Monday, September 20, 2010

Is Maximilian an alien?

Strait Creek Prairie, Pike County. Owned by the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and site of one of Ohio's most successful ecological restoration projects, directed by TNC land steward Dave Minney.

This place is one of my favorite sites in the state. It's really off the beaten track, and most people have not seen Strait Creek Prairie, or probably even know that it exists. It's certainly not a drive-by place; one must park by a rural lane and hoof it in. Strait Creek represents the easternmost outlier of the curious Adams County bluegrass province cedar glade prairies, and it's a great place to find rare flora.

Dave, Dan Boone, John Howard and I were there last Saturday to seek out one of the more enigmatic denizens of Strait Creek's many unusual plants. And we found it, although I can't say that the shroud of mystery surrounding this beautiful plant has been dispelled.

Far back in the boondocks, along the sunny edges of a beautifully restored prairie, is a small but vigorous population of one of North America's showiest sunflowers. Regular doses of fire management have stimulated this species and many others to shoot forth in profusion, as burning favors deep-rooted prairie plants and eliminates woody plants that would crowd them out.

Maximilian's Sunflower, Helianthus maximiliani, is a standout in a cast of beauties. Small wonder it is often used in plantings and prairie seed mixtures, which also leads to problems in diagnosing its nativeness.

Unlike many of its brethren, Maximilian's Sunflower even looks good without the luminescent lemon-yellow flowers. The tall, straight stems tower to a not unmanageable height - maybe five feet in the case of a whopper, or at least an indigenous whopper in its native habitat. The leaves are sensational: narrow and folded longitudinally; curved like a sickle.

Even the name is cool. Our protagonist is named for the multisyllabic Prince Alexander Philipp Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied. What a name - sounds like a guy who calls a castle in Austria home! Maximilian was a naturalist and explorer, and discovered his namesake sunflower on a journey up the Missouri River and through the Great Plains in the 1830's.

Another footnote about Maximilian bears mention. He lived to the ripe old age of 85, in a time when 8.5 decades far eclipsed the norm for life spans. This is a really common trend amongst botanists, even those of long ago, I have noticed. Hope it holds true in my case!
In your face flashy, this sunflower can't be missed when in full bloom. Nonetheless, it took us several hours of traipsing through Strait Creek's prairies to finally relocated this patch, which none of us had seen for a long time.

A cuckoo wasp taps a flower, one of many pollinating insects that we observed on Maximilian's Sunflower.

It isn't the identification of this species that is problematic, which certainly is a problem with some of its ilk. No, it is a question of nativeness; does the sunflower have its Ohio papers?

Out of the nearly 1,900 or so native plants in the Buckeye State, precious few present problems in terms of assessing their nativeness, and this is one of them. Maximilian's Sunflower has been collected in at least 20 of Ohio's 88 counties, and there is no doubt that nearly all of these populations are from introduced sources. But one shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water, and thus declare all of the plant's stations to be non-native.
Map of Maximilian's Sunflower distribution, courtesy of the Biota of North America Program. The bright green dots represent native range; blue dots are thought to be non-native populations.

But the area in which we found the sunflower, Strait Creek in Pike County, is a region famed for all of its rare prairie plants, many at their limits of range. At this site, Maximilian's Sunflower is surrounded by native plants, many of them rarities that are quite habitat-specific. Non-natives are few, and there are no other "strange" exotics to offer supporting evidence that perhaps the sunflower became established from plantings of long ago.

On the con side, our sunflower is commonly produced for plantings, but for the most part such a use is probably fairly recent. There was an old homesite, destroyed in the 1970's, not far from the sunflower population. And there is some evidence that transport of hay crops from the west, long ago, may have resulted in unintentional introductions of plants.

While it may be impossible to ascertain with absolute certaintly that this Ohio population of Maximilian's Sunflower is native, I feel that the preponderance of evidence suggests it is.


Musicmom said...

My maximilians (which I got at a native plant sale just a few years ago) are taller than me.

Jim McCormac said...

Excellent observation, "Musicmom". When taken form the wild and freed of the tremendous subterranean root competition with all of the other plants, prairie plants will often soar to gigantic heights.