IN AN ERA when most all frontiers have been crossed and the entirety of humanity’s collected knowledge is accessible from a device that fits in our pockets, it’s almost hard to imagine the concept of true discovery outside the study of, say, physics or space exploration. But if you ask Theo Witsell, chief of research and inventory at the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, he’ll tell you that scientific discoveries are actually being made right here in The Natural State, particularly when it comes to Arkansas’ flora. In fact, Theo has even had the pleasure of being a part of such discoveries.
Back in 2001, for example, John Pelton, a retired mechanic for the ALCOA corporation who’d taken up nature photography and botany in his free time, came across an unfamiliar plant among rare seasonally wet glades in Saline County. The specimen was similar to another species of the genus Sabatia, but with noticeable irregularities. A friend and mentor of Theo’s, John reached out for help discerning the plant’s species name.
“When I saw this species at a site where its nearest relative also grew, my eyes bugged out, and my adrenaline started pumping,” Theo says. “The two species were distinctly different, and John and I agreed that these odd plants were an undescribed species, new to science!”
THANKS TO VOLUNTEERS like John and researchers like Theo, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission is able to pursue its primary mission: to identify and protect the best examples of our natural heritage—from plants to animals to ecosystems and habitats, as well as natural communities such as tallgrass prairies and mesic forests.
“At this point, we have 75 preserves that are owned by the taxpayers, and we’ve got about 70,000 acres in that system,” Theo says. “And part of my job is to seek out new additions to the system.”
Oftentimes, these areas are located in a region where there’s a lot of land development, which endangers the areas’ natural flora. “That’d be a high priority for us,” Theo says, “so we would go out and see what’s on them and what species are found there.”
Other times, the ANHC is looking for a particular species. “We get money every year from the [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife Service to do surveys for endangered species on the federal list,” Theo explains. In such cases, senior botanist Brent Baker and his crew will go out in the field, searching for the species in the habitats where they’re most likely to be found.
“These things are really rare, so usually, they don’t find it,” Theo says. “But every now and then they do, and then they’ll work with the landowner or whoever to try to see that that’s managed in a way that won’t destroy it.”
And other times, like the case with John Pelton, Theo and his team get lucky and find something truly unexpected.
AFTER COLLECTING THE specimen John discovered in Saline County, Theo spent the next couple of years studying the undescribed species before teaming up with Dr. Jim Pringle—the world expert on the genus Sabatia—at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Ontario. Then in 2005, Theo and Dr. Pringle officially described the species, naming it Pelton’s rose-gentian (Sabatia arkansana) in honor of John.
“Despite 19 years of searching appropriate habitat across the state since John first showed me the plants, it is still known only from a handful of sites in Saline County and nowhere else in the world,” Theo says. “It reminds me of both my friendship with John and the fact that there are undescribed species right here in Arkansas, not just in exotic, far-away places like tropical rainforests.”
During his tenure at the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, Theo has personally collected some 17,000 of 20,000 or so specimens housed in the commission’s growing herbarium—an ongoing project that Theo helped launch in 2003. But here are a few of his favorites from the collection:
Nuttall’s thistle (Cirsium nuttallii)
“This specimen is one of several collections of this species by Jim Keesling, a retired engineer who lives in Hot Springs Village and volunteers for the ANHC collecting specimens across the state. Since 2011, Jim has found scores of species that were not previously known from Arkansas, and Nuttall’s thistle is just one of those. A native species of open pine savannas, Jim has now found and collected it from eight counties across the Gulf Coastal Plain of southern Arkansas. Jim’s collections are mostly from roadsides at the edges of dense forests or clearcuts, but the presence of Nuttall’s thistle indicates that these areas were open savannas historically, a pattern that is common in many areas of the Coastal Plain. These specimens also remind us that despite more than 200 years of scientific plant collecting in the state, some things have been missed and still await discovery. The specimens also tell us about the valuable contributions that volunteers and other nonprofessional botanists can make to our knowledge of the Arkansas flora.”
West Gulf Coastal Plain. Tertiary Uplands Ecoregion. 4 miles E of Rison 30 yds S of SR-114, and 5.7 miles W of the US-63 jct. N 33.94119, W 92.12634. Rison 7.5’ quandrangle.
Sandy soil of old logging operation. 4 plants in area 10 x 30 yds. Fresh flowers pink. Growing with Vernonia texana. Photos taken.
Jim Keesling – July 20, 2016
Wright’s cliff-brake (Pellaea wrightiana)
“This specimen was collected by ANHC’s senior botanist, Brent Baker, back in the summer of 2013 when he and I were exploring a remote and rugged mountain south of Hot Springs. We were in some very nice novaculite glades (rocky, desertlike dry grasslands that support a lot of rare and interesting species) and had split up to cover more ground. I was exploring a small spring in the middle of a dense holly thicket when I got a call from Brent. He said, ‘I’ve got a really interesting-looking Pellaea over here.’ I headed off in his direction and got a text from him a few minutes later saying ‘Pellaea wrightiana—state record!!!’). Sure enough, he had done some research online and nailed the ID. This was the first discovery of this western desert fern from Arkansas (a ‘first state record’). In 2017, I found another site for it at Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area in western Pulaski County and made a second collection. These specimens tell the story of the ancient connections between the flora of the modern-day desert Southwest and hotter, drier climatic periods long ago in Arkansas. They are also reminders that we’ll never know everything about the Arkansas flora and will always make new discoveries if we just get out and look.”
Hot Spring County
Ouachita Mountains. Central Mountain Ranges Ecoregion. Ross Foundation property on Bismarck Lookout Tower mountain. About 0.33 air mi. ESE of the tower and peak at terminus of Tower Rd. about 1.4 rd. mi. E of AR Hwy 7 at a point about 3.1 rd. mi. N of jct. with AR Hwy 84 in Bismarck. TO4S, R2OW, S28, E2SE4SW4. N 34.35146, W 93.15167. Bismarck 7.5’ quandrangle.
Crevices and in very shallow pockets of organic material in novaculite outcrops on steep, SW-facing mid slope. Nine plants observed (4 large clumps, 1 medium, 4 small) within about 30 m radius. Rachises dark chestnut brown at maturity; purplish and slightly glaucous when young. Fresh pinnae bluish-green. Growing with Schizachyrium scoparium, Acalypha monococca, Hypericum gentianoides, Croton willdenowii, Dichanthelium linearifolium, Danthonia spicata, Rubus sp., Vitis rotundifolia, Callicarpa americana, Ilex vomitoria, Ulmus alata, Quercus marilandica, etc.
Brent Baker (with Theo Witsell) – August 15, 2013
Missouri ground-cherry (Physalis missouriensis)
“Missouri ground-cherry is a globally rare, bluff-dwelling nightshade that, until 2014, was missing in action in Arkansas. At that time, it was known in Arkansas from just a handful of collections made between 1923 and 1953 in five Ozark region counties, and I had been looking for it without success since I started as the ANHC botanist in 2000. One of the last sites where it was collected was on Kessler Mountain southwest of Fayetteville—back in 1934. In 2014, the city of Fayetteville purchased a 375-acre tract on Kessler Mountain, and I spent 15 days conducting fieldwork for an ecological assessment of the site. Needless to say, Missouri ground-cherry was high on my list of target species. Finally, on my fourth trip to the area, on September 10, I was walking along the base of a bluff on the west side of the mountain and came face to face with my nemesis at last, in full flower! By the end of the season, I had found six small patches on the site, and the species was confirmed to still be present in Arkansas. I’ve since found it at a few other sites across the Ozarks, but it is definitely rare in the state. This specimen reminds me to hold out hope that we can find missing rarities with targeted fieldwork and persistence.”
Boston Mountains/Ozark Highlands boundary. Lower Boston Mountains/ Springfield Plateau Ecoregion boundary. SW Fayetteville. Kessler Mountain (within Kessler Mountain Reserve). Prominent drainage forming a notch in W side of mountain. N 36.03174, W 94.22058. Fayetteville 7.5’ quandrangle.
Base of bluff/outcrops on shale talus (Hale Formation) under Quercus rubra, Ulmus rubra, & Acer saccharum.
Concentrated in areas where there is bare soil exposed. Several plants, scattered. Extending from coordinates up drainage a little ways. Plants sticky and with intense stinky-sweet odor. Growing with Acalypha virginica, Elymus hystrix, Chasmanthium latifolium, Phytolacca americana, Bromus pubescens, Acer saccharum, Muhlenbergia sobolifera, Solidago ulmifolia ulmifolia, Ampelopsis cordata, Hydrangea arborescens, & Carex sp. Photos taken at time of collection. Voucher specimen for Terrestrial Ecological Assessment of Kessler Mountain Reserve (report by T. Witsell issued Feb 2015). Site owned by the City of Fayetteville.
Theo Witsell – September 10, 2014
Texas snakeroot (Aristolochia reticulata)
“This specimen was collected in early April 2004 as I led a field trip for a joint meeting of the Arkansas Native Plant Society and the Central Arkansas Master Naturalists in Little Rock’s Gillam Park. My son Daniel, then 6 years old, was along for the trip and taking great pride in his role as ‘spotter,’ helping me find good examples of various species to show the group. We were exploring one of the finest examples of igneous glade and woodland habitat in the state and found a population of Texas snakeroot, or Dutchman’s pipe. This is a fascinating plant with a very fragrant, medicinal root and an interesting pollination biology. I was explaining the scientific name of the species and how the name ‘reticulata’ referred to the netlike pattern made by the veins in the leaves. At that moment, Daniel produced a fine specimen of a skeletonized leaf he had found on the ground nearby and said, ‘Yeah, here you can see it looks like a net!’ Everyone in the group (including his dad) was impressed. This specimen reminds me of the educational value of a good specimen, and also of the value of a good spotter.”
West Gulf Coastal Plain. Tertiary Uplands Ecoregion. Little Rock. Gillam Park. 0.15 mi. NW of abandoned swimming pool. Along “Carolina Wren Trail” (Audubon Arkansas primitive hiking trail). Vicinity of N 34.70310, W 92.25856. Little Rock 7.5’ quandrangle.
Open nepheline syenite (igneous) woodland at edge of large glade opening.
Scattered. Roots with intense, medicinal methol-like fragrance. Collected on Master Naturalist/Native Plant Society hike. Skeletonized leaf found by Daniel Witsell, age 6, during my explanation of why the specific epithet is “reticulata”. Daniel: “yeah, here you can see it looks like a net”.
Theo Witsell (with Eric Hunt & Daniel Witsell) – April 9, 2016
Virginia bunchflower (Veratrum virginicum)
“Virginia bunchflower is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful species in Arkansas. It’s also rare, and rare plants, by and large, love rare habitats. I collected this specimen at one of my favorite places in the state: Middle Fork Barrens Natural Area, which includes one of the finest examples of shale-barrens habitat in the world. The area supports more than 700 plant species, including 19 species of state conservation concern (many of which are also of global concern). These kinds of places seem to just keep pushing up rare species. For a while, it seemed like even though our staff and partners had been there scores of times, we would find new rare species every time we would go. This one popped up in a degraded area of the site that had been clearcut and scraped with a bulldozer just before we purchased it back in 2004. Between that time and the date of the collection, it had been burned (intentionally) three times in an effort to restore the rare habitats on the site, which need periodic fire to stay healthy. The bunchflower was originally found by my friend Mike Melnechuk, then the burn boss of the Nature Conservancy’s burn crew, when he was doing a postburn evaluation. A few years later, in June of 2013, I walked into the area when the plants were in peak bloom and found enough to make a specimen! This specimen is a testament to the important role of fire in many of Arkansas’ rare habitats and the resiliency of good sites with proper protection and management.”
Ouachita Mountains. Central Hills, Ridges, and Valleys Ecoregion. Middle Fork Barrens Natural Area. W of Burk Rd. in cleared area near S boundary of natural area. Vicinity of N 34.63469, W 92.84126. Lonsdale NE 7.5’ quandrangle.
Cleared & burned seasonally wet flatwoods, adjacent to shale barrens (tree canopy removed approximately 10 years earlier and area burned 3 times since). Locally common. 100+ plants, approx. 35 in flower. Fresh flowers yellowish-white.
Theo Witsell – June 13, 2013
Open-ground Whitlow-grass (Draba aprica)
“In the spring of 2004, I was doing a lot of fieldwork in shale barrens, fascinating rocky grassland habitats in the Ouachita Mountains, rich in rare species. My wife, Tanya, was nine months pregnant, so I was only taking day trips. On April 13, I was exploring some barrens near the Alum Fork of the Saline River, upstream from Lake Winona in Saline County, and had just found a population of this diminutive, globally rare, white-flowered mustard when I got a call from my wife saying, ‘Come now!’ This was the last plant I collected before I got the call. My daughter Annaleah was born the next day, and her nickname for many years was ‘Little Draba.’”
Ouachita Mountains. Ouachita National Forest. Stanley shale glade and grassy woodlands north of FS Road 114. NW4 NE4 Section 22, T2N R19W. Elevation approx. 1040 ft. Nimrod SE 7.5’ quad.
Theo Witsell – April 13, 2004
Visit the Southeast Regional Network of Expertise and Collections’ (SERNEC) online portal to search and view more specimens from the ANHC’s collection, as well as specimens from 232 other herbaria across the region, at sernecportal.org