It’s a warm, dry day in October, and about a dozen volunteers and staff for the Conservancy are out in the middle of a brush-covered field, sweating while they plant sunflowers. These aren’t the sunflowers you’re probably thinking of, with dinnerplate-sized heads and sturdy stalks. The plants are still small, only a couple of feet tall, with spindly stalks and blooms that are only an inch or two in diameter. Most people wouldn’t even recognize these as an endangered species, the Schweinitz’s sunflower.
Luckily for the Schweinitz’s, our team here at the Conservancy is very familiar with the sunflower and the threats it faces. When our staff discovered a wild patch of these flowers growing in a road right-of-way near Buffalo Creek Preserve last year, an idea was born. Since they were already growing in such close proximity to the preserve, it seemed likely that they would grow well on the preserve property. With that in mind, we collected seeds from those wild sunflowers and partnered with the NC Botanical Garden to have them propagated into seedlings.
Those seedlings have now been planted (all 800 of them) in habitats where Schweinitz’s are known to thrive. The majority were planted at the nearby Buffalo Creek Preserve, in the Piedmont savanna habitat the Conservancy’s Stewardship team has been working to enhance over several years. Having harvested the seeds nearby, our team is confident the plants will flourish and grow into a healthy colony of sunflowers on the property.
Other seedlings were planted in nearby plots that have been set up for study, so we can learn even more about what conditions it takes for these plants to thrive. The plots will be reviewed regularly so that growing patterns can be recorded and the information can better inform the work we are doing to save this unique species.
This Schweinitz’s planting project is just one piece of the puzzle in our larger Catawba Grasslands Project. The Catawba Grasslands Project involves working with our partners to manage nine Conservancy properties to enhance habitat for pollinators, ground-nesting birds and native plants, and bring back Piedmont grassland ecosystems.
While the future of the Schweinitz’s sunflower is still uncertain, planting these native flowers into our Piedmont soil has shone a ray of hope on its bright yellow blooms.
Photos by Nancy Pierce.