Puzzling Plant Occurences

Rare plants, unusual plants, that were some alternate headings that came to mind. This exploration is prompted by a long list of plants that I have come across over a period of time that had not previously recorded from ‘my neck of the woods’. They were often far removed from their main area of distribution.

In nature everything is connected to everything else. That is a favorite saying of mine, though of course, I heard it somewhere else first. Another one is that nature is infinitely varied. Yet another is to expect the unexpected. Everything is a journey of discovery, an attempt for teasing out connections, for getting answers. The list of plants below is of no particular order.

At the IAS Bremer Sanctuary in Hillsboro a number of dry-dam structures for upland erosion control were installed some years ago. We seeded them with a broad mix of appropriate species and they are diverse little wetlands now. To our surprise we had a lot of additions that were unexpected.

One of them, Water Hyssop [Bacopa rotundifolia], is a pretty little thing with white flowers. It was a first for me, though previously recorded for the county. Another species was a small Pondweed [Potomageton]. It belongs to a large genus but bringing it down to the species level without fruit or inflorescences is difficult. I walked the cat-tail thickets of one of the ponds during the summer dry-downs and found it covered with the stranded thallus of an aquatic Liver-wort species.  Mud Plantain [Heteranthera limosa], another uncommon find impressed with it starry blue flowers in Cress Creek nearby. That one did not persist as flood pulses flush this agricultural drainage on a regular basis. The other species most likely will persist as long as the habitat remains stable. How did these plants get here? Great Blue Herons are frequent visitors here. This common species no doubt moves literally tons of soil as it goes from wetland to wetland on its fishing expeditions. The Liver-wort may also disperse the same way, but its spores could also carry a long way on air currents. Many years ago I came across a small inlet that had become separated from Lake Yaeger at Litchfield. It was covered with an intriguing vascular sporophyte, Mosquito Fern [Azolla mexicana]. Here, too we may have wind distribution, but again, more likely waterfowl and shorebirds are the vector of distribution. Mammals cannot be ruled out either. Racoons favor wetlands and Deer have been implicated in the spread of weeds like Sericea and Garlic Mustard.

One of the observant birders from the Bremer Sanctuary brought me a plant that had come up near her bird feeders. It was Sickle-pod [Senna obtusiloba], a relative of our Partridge Pea. I had seen this plant in southern states. There it is a bit of a weed. More recently I found it in railroad ballast in Effingham Co. You can read more about this species in illinoiswildflowers.info. The author had found it in a similar situation, way up in Champaign Co. As always, the plants in this website are a true ‘plant profile’, without meandering afield. Sorry, I just can’t help myself. This may be a true range extension, though the means of dispersal for this large-seeded plant escapes me.

For a long time, I grew the attractive Northern Bedstraw [Galium boreale] in my garden. It did well there until recently. Prolonged droughts wiped out all but one plant. It never had set fruit. It came from large colony along a railroad siding just outside the Village of Harvel. I looked for it in vain recently, no doubt a victim of chemical vegetation control practices. This northern species may have originated from cattle car sweepings, perhaps just a single seed and therefore infertile.

My good friend Gary decades ago found Baltic Rush [Juncus balticus] along in a railroad ditch near Pana. No doubt it represents a similar method of dispersal as the Bedstraw. He gave me a clump, but it disappeared before I could get it in the ground during the usual busy spring season – still a regret of mine. That station, too is long gone.

Now comes a plant that I have had in my garden for 20 years. I had found this tiniest of Sedges at the Shoal Creek Conservation Area in a poorly drained old-field. None of the floras that I consulted were of help. So, as usual I asked my good friend Gary. He loves such challenges and will do the detailed botany for which I lack the patience. He just loves the genus Carex. If all fails he will consult specialists such as the eminent Dr. A. Reznicek. Our plant turned out to be Gray Bog Sege or Silvery Sedge [Carex canescens] and was at the time unknown from our state. The first discovery in Lake Co. a few years prior had not yet entered the literature.

Let me say that I was never able to find the collection site again. Believe me, I have looked – many a time. It is truly like looking for that needle in the haystack. What is a plant of always wet boreal peatlands doing here? Well, our old fields with their poorly drained southern Illinois till-plain soils, as is my garden – are seasonally very wet. Without any supplemental watering Cardinal flower, Rose Mallow, and even the solitary Bald Cypress in the back not only do well there, they produce abundant seedlings. All of these will be found growing in standing water in the wild yet make fine garden subjects, one of those ironies of nature. The inflorescence of this Sedge is 3-4” tall. That reflects the small stature of the species. The plant’s survival maybe due to the patch of Wolff’s Spike-rush [Eleocharis wolffii] that it sits in. It is also rather diminutive and goes dormant in summer drought and heat, but not the sedge. Seed production has been abundant. Germination was immediate and I was quite proud of my results in growing such a rare plant. Well, not so rare and not so difficult. Surfing the world-wide web brought up some deflating results. Apparently, germination is always abundant and immediate. It is probably a tough and pioneering species. One of the sites also reported that the seed is viable just for a few short months. A Russian research project on wetland sedges reported longevity of possibly a hundred years. Where do we have such ecosystem stability today?

A few years after finding this sedge on an overseas trip I made a stop at the Diepholzer Moor nature preserve in NW Germany. One of the first plants I came across was a large stand of my good friend, the Gray Bog Sedge. What a surprise. It was one of only a few species that had pioneered here after the peat had been mined. That industrial ‘harvesting’ was still occurring nearby. Only after removal does that land then become a nature preserve. Here too, it is clearly the economy before the environment. Let’s think about that when we buy our next bale of Sphagnum peat. Reestablishing the hydrology here appears to be the first and only step. Without giving biodiversity a helping hand the project resembles our CRP acreages in many ways with its lack of variety. Rather depressing, really.

The iucnredlist.org had some additional fascinating information about this sedge. It occurs in all boreal regions and many mountain ranges, as well as in the Antarctic islands and other parts of the southern hemisphere. The website also states that there are 39 varieties and forms; no surprise given its amazingly wide distribution.

How did the sedge get to Litchfield; will it persist and be a future part of our flora? Birds from the boreal forest regions travel through here by the millions annually. What might they all carry on their feathers, feet or in the digestive system?  Seldom will that seed find a hospitable location. Suitable habitats are needed, the larger, the better. And they need to be stable. And today they need our helping hand just as much as our exploitation has destroyed these lands.

It may be discouraging, but there is hope. I am reminded about the stone ax that my father found in a pasture depression on his land in the 1930’s. Some 6,000 years ago in the Neolithic this likely was a forest. It is long gone. Still, some nice woodland and meadow flora survived nearby until the advent of industrial agriculture in the 1950’s. There is hope, but the future natural areas will certainly look different and will take much more active participation by society. Perhaps I am on my usual soapbox here or perhaps I am tilting at windmills.

Finally, I will highlight one more species and good friend. This is a ‘hey you’ plant for which I found the correct name only recently. At the Route 66 Prairie grow 3 species of False Purple Foxgloves. One of them, the plant featured here, is now called Fascicled False Foxglove [Agalinis fasciculata]. I guess you just have to invent a common name if there is none. It had been at the site for a long time, but with some ten years of prairie management it has increased dramatically in numbers. Many years is however severely predated by the spiny black larvae of Buckeye Butterfly and undamaged plants can be difficult to find. That does not seem to affect the species’ survival in the least. The closest recorded station shown for this plant is Jackson Co. in southern Illinois, a long way from here. How did it get here? Perhaps someone knows. Such southern plants, the Sickle-pod above included, all seemingly doing well here, may be an indication of improved growing conditions for southern species. Are there others? For the finer details on this species and outstanding photos go the website ozarkedgewildflowers.com. Just one caveat: the last photo on the Agalinis page is NOT a Buckeye!

Plants are friends, the more I get to know them, the more I look forward to visits with them again every new season. Here is to another glorious spring!