This plant here is Schweinitz’s Sunflower, a federally endangered plant. I took the photo at the North Carolina Botanical Garden yesterday, where I went because I was having a bad day and roaming through the Botanical Garden makes me feel a bit better…possibly because their garden is as ragged as mine these days, so I don’t feel so bad about the state of mine.
The botanical garden here is growing Schweinitz’s Sunflower and storing seed from various populations of it. It’s extremely endangered–there are just 35 populations, all in North and South Carolina. It is, in fact, one of the plants from the vanished Piedmont Prairie, a fire-maintained oak savannah that used to cover this area before European settlement. (My extremely unimpressive prairie planting is modeled on said Piedmont prairie. At the moment it looks very dead. I’m giving it another year or two to do ANYTHING, and then I’m terracing the hillside and starting over. There WILL be a prairie planting on that site if it kills me…ahem.) The sunflower has suffered declines because people stopped letting fires burn, and started developing open areas and putting buildings on top of the sunflowers, with the end result that, like many of our prairie plants, it now lives mostly in power line clearings and old pastures.
Honestly, the sunflower’s not that distinctive. It’s tall–about eight feet–and has fairly small flowers of the Standard Yellow Daisy-Like variety, which look pretty like cup plant or rosinweed or coreopsis or swamp sunflower or some rudbeckia or coneflower varieties. The foliage is nothing much. It’s a plant. So far as I know, it has no medicinal properties and can do nothing much to help humanity. It’s just a plant.
We are saving it for the same reason that you grab people dangling off cliffs–because it’s the right thing to do. You don’t interrogate the person hanging off the cliff as to their ability to better humanity, you don’t look at them and go “Hmm….you’re pretty average lookin’…” and let them fall. You try to haul them up, because it’s just what you do when people–or species–are dangling off cliffs.
If there were enough of them (there aren’t yet) it might be a good candidate for gardeners to try and help bring back. I’ve got a fair number of threatened species in the garden–prairie dropseed is locally endangered, Eupatorium hyssopfolium is endangered in the northern part of its range, and a friend who volunteers at the botanical garden got me a lovely little big-leaf magnolia to try and coax along. And I’m not a good gardener, merely an enthusiastic one. Gardeners can do a lot, I suspect–not as much as not wrecking the habitat in the first place, god knows, but in a lot of cases, the milk has already been spilled and we might as well see if we can make cheese out it.
And I cannot help but think that a world where we grew a couple of threatened plants instead of another azalea or bucket of mums would be a slightly better one. Even if they just look like plants.