Seeds of hope for the Schweinitz's sunflower | Catawba Lands Conservancy
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Seeds of hope for the Schweinitz’s sunflower

By: Adde Sharp

Beautiful, tenacious, scarce; these are the defining characteristics of the endangered Schweinitz’s sunflower. A native species to the rapidly disappearing Piedmont Prairie, Schweinitz’s are a tall and brilliant perennial sunflower species. Historically, Schweinitz’s have inhabited the grasslands and savannahs of the Carolinas, favoring open or lightly wooden zones, such as along hilltops and ridges. Their ability to thrive in dry, nutrient-poor soil offers them an ecological niche – simply put, the Schweinitz’s survive where other species cannot. And yet, these hardy sunflowers are now listed as an Endangered Species.

The Schweinitz’s are not the only species with an affinity for open highlands and prairie. Human development and agriculture have also favored the sunny grasslands or well-drained hilltops. Thus, while cotton, tobacco, and food crops quickly claimed the flat prairies, towns, roads, and much later, powerline corridors, claimed the ridges and hilltops. Eventually, almost all the Schweinitz’s’ critical habitat was converted, making the sunflowers another casualty of rapid development and urbanization.

A hopeful future

Recently, however, small pockets of Schweinitz’s sunflower have been spotted. Not far from the Buffalo Creek Preserve, a Catawba Lands Conservancy  property, a triumphant population of sunflowers is making a slow comeback. While this may seem like a delightful surprise, the sunflowers were just where one would expect to find them – along the shoulder of roadway, clinging to tiny scraps of their fractured habitat. The sunflowers’ evident success along an otherwise inhospitable roadway gave the Conservancy an idea: if the Schweinitz’s could recolonize the shoulder of Miami Church Road, why wouldn’t they also thrive just a few miles away in the protected, Buffalo Creek Preserve?

Yet growing Schweinitz’s sunflowers in the Buffalo Creek Preserve isn’t as straightforward as it sounds; the population is protected under the Threatened and Endangered Species Act. In order to facilitate the sunflower’s spread, seeds must first be collected, then propagated in a lab, and finally dispersed at the Preserve. Thanks to various partnerships with the NC Botanical Garden, the NC Plant Conservation Program, Duke Energy, Catawba College, and the USFWS, that is just what the Conservancy team is doing. In early November, a handful of staff set out to diligently collect sunflower seeds from the population along Miami Church Road. Now, the seeds are in the hands of the NC Botanical Garden, who will propagate them and have them ready to disperse by fall of 2021. With additional support from students and faculty at Catawba College, the newly seeded population will be carefully monitored and documented. A second planting will follow, hopefully increasing the chances for a thriving population of the charming sunflowers. With any luck, the Buffalo Creek Preserve will once again be home to the historical Schweinitz’s sunflowers.

Photo by Nancy Pierce.