Alabama has a secret: Its unexplored forests and plants

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Pitcher plant at The Nature Conservancy’s Splinter Hill Bog, photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy in Alabama

How secret and unexplored is the diversity of Alabama’s trees and plants?

Bill Finch, an author and naturalist from Mobile has been called by E.O. Wilson, Alabama’s most famous ecologist, the “best all-around naturalist I have ever known.”

High praise from Wilson, who in 2000 was named one of the 20th century’s 100 leading environmentalists and greatest scientists by Time Magazine.

But Finch, also an Alabama native, did not quite fully appreciate the state’s biodiversity growing up. It was like a secret.

Birmingham Alabama
Bill Finch – photo via Birmingham Botanical Gardens

 

“I grew up not knowing Alabama’s biodiversity,” admitted Finch in an interview with Bham Now.

He continued, “I went away to college in North Carolina to study trees among other things. I was out in the woods with my forestry professor and I said ‘Boy, I sure am glad to be studying here in the middle of tree diversity for North America, in the Appalachian Mountains around Asheville.’

“My professor looked at me and asked ‘where are you from?’

“I said, ‘I’m from Alabama.’

“He said, ‘Son, you need to go home.’”

When Bill Finch traveled back home to Alabama he discovered that the 12 oak species that he had learned and memorized in school, that resided in the 500,000 acre Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the Appalachian Mountains between North Carolina and Pennsylvania, also took root on  hillsides in South Alabama.

Map of tree diversity in the United States, purple is the most diverse. Map from Biota of North America

The difference?  Instead of just 12 species of oak on hundreds of thousands of acres, he found 15 to 20 species of oak on just 40 acres in the red hills region of southwest Alabama.

Finch added:

Photo from Ruffner Mountain, Facebook

“We now know, Alabama is the center of oak diversity in North America. It’s probably located somewhere between Tuscaloosa and Mobile. The center of hickory diversity in North America is probably in Alabama. The center of total tree diversity in North America is somewhere in northwest Florida and south Alabama.”

Not just trees

It is not just trees that we have that are under appreciated in Alabama, so are plants.

Flowers
Alabama Canebrake found only in Alabama, photo by Chuck Byrd, The Nature Conservancy of Alabama

Alan Weakley, a renown southeastern botanist from North Carolina who spoke to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens Native Plant Conference on biodiversity in October, described how only recently Alabama has been recognized in the  naturalist world as”undiscovered” when it comes to flora.

Weakley said, “If you look at number of plants by states, the two largest are California and Texas.  They kinda cheat by being so large. In the Southeast U.S. the highest are Georgia, Florida and Alabama and then North Carolina.  Alabama is just a few percent lower than Georgia and Florida.”

He added, “Alabama’s biodiversity is growing, because we are still discovering new plant species in Alabama. It is either top or second in the number of new plant species described in the past decade.  Alabama’s plant biodiversity has been under appreciated and under-explored. It is only now getting  attention. That’s resulted in the naming of about 150 new plant species in the last decade. We are still actively learning the rich plant diversity in Alabama.”

 

Birmingham Alabama
Graph from the Biota of North America Program on native plant diversity. Note Alabama’s plant diversity in south and northeast areas of the state.
The right ingredients

So, how did Alabama become the center for tree diversity and an emerging powerhouse of plant diversity?

The answer is similar to the reasons why Alabama has the most kinds of turtles, fishes, crayfish, mussels and snails. According to scientists, Alabama has the right ingredients: Time, geology, water and in the case of trees and plants – a longer growing season.

Alabama gentian pinkroot found at the Bibb Glades, photo by Chris Oberholster

For example,  when describing “time”,  Finch stated it best.

“When the ice age occurred, it covered most of North America, and you know what lives under a glacier. Nothing. Maybe some bacteria.  It crushes everything. There were not forests in the upper tier of the United States. So the forests were pushed way south. 

These forests were compressed into Alabama, Georgia and northwest Florida.  This has repeated itself many times over millions of years.  What has happened each time is that Alabama has been the refuge.”

Throw into the mix Alabama’s geology which is probably the most diverse of all the 50 states in the U.S. in terms of different rock types and ages of rock, and that makes a big difference for the foundation of plant life.

Geological map of Alabama, from the Geological Survey of Alabama

Then add water. Many places in Alabama receive almost twice as much rain as the notoriously wet Seattle, Washington. More importantly, it rains consistently all year long and that provides a long growing season, which increases the survival of trees and plants.

Crossroads of biodiversity

Along with the right ingredients of time, geology, water and growing season, Alabama is simply in the “right place.”

According to Alan Weakley:

“Alabama is at the crossroads of biodiversity. ” 

“You’ve got a number of the northern-most species reaching their southern-most limits in places like the red hills.  You’ve got deep south species reaching their northern-most range, and then species in the east reaching their western-most limit.  The juxtaposition of species that are widespread or at the end of their range all meet and you get these really high counts.” 

Unexplored Alabama

Back in the early 90s, Jim Allison, a Georgia botanist was on vacation with friends canoeing the lower Little Cahaba River in Bibb County  which is about 40 miles outside of Birmingham. Jim and his friends saw an opening in the hardwood forest, so they disembarked and explored the area. What they discovered was a rare glade, and when Jim looked down at the plants with his trained eye as a botanist, he saw plants and flowers that were totally unknown to him.

As Allison would later describe that moment, he discovered a lost world.

Discovered lost worlds

After more than 40 trips in the years that followed, Allison found eight plants that had never been named and described in science, and seven that had never been found before in Alabama, including a wildflower that had not been seen anywhere in more than a century-and-a half. Today, the glades are open to the public and owned by The Nature Conservancy in Alabama.

Glades
Found at the Kathy Stiles Freeland Bibb County Glades, the Dwarf Horse Nettle, photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy in Alabama

The Nature Conservancy’s Land Steward Chuck Bryd manages various “lost worlds” across the state including the Glades in Bibb County and Splinter Hill Bog Preserve in Baldwin County.

sundew
A sundew from Splinter Hill Bog, phot by Georgia Pearson, Nature Conservancy

 

“As a forester, it is humbling for me to say it is not all about the trees. The diversity and the neat things that are going on basically occur from your knee down,” stated Bryd about Alabama’s unexplored plants.

For example, Bryd manages a plant for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called the Alabama Canebrake pitcher plant.  It is found nowhere else in the world but Chilton and Autauga counties. At the Nature Conservancy’s Splinter Hill Bog 40-60 different species of plants and insects can be found within a square meter, the size of a beach towel.

“We have so much diversity in our (Alabama) plants. I thought I was doing good when I worked for the Conservancy in the Florida Keys, when we had all these neat tropical species. But when I came back to Alabama, I found things nowhere else in the world,” Bryd stated.

Why we should care

When asked why diversity of plants and trees matter here in Alabama and elsewhere, Alan Weakley provided several practical reasons.

“Plants have historically provided us with all of our medicines, compounds that plants create are the basis of modern medicine. Plants provide the ecosystem services that support our lives. Everything we eat comes from plant materials or derived from plants that are converted into meats, milk or egg.  Plants provide us the oxygen that we breathe. There are all sorts of practical reasons.

You often hear that some rare plant may be a cure for cancer.  The fact that we have all these ancient and relic plants in Alabama and the rest of the  Southeast – these are the plants that have an interest medicinally.”

Liatris cylindric blazing star, courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

Bill Finch gave more reasons Alabama’s biodiversity is important.

“There are all kind of trees and plants in Alabama we use to live with, we use to understand that are pleasant to us, that make our lives better, that make our food better.  If we want to survive into the next century, if we want to thrive and want to understand what makes gardens grow, we would do really well to understand Alabama.  Because there are so many wonderful plants that are important to the way we live, important to the way we enjoy our lives. Whether we want a flower garden or  whether we want trees to live along our streets, or whether we want food, all of these things are very important.”

Pitcher Plants
Splinter Hill Bog, photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy in Alabama

Appreciating Alabama’s biodiversity, especially our trees and undiscovered plants is a good first step for our future.

The secret is out. Alabama is the center of biodiversity in North America. It has the most kinds of oak trees and aquatic animals. It is our responsibility to be aware of our abundance and use that knowledge to make good decisions that will protect it for future generations.

 

About this series

This is the third of three installments on our series about Alabama’s biodiversity. The first feature examined why Alabama ranks first in biodiversity nationally. The second story explored Alabama’s aquatic biodiversity. Thanks for following.

What are thoughts about Alabama’s biodiversity? Please tell us! Send us your comments to hello@bhamnow.com

 

Author: Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

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