By Calie Brummer
A new report has uncovered an incredible variety of rare flora and fauna spanning the forests and hidden areas of Polk County. The report, titled An Inventory of the Significant Natural Areas of Polk County, North Carolina, was published by Conserving Carolina botanist David Campbell. The study began in 2011, during a time when most counties in North Carolina had completed an inventory of the important natural areas in their boundaries, and was concluded this year.
“Polk County has a very high degree of biodiversity,” says Campbell. “Well over 100 notably rare plant species may be found on Polk’s mountainous rock outcrops, within its varied forest communities and in its wetlands. The varied elements of climate, soil, elevation and geologic history have combined to create an incredibly rich array of flora and fauna.”
The report enlisted the help of citizen scientists, mostly landowners and enthusiasts, who documented elusive species of plants and animals. In total, the inventory lists 127 rare or watch-list plant species, of which 13 have been federally designated as threatened, endangered or vulnerable.
“When this study began, David and I were convinced that there were great discoveries to be made,” says Pam Torlina, southeast stewardship manager of Conserving Carolina. “The number of distinct natural community types, which came to 34 in total, for such a small county is a testament to the amazing biodiversity found in the county.”
Torlina helped lead the mission for discovering unique and rare species in the region through an initiative called “Polk County’s Most Wanted.” The project began with a call for participation from landowners and residents of Polk County, who were asked to photograph the rare and unusual species that were highlighted each month in local news journals.
The complete index of unusual creatures that participants found includes fascinating species that are rare and often elusive. In one case, a landowner discovered mole salamanders, a variety of thick trunk salamanders typically found near the coast.
The exceptional diversity of the plant life in Polk County is distinctly related to the sharp changes in elevation in the region, the proximity to coastal, piedmont and mountain ecosystems and a warm, wet climate. The area is home to rare plants that usually thrive in the Ozark Mountains, like Ozark Bunchflower, and coastal species like the Climbing Hydrangea and Sweetbay Magnolia also thrive here outside of their normal environment.
Polk County is one of the only sites in the world where Whorled Horebalm grows, and is the only recorded site in the world for the mysterious Bigleaf Scurfpea, which was collected twice in the late 19th century and has never been encountered since.
Torlina adds that a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem truly benefits everyone and has a positive impact on recreation, tourism, cultural values, education and research. The biodiversity study is a useful tool to help guide conservation decisions that impact the habitats supporting species of concern and to prevent accidental destruction of these areas. Additionally, the studies are used to protect specific, smaller ecosystems that may be affected by tourism, construction or other recreational activities.
“Polk County is a special place, where expected regional species flourish and unexpected species from the coastal plain, the Ozarks and more northern regions surprise and delight us with their presence,” says Torlina. “Now, we must work together to preserve the unique and wonderful natural heritage found in the county.”
To read more of the study, visit ConservingCarolina.org/polk-county-inventory.