In search of Hexastylis minor [Asarum minus] or Little Heartleaf in South Carolina — 2018-03-24

For those of a sensitive nature, please be aware that I’m immediately jumping in to the brambles of some very geeky botanical stuff here. Disclaimer: Much of the following few paragraphs is my editorializing about taxonomy and such, so if you just want to look at the eye candy (pretty pictures), then skip ahead — my feelings won’t be hurt even one bit, but you do get extra points if you make it through the weeds.

There has been a move about to place the North American Heartleafs in the genus, Asarum. Currently, they are known by most botanists to be in the genus, Hexastylis. Taxonomy is the way that humans, according to their nature, order things so that they can better understand the world around themselves. The taxonomic way of classifying organisms is based on similarities between different organisms. A biologist named Carolus Linnaeus started this naming system; he also chose to use Latin words. Taxonomy used to be called Systematics.

The North American Heartleaf is ordered by discrete levels:

“Older” Taxonomy:

Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Magnoliids
Order: Piperales
Family: Aristolochiaceae
Genus: Hexastylis


“Newer” Taxonomy:

Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Magnoliids
Order: Piperales
Family: Aristolochiaceae
Subfamily: Asaroideae
Genus: Asarum
Subgenus: Heterotropa
Section: Hexastylis

From a fairly recent paper by Brandon T. Sinn, called, Asarum chueyi (Aristolochiaceae), a new species from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee and Virginia, USA, the following was written: “…the North American members of Asarum do not form a monophyletic group, but instead comprise two separate monophyletic groups. North American Asarum species with separate sepals, two deciduous leaves per node, and flowers that are autonomously self-pollinated via delayed stamen movement are found on both the east and west coasts, and form a clade that falls within Asarum subgenus Asarum. North American taxa that produce a single evergreen leaf per node and herkogamous flowers with connate sepals are restricted to the eastern portion of the continent and have been placed within Asarum subgenus Heterotropa (Kelly, 1997; 1998) section Hexastylis (Araki, 1937). Species of subgenus Heterotropa have showy, complex calyces that may mimic the sporocarps of basidiomycete fungi (Vogel, 1978; Lu, 1982; Sugawara, 1988; Leins and Erbar, 2010) and appear to have influenced the diversification of this subgenus (Sinn et al., 2015b). The North American members of this subgenus remained under-collected and under-described, most obviously due to their often restricted ranges, low growth habit, early flowering period, and the difficulty of working with the deformed flowers of pressed material (Ashe, 1897; Weakley, 2012).”

So…… I remain in the group of botanists/naturalists who have not bitten the taxonometric bullet and switched over from Hexastylis to Asarum. As Robin Sharma said, “Change is Hard at the Beginning, Messy in the Middle, and Gorgeous at the End.” Right now, I think that I am in the middle…


Now, let’s get to the results of the field trip. Here is a typical example of Little Heartleaf with its 11 flowers tightly packed near the ground at the center of the plant:

Little Heartleaf Little Heartleaf

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Devils Fork SP and Oconee Station Falls — wildflowers — 2018-03-17

After leaving the Pachysandra procumbens site, we headed a short distance west on Hwy. 11 to Devils Fork State Park. Here, we hoped to find Shortia galacifolia or Oconee Bells and Monotropsis odorata or Sweet Pinesap in bloom. Neither Alex Patton (photographer friend from Ohio) nor Sam Saulys (photographer friend from Connecticut) had photographed these two rather rare species. Alex and Sam drove to South Carolina to see these plants as well as any other wildflowers I could show them in our area of northwestern South Carolina.

Devils Fork State Park was created in 1990, about 20 years after the 7,500 acre (3,000+ hectare) Lake Jocassee was built and filled. The filling of this lake, whose purpose was to provide cooling water to a nuclear facility, buried the large percentage of the federally and state listed Shortia galacifolia or Oconee Bells under more than 300 feet (91 meters) of water. However, many creeks and tributaries in the immediate area of the lake currently host this rare plant.

On the Saturday we visited the site, the park was holding the Oconee Bells festival. I usually prefer to visit on a day when the festival is not taking place, because there are large numbers of visitors, and the Park Rangers are especially zealous about asking photographers to stay on the trail. But I wanted to make sure that my out-of-town visitors would be able to photograph the plants at their peak, so I scheduled their visit during the festival. Just hours before our visit, there was a deluge of rain, which I believe cut down the public attendance, considerably. This gave us just a bit more room to set up and photograph the flowers.

Oddly enough, to me anyway, the flowers always face the creek next to which they grow. That means you had better be prepared to get your feet wet to get the best shots. To make matters worse, the plants grow no more than 10-15 feet (3-5 meters) from the creek – never up in the woods bordering the creek. Here is a shot of a typical clump of Oconee Bell flowers:

Oconee Bells Oconee Bells

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The secret life of Pachysandra procumbens (and some other wonderful stuff) — 2018-03-17

This past weekend, I was fortunate to have two friends, Sam Saulys from Connecticut and Alex Patton from Ohio, as well as my faithful companion, Walter Ezell, join me for some local botanizing. In our area of South Carolina — the extreme northwestern counties of Greenville, Pickens, and Oconee — we have some really wonderful Spring ephemerals. Being ephemeral, they don’t hang around for very long, so it was important that my friends arrive during mid-March to enjoy the full impact.

It was going to be a long day out in the field, so we left as soon as we had breakfast and packed our gear in my truck. Sam was going to head toward home in Connecticut at the end of the day, so she drove her own car in our mini caravan.

Our first stop was a rich mountain cove near a place called Peach Orchard Branch in Pickens County. This is located in the wilds of the Jocassee Gorges Management Area. I was introduced to this site by my friend Rich Stevenson, who had photographed the leaves of Pachysandra procumbens or Allegheny Spurge around this same time, last year. I had known that this species was found in only a couple of small populations in the upstate, but until I saw his pictures and asked for directions, I didn’t know where to look for it.

The four of us arrived at the trail head and gathered our gear. The trail is actually an old logging road that winds around the mountains and borders the rushing waters of Eastatoe Creek, a great trout stream, filled with waterfalls and rapids. It is not a challenging trail at all, meandering through dense woods of deciduous trees, pines, and hemlocks. What normally takes me 10 minutes to get to the site from the trailhead, took us considerably longer, because my naturalist buddies wanted to inspect lots of plant specimens along the way.

We finally reached a spot where a patch of Pachysandra procumbens was growing on the banks of a small rivulet next to the trail. I had visited here about a week ago to make sure that the plants were in good shape and would provide a floral display for my guests. At that time, there were many budding stems, but I was not convinced that they would be in flower during our visit. We were not disappointed! This patch of plants provided more than a dozen spikes of white flowers, looking very much unlike any other flowering plant in this region. Here is an example of the flowers of this strange and wonderfully fragrant plant:

Pachysandra procumbens Pachysandra procumbens

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