Maryland meadow-beauty (Rhexia marilandica), about three miles west of Lake Vesuvius in Lawrence County, Ohio, on August 27, 2023/Jim McCormac
Nature: Rare Maryland meadow-beauty spotted in Lawrence County
October 1, 2023
October 1, 2023
Back on Aug. 27, I had the pleasure of going afield with Iris Copen and Shaun Pogacnik, two of Ohio’s finest field botanists. Shaun, 27, is an Ohio University student, and Iris is 25 and a recent graduate of OU. The two Bobcats are employed as seasonal botanists by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, the agency that owns and manages Ohio’s system of state nature preserves.
We started our foray near the village of Pedro, in Lawrence County. The heavily forested county includes the southernmost point in the state: South Point, on the banks of the Ohio River. Despite covering 453 square miles, there are only about 58,000 residents in Lawrence County.
Just two days prior, Iris and Shaun had made an epic discovery, and we wasted no time trekking to the locale. There is a saying in field botany: The best finds come by following the path of greatest resistance. This find lived up to the old adage, requiring a hike along muddy trails, often pocked with deep mud puddles that had to bushwhacked around.
After a mile and half, we reached ground zero, and Ohio’s newly discovered population of Maryland meadow-beauty (Rhexia mariana). This southern species occurs most plentifully along the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains, from Pennsylvania to Texas. It becomes increasingly rare northward in the interior, reaching its limits in Kentucky and southernmost Indiana. This Ohio record is a significant range extension.
When Iris and Shaun first saw this locale on Aug. 25, the pink flowers of a vibrant stand of Virginia meadow-beauty (Rhexia virginica) quickly caught their eye. This was an exciting find, as the plant is listed as potentially threatened by ODNR, and is known from only a handful of counties. But Iris noticed one of the meadow-beauty stands didn’t look quite right, investigated more closely and saw that it was the similar Maryland meadow-beauty. She knew this plant well from extensive field work in Florida, where it is common.
I was impressed by the botanists’ intrepidness in venturing back to this place, as, for the most part, the habitat didn’t appear especially conducive to major finds, and it was a long slog to reach the site. But Shaun and Iris are well-known for going far afield over tough terrain. In fact, on Sept. 12, 2021, they discovered another Ohio first, also in Lawrence County: hairy lipfern (Myriopteris lanosa). Finding that diminutive fern involved an arduous mile-long brush-beating climb to a cliff high above the village of Rome, with the hills of West Virginia in the distance.
For a plant-hunter, discovering first state records of native plants is the equivalent of a gold medal. I know well the elation that comes with significant discoveries. During my field botany career, I managed to discover or co-discover a dozen new species to Ohio, and nine extirpated species (plants thought to have disappeared from the state). Such finds are a botanist’s high.
New discoveries are increasingly hard to make, as botanists have been scouring Ohio for two centuries. Increasingly, one must be willing to venture way off the beaten path, often in remote parts of the state. An encyclopedic knowledge of flora is a must, as many newer finds involve species with very similar brethren that confuse the issue. Additionally, plant taxonomy and nomenclature is increasingly complex, as species are split into multiples or combined into one, families are subdivided or lumped, and scientific names seem to change with the seasons.
Every time I am afield with Iris and Shaun, I feel like I just attended a master’s level course on botany. Both have an impressive command of the current state of North American botany, incredibly discerning eyes, and no fear of going far afield on foot through all manner of conditions. Both have already made many exceptional plant (and moss and lichen) finds, and they are just getting started. I look forward to their next great finds.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.