- Title: Plant resurfaces in Del. after a century. (Botanist, contractor discover strand long-considered extinct on Delmarva)
- Author: Molly Murray - The News Journal
- Date: March 16, 2014
- Subject: Lobelia boykinii
ELLENDALE, DEL. — The last time anyone saw the tiny, white flowers of Lobelia boykinii in Delaware was near Ellendale in July 1913.
Most botanists assumed, after 100 years, the plant was extinct in Delaware, found only in pressed plant collections in area herbarium. Then something amazing happened.
State botanist William McAvoy and Ronald Wilson, a state contractor, were surveying a site 25 miles southeast of Ellendale when they noticed something different growing in a coastal plain pond. Both McAvoy and Wilson, from Snow Hill, have been monitoring this particular pond for nearly two decades. Before that, other botanists had been regular visitors.
They have been systematically keeping records on a rare plant, Dichanthelium hirstii (Hirst brothers’ panic grass), which grows there. The plant is important because it is globally rare and a candidate for federal Endangered Species Act listing.
The two men knew every plant in and around the pond, so when they saw unusual green stems rising from the water — something they had never seen before — they wondered what was going on.
“We really didn’t know what it was,” said Wilson, a retired chemistry and physics teacher.
He learned about botany under the guidance of the late Frank Hirst who, with his brother, Bob, first discovered the species of panic grass that made this particular pond so unique on Delmarva. Hirst, who died in 2009, found the panic grass in 1984.
McAvoy said they visit the pond several times each summer. The men were hopeful that when they returned in three weeks, the mystery stems would be flowering. Meanwhile, McAvoy took a vacation to Georgia, where he looked for plants. There, in two locations, he came upon the rare Lobelia boykinii.
When McAvoy and Wilson revisited the southern Delaware site three weeks later, tiny white flowers had indeed formed on those green stems.
“I knew exactly what it was,” McAvoy said. The two men had rediscovered a plant that hadn’t been seen in Delaware in 100 years and 19 days
Both Wilson and McAvoy have discovered many rare plants in their years of botany on the Delmarva Peninsula. But Wilson said “to find that plant was just really, really special.”
One reason is the Delaware site is near its northernmost range. The plant was historically found in eight states: New Jersey, Delaware, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. It is also found only in coastal plain habitats. The Delaware discovery was so significant that McAvoy and Wilson wrote a paper published in the journal Phytoneuron, a digital publication covering plant biology, last month.
Ironically, according to the paper, Frank Hirst had once suggested to Wilson that the pond “looked like a good pond for L. boykinii.”
No one is sure what changed to make these rare Lobelia — there were 14 stems in the pond — show up in 2013.
In the paper, McAvoy and Wilson speculate that it may have had something to do with Superstorm Sandy in late October 2012 and other storms in 2013, all of which brought heavy rainfall to Delmarva.
The plant was found flowering in 17 inches of water. “Is flooding the mechanism that triggers flowering in L. boykinii? The 2012/2013 flooding of the Delaware pond was one of the deepest and longest that has been recorded during the 29 years of monitoring the site. Was L. boykinii dormant as an above-ground basal rosette waiting for just the right degree of flooding to flower?
Conversely, a population of L. boykinii in New Jersey produced over 200 flowering plants on a dry pond bottom,” the men wrote in their paper.
The only way to know for sure, they suggest, is with more long-term monitoring.
This Lobelia is a perennial plant, meaning it would normally come back year after year.
McAvoy said the seeds for the plant could have been dormant in the seed bank, waiting for the right conditions. He noted seeds for many of these rare plants found in coastal plan ponds “are viable for decades.”
“It’s not the most showy of plants,” McAvoy said. “The flowers are very small. ... We were very surprised.”
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