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.
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.