Campbell spotlights floral diversity in Polk County

Published 8:38 pm Sunday, July 22, 2012

PAC, Campbell ask community to help find local species
More than 30 people attended a recent program offered by the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC)/Walnut Creek Preserve (WCP) on the “Flora and Landscapes of the Southern Mountain Region.” The program was presented by David Campbell, who is affiliated with the UNCC Herbarium, housed at the Dr. James F. Matthews Center for Biodiversity Studies.  
Through stories and images, David Campbell took the group on a journey through the landscapes of the region, highlighting some of the common and rare plants found in the area. As a botanist, with first-hand knowledge of the state herbaria collections, Campbell expressed his concern over the fact that the flora of Polk County, a unique region in the state with a rich diversity of plants (and animals), is poorly represented in the state herbarium.
An herbarium is a collection of preserved plant specimens. Ideally, the whole plant is collected and includes flowers, stems, leaves, seed and fruit. To preserve their form and color, plants collected in the field are spread flat on sheets of newspaper, pressed and dried. The specimens are then mounted and labeled with essential data, such as the date and place the plant was found, and then placed in a protective case for storage and as a precaution against insect attack.
Herbaria are essential for numerous scientific studies, including geographic distributions of plants and tracking changes in climate and human impact. Herbaria can also be a repository of viable seeds for rare species.
Herbaria specimens are also essential for the preservation of the historical record of plants found in a specific area; preserving a record of plants found in a region should they ever become extinct in one area, or extinct altogether. In such cases, specimens preserved in a herbarium can represent the only record of a plant’s original distribution.
The last significant plant collection in Polk County was done in the 1950s and 1960s by Dr. Oliver Freeman. Freeman was the curator of living plants at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. and later became a resident of Tryon. Freeman’s love of plants had him spending his free time studying the unique flora that Polk County had to offer. During his time in the county, he collected nearly 5,000 specimens.
The specimens were given to the Tryon Garden Club and placed in the Pearson’s Falls Herbarium (created to house the collection) for many years. In order to preserve Dr. Freeman’s work and the historical record of plants found in Polk County, the Tryon Garden Club decided that the specimens would be best housed at a university where they could be better accessed for scientific study. His collection was transferred to its current home at UNC Asheville’s biology department.
Campbell said he is interested in carrying on the work of Dr. Freeman, revisiting some of the sites where rare and unique specimens were collected to see if they are still there. He said he is also interested in expanding the floristic representation of Polk County in the state herbaria. Being affiliated with UNCC/Chapel Hill and the Natural Heritage Program allows Campbell the proper permitting to collect and voucher specimens for deposit in recognized herbaria.
PAC officials said they are interested in working with David Campbell and helping him in his quest to complete a comprehensive bio-inventory of Polk County that includes not only plants but animals as well. In order to do so, PAC and Campbell will ask for help from the community.
To get started, PAC will spotlight species of interest in the county in a “Polk County’s Most Wanted – Plants” article. Each article will spotlight one species, giving a description of the species, and asking for the community’s help in locating it (in an environmentally responsible way).
PAC and Campbell said they hope that this will not only enable the documentation of the species in the county but also get the community interested in the unique organisms found in the region, and encourage the preservation of the biodiversity that makes this county special.
Polk County is unique, PAC officials said. Part of the county is located within the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment, an area where the Blue Ridge Mountains rise nearly 4,000 feet above sea level from the rolling piedmont, and it contains some of the highest natural diversity of rare plants and animals found anywhere in the world. Parts of the county are also located in a thermal belt, an area in the mountains or foothills that experiences a milder slope climate and longer growing season. There are also numerous areas with unique geology that results in a rich diversity of plants.
Because of these qualities, the county is anomalous in the state and several species have been found here and nowhere else in North Carolina (as far as experts know), such as Allegheny-spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), whorled horsebalm (Collinsonia verticillata) and false hellebore (Veratrum woodii). These three species are disjunct from their typical distribution in the Ozarks.
Polk County also was the site of a notable record: largeleaf leather-root (Orbexilum macrophyllum) was found on White Oak Mountain, near Tryon Peak, in the latter part of the 19th century – and never seen again.
Look for the upcoming articles that will spotlight “Polk County’s Most Wanted – Plants” in the near future. Contact PAC at 828-859-5060 or e-mail with questions or comments.
– article submitted
by Pam Torlina

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