Monday, June 24, 2013

Joseph Lord, a new 18th-century buddy

When I was in London a couple of weeks ago, I spent a day at the Natural History Museum, photographing a few more collections from the Sloane Herbarium. I had found three collectors we'd missed with our first round of photography. They are Joseph Lord, Col. Halsteed, and George Franklin - three guys who were in South Carolina between 1700 and 1710. That makes them the earliest collections we've worked with so far.

Joseph Lord is by far the most important of these three. Lord was a true American, born in Massachusetts in 1672 and educated at Harvard, after which he became a minister. (Did anyone from Massachusetts become anything else?) In 1695, Lord took a group of parishioners to South Carolina and founded the town of Dorchester. He built a house there and developed a plantation, which he mentions repeatedly in the notes to his plant collection.

Ah, yes, the plant collection! And the notes! Lord made his plant collection in 1704, and sent it to London to James Petiver, an apothecary who assembled a number of the collections in the Sloane. Lord's handwriting is beautifully legible, and he recorded useful details - things like color of flowers (a detail that is lacking in many herbarium specimens, which tend to be shades of brown), growing conditions, type of soil, and collection date. Patrick has already made good use of Lord's notes in the determinations we've begun.

We've already found something super cool - a specimen of Schwalbea americana, American Chaffseed, in the lower right corner of H.S. 158 f. 245.This is almost certainly the first collection of this plant, which is now in danger of dying out completely. This plant was listed as a federally endangered species in 1995.

American chaffseed is native to the longleaf pine ecosystem. It's a hemiparasite, or partial parasite - it performs some photosynthesis on its own but gets some of its nutrients and water by attaching itself to host plants with specialized roots called haustoria. It's not particular about hosts - American chaffseed parasitizes longleaf pines, hollies, and various grasses and composites. It's a fire-adapted species that depends on periodic fires to clear out vegetation to allow seeds to germinate and seedlings to establish themselves. Fires were regular occurrences in the longleaf pine savanna that was common in South Carolina before European settlement, but that has nearly disappeared from the region today.

This is one of the rarest plants on earth today. The 2008 5-year review noted 33 occurrences in South Carolina, 12 of which were considered protected but none with formal protection agreements and only one with a formal management plan. Almost all occurrences were in the Francis Marion National Forest. Total numbers had dropped between 1995 and 2008; and remember, those 2008 numbers are based on surveys done prior to 2008. So we don't really know how many of these plants are left. Some of these areas are being managed with controlled burns, which benefits a whole range of fire-adapted species. But there's not much space for them, and small populations are prone to getting smaller.

So it's neat that Lord picked an American chaffseed.