Saturday, May 27, 2017


I had an amazing visit to the Redlair Nature Preserve in Gastonia, North Carolina. The 775 acre Redlair preserve is part of the larger Spencer Mountain Conservation Area that consists of approximately 1300 acres (1).  The hike was sponsored by the North Carolina Friends of Plant Conservation and our gracious hosts were Haywood Rankin, the current steward, whose family once owned the preserve, and Lesley Starke, a plant ecologist with the N.C. Plant Conservation Program.

Redlair preserve is a mosaic of habitats including pastures, pine forests, hardwood forests, river bluffs, and ponds. Our hike only gave us a small but impressive glimpse of this unique preserve. As we entered the forest I was instantly reminded of the North Carolina mountains.  Along the deeply shaded trails I saw evidence of spring ephemerals such as Mayapple (Podophylum peltatum), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Catesby’s Trillium (Trillium catesbaei), Liverwort (Anemone americana) and Wild Comfrey (Cynoglossum virginianum). I also observed many familiar ferns such as Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), Rattlesnake fern (Botrychium virginianum), and Broad Beech Fern (Phegopteris hexagonoptera). Another reason I was reminded of the mountains was the terrain. During our three hour tour we hiked over rolling hills, along ridges, and transversed deep ravines often cut by small streams. With all the up and down I was surprised to learn that the total elevation relief is only 200 feet.

Round-leaf Liverwort-  Anemone americana (Hepatica americana)

Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) Fruit 

 Although the area boasts many unique species, two in particular were mentioned by our guide Mr. Haywood Rankin. The first and most noticeable is the Bigleaf Magnolia, (Magnolia macrophylla). The area is habitat to the largest population of this species along the east coast and contains 85% of the plants found in North Carolina. The species was originally discovered near this area in 1789 by the French botanist Andre Michaux (2). The trees themselves are not very large, reaching about 30- 40 feet in height, but the leaves are huge and arranged in pseudo whorls. It has the largest simple leaf of any tree species in North America and a single leaf may be as long as 39 inches long by 12 inches wide (3). Everyone was craning their necks upwards in awe viewing the circles of large leaves backlit with sunlight. 

Bigleaf Magnolia - Magnolia macrophylla

Seeing the canopy filled with these gigantic leaves was a majestic and surreal sight.  The large leafs may be why the trees seem to prefer the deep mesic ravines found in the preserve. The ravines protect the trees from wind that can easily damage their large leaves.

Look carefully and you will see a Luna Moth resting
on the underside of a Bigleaf Magnolia leaf.
After crossing one of  many small creeks we spotted
a beautiful Northern Watersnake ( Nerodia sipedo

The second species emphasized by our guide was the federally endangered Helianthus schweinitzii, or Schweinitz's Sunflower. It is the rarest sunflower species in the United States (4). This plant is found in disturbed habitats, such as roadsides and power lines, in the piedmont regions of North and South Carolina. 

Helianthus schweinitzii, or Schweinitz's Sunflower 
Photo by Trena McNabb, from the North Carolina Native Plant Society Webpage

It is thought to be a residual plant from the native Piedmont prairies that once covered large areas of the Carolinas. The plant has several unique characteristics including edible tubers, a potential height of 15 feet, purplish-red stems, and long stiff leaves. Unfortunately, we were too early in the season to see the plants in bloom but I volunteered to help with a population survey later in the fall.

Other species, in bloom, that we spotted along our hike include Variegated Milkweed (Asclepias varigata), Pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys), Black Cohosh (Actaea racemose), Eastern Smooth Beardtongue (Penstemon laevigatus), and Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina). I was also very excited to see Chalk Maple (Acer leucoderme).

Eastern Smooth Beardtongue (Penstemon laevigatus)
Variegated Milkweed (Asclepias varigata)

Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina)

Chalk Maple (Acer leucoderme)

Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina)

I am looking forward to my return trip in the fall to see Schweinitz's Sunflower in bloom and to see what other treasures the preserve holds and protects!

Note: Unless otherwise noted all photographs were taken by the author.

1. Redlair Preserve -- Discover Life. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2017.

2. "André Michaux International Symposium." Am Ecological Study of MAGNOLIA MACROPHYLLA (BigLeaf Magnolia) in Gaston County, North Carolina. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2017.

3. Radford, Albert Ernest, Harry E. Ahles, and Clyde Ritchie Bell. Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina Press, 1983.

4. Schweinitz's Sunflower, Helianthus schweinitzii: Hilton Pond Research. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 May 2017.