A nose for finding rare plants

I enjoy leading natural history workshops, but I no longer derive much pleasure from herding people along a trail while naming things right and left. What continues to motivate me is helping participants learn to use specific source and identification materials (the birding CDs, Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide, The Fern Finder, etc.) so they will then have the skills to more fully explore the natural world on their own.

I must admit, however, that my favorite outings take place before scheduled workshops. I generally go out a day or two before the actual event to refresh myself regarding specific wildflowers, trees, shrubs, ferns, birds, etc., that might be encountered. I try to plan a route that will be varied in regard to habitats explored and safe in regard to potential parking areas or trail issues.

These pre-event outings give me time to immerse myself in the natural world without having to constantly respond to the query “What is that?” — which is, of course, exactly what I’m obligated (and paid) to do during a workshop. I have gone whole days scouting a trip without saying a single word.

Nevertheless, the only thing better than scouting by myself is when my wife, Elizabeth, is free and inclined to accompany me. We both enjoy the natural world. After nearly five decades of being together we communicate fairly well — both verbally and non-verbally. She doesn’t mind telling me when she thinks I’ve identified something incorrectly. We argue a lot. We laugh a lot. We get along.

Elizabeth is an artist. She “sees” the world somewhat differently from most of us. She is intuitive rather than analytical. She is also a human bloodhound. All I have to do is mention a rare plant or bird that I’d like to find and before long I’ll hear her say, “Why, there it is.” In this regard, she has some sort of sixth sense that’s hard to beat when you’re scouting a field trip.

Last Saturday, for instance, I had a “Wildflower and Fern Identification” workshop for the Smoky Mountain Field School. After starting out at the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg that morning, we finished up the day in the high elevation spruce-fir forests along the North Carolina-Tennessee state line. Along the way, we located and identified lots of plants — including the beautiful small purple-fringed orchid — using Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.

At one of the last stops along the Clingmans Dome road, I told the group that one of the flowers we’d see there wouldn’t be in Newcomb’s because it’s so rare it is found only in a few high-elevation sites in the Great Smokies and no other place in the world.

So, we strolled into the nearby forest and, sure enough, there was a stand of Rugel’s ragwort (Rugelia nudicaulis), an inconspicuous plant in the Aster family that stands about 18 inches high and displays large heart-shaped basal leaves. The flower buds on this stand had not yet opened. In Wildflowers of the Smokies (1996), they are described as having “long, pointed bracts” surrounding the blossom, which forms “an urn from which the yellow or straw-colored disk flowers protrude.”

Because of a scouting trip Elizabeth and I had made Friday — during which we located Rugel’s ragwort for the first time — I’d known that the workshop group would be stopping to see the plant. This gave me a chance to conduct a little research the night before and uncover some information regarding the plant’s namesake that I was able to share with the group on Saturday.

In 1840, Ferdinand Rugel (1806-1879) came to the United States to collect biological specimens in the Southern Appalachians, though he supported himself as a pharmacist. He settled in Dandridge, Tenn., in 1842. After 1849 he moved to Knoxville, where he worked for a wholesale drug firm. His botanical companion, Samuel Botsford Buckley, described the super-eccentric Rugel as being “the best prepared and equipped for collecting and preserving specimens of any person” he had ever met.

According to Buckley, Rugel rode his horse Fox with “a large, square tin strapped to his shoulder and a straw hat tied beneath his chin.” One of their journeys into the Smokies region was uneventful until there was “a clattering of hoofs, and Fox dashed by, with Rugel crying ‘Whoa, Fox! Whoa, Fox!’ his hair streaming in the wind, with tin box and hat dashing up and down at every jump the horse made.” Buckley relocated Rugel a mile or so down the road at a steep hill where Fox had finally come to a stop.

For years, I had been reading about and looking for Rugel’s ragwort. On Friday, when Elizabeth and I were getting ready to scout out the area around the Newfound Gap parking area, I told her this was likely habitat for the plant and showed her a photo and the botanical description. We didn’t find Rugel’s ragwort at Newfound Gap but at our next stop in the high country, while I was examining some ferns, I heard her say, “Why, there it is.”

Sure enough, there it was — not five feet from where I was kneeling. Within 60 minutes of learning of a rare plant’s existence, she had tracked it down.

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