Deep in the piney woods west of Cave Spring lies the rarest of rare wildflowers in these parts.
In fact, the habitat that is home to the Whorled Sunflower, known as a wet prairie, is almost as unique as the sunflower.
“It doesn’t get much rarer than to have thought to have been extinct and come back from the dead,” said Erick Brown, program manager and stewardship director for the Nature Conservancy in Georgia.
“I think there’s (probably) more out there than we know,” Brown said. “As soon as we started burning at the Coosa Valley Prairie, it started showing up in a few places that we didn’t realize.”
The plant grows in extremely wet soil conditions with virtually no canopy to block sunlight.
It was first identified in western Tennessee in 1892 but as habitat loss became more of an issue, the plant was thought to have been completely lost, largely due to expanding agricultural practices.
Then in 1994 a Garden Lakes botanist, Richard Ware, was directed to the Coosa Valley Prairies by Department of Natural Resources biologist Jim Allison. While actually looking for other species, Ware discovered the Whorled Sunflower.
The 900-plus acre Coosa Valley Prairies tract near Cave Spring is currently owned by Weyerhaeuser but managed by the nature conservancy.
“It’s still one of the best finds I’ve ever made,” Ware said.
It took considerable time after the discovery to confirm that Ware had indeed found the Whorled Sunflower and not some other hybrid species of helianthus.
The flower has been federally listed as an endangered species since 2014. It has been found in just four states: Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. The colonies in Georgia and Alabama are not all that far apart, near the state line in Floyd and Cherokee counties. The Mississippi and Tennessee locations are also fairly close to each other, not far from Memphis.
Katie Owens, the Upper Coosa River program director for the Nature Conservancy, said the Whorled Sunflower blends in with others in the helianthus family of plants. It stands out among the others because it grows so tall and has a very distinct leaf pattern.
It can grow 10 to 12 feet in height and is distinguished from similar plants by very linear leaves that are arranged below the flower in a a whorled pattern — typically three leaves in a circle around the stem. They bloom from mid-September through late October.
The conversion of the habitat to pine plantations, coupled with the ditching and draining of wetland habitat as well as logging and fire suppression, contributed to the dramatic reduction of habitat for the species.
Prescribed burning has been a primary tool in the management of the Coosa Valley Prairies, Brown said. The use of prescribed burning opens up the ground cover to allow in maximum sunlight.
“If you’re able to burn frequently you can ensure that the fire behavior is controlled enough that you’re not going to damage timber, but if you skip a couple of years the fuel starts building up and you can kill some trees,” Brown said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently in the initial phases of a five-year status review of the Whorled Sunflower and a little more than 50 endangered species across the Southeastern U.S. and Puerto Rico.
The review will ensure listing classifications under the ESA are accurate and recommend changes in status where appropriate. It also provides an opportunity to track the species’ recovery progress.
In addition to the Whorled Sunflower, Brown said the Nature Conservancy is tracking two other endangered species in the Coosa Valley Prairie, the Mohr’s Barbara’s Buttons and the Alabama Leather Flower.