with lifers from Ohio - they're all state-listed rarities. The more time I've spent working and botanizing in Ohio, the fewer new plants there are to encounter. So naturally the rarer, more difficult ones to see dominate those left. And rare Cooper's milk-vetch is! There's only a single known site in the entirety of Ohio, which thankfully is doing quite well. 

Astragalus neglectus in fruit

Cooper's milk-vetch is actually pretty rare-uncommon throughout its northern range. Its tall nature with pinnately compound leaves and clusters of pea-like cream flowers make it pretty unique among our native flora. The mature inflated fruit pods make it really stand out, too. A fun fact about Ohio's sole site for Cooper's milk-vetch is the state endangered American vetch (Vicia americana) grows side-by-side with it to make the spot extra special.

#7 Drummond's Rock Cress (Boechera stricta)

Boechera stricta in fruit along Lake Erie

These twig-like plants overlooking Lake Erie may not seem like much but they happen to be one of Ohio's rarest plants and #7 on this countdown. I spent a lovely summer solstice day up on Middle Bass Island surveying the last known site for the critically endangered Drummond's rock cress (Boechera stricta) with little hope of finding it. The mustard had not been seen in Ohio in nearly 20 years with previous surveys ending in failure. Due to this absence the species was set to lapse into "presumed extirpated" status. However! I managed to find a couple dozen plants clinging to existence in a hidden shoreline sanctuary. Botanical bliss! The harsh rocky limestone shorelines of the Erie islands could harbor more of this rare mustard but it's not exactly easy surveying this habitat. Not to mention invasive species and woody vegetation encroachment are serious threats. In the end, I was ecstatic to rediscover this species for Ohio's flora and confirm it still occurs. Finally getting to mark it off my life list was just the cherry on top.

#6 Clinton's Wood Fern (Dryopteris clintoniana)

Dryopteris clintoniana growing in a white cedar swamp

We're hitting the midpoint on this countdown of my top ten life plants of 2019 with #6. We finally move out of Ohio for one of the most surprising and serendipitous finds of the year. I'd been on the hunt for Clinton's wood fern (Dryopteris clintoniana) for the better part of a decade with nothing to show for it. It's an endangered species in Ohio but considerably more common up in Michigan, where I encountered some in a mosquito-filled cedar swamp. It's a fern of hybrid origin between crested wood fern (D. cristata) and Goldie's wood fern (D. goldiana) and definitely looks like an intermediate between the two.

Dryopteris clintoniana frond underside and its spore-containing sori

I was over the moon to stumble into such a significant life fern and finally mark it off my life list. Even the annoyance and blood loss from the mosquitos did little to dampen the excitement of a such a special find. I did finally see Clinton's wood fern in Ohio this past summer while doing surveys in northeastern Ohio, too!

#5 Southern White Fringed Orchid (Platanthera conspicua)

Platanthera conspicua in a wet longleaf pine savanna

As history will show it's not a true Buckeye Botanist top ten life plant countdown without an orchid appearance. Coming in at #5 is the stunning, the gorgeous, the perfection that is the southern white fringed orchid (Platanthera conspicua). I'd wanted to make acquaintances with this wonder for years and spent may a dreary winter daydreaming of finally doing so. The time finally came in late August 2019 while in coastal North Carolina. I visited a couple sites known to harbor this beauty and was not disappointed!

Platanthera conspicua in picture perfect flower

Southern white fringed orchid is very similar to its close kin the northern white fringed orchid (P. blephariglottis), and sometimes considered a variety of it. However, after seeing it in person it definitely felt like its own entity. The plants were considerably larger with the flowers bearing long arching nectar spurs. I had the pleasure of seeing this orchid again in the Florida panhandle's Apalachicola National Forest in August 2021 and was wowed all over again. Hope to post on that trip one of these years...

#4 Spreading Rock Cress (Arabis patens)

Arabis patens in its typical limestone ravine habitat

Coming in at #4 is the globally rare spreading rock cress (Arabis patens). This ever-disappearing wildflower is an endangered species here in Ohio, where it's only known from a precious few limestone ravines along a small stretch of the Scioto River. Spreading rock cress has special ties to the Buckeye state as it was first discovered and described to science from Ohio plants by William Starling Sullivant back in 1842. This mustard has an affinity for sheer limestone rock faces and walls where human disturbance and invasive species are wrecking havoc and causing its decline.

Arabis patens in flower

I spent some time in spring 2019 surveying the last handful of known Ohio sites and had mixed results. Nonetheless, some was relocated and allowed me to finally get the chance to see this charming little rock cress. Even better was discovering a previously unknown population at a site where the local park district had removed bush honeysuckle and garlic mustard in the previous couple years. The management allowed for the spreading rock cress to spring from the seed bank and was luckily in flower and easily noticed. A good reminder the positive results that can come from invasive species removal and proper eco management!

#3 Northern Monkshood (Aconitum noveboracense)

Aconitum noveboracense in its seepy sandstone ledge habitat

Ohio is home to five species of plants that are federally listed as threatened. These aren't just rare and in trouble here in Ohio, but everywhere they occur. The fifth and final Ohio species I needed to see comes in at #3 on our 2019 countdown. The northern monkshood (Aconitum noveboracense) is a remarkable plant and to put it simply a real looker. It's unique habitat niche of seeps, talus slopes, and rock shelters in cool, deep sandstone gorges makes it all the more interesting a plant. This member of Ranunculaceae is only known from a literal few sites in Ohio and New York, as well as the driftless region of Iowa and Wisconsin where it occupies an equally rare and fascinating habitat of algific talus slopes (look them up - so cool!).

Aconitum noveboracense in peak flower in early August

There's long been taxonomic debate about whether this Aconitum is truly its own entity or rather a disjunct subspecies of the Mountain West's A. columbianum. Its habitat choice tends to support the idea our eastern occurrences may be small pockets of glacial refugia of the western taxon. Regardless, it's a plant that's as beautiful as it is rare and a very special part of Ohio's flora. I was honored to finally have encountered the northern monkshood at one of its last Ohio sites during an annual monitoring survey back in August 2019.

#2 Yellow Fringeless Orchid (Platanthera integra)

Platanthera integra flowering in a pristine longleaf pine savanna

We're down to the penultimate life plant of 2019 and this is a wildflower that no photo could ever do proper justice of. Its diminutive size and brilliant orange-yellow coloration just cannot be replicated in two dimensions on your computer or phone screen. Yellow fringeless orchid (Platanthera integra) is a globally rare species essentially endemic to the Southeast's coastal plain where it predominately occurs in open pine savanna habitat. The longleaf pine savanna I was in back in late August 2019 had literal hundreds of this orchid in bloom where they glowed like beacons above the endless display of wiregrass (Aristida stricta).

A trio of Platanthera integra under the longleaf pines

I couldn't believe their unique shade of yellow-orange and how tiny these orchids were. Simply magnificent and well worth the long wait (and drive) to finally come face to face with such a marvelous wildflower. I chanced upon the yellow fringeless orchid at a number of sites in Apalachicola National Forest in 2021, too, and was just as mesmerized the second time around. Just an ineffably wonderful orchid!

#1 Black-stemmed Spleenwort (Asplenium resiliens)

Asplenium resiliens growing out of some exposed limestone bedrock

When putting together my annual list of the top ten life plants I encountered that year it can be quite the challenge to figure out the order. Except when it comes to number one. There's usually that one plant that blows everything else out of the water. And 2019's life plant numero uno is undoubtedly seeing black-stemmed spleenwort (Asplenium resiliens)! It wasn't just seeing this species for the first time BUT seeing it in Ohio that made it so memorable. This fern was collected/seen once(!) in Ohio back in 1900 and never seen again and not for a lack of looking...

Fresh and new fronds of Asplenium resiliens

Then in early spring 2019 a few friends of mine said they were going to go looking for the black-stemmed spleenwort. I told them the general area of Adams Co. where it had been collected and suggested a couple spots to look and said "good luck". So off Hannah, Shaun, and Josh went along some limestone cliffs and bluffs overlooking the Ohio River valley...and they found some. I was shocked and beyond excited! We went out to the site later in spring so i could see this mega lifer for myself and sure enough - there it was. What an incredible find for Ohio's flora to have a native fern brought back from the "dead" after 119 years. I suspect it may be hiding somewhere else in the vicinity but recent additional surveys have turned up nothing. Yet. So for now we'll cherish the handful of plants that are clinging to some limestone rock in southernmost Ohio...

Well, there we have it. My top ten life plants from the 2019 growing season. A bit overdue even if I do say so myself! I hope everyone has enjoyed the countdown and I'd love to hear from any readers...are there any left? Have y'all abandoned hope I'd ever be back haha?...on what your favorite(s) were. I really hope to be back soon with 2020 and 2021's edition and other content. It honestly felt good to hear the keyboard keys clack once more and remember how to format and do one of these blog posts. I have so much respect and admiration for my friends who still churn out consistent content on their Blogspots. Wish I had the same effort and determination as you.

Hope everyone has a wonderful spring and is staying healthy and happy out there. Happy botanizing!



  1. Welcome back to the blog world and thank you for this post! As a lover of all things growing here on the South Coast of Ohio I enjoy seeing your professional take on our beautiful state. I am an amateur gardener who can no longer sit on the ground and plant flowers, but continue to enjoy those I planted here during the nearly 43 years we have lived in our home.

  2. How wonderful to see a new blog post! You can probably guess that my favorites are the two Platantheras, but I’d sure love to see that Asplenium some day too (and well, all of them honestly)!

  3. Loved this compilation of species and glad you are back to writing here some!

  4. Well, I'm still here (although only about a year late!). I was looking into Asclepias, and google search took me to your blog. Wish I could figure out for sure how to get notified when you post new (not just addition of comments to this post, but I'm techno-limited :-( ). Hope your life is good (although probably too busy)!...