Southwestern Missouri Sandstone Scrambling!

Recently, I got back from a trip to southwestern Missouri- an area with a ton of unusual, rare, tiny plants found on exposed sandstone barrens and glades. These go mostly ignored by visitors to this region, who usually go for bass, boating and Branson. As a botanist who absolutely loves the miniature, however, I was thoroughly enthralled.

Power Line Cut glade
Where I go on vacation

Obviously the above looks like a boring field to the average person, albeit with some exposed rock. The majority of the brown grass above is Little Bluestem, which is at least native but pretty abundant throughout the Eastern US. The dead, dull appearance hides a complex little living world.

Phemeranthus sp. in center (thickest leaves)

The thin layer of soil restricts access to water for most plants, and most of that water falls as spring rains. As a result, most glade-dwelling flora either store water (like the Phemeranthus species above) or bloom early on the in spring and die back by summer’s heat. This second category goes by the name spring ephemeral.

Corydalis aurea
Corydalis aurea being held for size comparison

The most obvious of the ephemerals here is the bright yellow Corydalis aurea, or Golden Smoke. Despite being less than a foot tall, this species still only grows on the deeper pockets of soil within the sandstone glade.

false garlic
False Garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve)

The same goes for False Garlic, an ever-present sight across the landscape of southwestern Missouri, it seems. Any sunny, well-drained habitat seems to be fine for this species, which uses sandstone glades just as readily as it uses limestone ones, and just as much as it uses nearby prairies and unmowed fields.

Geocarpon (Mononeuria minima)

The shallowest areas here, however, support only a few plants, many of them specialists. Of those, the most rare is Geocarpon. This bizarre little plant only grows where a thin layer of soil, usually just the remains of a cyanobacteria colony, has developed on the bare sandstone exposed in patches. The sandstone present must be high in salts or magnesium, as this stunts the growth of competition and seems to be required for Geocarpon to thrive. This dime sized plant sprouts, blooms, and dies in a month, so it takes good timing to catch. I caught it at the end of its season- it’ll be virtually impossible to find even the dead stems by the end of May. Geocarpon’s specificity of habitat makes it rare, and it is federally listed as threatened for that very reason.

Plantago elongata
Plantago elongata? in the foreground

Few other plants grew around Geocarpon, the major exception being a strange little plantain with extremely narrow leaves. This species is either Plantago elongata or Plantago pusilla, depending on who you ask. I lean elongata for this particular population. Note the tip of my index finger in the above photo for a good idea of how tiny these are.

Collinsia on glade
Edge of a sandstone glade

Around the edges of the habitat, Eastern Redcedars take over any deeper patches that are undisturbed. In a more natural setting, or at least for the last few thousand years, fires regularly burned away the redcedars and some of the dirt, leaving the bedrock exposed. In lieu of fire, the power line company does a good job, since they remove the junipers to prevent them interfering with power lines. Still, outside the cut, the trees grow back in, and some other partial-shade loving plants come in as well. One of those is Violet Collinsia, seen above en masse and below by itself.

Collinsia violacea
Collinsia violacea

This region supports a number of barrens species of the Western Ozarks/Southern Great Plains whose ranges all seem to center around Fort Smith, Arkansas, roughly. Collinsia violacea is slightly more widespread than that but follows a similar distribution. I’ve found it once before, on the sand prairies south of Cape Girardeau in the Missouri bootheel.

Blackjack Oak
Blackjack Oak (Quercus marilandica), a common tree found around the edges of glades

I moved on to a second, fire-maintained glade a short drive away from the first one. This second one lacks Geocarpon but it does have a number of other unusual plants and preserves a better habitat matrix. I’m not sure that there’s a good definition separating glade and barren- personally I use the term glade to describe a shallow-rock habitat with less than 10% tree cover, while I call such habitats with 20% or more tree cover barrens. However, their use is interchangable and both refer to the shallow, open habitats where bedrock approaches the surface.

Glade overview

The second site supported a number of shallow drainages and sandstone pools. These pools are only full of water during the spring rains and are thus known as vernal pools.

Sandstone pool

The wet moss patches near the sandstone pools supported a large population of Golden Selenia, an uncommon ephemeral mustard and one of the brightest plants flowering here.

Selenia aurea
Golden Selenia (Selenia aurea)

Some had even gone to seed, showing off the typical mustard family siliques, though none were ripe. By midsummer these plants will be gone as the habitat dries, so large, pollinator-friendly flowers are a necessity to ensure their continued survival. Based on the bees I saw there, they’re doing pretty well.

selenia seedpods
Selenia aurea siliques

I followed the stream further down, coming to a deeper vernal pool with shallow, silted over edges. Here a number of tadpoles and mayfly larvae resided. Like the surrounding plants, these species take advantage of the spring rains to use the vernal pools before they dry up. Heck, even in the pools a few species of plants occured.

Second Glade
The tadpoles frolicked around a grasslike plant with dark swollen bases- a unique fern, Blackfoot Quillwort. Quillworts develop their spores in the bases of their leaves. These spores, once fully mature, are released into the surrounding water, and can be carried from one pool to another by wandering animals like the frogs. The plain appearance does make it hard to ID quillworts, but thankfully in southwestern Missouri there’s only two and Blackfoot Quillwort is the only one of the two to use acidic sandstone glades like this one. In regions with more quillwort diversity, microscopic examination of spores is necessary for identification.
Isoetes melanopoda
Blackfoot Quillwort (Isoetes melanopoda) and tadpoles

Not all species rely solely on spring rains. Sedum nuttallii grows in crevices and cracks throughout the sandstone glade here, and its succulent leaves store water for dry periods. However, this species is also ephemeral, though it flowers a bit later in the year when more pollinators are active.

Sedum nuttallii
Nuttall’s Stonecrop (Sedum nutallii)

While this time of year is dominated by annual, ephemeral flowers, there’s still quite a few perennials. The small, needlelike leaves of Selaginella rupestris reduce water loss, and the plant can go dormant between rains, but it survives as a mat of stems year-round on this habitat.

Rock Spikemoss (Selaginella rupestris)

In slightly shaded areas around the edges, more perennial plants can compete, and species like this Blue Ridge Blueberry grow- perennials with a high degree of tolerance for drought, but which require slightly less extreme conditions than a thin veneer of soil over bare rock.

Vaccinium at Stockton
Blue Ridge Blueberry (Vaccinium pallidium) with Stockton Lake in the background

About this time, the spring rains decided to return, and I left the land of miniatures to go enjoy my nice dry car. Glades are fun, but I’m no Selaginella, and I can’t just go dormant when conditions shift, so I shifted my conditions back to my room for the night.

At some point I’ll cover the limestone glades, especially the dolomite ones with which I’m much more familiar, having spent a fair bit of time on them when I was actively not on this blog. In the meantime, go check out your local glades or barrens- there’s a lot more going on than you expect!

Doves, Deadwood, and Dozens of Redbacks! – Vermilion County IL

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine (Colin Dobson, of ) expressed interest in looking for salamanders. The warming temperatures of early March and a rain a few days before made it possible that we’d get a few, though it was early days yet. Colin typically finds most of the rare birds in my area, so it’d be nice to be the “expert” this time. I took Trevor along with me, and part of the drive over, in Stonington Illinois, he had to stop for the bathroom at a Casey’s. Stonington, IL, is deep in the Great Corn Desert, as I call it. The grain elevators there provide tons of sustenance for doves, and draws in good numbers of Rock Pigeons, Mourning Doves, and Eurasian Collared Doves. The latter I’d yet to photograph in 2021, so I got out of the car and spotted a dove.

It was not a Eurasian Collared Dove…

Stonington WWDO
White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica)

WHITE-WINGED DOVE!!! This Southwestern species has been expanding its range northwards and eastwards, but to find one randomly in a hackberry above a Casey’s in central Illinois is a wee bit unexpected, to say the least. This really jump-started an excellent day.

skunk cabbage
Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)

A couple hours further east, we all arrived at the site, where I found the “first” flower of spring, a Skunk Cabbage. They smell terrible and are fly/beetle pollinated.

Soil centipede (Strigamia sp.)

I started looking under logs and found this tiny little soil centipede. These hunt small underground insects and wander through tunnels in the soil, like little multilegged worms.

Four-toed Sal
Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum)

A few logs later the state-threatened Four-toed Salamander appeared. These little guys are rare due to habitat loss as they require moss-covered logs in temporary wetlands surrounded by high-quality deciduous forest. This one wasn’t breeding, and I don’t touch the breeding habitat because the mats of mosses Four-toed need for breeding are especially sensitive. Four-Toed lay their eggs under moss in summertime, and if the moss isn’t thick or wet enough it won’t keep the eggs consistently moist. Thus, Four-toed are fairly sensitive to disturbance.

Jumping Bristletail
Jumping Bristletail (Pededontus saltator?)

A strange insect appeared nearby- a Jumping Bristletail of some sort. I’m guessing Pededontus saltator based on bugguide, but these unusual detritivorus insects are not exactly easy to find information about online.

Northern Zigzag Salamander?
Northern Zigzag Salamander (Plethodon dorsalis)

Under another piece of wood was a cousin of the Red-backed Salamander, the Northern Zigzag, distinguishable by the wavy-margined back stripe extending all the way down the tail.

Lined earwig and Leadback
Lead Phase Eastern Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) and Lined Earwig (Doru taeniatum)

We turned upslope to avoid walking across a sensitive seepage habitat, and sharing the space under a log on the hillside were a lead-backed Red-backed Salamander and the uncommon Lined Earwig, a more southern species rarely found in Illinois. Most earwigs in the Midwest are European Earwigs, an introduced species common in gardens.

Lebia analis
Lebia analis

The “weird bug” number increased as we ventured upslope, with Lebia analis, a ground beetle, hanging out under a few leaves. The species name often gets a couple of chuckles.

Deadwood Borer Caterpillar
Deadwood Borer (Scolecocampa liburna)

One log we found had a Deadwood Borer caterpillar in it- this caterpillar feeds on rotting wood and acts both as a beneficial decomposer and a great source of food for woodpeckers.

Spotted Salamander
Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)

At the top of the slope, we found our largest salamander yet- Spotted Salamander! These were likely moving downslope to breed in the nearby pools- by the time of this posting, they’ve probably gone and done so a month back.

Wood Frog
Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus)

Simultaneously, my other friend with me found this Wood Frog, which we put into a small plastic box I use to hold specimens. Wood Frogs are uncommon in Illinois, typically only found in the more intact regions of the state ecology-wise. They’re one of the first frogs to breed in the state, and a personal favorite with their little masks and golden eyes.

Silvery Salamander (Ambystoma laterale x jeffersonium)

The rarest species of the day came seconds later, as we found a Silvery Salamander… these are technically not a species. Parthenogenic (self-cloning) salamanders of a hybrid lineage combining Jefferson’s and Blue-spotted Salamanders, Silvery Salamanders were formerly known as Ambystoma platineum but are now considered just hybrids. They only occur within a tiny strip of intact forest on the eastern edge of Illinois, becoming much more common to the East where their two parent species overlap. Ironically neither parent species occurs at this site, and several years of studies have backed this up. Much of the research on these Unisexual hybrids has occurred at this site.

After spotting a Dekay’s Brown Snake, we left this first snake of the year and returned to the cars.

Dekay's Brownsnake
Dekay’s Brown Snale (Storeria dekayi)

On my way out, I flipped over one last rock and uncovered SIX Red-backed Salamanders under the one rock. This species is not communal, so finding that many under one rock is unusual! Furthermore, the individuals here are a mix of lead and red-backed forms. I carefully replaced the rock and moved on, having had a delightful day.

Six Redbacks!
Eastern Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus)

Unfortunately, I’m going to have to end this blogpost on a downer. This spot has become known to some rather unscrupulous herpers who didn’t put cover objects back and whom somehow ended up crushing Four-toed and Silvery Salamanders, resulting in the deaths of several individuals of those species as well as Red-backed Salamanders. In turn, this has pissed off biologists who used nearby vernal ponds as a study site, and state researchers who had these rare species listed for a reason. This sort of thing gives amateurs like me and some of my friends a bad reputation, which I actively try to avoid. As a result of this, I heavily encourage readers of this blog to wait a considerable amount of time before revisiting this habitat, to allow for it to recover. I certainly do not plan to return at any point in the next year, as much as I’d love to go back and inspect some of the plants.

Shale Barren Shenanigans

The central Appalachians contain a very unique ecosystem- the shale barrens. Here, in the rain shadow of the Appalachian mountains, dryer conditions combined with steep, shallow, extremely rocky soils create desertlike conditions on certain slopes- the shale barrens.

Shale Barrens midslope
Midslope of a Shale Barren

This bizarre ecosystem contains a ridiculously high number of endemic species, including at least eight plant species and a butterfly (Grizzled Skipper) only found in and around Central Appalachian shale barrens. One of the stranger ones, and one that’s been on my bucket list for years, is Eriogonum allenii, the Shale Barrens Buckwheat. The vast majority of Eriogonums are native to the Southwestern United States, but this one occurs quite off by itself along the Virginia-West Virginia border.

Eriogonum allenii
Shale Barrens Buckwheat (Eriogonum allenii)

The large, hairy leaves stand out on the sparse rocky slopes, as do the chartreuse flowers.

Eriogonum allenii leaves
Basal leaves of Eriogonum allenii

Eriogonum allenii is something of a mystery to botanists, being so far northeast of this genus’ typical range in the mountains and deserts of the Southwest. It is assumed that an ancestral Eriogonum somehow ended up here before conditions became wetter, but honestly who knows. For some reason, it was picked up by garden centers for a year, and I saw my first ones surviving happily in a pot at the garden center I used to work at. Ever since, I’ve wanted to find the species in its natural habitat.

Shale Barrens top
View from the top of a shale barren

Having climbed to the top of the hill and seen Eriogonum allenii, I figured I’d look around for some of the other local oddities after I admired the view.

Lespedeza violacea
Violet Bush Clover (Lespedeza violacea)

Lespedeza violacea was an old friend at this point, having shown up in that summer’s survey work many times. Still, it was nice to see something in flower besides the Eriogonums.

Antennaria virginica
Shale Barrens Pussytoes (Antennaria virginica)

Many of the plants on the barrens grew low to the ground, forming moisture-holding rosettes and covering their leaves in dense hairs for added protection. Such was the case with what I presume to be Antennaria virginica, the Shale Barren Pussytoes, another endemic and fairly common here. This plant is named for its “cat’s paw” like flower clusters.

Draba racemossisima
Rocktwist (Draba ramosissima)

Another little hairy rosette is Rocktwist (Draba ramosissima), a spring-blooming mustard family member restricted mostly to calcerous cliffs in the central and southern Appalacians and foothills. Most barrens plants are spring-blooming, taking advantage of the more consistent moisture at that time.

Allium oxyphilum
Lilydale Onion (Allium oxyphilum)

However, not all plants bloom in the spring here, and one of the more confusing ones had an individual left in full bloom. Lilydale Onion was for years considered a member of the Nodding Onion species (Allium cernuum) but of late taxonomists have agreed that for various morphological and genetic reasons it is in fact its own, extremely rare species. One of the notable features of Allium oxyphilum is its tendency to bloom a month later than Allium cernuum (August to early September, as this one was doing), as well as its preferred habitat of shale barrens. Allium oxyphilum is quite rare, and little studied since the recent split. It seems to be only found along the Virginia/West Virginia border in shale barrens.

Paronychia montana
Mountain Nailwort (Paronychia montana)

I have an excessive fondness for tiny and rare flowers. Paronychia montana fits the bill. It’s virtually invisible to a non-botanist, and its tiny green flowers are hard even for a botanist to see right away. Yet again, this plant loves Central Appalachian shale barrens and is rare away from them, though not impossible to find in other dry areas nearby.

Sedum Glaucophylum
Sedum glaucophyllum

I was coming downslope, and below an Eastern Redcedar found a healthy stand of Sedum glaucophyllum, a Central Appalachian speciality not restricted to shale barrens, but typically found only on dry rocky hillsides. The succulent leaves store up water in this desertlike environment.

Solidago harrisii
Shale Barrens Goldenrod (Solidago harrisii or Solidago arguta var harrisii)

Another taxonomic controversy of the shale barrens is Solidago harrisii, the cleverly named Shale Barrens Goldenrod. Sensing a pattern? Many taxonomists keep this as a variety of Solidago arguta. I don’t particularly care, but having seen other varieties of Solidago arguta, it definitely strikes me as something unique. A fall bloomer, Solidago harrisii was just starting up in early September, the time of my trip.

Shale Barrens upper slope
Steep slopes of a shale barren

Large gaps between plants began to be the norm as I worked my way gingerly downslope.

Virginia Pine
Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)

Virginia Pine is the dominant tree in these dry areas, where few other trees dare to tread. I noted a bug hiding in the needles and grabbed it.

Tetyra bipunctata
Shieldbacked Pine Seed Bug (Tetrya bipunctata)

This unusual shield bug is a specialist of pine trees and was a new find for me, as well as being one of the few animals willing to brave the hot, dry conditions.

Selaginella rupestris
Rock Spikemoss (Selaginella rupestris)

Most of the way downslope, the barrens gave away to bare bedrock. In crevices Rock Spikemoss, a vascular plant despite its name, grew shriveled up- it uncurls when there is moisture.

Clematis albicoma
White-hared Leatherflower (Clematis albicoma)

A shaded crevice provided refuge for the last of the shale barrens plants I found that day- Clematis albicoma, the White-haired Leatherflower. Clematis may be a familiar garden vine, but across much of the Southeast in dry barrens and glades, nine species of upright, shrubby, bell-flowered clematis eke out a living. Most of these “leatherflowers” are rare and range-restricted. Three of them are limited to western Virginia’s shale glades, and the fourth, C. albicoma, is found only in the shale barrens of West Virginia and Virginia.

Now, like the Clematis, I too desired some shade, and a nearby creek provided excellent shade, as well as two other Central Appalachian dwellers.

Torrent Sucker
Torrent Sucker (Thoburnia rhothoeca)

Torrent Suckers are a species of sucker (in the same order as minnows, goldfish etc.) They are well suited to fast-flowing riffles and rapids along mountain streams, taking up a niche held by some species of darters in other drainages. Like many of the shale barren endemic plants, Torrent Suckers are only found in Virginia and West Virginia.

Blue Ridge Sculpin
Blue Ridge Sculpin (Cottus caeruleomentum)

Finally, a Blue Ridge Sculpin, found only in a few Atlantic river drainages, hid on the bottom of the river. Like the suckers, they too stay low to the ground, sticking out between rocks to avoid being washed away in the fast currents of mountain streams. The dip in the stream was refreshing after the hot hike on the shale barren. I sadly had to drag myself away from the delightful area, and back towards home, for I had “miles and miles to go before I sleep”.

Shenandoah Sinkholes!

Last summer, I visited the Shenandoah Valley sinkholes, one of the stranger ecosystems present in Virginia. The rocks here started the weirdness- calcerous limestone overlayed by acidic sedimentary substrate result in solution holes with acid-loving flora, often more typical of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, around the edges. Typically sinkholes/solution holes are neutral to basic in pH thanks to their limestone bedrock. The acidic substrate above, however, makes for completely different flora in this small region. Each sinkhole contains a different mix of flora, too, varying in species composition wildly.

tiny sinkhole
Smallest sinkhole I found- this one had very little flora

I arrived at the site after dark, having found no satisfactory campsites. As a result, I camped in the parking lot. This may not be strictly legal, but I was unable to find regulations suggesting I couldn’t practice dispersed camping in this section of a national forest and I figured camping in the parking lot was safer for the more sensitive flora. It began to rain gently as I finished setting my tent, and I noticed a brilliant orange critter crossing the road- a Red-spotted Newt!

Red Spotted Newt/Cricket
Red-spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) with a cricket companion

Intrigued by the fact that newts were out and about, I ventured down the road, and was rewarded with approximately 20 or so more newts out and about. One longer-tailed individual proved to be a new species for me in Virginia, the Long-tailed Salamander, much more familiar to me from southern Illinois herping. The Shenandoah Valley is on the eastern edge of this species’ range and I’d rarely seen these out and about even back in southern Illinois.

Long-tailed Salamander on road
Long-tailed Salamander (Eurycea longicauda)

A few more salamanders further, I found a White-spotted Slimy Salamander, a member of the complex of identical-looking Slimy Salamanders found across Eastern North America. Slimy Salamanders are better thought of as sticky salamanders. When handled, as a defensive mechanism they produce a glue-like substance from glands in their skin. I’ve had an easier time getting superglue off my hands. As handling salamanders is generally bad for their health as well, I recommend letting slimy salamanders be.

White-spotted Slimy on road
White-spotted Slimy Salamander (Plethodon cylindraceus)

A slender shape on the road suprised me- an Eastern Worm Snake! A secretive burrower, worm snakes are most often found by flipping over rocks, logs, or trash. I’ve had particularly good luck with this species under old carpeting. These adorable little derpy snakes have never bit me- their teeth likely couldn’t break skin if they tried. I let it go to the side of the road, post photos, and retired to bed satisfied.

Wormsnake in Hand (east)
Eastern Worm Snake (Carpophis vermis)

In the morning, I wandered over to the first of several sinkholes- one dammed in years past by humans. This one had a more constant water level and thus developed permanent aquatic vegetation. Unaltered sinkholes vary wildly in water levels, another factor in the strange vegetation of this region.

dammed sinkhole
Dammed Sinkhole

The dammed sinkhole did have a few weird plants despite its alterations, the most interesting of which is carnivorous. Utricularia radiata is known only from the Atlantic Coastal Plain in Virginia, and then from these sinkhole ponds. It’s a bizarre outlying population, and sets the stage for many of the other plants found here. This bladderwort, like others of its genus, uses specialized vacuum traps to gather zooplankton from the water, kill them, and use the nitrogen in their bodies for further growth.

Utricularia radiata
Utricularia radiata

Unlike many of the more common bladderworts, this species has inflated bases, allowing it to float on the surface of the water. Others are semi-terrestrial, rooting into permanently wet soil, or simply live in water without inflated bases.

Utricularia radiata out of water
Close up of Utricularia radiata

My next plant discovery was almost equally bizarre, if far more common in Virginia. Pinesap is a plant with no chorophyll, and thus no means of making its own food as in more typical plants. Instead, Pinesaps connect to an underground superhighway of nutrients- the mycorrhizal network.

Pinesap (Monotropa hypopitys)

Throughout the soil, fungi and plant roots intermingle and fuse together, exchanging nutrients each organism requires to survive. Pinesap and other myco-heterotrophic species tap into this network and steal nutrients without providing any contribution in return. Pinesap populations indicate a healthy mycorrhizal network that can tolerate such thievery, and thus such parasites are a sign of high-quality habitat.

Allegheny Chinkquapin
Allegheny Chinkapin (Castanea pumila)

One of the nearby trees likely unwittingly providing to the Pinesaps is Allegheny Chinkquapin, seen in fruit. Closely related to the nearly-extinct American Chestnut, Chinquapins also suffer from the devastating chestnut blight fungus, just to a lesser extent. Thankfully this species survives in decent numbers, producing large quantities of nuts.

I continued down the path past the Chinquapins, and eventually found a paired set of sinkholes with a narrow isthmus between them. Golden daisies bloomed from midwater- my goal for the day!

Helenium montanum
Twin Sinkhole with Helenium virginicum

Virginia Sneezeweed, Helenium virginicum, is a Federally Threatened plant species found only around seasonally inundated sinkholes in Virginia and Missouri, at sites where acidic soils are underlain by limestone bedrock. Virginia Sneezeweed seeds can only germinate above water, so the water’s rising and falling in accordance with rainfall and groundwater movements causes populations to fluctuate. Few other plants can survive the dramatic inundations of this habitat.

Helenium montanum close
Virginia Sneezeweed (Helenium virginicum)

One of the few other plants found here is exclusive to this habitat in Virginia- Common Pipewort (Eriocaulon aquaticum), a species more typical of southern Canadian wetlands that randomly occurs in these strange sinkhole habitats due to the layers of peat that have accumulated at the edges. There’s only five sites in Virginia where this plant remains, four sinkhole ponds and one Coastal Plains pond on the Delmarva coast. Common Pipewort earns its name in the Northeast, where it occurs around natural wetlands near the Atlantic Coast and in peaty wetlands further inland around the Great Lakes.

Eriocaulon aquaticum
Common Pipewort (Eriocaulon aquaticum)

Suprisingly neither Virginia Sneezeweed nor Common Pipewort are the rarest plant at this site in terms of global population or number of Virginia populations. That honor goes to a plant I’d initially written off as an aster, Boltonia montana. Present only in a handful of sinkhole ponds in Augusta county, Virginia, and limesink ponds in north-central New Jersey, the recently-described Boltonia montana blooms around the edges of these ponds as they dry down each fall.

Boltonia montana
Mountain Doll’s Daisy (Boltonia montana)

The federal government does not list Boltonia montana owing to a lack of noted declines in its eleven individual populations, but given its limited range and habitat, I consider it to be the rarest of the strange flowers of the Shenandoah Valley Sinkhole Ponds. For comparison, federally-threatened Helenium virginicum has about 80 known populations, 50 or so in Missouri and 30 or so in Virginia. I’m glad to have seen it, and I hope that the government analysis is correct and that Boltonia montana will maintain itself. At any rate, the Shenandoah Valley sinkholse are one of the most unique botanical communities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, though I visited an almost equally-bizarre community a few hours later…

To be continued