Delmarva’s Rare Plants with Wes Knapp Part II

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Here is part two of Dave Wilson's conversation with botanist Wes Knapp on Delmarva's rare plants.

Today we conclude with the second half of a two-part series on rare and native plants of Delmarva. We'll talk about some specific plants and the state of biological diversity on the peninsula. In the studio we have Wes Knapp, the Eastern Region Ecologist & Botanist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Program. He has worked for DNR for the past 15 years and is currently the Eastern Region Heritage Ecologist. He has described a number new species of plants around the US. Let's talk a little bit about Delmarva Bays to start with. These have fascinated me since I started combing the woods on the peninsula some 27 years ago.

Wes Knapp:
"One of the most fascinating habitats we get here are called Delmarva Bays or Carolina Bays and these are elliptical so circular wetlands that fill with rainwater this time of year, and then through the summer they draw down as they dry out. And as they dry out they become herbaceous plant dominated and there can be an abundance of rare species only found in those habitats. Now there are rare amphibians that occupy these habitats and rare plants. They are some of the best botanical hotspots on the shore and some of the weirdest distribution patterns of plants in Eastern North America show up in these bays, like hundreds of miles disjunct from one bay to another. Some of these species, disjunct from North Carolina, and known from fewer than a handful of locations in the world, are found in these Carolina or Delmarva Bays."

Tell me about Indian pipe.

Wes Knapp:
"I get more questions about Indian Pipe than any other plant because it doesn't have chlorophyll, so it's white. So how does it get its energy? It's a saprophyte. It gets its nutrients from other plant species. It's shockingly white when you see it in the forest, so it looks like no other plant you've ever seen. I've actually had people say, "I thought that's what made plants, plants because they had chlorophyll." Typically yeah, but some of them aren't. Some of them are parasitic and this is a parasitic or saprophytic species you find throughout the State of Maryland. So if you're out in August you can probably see the white stem starting to emerge. Sometimes it is pinkish. They have a single flower on the top of them and then they fade to a brown late in the year."

Is pink ladyslipper a rare species? We only see them a few places. I get a lot of calls. People want me to come see their pink ladyslippers. So where do we find it and why is it so hard to find?

Wes Knapp:
"So pink ladyslipper is not a rare species. It is found from the Shore all the way to Western Maryland and I get more e-mails with pictures of this plant than any other plant, and I don't mind getting the pictures even though it is not rare because that means somebody is engaged and they're interested. This species loves dry, preferably sandy soils. It likes sun, but it can deal with some shade. It comes up early in the year. It's done quickly. It's done by June. But we've seen a massive decline in all of our native orchid species and the one non-native orchid species we get in the State because of rampant deer herbivory."

"I was the lead author on a paper that talked about orchid decline at the Catoctin Mountains in Frederick County and it showed an almost perfect inverse correlation in the deer explosion in the County and the loss of the orchids. So that's why we don't see them as much as we used to, but you can still find the basil leaves, the hairy opposite sessile on the forest floor, leaves, of dry, sandy soils throughout the State. It is a real treat. These are of the genus cypripedium. We only get a handful of ladyslipper orchids in the State and they are always a treat to see."

How about the prickly pear? We see a lot of cacti on the shore, particularly on Assateague. Where does it come from? Is it native? How rare is it?

Wes Knapp:
"Well, we actually have a native cactus in Maryland and that's the prickly pear, the Opuntia humifusa. Most people don't realize that it's a native plant here. They think of the desert Southwest and they think of cactuses, but we get one. Now we do have many that are planted as part of the landscaping. None of those are invasive as far as we know. They sit still. They behave themselves."

"But Opuntia loves really dry, really sandy, often disturbed sometimes ruderal habitats. I put some of this in my yard and it did just fine. I live in a dry, sandy area in Dorchester County. I wouldn't recommend that because my kids fell in it and my wife got mad and I had to pull it all out. But the moral of the story is, Opuntia is all over the shore, dry, sandy soil. Just because it's a cactus doesn't mean it's not native. And it's delicious to eat when it's in fruit. You just have to use your shirt usually, pull off the trichomes, these little tiny bristles that get in your skin. Delicious fruit. You can make a jam out of it. I've seen a beer made out of it."

Wes, you're writing a book. Can you tell us a little bit about the book you're about ready to complete.

Wes Knapp:
"By the end of March my co-authors Rob Naczi of the New York Botanical Gardens and I, we're going to be publishing the first checklist of the Maryland flora since themselves Browns published the woody and herbaceous plants in Maryland in 1984 and 1972 respectively. So we're real excited about that. It's been eight plus years of work to document all plants in the State and it's kind of eye-opening how much things have changed since the '80's."

"I think of it as a really necessary piece for some reason we haven't done because it is a benchmark of time and place-what do we have? Is it rare or common, and how do we know we have it? So this checklist I'm working on is a little novel in that everything on the list is vouchered by a specimen. It's not something I collected. It's something collected in the past by somebody else and it's at a herbarium which makes it more scientific."

"Science is about repeatability and I can say this species is documented by a specimen at the Smithsonian and you can go to the Smithsonian and check that specimen to make sure you agree or not because every year we have new non-native species found and the first question is, do we already have this? Is this new to this State and we have new native species found that are conservation priorities. This will be a document for us to go back and see what is truly new to the State's flora and it could be the launching point for other projects like floras. If somebody wanted to revise the flora of Maryland this would be the obvious starting point to do that."

So Wes, where can I get a copy of that work?

Wes Knapp:
"So we're going to submit that to the annals of the New York Botanical Gardens and they will be peer reviewed and published as a standalone, soft bound paper book that you can purchase . Now we haven't submitted it yet, so we hope it will be accepted and peer reviewed. They've invited us to accept it there.<"/em>

Where can Marylanders go to find out more about plants and plant identification and maybe get involved in finding and mapping rare plants?

Wes Knapp:
"There are two products that I've been a party of that I'm really proud of. I work closely with the guys at the Maryland Biodiversity Project and we also have a separate website now called The Maryland Plant Atlas which is a collaboration between us and The Natural Heritage Program at the University of Maryland and The Biodiversity Project to give quad level distribution of every plant species found in Maryland. So not only does it have County and quad maps for distribution, they have photographs so that you can look. Numerous photographs usually."

"You can usually look at a specimen that is housed at the University of Maryland to compare your plant with it if you don't like the photographs that are present. We are actively accepting information through a flicker pool so if you find pink ladyslipper you can take a picture. You can put it in the flicker pool and we will update it onto the atlas. So citizen science is a big part of the plant atlas."

Wes Knapp:
"If you want, I can put you in contact with the Maryland Biodiversity Project. They are truly an inspiration. These are two blue collar dudes who wanted to do a project exactly like that and they did. And citizen science is important because like I say, boots on the ground are thin. I know all the good botanists in the State, but there really aren't that many. A citizen with a camera in his or her pocket, they're a powerful tool now because they can come up with a wildflower they've never seen. They can take a picture, they can e-mail it, put it on the Biodiversity Project website, and put a name on it. Sometimes those are very rare plants."

"Like I found I was on vacation down in North Carolina, but I'm on a Facebook group called Plants to Identify and this woman put this plant on there, this purple fringeless orchid from central Maryland. That's a rare species for us. I reached out to her and she gave me the location data. I went out and we had a new population for the database, mapped it, how many plants there were to be protected and that's what we need to do a better job of-that citizen science."

Find out more about at these links:
Delmarva's Rare Plants with Wes Knapp Part I
Click here to find out more about Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Program.
Maryland Biodiversity Project
Maryland Biodiversity Project on Facebook
Maryland Plant Atlas