Friday, June 20, 2008

Spigelia marilandica

When I lived in New Orleans, I amassed a nice collection of Louisiana's natural history books. None of the books are nearly as extensive and well-researched as their fellow bookshelf mates, my Missouri natural history books, but they represent a valiant effort nonetheless. Just as I did back home, I flip through one Louisiana book somewhat regularly, "Rare Plants of Pine-Hardwood Forests in Louisiana," published by our hook-and-bullet agency, the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries.

I used to pine over certain plants back home, always wanting to see wild geranium, Louisiana blue star, whorled pogonia in the woods, all plants listed as rare in the state. I searched for several years in the small, disjunct tracts of high quality woodlands and savannas for the live counterpart to the glossy full-page pictures. I never saw most of the plants in the book, including the stunning Indian pink (pictured). Well, until I moved to Missouri.

Louisiana's natural communities are, on the whole, poorly managed. Sure, the Forest Service burns Kisatchie pretty regularly and the Nature Conservancy has restored thousands of acres of high quality ecosystems. But Louisiana's woodlands have seen better days. Fire suppression, timber harvest and grazing have all but ruined the state's natural heritage. There's hardly a glimmer of a diverse future under current management regimes. Without the same bright vision that certain resource managers in Missouri possess, Louisiana's woods will continue to decline in quality. It's a testament to landscape management when 95% of Louisiana's rare plants are stable throughout their range.

So, fast forward to the Current River Hills, a deeply dissected region of the Ozarks that is particularly cherished by paddlers. Wild geranium grows prolifically here, even in degraded mesic woodlands. Shooting star, "very rare in Louisiana, known exclusively in older relatively mature, open woodlands," flourishes throughout the region. And Indian pink, the flower pictured on the cover of my "Rare Plants" book, grows along streamsides in rich, moist soils in the Current River Hills.

I had never seen the plant before. I knew exactly what it was, the tall bright red and yellow flower, as we zoomed past the low water crossing lined with it. If the accompanying botanists knew that we stopped the vehicle so I could fulfill a wish derived in Louisiana, they'd probably laugh. So, with Indian pink, I've now seen almost 80% of the rare-to-Louisiana plants in the Ozark Highlands, and none of them are even of conservation concern in Missouri.

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