By Erich Reinhard
Next to popular destinations like Linville Gorge or Mount Mitchell, Polk County does not draw quite as many outdoor adventurers. But these precipices, streams and coves stippling the border of the Carolinas put many enviable treasures within reach. Its hundreds of rare plant species have been slow to find representation in NC’s state herbarium—with more still to be discovered.
“We’re just far enough away from major universities that many professors and grad students don’t think of the county as a place to conduct studies on flora and fauna,” says Pam Torlina, director of stewardship and land protection for the Pacolet Area Conservancy (PAC). “It’s unique in that species from the Ozark Mountains and the Coastal Plain occur here.”
PAC has protected almost 10,000 acres of this aggregate habitat, specifically overseeing more than 4,800 each year. Curiosities the land trust has uncovered include the Ozark bunchflower (Veratrum woodii), and others exceptionally rare for this state: the allegheny-spurge (Pachysandra procumbens), whorled horsebalm (Collinsonia verticillata) and a species of wild ginger (Asarum acuminatum).
Delicate plant species find cool, moist homes called ‘coves’ across the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment. Where the Piedmont meets the Blue Ridge, elevation shifts from several hundred to almost 4,000 feet over a minor distance. A change in climate that would normally require hundreds of miles can be achieved here in a small adjustment of elevation.
This summer, two local biologists will present their work on these cross-regional wonders at the Anne Elizabeth Suratt Nature Center in Mill Spring. On Saturday, July 15, Patrick McMillan, director of the South Carolina Botanical Gardens, hosts The Southern Blue Ridge— Crucible of Life.
“People need to know more about this amazing place,” says McMillan. “They need to hike, kayak, bike, fish and hunt here. Because that which we don’t know we can’t love, and that which we don’t love we will lose.”
The North and South Pacolet River, the Green River Watershed and the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment each depict the fluid character of this ecoregion. In particular, the latter formation runs from the heights of Chimney Rock and Hickory Nut through the South Carolina foothills before tapering off in northeastern Georgia.
“The area is overlooked by the general population, not science,” McMillan says. “The Blue Ridge Parkway doesn’t run along the edge of the escarpment south of Asheville, so it’s largely unnoticed by most of us.”
Next, on Saturday, August 12, University of NC Charlotte biologist David Campbell presents a Floristic and Biodiversity Study of Polk County. Apart from displaying his recent discoveries (the Ozark bunchflower from July 2015), he draws extensively on the work of Oliver Freeman in the mid-20th century and Doug Rayner’s in the early 1990s—the last major inventories made of the more than 5,000 rare plant species and other wildlife.
“There were a lot of specimens that [Freeman] found that I’m not finding now,” Campbell says.
Civic efforts at fire suppression and modern land use patterns he cites as possible causes. Rayner’s fieldwork was largely confined to the drainage area of the North Pacolet River; Campbell’s countywide writ has allowed him a broader purview.
On the southern stretch of the North Pacolet River is the Childers Tract, a plot of 40 acres (contiguous with 60 acres owned by PAC) extending neatly west-to-east. Not only does it qualify as a “biodiversity hotspot,” in Campbell’s research, it is “the richest forest seen in the Piedmont.”
In its concern for the Little White Oak Mountain Tract, another vulnerable mountain forest, PAC partnered with the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) who bought these 1,060 acres for more than $2 million. After a private donor generously gave $600,000, $1.86 million is still owed by the end of 2017. PAC’s Matching Fund challenge promises to match every dollar donated to the project.
The recent decision of PAC and CMLC to merge ensures that conservation will be a perennial focus of Polk County. “As a result of banding together, we will be able to protect more land,” writes PAC board president Rebecca Kemp and CMLC executive director Kieran Roe in a joint statement to their supporters.
Both McMillan’s and Campbell’s events (July 15 and August 12) are scheduled 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Suratt Nature Center at Walnut Creek Preserve. More information can be found at pacolet.org.