Posts Tagged ‘Hunter McBrayer’

A Study of the Tutwiler spleenwort

Friday, August 17th, 2012

(Asplenium tutwilerae growing in the Kaul Wildflower Garden at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens)

A Study of the Tutwiler spleenwort

(by: Hunter McBrayer)

I have had many opportunities throughout my internship to visit many special places located in and around the state of Alabama.  I have been able to study, in situ, many different plants and the ecosystems they are in. Being primarily focused in conservation of the native plants of the southeastern United States, I have met many of Alabama’s best and most influential experts and studied some of the most imperiled plants in the area.  There is one plant however that has had my unbroken attention since the first day at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens.  This plant is Asplenium tutwilerae, Tutwiler’s spleenwort (syn. Asplenium ebenoides). 

Tutwiler’s spleenwort is a diminutive fern that only grows in Hale County, Alabama in an area called Havana Glen.  There are many reasons that this plant has captivated me, but the main reason is that there are approximately 120 plants that grow naturally in the wild, making it one of the rarest plants in the world. 

 The story of Tutwiler’s spleenwort is quite interesting to any plant enthusist and it started over 130 years ago.  Julia Strudwick Tutwiler, future Alabama prison and education reformer, had heard of an area near her home that had several plants that she was interested in seeing.  Tutwiler stumbled across the Havana Glen area and discovered the fern.  Being an amateur botanist, Tutwiler quickly realized that it was unlike any that she had ever seen.  She wrote about her find to Daniel Eaton, editor of the Journal of the Torrey Botanical Club.  Upon her examination of the plant,  she hypothesized that it was a hybrid species between Asplenium platyneuron, ebony spleenwort, and Asplenium rhizophyllum, walking fern.  This hypothesis seemed true and relatively unsurprising to the botanical community because species in the Asplenium genus readily hybridize, making a sterile hybrid. A similar hybrid, Asplenium ebenoides, had been discovered in Pennsylvania, and was thought to be the same product as what Tutwiler had found.  In 1896, Lucien Underwood, a botanist from Auburn University, traveled to the site and found that the fern was propagating profusely, which is uncommon in hybrids (much like a mule, which is the sterile hybrid of a donkey and a horse).  This apparent ease of proliferation brought many new questions about the plants origin to the table.  Then, in 1930, Edgar Wherry from the University of Pennsylvania found that the number of ferns continued to increase, even through one of the supposed parents had disappeared from the site.  Finally in 1954, University of Michigan cytologist Herb Wagner provided an explanation for the proliferation of the species; it had doubled the total number of chromosomes, making it a fertile plant in a process called reticulate evolution. 

Although his discovery took place in 1954, it was not until 2007 that the plant was renamed.  Alabama Botanists Larry Davenport and Brian Keener proposed a renaming of the plant from Asplenium ebenoides to Asplenium tutwilerae, giving credit to Julia Tutwiler.   

Being a place of plant conservation, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens harbors a large variety of rare and imperiled plants.  The Gardens retains and propagates many of these plants. We hope to continue the efforts and eventually be able to repatriate the ferns back to Havana Glen.

View a piece recently featured on Birmingham’s ABC 33/40 about the Tutwiler spleenwort

(Propagation of Asplenium tutwilerae at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens)

Glade Hopping in Bibb County

Friday, July 27th, 2012

Glade Hopping in Bibb County

by: Hunter McBrayer

I recently had the opportunity to botanize at the Bibb County Glades in Bibb County, Alabama, with a small group of plant enthusiasts from The Gardens.  We rendezvoused with Tom Diggs, a doctoral student at The University of Alabama at Birmingham studying evolutionary biology.  Tom’s research is on the unique array of plants growing at The Glades and the reasons so many of them are endemic to the area. 

The Bibb County Glades are truly a remarkable anomaly in the Alabama landscape.  Largely ignored by humans until 1992, the glades were considered a treeless barren by most people of that region until Jim Allison, a botanist from Georgia, explored the area.  He noticed that several familiar looking plants, upon closer inspection, were unknown species.  He continued exploring the area and eventually discovered eight new species of plants; a rare occurrence in today’s world of plant exploration.  

Many factors contribute to the fact that the area holds so many endemic plants, but most scientists agree that the primary reason for such a high degree of endemism is the unique substrate on which they grow. Ketona limestone, a very specific type of dolomitic limestone, is the primary geological formation underlying The Glades’ very thin soil; the type of limestone contains very high levels of magnesium.  In addition to the preceding factor, arid climate has contributed to the unique evolution of plants that thrive there. One third of Alabama’s twenty-four endemic plant species are found growing at The Glades, which collectively comprise approximately 250 acres.  

Although some of these plants were already past flowering, we still had the opportunity to view several of them in flower.  This list includes Coreopsis grandiflora var. inclinata, reclining large-flowered tickseed; Dalea cahaba, Cahaba prairie clover; Croton alabamensis var. alabamensis, Alabama croton (a somewhat ubiquitous plants The Gardens); and Spigelia alabamensis (syn. Spigelia gentianoides var. alabamensis,  gentian pinkroot. We were also able to examine a population of a new species in the genus Trautvetteria, tassel-rue, which as of yet has not been assigned a name; at present, it is being referred to as Trautvetteria species 1. 

Due to the unique character of this area and its rare flora, conservation is of upmost importance.  To that end, The Nature Conservancy has acquired 480 acres and named it the Kathy Stiles Freeland Bibb County Glades Preserve.  The Preserve is located along a very picturesque section of the Little Cahaba River and makes a delightful day trip; when there take time to appreciate Alabama’s unique natural heritage.

Spigillia gentianoides var. alabamensis

Croton alabamensis, Alabama croton

Trautvetteria species 1

Botanical Bonanza at the Talladega National Forest

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Photographing Phlox sp. and Rudbeckia sp.

Botanical Bonanza at the Talladega National Forest

by: Hunter McBrayer

I was recently invited to visit the Oakmulgee District of the Talladega National Forest on a botanizing trip with Birmingham Botanical Gardens Executive Director Fred Spicer and Kaul Wildflower Garden curator John Manion. Being a plant nerd, I jump at any opportunity to join two knowledgeabe plantsmen whenever invited.  

The Oakmulgee District is an expanse of land spanning 157,544 acres from Southeast Tuscaloosa County to Northeast Dallas County, Alabama.  Within this region there is a high degree of biodiversity, and it is predominantly covered in large savannas of Pinus palustris, longleaf pine.  The area is managed by the United States Forestry Service, who utilizes frequent prescribed burns to control encroachment of non-native invasive plant species, and to create the ideal habitat for proper growth and development of longleaf pine.  The Oakmulgee District is public land that can be used for hiking, hunting, bird watching and other forms of recreation.  

Although the area is abundent with longleaf pines, there are numerous fascinating micro-ecotones, transition areas between habitats.  These transition areas provide rich habitat for countless species of plants and animals, most of which are native to Alabama and the Southeast United States.  Among these are the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker,  Picoides borealis (a species associated with longleaf pine); a host of orchids,  and five different species of magnolia, including the less-than-common Magnolia acuminata, cucumber magnolia, and Magnolia pyramidata, pyramid magnolia. 

While there we explored a large, active beaver pond that showcased many aquatic plants, including Peltandra virginica, green arrow arum, Nuphar advena (syn. N. lutea), spatterdock, Nymphaea odorata, white water lily, Utricularia cornuta, horned bladderwort, as well as numerous species of Carax, sedges. 

Aside from providing a plethora of native plants and animals, the region possesses abundent areas of interest for nature lovers and photographers.   This was not the first time I had the opportunity to visit this area, and surely it will not be the last.

Examining Utricularia cornuta,horned bladderwort

Pinus palustris, longleaf pine

Platanthera ciliaris, yellow fringed orchid

Bog Trotting in Alabama

Monday, June 18th, 2012


Bog Trotting in Alabama

Hunter McBrayer, Rotary Club of Shades Valley 2012 Intern 

Within a few days of beginning my Rotary Club of Shades Valley summer internship with the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens, I had the pleasure of being invited to accompany Fred Spicer, Executive Director, and John Manion, Kaul Wildflower Garden Curator, at the biannual meeting of Alabama Plant Conservation Alliance (APCA) in Spanish Fort, Alabama. This is an organization with whom The Gardens has been involved since APCA was formed in 2009. 

As a recent graduate of The University of Alabama with a degree in Biology, and my primary interest being the conservation of Alabama’s native flora and its habitats, I was thrilled for the opportunity to attend this event and meet several people involved in plant conservation. Knowing that the trip would involve an exploration of one of our state’s unique treasures, Splinter Hill Bog, I was especially excited. 

Alabama, partly due to its varied physiography, is the fifth most biodiverse state in the US. We have a high rate of endemism, that is – the number of species that are found naturally occurring only in our state. There are 24 plants endemic to Alabama, several of which I’ve been able to observe and study. 

Splinter Hill Bog, a 2,100 acre tract of land near Perdido in Baldwin County, AL, is one of our states many distinct properties managed by The Nature Conservancy. 

In addition to is diverse habitats and populations of several fascinating plants, Splinter Hill Bog is perhaps most known as possibly the largest population globally of pitcher plants, the insectiverous (insect-eating) plants in the genus Sarracenia. In addition to wild orchids and other species of insectiverous plants growing there, the most abundant and visually striking of these is Sarracenia leuocophylla, the white-topped pitcher plant. (shown below)

Being predominantly a longleaf pine ecosystem, one of the important ways The Nature Conservancy manages this property is the use of prescribed burns to remove encroaching competitive plants…something that would have occurred naturally in times past.  

This outing was one of the most fascinating and eye-opening experiences in which I’ve had the pleasure to participate.