L. J. Davenport, Samford UniversityChris Oberholster, The Nature Conservancy
The state of Alabama is much celebrated for its biodiversity, ranking fourth in the United States (after Hawaii, Florida, and California) in total number of species. Most of its very rare plants and animals are protected from human impact by federal law, specifically the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). Alabama currently has approximately 25 plant species protected under the ESA. (The official number of listed protected species varies depending upon additions and subtractions by federal authorities, and the status of a species may change based on new information that is gathered about its rarity.) The list of protected species is overseen by the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
A species is declared "endangered" when its extinction seems likely or imminent; it is listed as "threatened" when extinction may be likely based on predicted negative changes in a large part of its range. A species is declared a "candidate" when it is being studied for possible listing as either endangered or threatened. Of the 25 plant species currently listed, 13 are endangered, seven are threatened, and five are candidate species. For each of the first two federal categories, a brief description of the plant and summary of its Alabama distribution are provided below.
Like the green pitcher plant, this subspecies requires open boggy areas, but it is restricted to the Coastal Plain rather than to uplands. Its flowers are maroon, drooping from two-foot stalks from April to June. Endemic to central Alabama, it is found in Autauga, Chilton, and Elmore counties.
Alabama Leather-Flower (Clematis socialis)
This sprawling herb—a sister species of Morefield's Leather-Flower—grows up to one foot high in full sunlight in wet, silt-clay areas bordering creeks and bottomland woods. It produces blue, one-inch long, bell-shaped flowers in April and May. Endemic to Alabama, it is found in Cherokee, Etowah, and St. Clair counties.
Alabama Pinkroot (Spigelia alabamensis)
This endemic species of the logania family (Loganiaceae) is known only from the Ketona glade communities of Bibb County in central Alabama. There, it grows, up to one foot tall, in the dry, rocky substrate. It produces tubular, pink, upward-pointed blooms during May and June.
American Chaffseed (Schwalbea americana)
This species of the broomrape family (Orobanchaceae) is a partial or hemi-parasite, dependent on a variety of host plants for part of its nutritional requirements. It prefers open, moist savannas with frequent fires during dry periods. Large, tubular, purplish-yellow flowers are produced from April to June. This species is found from New Jersey south to Florida and Alabama; in Alabama, it is known from Baldwin, Bullock, Geneva, and Mobile counties.
Gentian Pinkroot (Spigelia gentianoides)
This sister species differs from the Alabama Pinkroot by having broader leaves, more flowers per inflorescence, and smaller and more open corollas. It also differs in its preferred habitat, that being pine-dominated forests of the Florida Panhandle and adjacent southernmost Alabama, where it is found in Geneva County.
Green Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia oreophila)
This species in the pitcher plant family (Sarraceniaceae) grows only in open boggy areas, along streambanks, or near seeps in upland areas of Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina. Both its drooping flowers and erect, tubular leaves are green. In Alabama, it is found in Cherokee, DeKalb, Elmore, Etowah, Jackson, and Marshall counties. Pitcher plants are notable for their ability to trap and digest insects, an adaptation to their nutrient-poor habitats.
Harperella (Ptilimnium nodosum)
This small herbaceous species of the carrot family (Apiaceae) is restricted to rocky creek banks and shoals of Alabama, North Carolina, and West Virginia. Clusters (called umbels) of small, inconspicuous white flowers appear in June and July; following seed-set, the plants die back to the ground. In Alabama, this species is found in Cherokee, Cullman, DeKalb, and Tuscaloosa counties. Its common name honors Roland Harper, the long-time botanist for the Geological Survey of Alabama.
Leafy Prairie Clover (Dalea foliosa)
This species of the legume family (Fabaceae) grows in open, cedar-glade habitats of Illinois, Tennessee, and Alabama. One to two feet tall, its small purple flowers appear from July to August. Its pinnately compound leaves are composed of 20 to 30 leaflets. In Alabama, it is found in Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Jefferson, and Morgan counties.
Louisiana Quillwort (Isoetes louisianensis)
This inconspicuous, non-flowering, aquatic plant is a member of the quillwort family (Isoetaceae) and is native to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Its slender, quill-like leaves grow up to 16 inches long. In Alabama, it occurs on sand bars of small streams in Conecuh, Covington, Mobile, Monroe, and Washington counties.
Morefield's Leather-Flower (Clematis morefieldii)
This vine is a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) and grows near seeps (wet areas or pools created by groundwater discharge) on limestone slopes under mixed hardwoods, especially on rocky south-facing slopes. It is a sister species of Alabama Leather-Flower (Clematis socialis). Covered with dense white hairs, the vines produce pink, one-inch long, urn-shaped blooms from late May through July. This species was once thought to be endemic to (or only known from) Alabama, restricted to Jackson and Madison counties, but it has also been found in the Cumberland Plateau region of neighboring Tennessee.
Pondberry (Lindera melissifolia)
This spring-flowering shrub is found in low woods of the Coastal Plain of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, and South Carolina, especially around depressions, sinks, and pond margins. Growing three to four feet high, its twigs and drooping, ovate, two-inch-long leaves are sweetly aromatic. In Alabama, this species is found in Covington and Wilcox counties.
Relict Trillium (Trillium reliquum)
Typical of trilliums, this species of the lily family (Liliaceae) grows best in moist, shady hardwood forests. This trillium grows to just under one foot tall, and its three waxy, blotchy leaves bear a single flower directly on top of their juncture. Flower color ranges from greenish brown to purple or yellow, and the blooms appear in early spring. This species was first described in 1975 by John D. Freeman of Auburn University; he named it "relict" because it once occurred much more broadly in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. (Its habitat losses have resulted from the conversion of native forests to pine plantations and agriculture.) In Alabama, it remains in Bullock, Henry, and Lee counties.
Tennessee Yellow-Eyed Grass (Xyris tennesseensis)
This species of the yellow-eyed grass family (Xyridaceae) is found in open, wet seepage areas and on stream banks of Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. Although not a true grass, it has a grasslike appearance, with slender twisted leaves up to 18 inches long. Small, pale yellow flowers pop out from an oval head of brown scales in August and September. This species has been found in Bibb, Calhoun, Franklin, and Shelby counties in Alabama.
Like the American Hart's-Tongue Fern (below), this species of the marsh fern family (Thelypteridaceae) requires cool, shady conditions and is found commonly in protected coves, where it grows on overhangs and cliff faces. Its evergreen leaves, 4 to 8 inches long, are deeply scalloped. This species, known only from Winston County, Alabama, is named in honor of Mary Ivy Burks.
American Hart's Tongue Fern (Asplenium scolopendrium var. americanum)
This fern variety—a type of spleenwort (Aspleniaceae)—is found at cave entrances and near limestone sinks (where underlying limestone has broken down, forming a sink hole), which provide the high humidity and deep shade necessary for its growth. This fern shows a spotty or noncontinuous distribution in North America, from Ontario, New York, and Michigan south to Tennessee, Alabama, and Mexico. In Alabama, it is known only from Jackson and Morgan counties.
Granite Pool Sprite (Amphianthus pusillus)
This small (one-half inch across), aquatic, annual plant of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae) grows only in temporary, shallow pools on granite outcrops in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. In Alabama, it is known from Chambers, Randolph, and Tallapoosa counties along the Georgia border. Its tiny white flowers appear between pairs of floating leaves in late winter or early spring, producing seeds that remain dormant in the dry pool bottoms until the following season.
Kral's Water Plantain (Sagittaria secundifolia)
This aquatic plant of the water plantain family (Alismataceae) grows in rocky creek beds, either on or below the water's surface. Individual plants, connected by rhizomes buried in the substrate, produce pointed, linear leaves up to 12 inches long. Endemic to Alabama, this species is known from Cherokee (Little River), Coosa (Hatchet Creek), DeKalb (Little River), and Winston (Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River) counties.
Lyrate Bladderpod (Lesquerella lyrata)
This Alabama endemic occurs on the exposed, shallow soils of cedar glades. An annual plant in the mustard family (Brassicaceae), it grows only four to twelve inches high. Small yellow flowers appear in March and April and produce seeds that remain dormant until the following spring. It is found in Colbert, Franklin, and Lawrence counties of Alabama.
Mohr's Barbara's Buttons (Marshallia mohrii)
This species of the sunflower family (Asteraceae) grows in wet, open areas of woodlands and along streams and roadsides of the southern Appalachians (Georgia and Alabama). Two feet tall, it produces heads of small, pink flowers during May and June. Found in Alabama in Bibb, Calhoun, Cherokee, Cullman, Etowah, and Walker counties, it was named in honor of Mobile pharmacist and botanist Charles Mohr.
Price's Potato-Bean (Apios priceana)
A member of the legume family (Fabaceae), this climbing, yellow-green vine grows from a potato-like tuber, which was used by Native Americans and early settlers for food. It prefers forest openings in mixed hardwood stands, especially in valleys that slope down toward creek bottoms. The vines, which may reach 15 feet in length, produce pale pink or yellow-green flowers during July and August; the resulting fruits or pods are 4 to 6 inches long. Price's Potato-Bean is currently known from Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. In Alabama, it occurs in Autauga, Dallas, Jackson, Lawrence, Madison, Marshall, Monroe, and Wilcox counties.
As noted previously, the official federal list of plants is in constant flux; this is especially true of the candidate species. Currently, five such species are included on this list: Georgia rockcress (Arabis georgiana, Brassicaceae); whorled sunflower (Helianthus verticillatus, Asteraceae); fleshy-fruit glade cress (Leavenworthia crassa, Brassicaceae); white fringeless orchid (Platanthera integrilabia, Orchidaceae); and Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum, Asteraceae). It is best to check the U.S. Fish & Wildlife list for the most up-to-date information on these plants.
Conservation of all of the above listed plant species is based on public education and awareness. These efforts, by federal, state and local agencies, have made Alabama's citizens—and particularly farmers and foresters—better aware of the potential presence of these species, their rarity, and the need for their protection.
Kral, Robert, et. al. Annotated Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Alabama. Forth Worth, Texas: BRIT Press, 2011.
Welcome to your free, online resource on Alabama history, culture, geography, and natural environment. This site offers articles on Alabama's famous people, historic events, sports, art, literature, industry, government, plant and animal life, agriculture, recreation, and so much more.