22-30 September 2004
Installment #240---Visitor #hidden counter

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One autumn a few years ago, Dr. Richard Houk--retired botany professor and long-time friend from Winthrop University--noticed a stand of tall, yellow sunflowers growing on a roadside in York County, not far from Hilton Pond Center. Finding sunflowers along a highway isn't usually that big a deal; after all, there are nearly a jillion native sunflower species, most of which grow in open places. These particular sunflowers, however, towered above all the neighboring plants, and even while driving down the highway Dick Houk knew in an instant they were Schweinitz's Sunflowers. The plants Dick noticed were special for two reasons: 1) Schweinitz's Sunflowers are an endangered species that grows ONLY in a few places within a small region of the Carolina Piedmont; and 2) the plants were smack in the way of road construction and development. All this led the good Dr. Houk--who's deeply involved in the Schweinitz's Sunflower Recovery Program--to rescue the plants by digging up their tuberous roots, with the intent of transplanting them to less-threatened locales.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Knowing our interest in all things natural, Dick offered us various sizes of the sunflower tubers (see large branched root below); these were to be transplanted at Hilton Pond Center, where we hoped a population would become established and produce seeds we might collect and scatter elsewhere. The sunflowers were to be placed along a Hilton Pond trail where, in turn, we could lead Guided Field Trips and discuss what this endangered sunflower can tell us about major changes in the Piedmont physiographic province. Odd as it may seem, Schweinitz's Sunflower--native to the Carolina Piedmont--is a PRAIRIE plant that indicates once upon a time there were bona fide "Piedmont prairies."

Schweinitz's Sunflower, Helianthus schweinitzii, tuberous rhizome

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Although it's commonly believed the entire Carolina Piedmont was densely forested prior to the coming of Europeans, the region actually included large expanses of native Piedmont prairie, especially within 60 miles or so of present-day Charlotte NC. Such grassy savannas--open plains dotted with occasional trees and shrubs--contained many plants related to but quite distinct from flora found in tallgrass and shortgrass prairies of the Midwestern U.S.

One Piedmont prairie species, Schweinitz's Sunflower, is a perennial wildflower that persists today in a very few remnant Carolina prairies and along utility and highway rights-of-way. There are only about 90 known populations, many containing fewer than 40 plants each. Because of its scarcity, Schweinitz's Sunflower has been placed on the Endangered Species List and is fully protected by state and federal laws. Folks like Dick Houk--concerned about saving Schweinitz's Sunflower from extinction--seek out and protect local populations of the plant, sometimes by relocating entire colonies to protected public and private land.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

After Dick gave us the bag of Schweinitz's Sunflower roots for Hilton Pond Center, we dug shallow holes in early May 2002 and planted the tubers in a meadow-like area (above) that we keep open by mowing lightly in alternate winters. We anticipated the sunflowers would thrive in this "artificial prairie" and develop as a protected population with its own genetic diversity.

Schweinitz's Sunflower, Helianthus schweinitzii, tuberous rhizomeWe watched the Center's tubers closely throughout the remainder of 2002. Despite our efforts to keep them watered, some shrivelled and died from drought conditions, and several apparently were pawed up and eaten by White-tailed Deer. Although some minor vegetative growth did occur that year and in the one following, no blooms were produced. That is, not until this week when we were elated--and relieved--to finally find a seven-foot-tall stalk bearing more than 20 buds and flowers!

Schweinitz's Sunflower, Helianthus schweinitzii, draws its scientific name from Greek words for "sun" and "flower"; and from Lewis David von Schweinitz (1780-1834), a Salem NC clergyman who discovered the species and is also known as the "father of North American mycology." The plant grows from a tuber that in old specimens sometimes divides into finger-like branches. In late spring, each mature tuber sends up a stiff, slow-growing stem bearing leaves that are opposite and 4-8" long by about an inch wide (left). The leaves are noticeably fuzzy, with a rough upper surface bearing hairs that point toward the leaf tip; the underside has many soft, white hairs. The plant grows 3-6' tall, usually with a single stem that branches at 45-degree angles above its mid-point (below right); above that, leaves are smaller and alternate. Stems are bright purplish-red and contrast with the green of surrounding vegetation. Occasional plants tower above the landscape at heights of 15 feet, making them easily identifiable among other yellow asters and sunflowers.

Across the Carolina Piedmont, colonies of Schweinitz's Sunflower begin blooming as early as August and continue flowering to first frost. Like other members of the Composite Family (Asteraceae), the plants have a florescence made up of two kinds of flowers (below right): fertile disc flowers are at the center, surrounded by sterile ray flowers that are incorrectly called "petals." The disc flowers are yellow to purplish red, forming a center a little less than an inch in diameter, while the yellow ray flowers extend out an inch or two. The flower heads produce smooth, round nutlets about 1.5" long--fruit quite different from the wind-borne feathery seeds of composites such as Dandelions.

Schweinitz's Sunflower is known today from small populations in southcentral North Carolina (Anson, Cabarrus, Davidson, Gaston, Mecklenburg, Montgomery, Randolph, Rowan, Stanly and Union Counties) and northcentral South Carolina (Lancaster and York Counties). Fewer than ten populations occur in protected sites, another ten survive along roadsides, and three more are within utility line rights-of-way; three others have been partially bulldozed in recent years. Since all populations are small they are highly vulnerable to roadside right-of-way "maintenance and improvement," especially when herbicides are used; some populations are likewise endangered by residential and commercial development. Invasive exotic plants such as Chinese Privet, Ligustrum sinensis, and Japanese Honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica, frequently threaten the sunflowers by crowding them out of their native habitats.

One other thing working against Schweinitz's Sunflower is that it grows at a specific stage of vegetative succession--just prior to an influx of woody shrubs and tree saplings. In the Carolinas, this stage was maintained historically by wildfire and/or native grazing animals such as Elk, White-tailed Deer, and American Bison. These days, potential sunflower habitat is usually kept open by a different kind of Deere--we mean John Deere, of course. Unfortunately, when mowing is repeated in sunflower habitat during the flowering and fruiting season it further endangers the species--particularly those plants growing along highway shoulders.

Since the 20 blossoms on our solitary Schweinitz's Sunflower at Hilton Pond Center were attracting pollinators such as beetles, small bees, and wasps (above left), we can only hope the flowers eventually will produce nutlets. You'd better believe we'll harvest those seeds carefully and guard them with our lives before planting them next spring--thus expanding the local population and doing our small part to save Schweinitz's Sunflower from extinction. If we just had a sizeable personal fortune, we would spend it on converting Piedmont farmland into expansive prairies. Maybe then even buffalo would be encouraged to return to South Carolina and graze among the Schweinitz's Sunflowers that Dick Houk is helping protect.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

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Please report your
sightings of
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds


22-30 September 2004

Ruby-throated Hummingbird--7
Eastern Phoebe--2
Hooded Warbler--1
Palm Warbler--1
House Finch--4
Summer Tanager--2
Eastern Towhee--2
Scarlet Tanager--1
Tufted Titmouse--1
Brown Thrasher--2

* = New species for 2004

10 species

55 species
1,778 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
45,083 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)


All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

--Jeanne, the last (we hope) of the 2004 hurricanes, followed the lead of most of her predecessors and spared Hilton Pond Center from calamity. Locations less than 20 miles east and west of our base in York SC received torrential downpours and heavy winds courtesy of Jeanne, while the Center's rain gauge accumulated only 1.7" of precipitation of a day and a half. We have in the past postulated that York's microclimate is affected by what we call the King's Pinnacle Effect, but the more we watched the path of Hurricane Jeanne on the Weather Channel, the more we wonder if our somewhat tongue-in-cheek hypothesis might not actually be valid.

--On 22 Sep we trapped a rather rotund Ruby-throated Hummingbird, all fattened up in preparation for migration. This young male tipped the scales at 5.42g--nearly TWICE the weight of some male ruby-throats that aren't in migrating condition. Even so, he wasn't the heaviest male ruby-throated we've ever banded--5.92g is our record--but he was still so fat he looked like a flying sausage when we released him after banding.

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