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Something Old, Something New: Two More Plants for Arkansas

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

April saw two new plants documented from Arkansas, one fresh from the field and the other from pressed specimens collected more than 127 years ago. The first was common fumitory (Fumaria officinalis), a small, showy annual with pink and purple flowers. Native to Europe, this plant was documented by ANHC Botanist Theo Witsell and ANHC Director Chris Colclasure as they surveyed plants along the banks of the Arkansas River in Pulaski County. Specimens were collected and will be deposited in the ANHC Herbarium (a collection of pressed, dried scientific plant specimens).

The second is the native subspecies of common reed (Phragmites australis subsp. americanus), which is known primarily from the northern United States and Canada and was not previously known from Arkansas. The Arkansas occurrence of this grass was “discovered” by ANHC botanist Theo Witsell during research for a paper on the spread of its highly invasive cousin, the non-native subspecies of common reed (Phragmites australis subsp. australis).

The non-native subspecies is known in Arkansas from four counties (Craighead, Faulkner, Garland, and Pulaski), with all sites documented since 2003. But Theo came across records of two specimens of common reed (not identified to subspecies) in an online database of specimens housed at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. These specimens were collected at Fayetteville (Washington County) in July of 1888 by Francis Leroy Harvey, an early professor of botany at the University of Arkansas. Given the early date (the non-native subspecies was not present in the interior United States until the mid or late 20th Century) and the native habitat (“swamps and about springs”) given on the Harvey specimens, Theo immediately suspected this might represent the native subspecies.

Images of the specimens sent to Theo by Dr. Christine Edwards, conservation geneticist at the Missouri Botanical Garden, seemed to show features consistent with the native subspecies but examination and measurements of the actual specimens would be needed to confirm. One of the specimens had a label indicating that it had been part of the “Parke, Davis & Co. Herbarium”.  More research online showed that this was the private collection of a pharmaceutical company and that 50,000 specimens from that collection went to the University of Michigan in 1933. Theo emailed his colleague Dr. Anton Reznicek, curator of the University of Michigan Herbarium (MICH), requesting that he check and see if they had a duplicate specimen of this collection, and if so, if he could determine the subspecies. It turned out that there was a duplicate at MICH and Reznicek checked the specimen and confirmed that it was the native subspecies. Reznicek’s emailed reply said “there can be no doubt that it is a typical specimen of the native subspecies”.

Sadly, it is likely that the native reed was extirpated from the state long before it was recognized as being part of the state’s flora. While the area around Fayetteville was once a mosaic of grasslands, woodlands, and wetlands, this landscape has been heavily altered by both development and the spread of non-native invasive species. The flora of Arkansas is always changing, with the introduction of new species like common fumitory, and, unfortunately, sometimes with the extirpation of rare native species like the native reed. These changes highlight the importance of continued field inventory by ANHC staff, our conservation partners, and amateur naturalists across the state.


Above left – Common fumitory (Fumaria officinalis) was found in Arkansas for the first time in early April, growing along weedy banks of the Arkansas River in Pulaski County. Photo by Jim Keesling.

Above right – Herbarium specimen of the native subspecies of common reed (Phragmites australis subsp. americanus) from “Fayetteville, Ark. July. Swamps and about springs”, housed at the University of Michigan.  A duplicate specimen at the Missouri Botanical Garden was dated “July 1888”.  Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan Herbarium.


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