Friday, August 23, 2013

An encounter with the Erect Dayflower, finally!

Jasper-Pulaski Wildlife Area near Medaryville, Indiana, a place famous for the thousands of Sandhill Cranes that congregate here in late fall and early winter. But J-P's 8,000+ acres also conserves an outstanding sand prairie and associated wetlands. On my recent foray here, I was especially keen to see and photograph some of the flora, including plants that are either very rare in Ohio, or don't quite make it this far east.

A gridwork of gravelly lanes bisect the wildlife area, and their verges are covered with interesting prairie plants. Exploring Jasper-Pulaski in August will produce a bounty of flora; this is peak time to be in the prairies.

Lush stands of one of the great prairie grasses, Big Bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, tower well above head height.

The nearly naked stems of Western Sunflower, Helianthus occidentalis, support bright yellow blossoms that create lemony drifts in dry sandy ground. This plant is very rare in Ohio, but is a ubiquitous roadside sight in Jasper-Pulaski.

Another great rarity in Ohio is this beautiful mint, the Dotted Horsemint, Monarda punctata. It is everywhere in Jasper-Pulaski, sometimes forming extensive stands. The genus Monarda is famed for its beauty, and Dotted Horsemint may be the best looking of any of them.

This is an oddball in the Amaranth family, and nearly sure to stump someone who is unfamiliar with it. It's Cottonweed, Froelichia floridana, and it looks a bit like a flowering willow that got attacked by a fungus. But this is it - the plant is in its full flowering finery. Continuing with the rare (for Ohio) theme, Cottonweed is endangered in the Buckeye State; only one site is known, near Marietta.

Bluecurls, Trichostema dichotomum, is a tiny mint that would be quite easy to pass over, even when in full bloom. This tiny blossom would be measured in millimeters.

Among all of the fabulous plants that I saw on this trip, this one was my personal favorite, and one that created some interesting history in my life. It is Erect Dayflower, Commelina erecta, a gorgeous species of dry sandy plains, prairies, and barrens.

The genus Commelina was named for Jan Commelin by the great Carl Linnaeus. Jan Commelin and his brother Caspar were brilliant Dutch botanists, and it is said that Linnaeus felt that the plant's two showy blue petals represent the two brothers. The third petal - at the base of the flower - is small, whitish, and quite inconspicuous.

Commelina erecta has a rather broad distribution, occurring to the west, east, and south of Ohio. The species is divided into three varieties, and the one that I saw at Jasper-Pulaski is C. erecta var. deamii, named in honor of the accomplished Indiana botanist Charles Deam.

Given that this plant comes so close to Ohio - the map above shows its Indiana distribution - it would be no stretch to assume that Erect Dayflower occurs in Ohio. We certainly have seemingly suitable habitat, especially in the sandy Oak Openings of northwest Ohio, where many of the species associated with the dayflower grow.

Thus, when Arthur Cronquist's seminal botanical manual Manual of Vascular Plants of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada emerged in 1991, I was surprised to see that he included Ohio in the range of Erect Dayflower. This was big botanical news - did the great Cronquist know something that we did not? Perhaps, with the vast collection of specimens housed at the New York Botanical Garden at his fingertips, he was privy to an old collection that had escaped the Ohio botanists' attention.

So, I took keyboard in hand, and dashed off a letter to Patricia Holmgren at the New York Botanical Garden, inquiring whether any specimens of Commelina erecta from Ohio were included in their collection. It probably never crossed my mind to write the great Cronquist directly, as I probably would have thought that he'd have no time for dealing with such petty matters.

To my great surprise, not long after I sent my letter, I received the letter above, from no less than Cronquist himself! You can click the letter, expand it, and read it for yourself. He, in his humorous way, had taken precious time to answer the inquiry of a young botanist who had absorbed his manual like a sponge, and as it turned out, had found one of the few errors in the book.

I was of course delighted to receive a direct reply from Cronquist, and his letter trumped the lack of Commelina erecta in Ohio. The letter is a treasure to me, and is all the more significant because Arthur Cronquist passed away only 74 days after he wrote it. But I had never seen Erect Dayflower, and resolved to some day cast eyes upon flowering specimens, in the wild. Thus, it was a great pleasure and an especially momentous occasion to finally see the plant in its glory in the hot dry sand prairies of Jasper-Pulaski.


Betsy said...

What a wonderful archival treasure that letter is! That must have prompted Dr. Cronquist to pencil in a correction to his manual that's just as interesting as the correction William Starling Sullivant wrote in his Musci boreali that I found. Seeing that plant certainly was a very special moment for you. A photo capturing your reaction to seeing it would have been fun for you to have!

Ruth said...

I appreciate the blog and excellent photos that I came to via google while trying to identify the blue flower that grows in my "lawn" in St Augustine Florida -- it is commeline erecta. I have not seen it in Northern Virginia where I lived for the past 14 years. I like having a meadow in my front yard rather than an emaculate lawn. Commeline erecta is the most beautiful of the flowers growing there -- I also have poinsettia heterophylla and a rather nasty nettle, cnidoscolus stimulosus!

I need someone like Dr McCormac in Florida to help me learn about the local flora in northern Florida!