State Endangered Species: Virginia Least Trillium

May 16, 2016

IMG_7370trilliumscreenVirginia Least Trillium in bloom (Photo by Laura Stroud)

We know that our conservation easements protect some pretty special things. As the staff member responsible for visiting each of our easement properties every year, I have the unique privilege of visiting natural areas that no one else gets to explore. Sometimes this means getting to be the first, likely only, person to see deer tracks pressed into new snow, or hearing the plop of a startled frog who has jumped to safety in a creek’s waters.

Every now and then while plodding around these rarely-visited streams, fields, and forests I get to find something truly amazing and rare.

Such is the case with the recent find of a population of Virginia Least Trillium, a State listed endangered species, on a Johnston County floodplain. I took a new path to avoid some especially thick vegetation when a cluster of the tell-tale three leaf trilliums caught my eye.

The week before, I’d been visiting with Amy Mackintosh, the owner of the Margaret Reid Wildflower Garden in Wake County which is protected by a TLC easement. Amy said she would show me a very special plant they had on the property. The plant was a Least Trillum and the individual in the garden had been rescued from destruction from somewhere in Johnston County. The one she showed me had just finished blooming. The unassuming white flower, for which the plant received the “least” moniker, was no longer visible. I noticed that the leaves were darker green and were less pointed than other trilliums familiar to me.

As I stood under the dogwoods and maples in Johnston County I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if I found some of those really rare trilliums that I just learned about? And just as the thought crossed my mind, I noticed that the smallest trilliums I saw had darker green leaves that were less pointed than the others. “No way”, I thought, “you’re just making things up.” But then I saw the single plant still in bloom. The blossom was small, white, unassuming.

I snapped a photo and a GPS point, sent it back to folks at the office, and spent a few minutes looking around the area, finding a few small clusters of the same plant. On May 11, 2016, I returned to the site with rare plant expert Dr. Harry LeGrand, who confirmed that I had correctly identified the Virginia Least Trillium (Trillium pusillum var. virginianum). The landowner, whose permission is required for us to share this information with anyone, even the State’s Natural Heritage Program which tracks these kinds of things, thought the find was pretty neat, and was happy for us to share the info if it could be helpful to do so.

There are only ten documented populations of the plant in North Carolina, meaning this would be the eleventh extant population found. Even better, the population was found on a conservation easement, meaning you can rest assured that these special plants will continue to find a happy home where they currently reside.

This find also underscores how great our landowners are. Thanks are due to both Amy Mackintosh, who took the time to show me this plant, and the easement landowner, who will remain anonymous to ensure protection of this plant population, who was happy to have us share this information with the right folks.

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