Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Beautiful Saxifrage

On Saturday's visit to the Strait Creek Prairie preserve in southwestern Pike County, we found ourselves traversing the base of some vertical limestone cliffs. Cloaked in shade and wet with the outflow of seepages, these outcrops proved to be perfect habitat for one of our most interesting saxicoles, or rock-dwelling plants.

Moist limestone cliff face liberally festooned with Sullivantia, Sullivantia sullivantii, a diminutive and showy member of the Saxifrage family. Overall, it is a rather rare and local plant known from only ten states in the midwest. Sullivantia is habitat-restricted, growing only where suitable cliff faces occur. Definitely not a plant you'll find growing along the roadsides and in ditches.

A closer view of the leaves. Shiny green and ornately sculpted with crenate margins, I have noticed that Sullivantia leaves invariably draw the eye of people unfamiliar with the plant, and they quickly ask what it is.

By the time we arrived on the scene, the Sullivantia was past flower and in fruit. You can see the tiny cuplike calyces in this photo; the little modified leaves tha hold the flower, then later the fruit. It sends out delicate open racemes of small white flowers that bloom over much of the summer.

Sullivantia sullivantii is one of about 98 species of vascular plants that were first discovered in Ohio. This one was located for the first time in Highland County by its namesake, William Starling Sullivant. Sullivant was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1803, the son of Lucas Sullivant, an early surveyor who platted what was to become our capitol city. Although William was to spend much of his life employed as a surveyor and engineer, he quickly became enamored with botany and spent much of his spare time studying plants and bryophytes (mosses). Although Sullivant contributed much more to our knowledge of mosses than he did vascular plants, he scored some major hits with the latter group.

The showy prairie-inhabiting Sullivant's Milkweed, Asclepias sullivantii, is named in his honor. He also discovered what is rapidly becoming one of North America's rarest mustards, the diminutive Spreading Rock Cress, Arabis patens. The distinctive Flat-stemmed Spikerush, Eleocharis compressa, was also first found and described by the hard-working Sullivant.

But is the plant in the photos above that is probably most connected with him. Partly because of its rarity, partly because of its beauty, perhaps in large part because of the triple Sullivant moniker - Sullivantia, Sullivantia sullivantii. Kind of hard to forget who the discover of this one is!

After a long and distinguished career filled with new discoveries and major contributions to the science of botany, William Starling Sullivant passed away on April 30, 1873. He is buried at Green Lawn Cemetery on the south side of Columbus along with his father and a number of others of the Sullivant clan. At his side is his wife Eliza, the second of his three wives. Her formidable marker is ornately detailed with a carving of his namesake saxifrage, Sullivantia.


Helen Ostermiller said...

While walking at the Seven Caves area of the Rocky Fork gorge this summer with my daughter, we watched a hummingbird sipping the nectar from Sullivantia on the cliff.

EDWIN F. NEU said...

To all volunteers at Strait Creek Prairie Bluffs Nature Preserve, we the previous owners thank you for your hard work on what once was our favorite place in all this world. You would not be sharing in the development of this beautiful place had it not been for the total and outright efforts of my wife, Carol Rickert Neu. She would not take "no" for an answer from the Ohio Nature Conservancy. Time after time she attempted to get this "gem" to the N.C. They absolutely didn't want it. It took an incredible amount of her time to get the property transferred. She also had to talk me into not selling to the htghest bidder. However The N. C. CLAIMED THEY FOUND THE PROPERTY -- wrote about how they had "saved it" from the horrible previous owners.!!! She deserves a medal, not reproach.!!! Also, I was told by the man I bought the property from, Robert Jordan, that a meteor had once struck the property. I passed this info on to the N. C. when they finally got it. [74 acres at "Bargin Price" SALE. We retained 15 acres plus the road [Road Purchased from the Satterfields on adjoining property]. We later donated the 15 acres and the road to the N.C., when we decided to leave Ohio and move to California. In recent years the N. C. "discovered" a meteor had once struck the property. Needless to say the Ohio Nature Conservancy is not a favorite of ours. We were coerssed for years to give them more than we had already given. We had / have no more to give. However we thank you sincerely for your great efforts. Carol & Ed Neu Santa Rosa, California