10 new N.C. plants for the 21st century

A plant taxonomist’s work is never done. Just ask Alan Weakley, director of the UNC Herbarium (a department of the N.C. Botanical Garden), which houses 800,000 dried plant specimens.

For the past 25 years, Weakley has been writing “The Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States,” an ever-growing book that now describes 7,000 plant species. Every couple of years, he prints out and binds the most recent draft. “We do plan to publish it more formally,” Weakley said, “but it’s hard to say, ‘I’m going to stop right here and publish it as is,’ because there’s always a new species that needs to get named that you want to have in it.” (He hopes to have it published by 2017; in the meantime, the most recent draft is available online for download (, and in a few months, the information will be available as an app called FloraQuest.)

In North Carolina, two or three new plant species are described and given scientific names each year. Some are recent discoveries, while others have been known for decades, but were misidentified, misunderstood or simply unnamed.

The process for presenting the new species to the scientific community is rigorous and lengthy. Among other things, scientists must collect convincing evidence that the new species does not hybridize or interbreed with other species – a task that can take several years. Scientists also must make sure the plant is not an exotic interloper. Weakley said a recently described new species in Florida turned out to be an unintended import from Brazil. “Before naming a new species, you need to be able to eliminate all other possibilities,” he said.

Weakley has had a hand in describing many new species and in choosing the names for several – including one he named after his daughter.

Naming species is fun. But, Weakley said, “The goal is not to name new species. The goal is to accurately figure out the taxonomy of the plants of our area, to understand their relationship to their habitat and to understand how to conserve them if they are rare.”

Lilium pyrophilum

Aka: Fire lily or Sandhills bog lily

When named: 2002

Where found: Fort Bragg and nearby Sandhills Game Land; also in sandy soils in South Carolina and Virginia.

Fun fact: Thrives in areas exposed to frequent wildfires.

Marshallia legrandii

Aka: Tall Barbara’s-buttons, Butner Barbara’s-buttons, or Oak Barrens Barbara’s-buttons

When named: 2012

Where found: Granville County, near Butner; Difficult Creek State Natural Area in Virginia; also maintained in the Piedmont Collection at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill (blooms June-July).

Fun fact: Named for Harry LeGrand Jr., a zoologist with the N.C. Natural Heritage Program, whose observations of this plant in 1986 led to its eventual classification as a separate species.

Stachys matthewsii

Aka: Yadkin hedge-nettle or Matthews’ hedge-nettle

When named: 2011

Where found: Nine counties in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain of North Carolina and Virginia.

Fun fact: Named for Jim Matthews, a retired biology professor at UNC Charlotte who first suggested this plant warranted further investigation in the late 1970s.

Hypericum radfordiorum

Aka: Brushy Mountain St. John’s-wort

When named: 2011

Where found: Granite outcrops in the Brushy Mountains in Alexander and Wilkes counties.

Fun fact: Named after Laurie Stewart Radford and Al Radford, each of whom has served as director of the UNC Herbarium; Laurie Radford grew up in the Brushy Mountains.

Stachys appalachiana

Aka: Appalachian hedge-nettle

When named: 2011

Where found: Northwest North Carolina and southwest Virginia.

Fun fact: In the scientific paper describing and naming this species, one of the authors wrote, “… there are plenty of discoveries yet to be made in our own back yards.”

Phemeranthus piedmontanus

Aka: Piedmont rock-pink or Piedmont fameflower

When named: 2011

Where found: Granville County, near Butner, and several locations in Franklin County, Virginia.

Fun fact: Succulent plant; flowers open only in late afternoon; grows in dry, rocky places.

Hexastylis sorriei

Aka: Sandhills heartleaf

When named: 2011

Where found: Sandhills of North Carolina and South Carolina.

Fun fact: Named for Bruce Sorrie, a botanist who recently retired from the Natural Heritage Program.

Solidago villosicarpa

Aka: Coastal goldenrod

When named: 2000

Where found: Maritime forests in the outer coastal plain of North Carolina; also maintained in the Coastal Plain Garden at the N.C. Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill.

Fun fact: First collected in 1949 but misidentified as a goldenrod from the upper Midwest.

Symphyotrichum rhiannon

Aka: Buck Creek aster or Rhiannon’s aster

When named: 2004

Where found: A single site in Clay County, not far from Franklin.

Fun fact: Named for Weakley’s daughter, whose meltdown during a field excursion led to an impromptu rest stop. While waiting for her to “recover her composure,” Weakley and one of his companions noticed the so-called Buck aster nearby and decided it was high time to unravel the decades-long uncertainty over its true identity.

Arundinaria appalachia

Aka: Hill cane

When named: 2006

Where found: Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.

Fun fact: A type of bamboo, hill cane was known informally for almost a century, but its relationship to other bamboo species – switch cane and river cane – wasn’t resolved until recently. Unlike its relatives, hill cane typically doesn’t grow along rivers but on drier hillsides.