The Plant Sleuths

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

Here it was: The small white lady-slipper, an orchid last seen in northern Missouri in 1947, now growing in a hollow in the southern part of the state. It was an unexpected find for Bill Summers, who was searching for other lady-slippers in 1990.

Summers is a botanist who specializes in orchids and works for the Conservation Department and the U.S. Forest Service. "It was thrilling to me to find this site," Summers says.

Summers' discovery saved this wildflower from being declared "extirpated" in Missouri, a status applied once a plant has not been seen for 50 years. Extirpated means exterminated or, literally, "pulled up by the roots." Vanished.

While the small white lady-slipper (Cypripedium candidum) now is listed as "endangered" in the state, many other plants remain missing, in spite of searches of previously known sites during the 15-year Missouri Natural Features Inventory that concluded in 1995.

But remember, Bill Summers found the small white lady-slipper in a completely unexpected place, not at a site once identified for it, and 43 years after the last sighting in the state. Botanists also have recently rediscovered bogbean and reed bent grass. They found running buffalo clover, missing since 1907, in 1994. Doesn't that make you wonder if other missing species might be thriving in out-of-the-way places? And you, out for a ramble, might have the thrill of finding such a plant and declaring it alive and well in Missouri.

Tim Smith, Conservation Department botanist, says he welcomes leads on rare plants. In the past, much of the Conservation Department's plant information has come from landowners, amateur botanists, and other agencies' personnel who have come across unusual plants.

"We benefit from having all those eyes out there on the landscape," he says. "We certainly don't have enough people to look at every acre of ground." With more people aware of the characteristics of missing species, the chances of finding them increase.

Here are a few of Missouri's missing flora, all listed as extirpated in the state. If you see one of these species, note the exact location and write Natural Heritage Database Manager, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, 65102, or call (573) 751-4115, ext. 200. If possible, photograph the plant or make an accurate sketch showing the flower, leaf and stem. Since Missouri has around 2,700 plant species and many are similar to others, a botanist needs details to make an identification.

You'll receive a rare plant reporting form, which asks for the date you saw the plant, a description of its habitat, number of plants seen and the name of the site's owner. You'll also be asked to mark the location on a map.

Although the plants in this list aren't currently known to be in Missouri, they do grow elsewhere. Some are plentiful in other parts of their natural range; some are scarce and federally protected. triangle

Purple paintbrush - (Castilleja purpurea)

article photo The noticeable purple is actually in bracts (small leaflike structures) that enclose the flowers. The plant, 4 to 12 inches tall, has two or more flowering stems and grows in rocky open ground. The leaves are crowded, deeply divided, spreading upward. Missouri is on the eastern edge of purple paintbrush's range; it is common further west. The genus is named for Domingo Castillejo, a Spanish botanist.

Last seen: 1903, northern Greene County

Family: Scrophulariaceae (figwort family)

Flowering dates: April to May

Snow wreath - (Neviusia alabamensis)

article photo The remarkable beauty of this shrub is in its clusters of unusual flowers, each flower a spray of white stamens with no petals. Because it grows on steep, rocky slopes and its blooming time is brief, you might not notice it. Arching stems, 3 to 6 feet long, grow in a clump. The leaves are doubly toothed and stay green to late November.

This is one of the rarest shrubs in North America, but botanists have long believed it still grows in Missouri. It's a candidate for federal listing.

Last seen: 1918, west of Poplar Bluff in Butler County, growing in sandy loam on a slope near a creek

Family: Rosaceae (rose family)

Flowering dates: One to two weeks in late April

Clustered poppy mallow - (Callirhoe triangulata)

article photo Clusters of vivid rose-purple flowers will draw you to this plant, but the best clue is in the leaves, most of which are triangular. (Some other poppy mallows have similar flowers, but their leaves are usually deeply lobed or divided.) Flowers have five petals; leaves are notched, rather than toothed.

Poppy mallow may be as tall as 24 inches, usually growing in acid soils in rocky open woods, sandy open ground, sandy prairies and glades. The genus is named Callirhoe for a spring in Athens, Greece; it means "beautifully flowing."

Last seen: 1933, in Mississippi County, also earlier in Barry, Franklin, St. Louis and Scott counties

Family: Malvaceae (mallow family)

Flowering dates: July to August

Starvation cactus or plains prickly pear - (Opuntia polyacantha var. polyacantha)

article photoPolyacantha means many-spined, and this cactus has so many spines it appears silvery, quite different from other prickly pears. The plant is low and spreading. Its flowers are yellow, occasionally tinged pink or red, and the fruit is bristly.

Though this cactus is common west of Missouri, it is noted only once in the state; lead and zinc mining may have destroyed that habitat near Webb City. It prefers sandy soil and grows on glades, rocky hillsides, dry prairies and roadsides.

Last seen: 1909, in Jasper County

Family: Cactaceae (cactus family)

Flowering dates: May and June

Small whorled pogonia - (Isotria medeoloides)

article photo This rare native orchid is inconspicuous, even in bloom. Look for the whorl, an umbrellalike arrangement of five or more drooping leaves near the top of the stem, just below the flower. The plant, up to 10 inches tall, has 1 or 2 greenish-yellow flowers, followed by fruit capsules. It grows in small colonies.

Though noted in the state only once, on a wooded limestone hill in southeastern Missouri, botanists continue to search for it. The small whorled pogonia is one of North America's rarest plants and is federally listed as threatened.

Last seen: 1897, near Glenallen in Bollinger County

Family: Orchidaceae (orchid family)

Flowering dates: May, with a fruit capsule June to October

Eastern prairie fringed orchid - (Platanthera leucophaea)

article photo An array of extremely fancy fringed flowers should catch your eye; they may be white, creamy white or greenish-white. The sturdy stem grows one to three feet tall. This orchid likes alkaline, moist soils: swales of upland prairies, river bottom prairies and spring-fed limestone meadows (fens).

There are only minute differences between the Eastern prairie fringed orchid and the Western prairie fringed orchid, which is present in Missouri but state-listed as endangered. Either is an important find; both are federally listed as threatened.

Last seen: 1951, in Carter County, also reported earlier in Jefferson, Madison, Ralls and St. Louis counties.

Family: Orchidaceae (orchid family)

Flowering dates: About June 10 to July 4

Roundleaf monkey flower - (Mimulus glabratus var. fremontii)

article photo You might get wet feet looking for this one, because it grows in and around springs and spring branches and on wet ledges along bluffs. A yellow flower grows from each leaf axil (where the leaf is attached to the stem). The leaves are nearly round and opposite. The lower part of the smooth stem lies on the ground. Plants may be 1 to 20 inches in height.

Even when it was known in the state, roundleaf monkey flower was rarely seen. The genus name comes from the Latin word mimus, a mimic or mime, because flowers of some species appear to have grinning faces.

Last seen: 1933, in shallow running water at a spring in Lawrence County; seen earlier in Barry, Greene and Ste. Genevieve counties

Family: Scrophulariaceae (figwort family)

Flowering dates: May to October

Hazards for rare plants

The native garden-Many gardeners treasure a stand of purple coneflowers, a ruby shower of columbine or other native plants. Such a garden brings the wild close to home and shows appreciation for Missouri's natural heritage.

How do you bring wild plants into your garden? Even if you know where common plants grow naturally and you have a landowner's permission to dig them, it's to your advantage-and nature's-to obtain plants or seeds from native plant nurseries.

That's because it's often difficult to extricate the complete root system of a perennial in the wild, especially in rocky soil, but nursery plants, grown in pots, have intact root systems and a better chance of surviving.

With seed, be patient. It may take a couple of years for some species to germinate. Once you have flowers, you can collect seed and expand your plantings. Seeds also make much-appreciated gifts.

By refraining from digging up flowers in the wild, you help preserve the natural landscape and the place each plant holds in an ecosystem. And there could be penalties for removing some plants. State law prohibits the transportation of rare and endangered plants or any parts of them, and since 1993, it has been illegal to dig up or remove any roadside plant from the right-of-way of state or county highways or roadways in Missouri.

Herbicides-Avoid or minimize the use of herbicides near such plants. If you must use a herbicide, choose one specific as possible for the problem plant you wish to eliminate.

Non-native species-Don't introduce aggressive, spreading, non-native species such as kudzu, crown vetch and Japanese honeysuckle. They can take over a native plant's habitat.

Missouri's endangered plants

There are many plants on the edge of vanishing. The Conservation Department's term "endangered" means a plant's survival in Missouri is in immediate jeopardy. It applies to French's shooting star, known only at one site, and also to the cranefly orchid, red raspberry, dotted monarda and many others.

The survival of endangered plants often depends on the willingness of humans to be observant and to coexist without doing harm.

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