NCDA&CS Plant Conservation Program gains 60 acres in Union County

by | Jul 20, 2009

Schweinitz's sunflower has been on the federal endangered species list since 1991. (USF&WS photo)

Schweinitz's sunflower has been on the federal endangered species list since 1991. (USF&WS photo)

The NCDA&CS Plant Conservation Program has some additional land, thanks to the generosity of The Nature Conservancy.

The conservancy announced today that it had transferred 60 acres of Union County prairie, known as the Mineral Spring Barrens, to the program.

“Our department is pleased to accept this generous donation of valuable property from The Nature Conservancy,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “This donation saved the state considerable acquisition funds and will create our newest Plant Conservation Preserve. On this preserve, we will be able to protect and manage two of North Carolina’s at-risk plant species: the Georgia Aster and Schweinitz’s sunflower.”

The Piedmont population of the Georgia Aster has declined significantly in recent years, and Schweinitz’s sunflower has been on the federal endangered species list since 1991. The Nature Conservancy acquired the Barrens soon after that designation was made.

The NCDA&CS Plant Conservation Program works to conserve the native plant species of North Carolina in their natural habitats.

Mineral Spring Barrens is one of the best remaining examples of Piedmont prairie, according to TNC. Early European explorers described wide swathes of prairies across the Piedmont. These grassy plains were kept open by fire and the grazing of large animals such as elk and bison. European settlers suppressed fires and converted the prairies to farmland. Large animals were driven from the area. Continued development destroyed most of the remaining prairie, and the habitat had virtually disappeared by the mid-1800s.

Small pockets of prairie exist in the Piedmont.  In addition to the native sunflower, they also include a host of other rare plants. Grassland bird species such as prairie warbler and bobwhite quail are also found there. The Nature Conservancy and other conservation groups restore prairies with controlled burning.

“We’ve worked to restore the prairie habitat,” says TNC Assistant Director Margit Bucher. “The Plant Conservation Program, which is totally devoted to preserving rare North Carolina plants, is the perfect partner to continue and build on this project.”

Bucher also credited UNC-Charlotte Professor Larry Barden and his students for their work to study the habitat needs of the sunflower.

A TNC news release announcing the donation describes Schweinitz’s sunflower as “a showy plant.” It grows about 6 feet tall, but can occasionally double that height. Its yellow blooms occur from late August until frost. It is named for Lewis David von Schweinitz, a Moravian minister who first identified the flower in the early 1800s. Although the sunflower bears his name, Schweinitz’ true love was fungi; he is known as the father of North American mycology.