In search of a rare and newly described Heartleaf, Hexastylis rosei in Caldwell County, North Carolina — 2017-05-27

On May 27, 2017, my good friend and photographer, Alan Cressler joined me on the search for a rare and newly-described Heartleaf called Hexastylis rosei. Before I go any farther, I have to stop right here and issue a disclaimer of sorts. The author of the paper (Brandon T. Sinn) describing this new Heartleaf chose to place the plant in the genus, Asarum rather than Hexastylis. I will save you some grief by giving you two links: one pointing to the author’s paper (you may have to click more than once to get it to link properly – the site is slow) describing the new Heartleaf, and the other a very detailed discussion of the excruciating path that the Heartleaf plants have had to endure in their naming. It’s only for the botany geeks in our midst. I will tell you, though, that the meat of this last discussion is as follows:

Some authors split species into multiple genera and other authors lumped the species into sections within fewer genera. There is no single precedence of classification for Asarum, sensu lato [in the broad sense] and to this day, none of them have been absolutely verified for all of the species concerned. This history of classification begins in pre-Linnaean times and continues to the present.

So, on my own, I have decided to place this new Heartleaf species in the genus, Hexastylis, and all references to it in this blog will be to Hexastylis rosei. ‘Nuf said…

Here is a close-up shot of the flower of this new species:

Hexastylis rosei Hexastylis rosei (Rose’s Heartleaf)

Before showing you the images we made of the new Hexastylis plants/flowers, I will take you on a botanical field trip to show you some of the many different wildflowers we saw along the way to the site. We left from my mountain cabin in Elk Park, Avery County, NC to the site along the National Wild and Scenic River called, Wilson Creek, in Caldwell County. This is a trip of about 37 miles (60 km), but because of the unpaved, winding mountain roads, it would take us about 1 hour and 20 minutes to get there (if we didn’t stop along the way). If you’ve ever joined me on any adventure in the field, you will know that I stop a great deal – I brake for wildflowers. I think it took us more than 3 hours to get to the final destination.

The first stop was near Grandfather Mountain State Park. Grandfather Mountain is so named because it was thought to be the oldest peak in the Unites States. As we were driving, we spotted a large population of Diphylleia cymosa or Umbrella-leaf, many of which were already going into seed. The leaf of this showy plant can be as wide as 2 feet (60 cm) across. It’s showy white flowers are held on a cyme above the leaves:

Umbrella-leaf flowers

Umbrella-leaf plant and flowers

Growing in the shade under these huge leaves, was a plant called, Hydrophyllum virginianum var. atranthum or Virginia Waterleaf:

Virginia Waterleaf Virginia Waterleaf

We finished our work at this first stop and headed down the southwest flank of Grandfather Mountain toward our goal in Caldwell County.

A short distance away, we spotted the lovely magenta-purple flowers of Rhododendron catawbiense or Catawba Rhododendron. This native Rhododendron is a favorite of residents in the area, providing large showy bouquets of flowers in the spring. It blooms much earlier than its larger and more common cousin, Rhododendron maximum or Rose Bay Rhododendron. The latter is found all up and down the Appalachian chain on the East Coast, whereas the former is relegated to the handful of states in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Here are some shots we took of the Catawba Rhododendron:

Catawba Rhododendron

Catawba Rhododendron

Our next stop would be along a curve in the mountain road which provided three colorful species. The first of these is Penstemon smallii or Small’s Beardtongue.

Small's Beardtongue

We would be seeing this beautiful plant scattered along the roadside for the remainder of the trip.

Small's Beardtongue Small's Beardtongue

A few feet away from the Small’s Beardtongue were the bright red flowers of Silene virginica or Fire Pink. It is a member of the same family as the Carnation, a favorite often found in the wearer’s lapel.

Fire Pink Fire Pink

Down the road in the opposite direction were groups of Tradescantia subaspera or Spiderwort:

Spiderwort Spiderwort

This was quite the colorful curve in the road!

We packed our gear back into the truck and continued our drive through the forests of the Southern Appalachians. Not too far down the road, I spotted a common but beautiful wildflower, Galax urceolata, known mononymously as Galax, or Beetleweed:

Galax

The round, crenulate leaves of this plant will become more important when we reach our final destination.

Galax Galax

A bit further down the road, we spot two white-flowered species that couldn’t be any more different from each other. The first of these is a tall plant called, Xerophyllum asphodeloides or Eastern Turkey’s Beard. The flowers are held upright on a 4-foot (120 cm) stalk. It is usually found further north, but is seen sporadically as far south as South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama:

Eastern Turkey's Beard Eastern Turkey's Beard

Eastern Turkey's Beard

The long, thin leaves are grass-like and have serrated edges:

Leaves of Eastern Turkey's Beard

The other white-flowered plant is fairly common in the foothills and mountains, and is called, Porteranthus trifoliatus/Gillenia trifoliata and has several common names including Indian physic, American Ipecac, and Bowman’s Root. I have always found the oddly shaped flowers quite attractive:

Indian physic

Indian physic

Indian physic

Just before reaching our destination, I spot a large population of Asclepias exaltata or Poke Milkweed along the side of the road. Milkweeds are one of my favorite plants, so I had to stop and photograph a few of the plants, the leaves of which I understand are a favorite of the larvae of Danaus plexippus or the Monarch butterfly:

Poke Milkweed

Poke Milkweed

Poke Milkweed

We finally reach our destination. It’s a roadside cut steep into the mountain, and it stretches for almost 1 mile (1.6 km). When I say, “steep” I mean exactly that. To photograph the flowers which, btw, seem to want to grow about 12 to 15 feet or more (3.6 to 4.5 meters) up the slope, one has to find a way to get a foot planted in the dirt and slither up the slope. I used a rock hammer with the pick end as a gripping tool to help raise me up the steep incline. Here are a couple of shots of the slope from the far side of the gravel road:

steep slope where the Hexastylis plants grow

Alan standing precariously about 10 feet (3.5 meters) above the road

The first Hexastylis plants we came across were Hexastylis shuttleworthii or Large-flower Heartleaf. The flowers on these bad boys are frequently almost 2 inches (5 cm) across – quite large for the genus. Here is a shot of one of the leaves. You can easily see the heart-shaped outline and the variegated mottling.

Leaf of Hexastylis shuttleworthii

The flowers at this site were quite variable in their shape and coloration – more so than I’ve seen at any other sites. It makes me wonder if there is some hybridization going on. Since most of the Hexatylis species are self-pollinating, it is difficult for me to believe that there would be any cross-pollination. Since the flowers are at ground level (usually under the leaf litter), I suppose it is possible that a beetle, slug, or even ants could “possibly” cross-pollinate the flowers. I just don’t know…

Anyway, here is a selection of photographs of the many Large-flower Heartleaf plants that we saw at the site. The first three images show flowers which are fairly typical for the species:

Large-flower Heartleaf

Large-flower Heartleaf

Large-flower Heartleaf

Now it starts to get a little weird:

Large-flower Heartleaf

Large-flower Heartleaf

Large-flower Heartleaf

And finally, this very weird one:

Large-flower Heartleaf

As we walked further down the gravel road, we were motivated to scan the slope very carefully for signs of the new Hexastylis species we were looking for. Part of the problem of locating them is that they grow intermixed with Galax plants. Earlier, I mentioned that the shape of the Galax leaf would play an important part in our search. The part that it plays is to cause much confusion in what we are seeing. Here is a side-by-side comparison of leaves of two species, with Galax on the left and Hexastylis rosei on the right:

Comparison of Galax and Hexastylis rosei leaves

The pronounced heart shape and mottling of typical Heartleaf plants is not so apparent in this species. There are more similarities than there are differences, though, between the leaf of Galax and Hexastylis rosei. After a while, we began to notice that one big difference is the shape of the mid-vein on the leaf. The Galax leaf has raised veins whereas the Hexastylis rosei leaves have depressed veins – especially the large, mid-vein. The sample leaves show that Galax has deeper serrations around the leaf margin, but that is not always the case. And when you are looking at plants that are 6 or more feet (2 meters) above your head, it becomes even more problematic.

However, we did prevail. We found several plants with 10 or 11 flowers! That was many more than I had expected to find. Most of the plants had a range of from 2 to 6 flowers per plant. Here are some images of the best ones we were able to locate and to be able to reach for photographic purposes. This first one shows Alan precariously hanging on in front of one of the better specimens we found:

Alan and Hexastylis rosei

Hexastylis rosei plant with exposed flowers

Hexastylis rosei

Hexastylis rosei

Note that we had to carefully uncover the flowers and brush aside the leaf litter to expose the flowers, which grow at ground level. This is no easy feat while hanging on to the incline for dear life and at the same time, holding on to a camera, tripod, and fill flash!

Here are some shots of other specimens we saw:

Hexastylis rosei

Hexastylis rosei

Note the dense, white pubescence covering the surface of the flowers. These flowers do not have “petals”, but rather those are the calyx lobes. The white “hairs” are actually multicellular trichomes which transition to entirely red color within the calyx tube.

Here are some more images:

Hexastylis rosei

Hexastylis rosei

Hexastylis rosei

Finally, here is a plant, in situ, where the flowers can barely be seen from our vantage point on the road. The flowers are growing at ground level:

Hexastylis rosei

After several hours of clambering up and down the serious incline, I was bushed. It was time to head back to the cabin. So we packed our gear with full recognition that we had found what we were looking for. That’s not always the case, but this time, we were lucky. The bloom time for this Hexastylis species is later than almost all of the other ones except for Hexastylis shuttleworthii. If I had been walking along the gravel road and botanizing with no specific goal in mind, I probably would not have noticed this particular Heartleaf, because it is growing among the plants of another similar looking species. Mark Rose has a good eye for these types of things. He was actually looking for those weird varieties of Hexastylis shuttleworthii when he first found this new species. When you go out into the field, you should always expect the unexpected.

As we wound our way back up the mountain, we crossed a couple of creeks which had some pretty nice waterfalls. I will leave you with a few shots of these waterfalls:

Waterfall on Little Wilson Creek

Waterfall on Wilson Creek

Until next time, hopefully from the field trips at the Native Orchid Conference symposium in the wilds of Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

–Jim

26 comments


  • Jim Dollar

    Wonderful work from an equally wonderful trip. May all of your forays be so fruitful! — JD

    May 29, 2017
  • Diane

    Thank you for sharing your amazing finds and photography!

    May 29, 2017
  • Emily

    Glad that you found them. I hope the casual seeker won’t destroy the habitat, like the DOT with their mowing tries to do.

    May 29, 2017
    • Jim

      The mowing crews have had their way with the ones on the lower part of the slope — they are about all gone. But where the mowers can’t reach (15 feet upslope), they are doing well.

      May 29, 2017
  • SSunflower

    WOW! What a find …

    And, to change the subject, have you ever found grass of parnassus at Eva Chandler? No one in Carolina Botanical Club has, but it’s listed on the entry sign. So thought we’d ask. Thanks! Susan

    May 29, 2017
    • Jim

      Yes, it blooms the end of October on the edge of Slickum Falls (the cataract).

      May 29, 2017
  • Jeff Harris

    as always, thank you for your great photos and commentary – almost like being there

    May 29, 2017
  • Steve Hill

    Spectacular photography, as always! And an exciting new species. Certainly makes me want to be back in the southern Appalachians!

    May 29, 2017
  • Becky Kessel

    You all were quite intrepid on those slopes! But the result- beautiful! Thanks for sharing these finds.

    May 29, 2017
  • Rudy Riggs

    What wonderful photography! I am an Asarum/Hexastylis lover and am very excited to see a new species, especially locally. Maybe , hopefully, a nursery will soon offer it for sale.

    May 29, 2017
  • Penny Firth

    What a terrific find, and your photos and narrative are super. Thank you for your efforts!

    May 29, 2017
  • Terry gentry

    Wow– thanks for the adventure

    May 29, 2017
  • Marcia C Whitmore

    Absolutely wonderful photos….the closeups are marvelous…I got lost in the adventure and wished I was there.

    May 29, 2017
  • Marcia C Whitmore

    Absolutely wonderful photos….the closeups are marvelous.

    May 29, 2017
  • Will Stuart

    Wonderful images, Jim!

    May 29, 2017
  • Skip P

    In a sea of many great posts, this one is my favorite thus far. Always great to find the subject you’re searching for! Images are stunning – no surprise there.

    Miss NC/SC (and my friends there).

    May 29, 2017
  • Beautiful photos and words! I had just seen Hexastylis arifolia for the first time in April so it was very interesting to read about other Hexastylis species.

    May 29, 2017
  • Dave

    Jim – these are fantastic! Always surprising how new species can be found mixed with the familiar. As you say – one should expect the unexpected… (and the waterfalls makes me want to run back to my car for the fly rod…looks like Brook Trout water..)

    May 29, 2017
  • David White

    Outstanding Jim! I enjoyed the adventure through your images and descriptions. David

    May 29, 2017
  • Cracking images, beautiful flora.

    May 30, 2017
  • Daniel McClosky

    Thanks for taking us along with this amazing hike!

    …You’re gonna come out with a coffee table book of all these stunning images someday, right?

    May 30, 2017
    • Jim

      Thank you, Daniel, but that sounds like too much work to me.

      May 30, 2017
  • Chris Davidson

    Jim…A wonderful blog post, chock full of gorgeous species and images!

    May 30, 2017
  • You should send some propagation material straight to Tony Avent at Plant Delights Nursery ASAP. He’s propagating lots of selections of this genus and could be a valuable conservation resource.

    May 30, 2017
  • Larry Lynch

    Wonderful photos of this great adventure Jim! Your blog posts really inspire us to do more outings!

    June 01, 2017
  • Wonderful shots of a new plant! I love the fuzzy white calyxes. I had a chance to see & photograph what I believe are Hexastylis shuttleworthii this spring on a trip to SW Virginia–first time I’d seen that species. My photos (taken with my phone) are nowhere near as good as yours, of course.

    June 11, 2017

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