We, Drs. Carol Kelloff and Mark Strong, traveled to southeastern Virginia—resurveying botanical transects conducted over 70 years ago—to collect genomic material of plants for the Global Genome Initiative. The overall goal of our project is to build up the Smithsonian's Biorepository with genomic quality DNA samples and add herbarium vouchers of rare plants that will be available for study.
The specific goal of our project is to collect plant species from Longleaf Pine ecosystems of southeast Virginia, collecting vouchers and providing valuable genomic tissue samples that can be used in future research. The availability of genomic tissue will facilitate phylogenetic studies of plant groups. It will not only provide more definitive species boundaries, but clarify the evolutionary relationships of plant groups.
These results can be used by state, federal, or private agencies to provide evidence of the plants’ rarity and habitats in which they occur. This will improve efforts for habitat conservation, species preservation, and ultimately limit extinctions. We also intend to produce an annotated checklist of the flora in this ecosystem for the state of Virginia.
It was amazing to walk the same sand roads through pinelands and pocosins (inland wetlands lacking flowing water) along the Blackwater River that Harvard professor Merritt L. Fernald did in the 1930’s and early 1940’s, when he collected plants for his work on the 8th edition of Asa Gray’s Manual of Botany.
On this expedition, we focused our efforts on some of the rarest plants in Virginia found within the northernmost extent of the Longleaf Pine ecosystem. Many of these plants were initially discovered 70–80 years ago by the Harvard professor and his colleagues.
Longleaf Pine communities, once a dominate ecosystem, now occupy less than a quarter of their original range. We were targeting the northernmost extent of this ecosystem (southeastern Virginia) to sample rare and endemic plants. Forty to sixty percent of species found in Longleaf Pine communities of the United States are estimated to be endemic, meaning they only occur this region and nowhere else on Earth—some of these are endangered or threatened. On this trip (late May), we were sampling the plants flowering in spring, and on a later trip in September, we will sample those that flower in summer and fall.
Arriving at the Blackwater Ecological Preserve, managed by Dr. Lytton Musselman of Old Dominion University (ODU), we met with Peter Schafran, a graduate student at ODU working on quillworts (Genus Isoetes), and two other students, Toni Dotterer and Nick Flanders. They are knowledgeable of where populations of many of the plants we are seeking can be found and have kindly offered to guide us around the preserve.
We would like to highlight several of the more characteristic and rare species of these communities that we found. Species in two of the six genera of Diapensiaceae are represented here, Pyxidanthera barbulata (Common Pixie Moss) and Galax urceolata (Galax). The Pixie Moss is known only from pine barrens in five States, NY (Long Island), NJ, VA, NC, and SC while the Galax is more common, occurring in eight southeastern States. Another genus, Zenobia pulverulenta (Dusty Zenobia), in the Ericaceae, is known only from four States, VA, NC, SC, and GA.
Our spring trip was very successful. We found 22 of our 24 target species that grow in the spring/early summer. In all, we collected 86 specimens from 42 families and took numerous photos of plants and their habitats. We also found immature populations of six other target species that we will collect material of later in September. The summer/fall growing season in these habitats is much more diverse, so we expect to double our numbers the next trip.
We thank Darren Loomis and Rebecca Wilson (Virginia Deparment of Conservation & Recreation) for granting us collecting permits and access to the Antioch, Blackwater, and South Quay preserves; Lytton Musselman (Old Dominion University) for granting us access to the Blackwater Ecological Preserve); and the Department of Botany, Smithsonian for their support.