In the words of Lynyrd Skynyrd:
Sweet Home Alabama
Where the skies are so blue
Sweet Home Alabama
Lord I’m comin’ home to you…
Although I am from South Carolina, these are appropriate words for a state that is 3rd in endemic species and rare plants. At least that’s what I read on the Internet. And if it’s on the Internet, it’s true, right? This weekend trip took me farther afield that I’m used to traveling and into areas that are underlain with sandstone and limestone, lending to a much different habitat/environment than I normally see in the foothills and mountains of the Carolinas. It’s always exciting for me to see these different environments, because I will inevitably see wildflower species that are new to me.
Recently, Alan Cressler, my good photographer buddy from Atlanta, Georgia and another good friend, Noah Yawn from Birmingham, Alabama decided they would let me tag along on a trip to three counties in northeastern Alabama to see some very rare plants. The target species was a newly described Wild Ginger/Heartleaf called Hexastylis finzelii or Finzel’s Wild Ginger. Several years ago a small population was found near Lake Guntersville in Marshall County, Alabama. Then Alan found a much larger population a few miles away also in Marshall County. As far as is known, these are the only populations of this rare plant. Here is an image of this strange wildflower:
It has more than a superficial resemblance to another rare Wild Ginger, Hexastylis speciosa or Harper’s Heartleaf. If I were to be asked, my guess would be that it is an ancient cross between H. speciosa and H. arifolia or Little Brown Jugs. Here are example images of both of those, below:
This new species is not as showy as H. speciosa, but it is much showier than H. arifolia. Actually, almost anything is showier than H. arifolia, a rather homely little flowering plant. But, all three species have the characteristic, elongated, heart-shaped leaf, which makes for difficult identification until the leaf litter is brushed away from the base of the plant where the flowers appear.
These were not the first wildflowers we had seen and photographed on this trip, but because this was the target species, I thought I’d cover these first.
We arrived at the non-descript site, parked our vehicles, gathered our camera gear, and entered the woods. By this time, a new field-tripper had joined the group — Jonathan Jones, a friend of both Alan and Noah. All three of them are interested in other aspects of nature besides plants, so when they eventually started talking about caving and Indian art and artifacts, I just concentrated on my wildflower photography. I figured I’d probably pick up some useful information by just listening.
The habitat for Finzel’s Wild Ginger is open woods peppered with limestone boulders. I didn’t know about its particular affinity for limestone, but the only place we saw it growing was in close association with limestone rocks. I’m deducing that it wants a high pH, but that’s just by my observation. We began to see small plants almost immediately, but those didn’t have flowers or had only one or two flowers at most. We were looking for some plants with a larger number of flowers for photography purposes.
After climbing a gentle slope with outcrops of limestone, we found a few nice-sized plants with four or more flowers. Some of the flowers were more open than others, and not being very familiar with this particular species, I didn’t know if we were just a bit early for them or if there was variability in the morphology of the flower, itself. Here are some shots of these interesting plants:
We even found one group with 13 flowers!!!
I have to credit Jonathan for finding this one. Although he’s just getting into studying Alabama’s rare wildflowers, he has a good eye for locating them in the woods.
Now, I’ll take you back a full day to where Alan and I made our first stop in Cherokee County, Alabama, just across the border with Georgia. I had seen images of a rather rare plant known as Clematis socialis or Alabama Leatherflower. It is native just to Alabama and Georgia, where it is known from only five populations. The species is seriously threatened by habitat destruction. Where we saw it was along a power line right-of-way, and I fear that it will eventually be sprayed into obliteration along with many of the other roadside wildflowers we saw at this site. We arrived and pulled off onto an old driveway leading to an abandoned farm. I really did not know what to expect except that Alan said the plants were growing along the roadside.
We gathered our gear and proceeded to walk under the power lines. In short order, we saw a small patch of the plants, but only one or two flowers were present. This was not looking especially good, since I had expected to see lots of flowers. We walked a bit farther, and came across another patch of plants. Here, there were numerous open flowers, and this is what we had come to see. It is unusual for me to see Clematis vining along the ground. What I normally see is a plant produce a long, rambling vine, stretching up and grabbing on to any taller plant that is nearby. But these were entirely on the ground, and the flowers were raised only 1 foot (~30 dm) above ground. The long, thin leaves resembled a grass of sorts, and were thick in each of the large patches we found. Here are some shots of this Clematis socialis species:
Most of the flowers were of a powder blue color on the outside with a dark purple/maroon color on the inside of the petals. The flower petals are fused almost all the way to the apex of the petal. The flower, itself, is rather firm and leathery — thus the name, Leatherflower. Btw, almost all of the grass-like leave you see in these images belong to this plant. Here are some additional images:
Try as I might, I had a difficult time getting a decent image of the overall feel of these patches of wildflowers. Here is the best I could achieve:
Near where we parked, there were other wildflower species. One of these was a lovely, pinkish-purple wildflower known as Oxalis olivacea or Violet Wood Sorrel. Although it’s not a particularly rare species, I had never had the opportunity to photograph it:
Sometimes, plants are considered rare because they are disjunct from their normal population centers. The species in question here is Schoenolirion wrightii or Texas Sunnybells. Most of the Sunnybells that I’m familiar with have bright yellow flowers, but for Texas Sunnybells, the flower petals are white.
We found 3 or 4 plants just going past bloom. This was also a new species for me to photograph. And, seeing that it was an S1 classified species made it all the more special. S1 – Typically 5 or fewer occurrences, very few remaining individuals making it especially vulnerable in the state.
Later, Alan would spot a large population of them along the roadside:
The last species we photographed at this site was Polygala nana or Candyroot. The root has a sweet liquorice flavor when it is chewed, but it is usually hidden underground until the plant flowers. I had seen it several years ago in the Panhandle of Florida, but I had not seen it since. So, it was good to be able to photograph it once again in perfect bloom:
Just down the road from the large patch of Texas Sunnybells, was a large drift of Marshallia obovata or Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons. It’s pom-pom shaped, creamy-white flowers, stuck out like little flares along the roadside. They were hard to miss, especially in such large numbers:
There is Alan in the distance photographing these Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons:
One site Alan wanted to show me was also in Cherokee County. It was a little-known bog site that is the home of a rare Pitcher Plant. The species is Sarracenia oreophila or Green Pitcher Plant. These Pitcher Plant bog sites are so rare that I’m probably not even sure it’s OK to tell you that it is in Cherokee County. But I guess I just did… Rare and fragile. The Nature Conservancy has taken over the site and is maintaining it by trimming the woody shrubs and small trees that continually sprout, shading out these very rare Pitcher Plants. Here are some images taken that show the clumping nature of these plants. Fortunately, they were in full bloom:
From there, we travelled to a spot very near Lake Guntersville. We pulled off along the shoulder of the road where we saw a large group of Polymnia canadensis or Whiteflower Leaf-cup. I think it may have been renamed as Polymnia radiata, but I’m not sure. In any case, it’s a strikingly beautiful plant with beautiful foliage. The flowers are white and daisy-like with white ray-petals and true yellow flowers in the center disk. As I recall, the stem and leaves are quite glandular and rather sticky to the touch. Here are some images:
Another attraction to this spot is the appearance Delphinium alabamicum or Alabama Larkspur that grows in the fairly deep shade of the woods. The flowers are borne on a tall, thin stem, and are a bright, electric blue. This color is almost unmatched in nature:
Here is an image of the foliage:
They were just coming into bloom, and there were hundreds of plants that were still in tight bud. I can only imagine what it will look like when they are all in full bloom!
As we were about to leave the site, Noah looked down and spotted a beautiful specimen of Matelea carolinensis or Carolina Milkvine. It is a close relative of the Milkweeds, (it’s in the Dogbane family) and we do have this species in the Carolinas. Like the Milkweeds, it produces a milky sap. I’m always happy to see this one because it is so photogenic:
I’m not very familiar with the ferns, but I know one when I see one. Alan pointed out this one which was growing out of the crack in a large boulder. It is Myriopteris alabamensis or Alabama Lip Fern. I thought it was quite handsome:
We had one more site to visit before I had to head back on my 5.5-hour drive home. This next site was in adjoining Jackson County. It contained the rare endemic, Penstemon kralii or Kral’s Beardtongue. I’ve seen plenty of Beardtongue species in my time, but this one has to have the smallest flowers of them all. This is another S1 classified species, and is found in only 4 counties in Alabama.
When we pulled off on the side of the road, I was wondering where we were headed, because most Beardtongue species I’ve see love full sunlight. Alan gathered his camera gear and headed off into the deep woods. Well, soon, we were in a spot that had a bit of dappled sunlight and was on a seep in the hillside. Here, there were 3 or 4 plants that, upon close inspection were indeed Beardtongue — with tiny Beardtongue flowers:
Whew! What a couple of days of botanizing. I was finally heading back home and was filled with thoughts of what we had seen these past two days. Even the abominable traffic through Atlanta didn’t manage to dull the experience. Now that I’m sharing these moments with you, I am again reliving the adventure. Part of why I record these experiences is so that I will have a reference point to return to when the dark days of winter are upon us. The larger part is to share these experiences with all of you. That is the fulfilling part of it. I guess I might have made an OK teacher because of my love of sharing knowledge, but I suppose I’ll never know.
I will share a site with you where there is a huge sandstone monolith sticking right out of the ground in Marshall County, Alabama.. How it got there or, moreover, how it got there and became upright is up for heated debate. Alan has photographed it before, and on the side about chest high, is a carved cartouche or plaque, of sorts. It’s about 12 inches (30 cm) square, and it appears to contain what some call Cherokee syllabary. Using oblique lighting, one can barely make out two rows of letters — strange for our writing style, but they seem to fit into the syllabary style. I was unable to photograph it properly, but Alan is the master of Native American art photography, and he has several images on his Flickr site which represent the Cherokee syllabary. HERE is one of those images.
The monolith is, like I said, huge. I estimate it to be more than 20 feet (6 meters) tall and about 15 feet (4.6 meters) wide. It is quite a relatively thin slab of sandstone for its height. Here are a couple of images with Jonathan standing there for scale:
Makes you wonder what else is out there…
Thanks to Noah, here is the final image of the day. Left to right: Jonathan, Alan, Noah, and Jim:
My next “planned” adventure is happening next weekend along the Carolina Coastal Plain.
In addition to being a great photographer, and a terrific wildflower sleuth, you write very well.
The Pitcher Plants are gorgeous and I love how informative it is. 🥰
This was quite a treat, from the story to the incredible mix of rare and exquisite plants, photographed so, so beautifully! I can’t believe you even got to visit a Green Pitcher site. Wow! That Alabama Larkspur blue is really something!
Thank you, Jim!
“Alabama Has it All” says the tourism promotion! It does, indeed, have an amazing variety of native plants—from its mountains/hills in the northern region—to its middle plains—to its Gulf Coast.
This is one of the most remarkable trips and accounts and pictures I’ve seen in a long time. Thank you so much for sharing!
Your blog is such a treat.
Looks like a great trip, Jim! Thanks for sharing some beautiful photographs.
Loved the trip ~ appreciate, as always, your “taking me along”!
This is so exciting to see one of your posts and pictures from my native NE Alabama (I am currently in SC/NC)! Your posts gives me a source of what to look for when visiting family in the area. In fact, we were just at Little River Canyon and some cave areas near Jackson/Marshall county on May 3rd. I wish I had taken a closer look at the wild ginger that we passed because the ones you posted are so different. We found a trillium and I was wondering if it was a sort of a hybrid you had talked about in other posts. Thank you for continuing to travel and post your beautiful photos.
What an amazing set of fine photos of magnificent wild flowers. So glad to tag along as armchair botanist and wonder if I’ll get to see some of these beauties in the wild on some future trip to the Carolinas.