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Morefield's Leather Flower

Matthew Paek, Auburn University
Morefield's Leather Flower
Morefield's leather flower (Clematis morefieldii) is a rare flowering perennial vine in the Order Ranunculales, which also includes poppies and buttercups, and the Ranunculaceae, or buttercup, family. It has been found so far in only four contiguous counties: Jackson and Madison Counties in Alabama and Franklin and Grundy Counties in Tennessee. The vine grows on limestone outcrops of the Cumberland Plateau on south- and southwest-facing mountain slopes. The genus name is Ancient Greek for "flowering vine" and the species honors James D. Morefield, the then-21-year-old botanist who first discovered it on Round Top Mountain in Madison County in 1982. It was listed as "endangered" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 1992; the service published a recovery plan for the species in 2010. It is related to the equally rare Alabama leather flower (Clematis socialis).
Morefield's leather flower was first described as a new species by Robert Kral, a famous botanist and biologist, in 1987. When Kral revisited the site where the species was first found, he came across an abundance of plants in flower and early fruit. When he explored the rest of the mountain, he was surprised to find another population of this plant on the opposite side. Upon examination, Kral determined that the plant belonged to subgenus Viorna within the Clematis genus. This subgenus is primarily distinguished by its thick, bevel-edged sepals and a short primary peduncle, or fruit-bearing stalk. There are eight members of the Viorna subgenus found in the southeast, with four of these recognized as rare throughout their range. Most of the species within this subgenus are found in the central and southeastern United States but Morefield's leather flower seems especially well-adapted to limestone outcrop habitats.
These vines grow up to 16 feet (5 meters) and bear compound leaves made up of several leaflets. The plant clings to its support system with winding tendrils. The purple bell-shaped "flowers" of Morefield's leather flower are actually sepals, the outer covering of a flower, and are produced on very short stems at the junctures of the leaves and the vine. The plant typically flowers in spring and forms fruits by June, but the timing can fluctuate depending on drought and other climate conditions. Once fall comes and temperatures start to cool, Morefield's leather flower dies back and re-emerges during the next growing season. Auburn University researcher Kyle Paris found that the plant's fruit production decreased if rainfall was low during peak flowering months, thus suggesting that the plant is intolerant of drought. In fact, it has the ability to go dormant during periods of low rainfall. Seeds typically lie dormant for a year before germinating. Another interesting fact about its reproduction is the one-year dormancy period of the seeds of Morefield's leather flower.
Morefield's Leather Flower
Multiple agencies, including the FWS, Alabama Natural Heritage Program, and the Nature Conservancy have worked to protect this species, acquiring 300 acres of land near Huntsville and creating the Keel Mountain Preserve to protect this plant. When it was first federally listed in 1992, only 8 current and historical populations were known, all within Madison County near Huntsville. Since its listing, five new populations have been discovered in Alabama along with 12 new populations in Tennessee. Surveys indicate there are about about 8,860 plants in Alabama and 6,750 plants in Tennessee across 22 total populations, with only about 10 percent being reproductively mature. The most immediate threat is the expansion of residential areas and other human development, with invasive species such as invasive honeysuckle species (Lonicera japonica and L. fragrantissima) also posing a significant danger. In addition, because this species relies on pollination by animals or insects, habitat fragmentation can disrupt these plant-pollinator interactions. This disruption can lead to low reproductive output, decreasing the viability of these populations. The site with the largest population in Alabama is located in the Nature Conservancy's 310-acre Keel Mountain Preserve just outside Huntsville.

Additional Resources

Paris, Kyle J., et al. "Impact of insecticide Treatment on Herbivory and Reproductive Success of the Federally Endangered Plant Clematis morefieldii Kral." Castanea 80 (December 2015): 229?42.
Paris, Kyle J., et al. "Reproductive Biology of the Federally Endangered Clematis morefieldii Kral (Ranunculaceae)." Castanea 81 (September 2016): 175-87.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Determination of Clematis morefieldii (Morefield?s Leather Flower) to be an Endangered Species." Federal Register 57 (1998): 21562-34420.
Published:  February 5, 2019   |   Last updated:  February 5, 2019