To the untrained eye, there’s nothing particularly special about the yellow flowers growing in Cane Creek Park and a handful of other locations in Union County.
But the flowers known as Schweinitz’s sunflowers are special.
The only place in the world they are found is in the central Piedmont region of North and South Carolina, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
And those flowers are at risk of extinction.
Schweinitz’s sunflowers have been on the federal endangered-species list since 1991. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says they are threatened by “habitat destruction, fire suppression, alteration of native habitat, roadside and utility right-of-way maintenance, industrial development, mining, encroachment by exotic species, and highway construction and improvement.”
That’s why trained eyes, such as those of Dr. James Matthews, are so important.
In mid-September, Matthews, retired chairman of UNC Charlotte’s Biology Department, offered to show me sunflowers that had been moved from four endangered Union County locations to a preserve at Cane Creek Park in southern Union County. He also brought a map showing the 12 North Carolina counties where the Schweinitz’s sunflower grows.
If his name sounds familiar, it may be because the James F. Matthews Center for Biodiversity Studies at Mecklenburg County’s Reedy Creek Nature Center is named after him. He retired from UNCC in the mid-1990s and founded Habitat Assessment Restoration Professionals, which he now serves as chairman.
Matthews said that, about 10 years ago, he often would receive calls from developers concerned because they wanted to build on land where the endangered sunflower was growing.
The N.C. Department of Transportation ran into similar issues with the sunflower, which often grows alongside roads. Widening roadways or mowing along the side could threaten or kill Schweinitz’s sunflower populations.
Matthews said he would evaluate the site and report to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which oversees the endangered sunflower population.
“They would want to know the size of the population and the potential impact, and have me make a recommendation on what could be done,” he said. “If we had a place to move them,” the issue could be more easily resolved.
Matthews’ group found a place at Cane Creek Park. HARP worked with N.C. DOT and county officials to establish a 5-acre preserve at the park with a conservation easement owned by the Catawba Land Conservancy.
The plant does best in “poor soil,” Matthews said, “and when they built the dam for Cane Creek, it created poor soil.”
N.C. DOT prepared the Cane Creek site, he said, so “it didn’t cost the county a penny.”
The preserve was established in 2005, and Schweinitz’s sunflowers were moved to the preserve in 2006 from four areas: Bonds Grove Church Road, Secrest Short Cut Road, Jackson Station and Waxhaw Marvin Road.
Of the 2,024 sunflowers planted in 2006, only 1,415 survived the first year. Now there are more than 15,000 sunflowers growing at the preserve, Matthews said.
Visitors to Cane Creek can see the flowers, which bloom in September and October, by walking, biking or riding horses on the trails leading to the preserve near the dam. The sunflowers also can be seen growing in the wild in several other Union County locations, including the Mineral Springs Barrens, a 64-acre natural heritage area near the intersection of Lee Branch and McNeely roads.
Unless they know the plant’s distinguishing characteristics, however, many may stop to admire the wrong plant. Before Matthews pointed out the differences to me, I confused Schweinitz’s with the yellow flower commonly called Beggar’s tick, which is plentiful at the park and along roadsides.
He compared the two plants by picking a Beggar’s tick – it’s illegal to pick a Schweinitz’s sunflower – and holding it next to an endangered sunflower, pointing out the differences in the leaves, receptacles and florets.
Matthews said HARP and N.C. DOT get “a lot of untrained eyes” reporting yellow flowers on roadsides, believing them to be endangered Schweinitz’s sunflower. He’s investigated many of these calls.
“I have checked out a lot of false leads,” he said. “Generally speaking, they were not Schweinitz’s sunflowers.”
Asked why he and others should bother saving a plant that doesn’t appear anything special, he said, “What good is it? We have no idea … but if that particular plant holds the cure for cancer and we let it disappear, then we’ve blown it.”