The search for a new plant variety discovered in upstate South Carolina — 2021-03-12

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Now, back to our previously scheduled programming…

This past week, I (and a few other interested parties) made two trips up the mountain at The Nature Conservancy’s Nine Time Preserve in Pickens County, South Carolina. It was a very strenuous hike for me, but it was worth it being able to photograph a new-to-science variety of a plant species which is found farther north in the higher reaches of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. So far, this new plant species variety is endemic to this single mountain. This plant variety has been known about for around a decade or so, but it was only recently described by the authors: Laary Cushman, Vincent P. Richards, and Patrick D. McMillan — all of nearby Clemson University. The species variety was named after Dr. Harry E. Shealy, Jr., Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of South Carolina in Aiken.

Here are a couple of images of the plant in flower:

Shealy's Saxifrage
Shealy’s Saxifrage

Shealy's Saxifrage
Shealy’s Saxifrage

Disclaimer: Although I will be citing snippets from the descriptive article, I’ll also be intermixing my own personal observations after having been at the site. And, I will disclaim any “wise-itude” on my part about knowing more than I actually do. I am not an academic nor am I a professional botanist, and neither do I play one on TV. I just report what I see and hope I’m describing it correctly. If I have erred, please respond accordingly. However, you currently cannot do so via the comments section, for it is currently non-functional. Sigh…

Now, hopefully we are back on track.

According to the article describing the new variety, Micranthes petiolaris var. shealyi or Shealy’s Saxifrage (which I will call “SS”), there are a few differences which make it rather easy to discern it from the much more common, typical variety, Micranthes petiolaris var. petiolaris or Michaux’s Saxifrage (which I will call “MS”). If these two images, above, appear to you to represent two entirely different species, here is one reason why. Although the paper states that this new variety is a “facultative” (capable of but not restricted to a particular function or mode of life) annual, there are some plants whose habitat is protected by the low-hanging limbs of Juniperus virginiana or Eastern Red Cedar which grow on the mountain at the edges of the granite/gneiss bald where the new plants thrive. This protection of these plants provides a way to allow the plants to be perennials rather than annuals. There are very few of the perennial plants, and they generally inhabit an area just at the upper edges of the bald where it is shaded and wet.

The much more numerous annual version of the plant can be found in large numbers on the mats of moss which grows out in the open in the wet seepage areas of the bald. Here is an image of one of the typical wet areas on the bald:

Wet, seepage on the gneiss bald toward the top of the mountain.

Notice the mats of moss and loose debris which accumulate on the rock face. Here is an image of SS plants which have sprouted over the past month or so, and which will produce flowers in the coming weeks:

Newly sprouted plants on a wet mat of moss

These plants are currently no more than an inch (2.5 mm) across.

During the summer, the amount of seepage will lessen considerably, and the temperature will rise significantly, causing most of the green plants on the bald to wither and die back. Thus, the annual nature of the SS variety. All but the most shaded plants will die back from the area of the bald. Here are a few additional shots of the plants growing in wet moss on the bald:

Micranthes petiolaris var. shealyi Micranthes petiolaris var. shealyi
Micranthes petiolaris var. shealyi Micranthes petiolaris var. shealyi

Micranthes petiolaris var. shealyi on a wet mat of moss

Micranthes petiolaris var. shealyi on a wet mat of moss

The next significant difference between SS and MS, is the time of year when they bloom. MS, a more northerly mountain denizen, comes into bloom in late May to early June — several weeks after SS comes into bloom. In fact, their respective bloom times are mostly non-overlapping, with SS blooming from February until early May. According to the article, “This separation makes sharing of genetic material through hybridization of the two taxa difficult, if not impossible, placing each lineage on its own separate evolutionary trajectory.”

The last significant difference is perhaps the most observable — morphology or shape of the flowers. Here is a side-by-side comparison of the two varieties:

Side-by-side comparison of the two varieties

Note that the petals on MS have a hooked or at least flattened base on the topmost 3 petals. In addition, the petals are more pointed and only the topmost 3 petals have the signature yellow spots toward the base of each petal. The paper states that petal arrangement of SS is actinomorphic or radially symmetrical while the petal arrangement of MS is zygomorphic or having a single plane of symmetry. For SS, the new variety, all 5 petals are rounded at the base, and all 5 petals have the signature yellow spots. This signature yellow spotting is not 100% true, because I have seen 3, 4, and 5 petals with spots on them appearing on the same plant. Go figure… I’ve even seen SS plants which have produced 6- and 7-petaled flowers. It’s as if the new variety is an example of evolution in the making…

As I mentioned earlier, the typical Micranthes petiolaris generally ranges farther north. Here is a county map of the United States showing the range of Micranthes petiolaris. Is has been generated by BONAP, which is The Biota of North America Program of North American Vascular Flora. On this particular map, I have taken the liberty to color Pickens County, South Carolina red rather than lime green to point out its location with respect to the other counties (lime green) where the typical variety of Micranthes petiolaris is found. The yellow county color represents where the species is present but rare.

BONAP map of Micranthes petiolaris

The remainder of the SS images are those which I thought were interesting in some manner:

Micranthes petiolaris var. shealyi

Micranthes petiolaris var. shealyi

Micranthes petiolaris var. shealyi

On the way back down the mountain on my first trip, I located a dinner-plate sized colony of one of my favorite early-Spring wildflowers — Monotropsis odorata or Pygmypipes aka Sweet Pine-sap. Being worn out from the climb and the hours spent sliding around on wet, bare rock, I was bushed, but definitely not too tired to appreciate another one of nature’s beauties. Although it is not what I’d call plentiful, it can still be found fairly easily — by nose. Often while walking along a trail in the woods in the Southern Appalachians, one will suddenly notice a sweet/spicy fragrance like crushed cloves. This is a sure sign that Sweet Pine-sap is close by. These 2-inch tall (5 cm) plants are very difficult to find visually because of the dried sheath that covers each of the flowers, but once the fragrance hits you, you’d do well to get down on your hands and knees and search the immediate area for signs of the plants, probably under the cover of some leaf litter. The ones I found were just next to the trail and easy to locate. Here are some images of what I saw:

Sweet Pine-sap

Sweet Pine-sap

Sweet Pine-sap

I really, really like the “grape juice” colored ones the most, and I was able to find a couple almost hidden among the pink ones:

Sweet Pine-sap Sweet Pine-sap

What an exceptional day(s) journey! The trip up the mountain was grueling but mentally refreshing. There is so much good stuff (botanically) to see nearby. I’m never disappointed with any hike I take in the surrounding 100-mile (60-km) radius. Sometimes I think I’m covering the same-old-stuff I’ve written about the past 8 years, but I hope I am mixing it up with a bit of a new approach from time to time. As you probably already know, this is one of the busiest times of year for any naturalist in the Southeast. If the Big Guy is willing and the creek don’t rise (too high), perhaps I’ll be able to bring you some other “new” stuff to consider…

Until then,

–Jim

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