For any plant lover, finding exotic and rare plant species may be the most exciting part of one’s day! Today, I found a wild orchid: Cypripedium acaule. In North Carolina, there are a number of native, terrestrial orchids where the orchids grow with their roots in the ground. Mostly, orchids are epiphytes, because they grow on a substrate like rocks or tree bark, with their roots exposed to the air. The roots have a special coating called velamen to keep in moisture.
The topic of rare plant species is coming up a lot recently in part because it is spring and plant life is waking up. Also because one of my classes this semester is focusing on an endemic and threatened plant species. This plant, which I recently met although not yet flowering, is Hudsonia montana (Mountain Golden Heather). Hudsonia montana is only found within two counties in North Carolina, and no where else in the world. (Albeit, other species of Hudsonia are found elsewhere in the world.) Hudsonia montana has a very specific habitat; it only grows on rocky outcrops, in higher elevations, and largely depends on wild fires to spread. This species in in danger in part because wildfires are less common in its habitat and people tend to trample this low-lying subshrub.
The orchid, Cypripedium acaule, was found in a tract of woods nestled between an interstate highway and a local busy road. The location of the Hudsonia montana is within designated wilderness area where there is nothing but mountains in all directions. The stark difference between the sightings of these native plants is indicative of the importance of ALL natural areas. Despite proximity to human activity, all natural areas may provide habitat and refuge for rare and threatened species.
Natural habitat is everywhere. Not only do we need a focus on wilderness conservation, but also effort to conserve, to respect, to tend to the natural world in our own backyards, wherever we live. In a way, a single flower blooming among traffic is even more appreciated than the threatened shrub that people trample on when they drive for hours to arrive at the wilderness.
A diversity of plant life contributes to the biodiversity of our local ecosystems. When looking at diversity, we can look on so many different levels, from microbe diversity to human diversity. To the impassioned botanist, it goes without saying that we should respect, value, and protect native and threatened plant species. But most people may not understand why this is important, or why a plant sighting would make someone’s day. Well, biodiversity is essential to the longevity and the health of an ecosystem, of which humans are a part. For example, within the healthy human gut lining is found multiple species of bacteria, which function to maintain immunity, digestion, and emotional balance. Within a natural ecosystem, flowers have a mutualistic relationship with pollinators, so certain insects may rely on specific plants. Also, the genetic diversity of a plant population depends on large populations. These rare plants have a bigger role in our natural world, and in our backyards, than we may realize on a daily basis. I challenge you to learn a new plant in your backyard and to think about reasons why plant life may be important to protect.