Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on August 17, 1975 · Page 80
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 80

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, August 17, 1975
Page 80
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Page 80 article text (OCR)

The Rarest Appalachian Plant By Earl L. Core On Aug. 3,1927,1 was botanizing on the slopes of Peters Mountain, about a mile and a half from the town of The Narrows, Giles County, Va. At this point ages ago the New River cut a huge gap ("The' Narrows") through a mountain range, the northern portion of which is now called Peters Mountain, the southern portion East River Mountain. The ranges in general form the state line between Virginia and West Virginia. That was a long time ago. I was just beginning botanical exploration of the mid-Appalachian region, and I was as yet unaware of the unusual nature of this river valley, which, arising east of the Appalachians, cuts completely through the mountains, providing an easy route for plant and animal migration. As a matter of fact, the river was here before the mountains, and cut across them as they gradually arose through long geologic ages. The name New River is a classic misnomer; it is one of the oldest rivers in the world. So on that August day I was finding a remarkable number of plant novelties, without exactly understanding why. But I stuffed them helter-skelter into my collecting case for future study, hoping to get back to my car before a threatening thunderstorm broke. I was not successful in this, however; dripping wet, I drove on to Concord College, where we were met by Dr. E. Meade McNeill, professor of biology, who arranged lodgings for us. It was not until the next day that I found time to open the crammed collecting case and begin the identification of the many specimens. One of them turned out to be most astonishing. It was obviously.a mallow, three feet or less tall, somewhat resembling a small hollyhock, with large, pretty, rose-pink flowers. I was using Gray's Manual (7th edition, by M.L. Fernald in 1908) as a guide. It was not difficult to key out. The remarkable thing was that it went down directly to Sphaeralcea remo- ta, which Fernald said, was "known only from a gravelly island in the Kankakee River, Illinois". What was it doing here on a rocky mountain side in the Appalachians of Virginia, several hundred miles away? Despite the fact that the specimens matched the descriptions, we still couldn't believe it and sent a specimen to Dr. Fernald at Harvard University, who confirmed our identifications. We then set about to study the history of the plant at the Illinois station. The first collections for study were made by Rev. E.J. Hill, on June 29, 1872, on an island at Altorf , about nine miles northwest of Kankakee. He did not realize the importance of his discovery and named the plant Sphaeralcea aceri- folia (a western species). On Aug. 1, 1899. Dr. Edward L. Greene visited the exact locality and obtained more specimens. He recognized the unusual nature of the plants and gave them the new name Hiamna remote. Fernald, in Gray's Manual (1908), then transferred the name to a related genus, Sphaeralcea, under the combination S. remota. In 1912, Nathaniel Lord Britton was about to complete the second edition of his plant guide (Britton Brown's "Illustrated Flora") and needed a better specimen of this plant. He contacted Dr. Jesse M. Greenman and Earl Edward Sherff of Chicago, who invited the elderly Rev. Hill, then in his 79th year, to show them the spot where be had found the plant 40 years before. On the forenoon of Aug. 3 (exactly 15 years to the day before my discovery at The Narrows) they forded the stream at Altorf, in a horse-drawn carriage, then secured a boat and rowed to the southwestern shore of the island. Rev. Hill led them "with surprising directness and accuracy" to the very spot. The plants were numerous; both specimens and seeds Black arrow on old photo points were secured. In his book Dr. Brit- to where author first found plant later named in his honor. ton called the plant Phymosia re- mota. Dr. Sherff visited the island again in 1916 and at Kankakee visited Judge Arthur W. DeSelm, who had many fine specimens of the rare mallow growing in his garden. But Willard N. Clute, in 1920, writing in the "American Botanist" under the caption, "The Rarest American Plant", said he had visited the island and that it was largely under cultivation and that he could find but "a single plant", which he removed to his garden, where it grew vigorously and produced an abundance of seeds. Dr. P.D. Strausbaugh and I, in ; 1932, published an account of the Peters Mountain discovery, concluding with: "According to Clute the original station for Phymosia remota has been completely destroyed. He states that he removed the last plant found on the island to his garden. Assuming that Clute's observation is correct it must apparent that the Virginia station is now the only place in the world where Phymosia remota is growing as a wild plant, and since,there are at the present time not more than 50 plants at this station the specimen must be regarded as an exceedingly rare one that may soon become extinct." Fortunately this dire prediction has not come true. Dr. Sherff returned to the Kankakee island again on July 23,1945, after a long absence, and to. his great delight found that farming had been abandoned and that there were hundreds of plants flourishing there, displaying in several places a massed effect. Sherff now planned a careful and comparative study of the Virginia plants; since they were on well- drained mountain slopes, he suspected that they might be different from the Illinois plants. Henry A. Gleason had already suggested such a possibility in an article on the vegetational history of the Midwest, mentioning Phymosia remo- ta in particular as one of .certain plants participating in the eastward advance of our prairies, being "accompanied or followed by some specific evolution". Gleason was writing in 1922, before the discovery of the Virginia plants and therefore speaking in theory only of a species not then known to have migrated eastwards. In August, 1945, Dr. Sherff visited the Peters Mountain locality, but was unable to find a single plant. But he enlisted the aid of Henry H. LrSmith^ principal of The Narrows High School, and James Hubert Browning, a senior student, and withiri-;a week they" found two plants, which.they sent to Dr. Sherff in Chicago;. : By chance I had myself ascended the mountain only a month before Dr. Sherff's fruitless trip and I, too, was unable to find any specimens; (And I might mention that between 1927, and 1946,1 made numerous trips up the mountain,.sometimes finding the plants, sometimes not. Apparently there is more than one colony.) Early in October, 1945, Dr. Sherff came back again to Peters Moun- tain.and with the guidance of Dr. McNeill, who had frequently-conducted students to the site, was able to find a colony containing numerous individuals. Of course they were all past flowering, mostly past their fruiting-state: But herbarium and garden specimens were secured for study. This colony was at an elevation of about 2,500 feet and the habitat was of the open woods type, with numerous shrubs and small or stunted trees. The plants grew in a very black humus soil, in small patches, often mere pockets in the rock cliffs. Dr. Sherff's studies indicated that, as he had suspected, the Virginia plants were different from the Illinois plants. The plants were smaller, 1V4 to 3 feet tall, as compared to a-height of 3 to 5 feet for for the Illinois plants. The leaves were mostly less than 4 inches long, while in the Illinois plants they were mostly over 4 inches long. Most of the leaves of the Virginia plants had the lobes sharp- pointed, rather narrow and with numerous teeth, whereas the western plants had the left-lobes blunt, broader, and with few teeth. No constant differences were found in flowers or fruits. The flowers of both are short, stalked, in terminal clusters or in the axils of the upper leaves. The calyx lobes are densely stellate-pu- bescent, as, indeed, is most of the entire plant. The light pink corolla is one to two inches broad. The flowers bloom in July and August. The seeds are densely hairy and our experience indicates that they are difficult to germinate. As a result of his studies, Dr. Sherff concluded that the Peters Mountain plants belonged to the same species, Iliamna remota, to which the Kankakee plants belonged, but that they constituted a different variety, which he named (in 1946) Iliama remota va. Corel, in my honor. Later, in 1949, he came to the conclusion that there are indeed two separate species represented and named the Virginia plants Iliamna Corei. Dr. Fernald, in the eighth edition of Gray's Manual, published in 1950, thereupon included two species of Iliamna, one in "open woods, gravels and shore, Kankakee R., 111." , the other on "rocky wooded mountain-slopes, local w Va.' The "w. Va." misled some of his readers, who interpreted it as West Virginia, instead of western Virginia. Thus, Rutherford Platt, speaking of it as "America's rarest plant, and calling it Iliamna remo- ,ta, says it grows in West Virginia, "in a weirdly lonely patch", while Dr. Gleason, mentioned earlier (and who, by the way, was my major professor at Columbia University), says Iliamna remota is "known only from two remarkably different places, the one an island in the Kankakee River in northeastern Illinois, the other a mountain-top in West Virginia." . On a later page of the same book, (Geography of Plants", by Henry A. Gleason and Arthur Conquiest) Gleason mentions Iliamna again, referring to the discontinuity of its range; how did this species come to exist in two communities so far apart? In a footnote Gleason adds: "Nevertheless, it may be mentioned that some botanists regard the West Virginian plant as belonging to a different species, which they call Iliamna Corei, so named in honor of Dr. Earl Core, who discovered it; while this does away with one problem, it raises another: How did these two species get this sort of distribution when all their relatives live in the far west?" Carl S. Keener and James W. Hardin, of North Carolina State .University, visited the Peters Mountain site on July 14,1962, and reported finding numerous plants at an elevation of about 3,000 feet. The plants were scattered through an area of 150 feet in a 30 foot band following the contour. There were 40 clumps, with one to 15 plants in each clump. A little later Dr. Kenner discovered a second Virginia colony, along the James River at the crossing of U.S. Route 220, approximately 60 miles to the northeast Even with these new discoveries, it could not be said that Iliamna Corei is anything but rare; it may very well be, as Rutherford Platt says, "America's rarest plant." ·fm August n, '1975, GazvitvMail

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