Acidic Sandstone Loving Plants

chestnut oak: Quercus prinus

Chestnut oak is an acidic sandstone loving tree that is part of the white oak group. The seedlings pictured were found on a rocky steep sided hill with many mature individuals along the ridge. Chestnut oak is a very important tree in Appalachian hardwoods that provides wildlife with food and shelter. Growth is limited on dry ridges and hill sides but in more favorable conditions chestnut oak has good timber value.

sourwood: Oxydendrum arboreum

Sourwood is another species that loves sandy acidic soil and can tolerate dry conditions. Sourwood is a popular year-round ornamental especially during early summer when flowering and autumn when the leaves turn crimson. Sourwood leaves have an acrid taste and are popular for making tea. Bees also feed on sourwood flowers and produce very delicious honey.

eastern hemlock: Tsuga canadensis

Eastern hemlock is an essential forest tree that provides food for many species of wildlife such as deer, squirrels, and rabbits. Many say eastern hemlock is one of the most beautiful forest trees and I tried to find a good example of that. The needles and twigs were once used to make tea by Indians and mountain-men.

round-leaf catchfly: Silene rotundifolia

Round-leaf catchfly is not specifically stated by Forsyth on the list of acidic sandstone species but it is found growing directly out of sandstone rock faces. The leafs have a sticky substance that catches insects giving it the name catchfly. Bright scarlet flowers appear in the late spring to early summer that are a main attraction for hummingbirds.

Biotic Threatened Plants

American chestnut: Castanea dentata

American chestnut belongs to the Fagaceae or beech family and was once a prominent large forest tree. At the beginning of the 20th century, a fungal bark disease presumably from Asia quickly spread across all eastern forests decimating chestnuts. In a few short years American chestnut was functionally extinct except for new shoot growth from old root structures. When the new shoots reach moderate size the bark fungi girdles the tree. There is no evidence of a natural resistance but a lot of effort is being put forth to breed a resistant strain. There may be hope yet for the American chestnut.

butternut: Juglans cinerea 

Butternut is a species of tree in the Juglandaceae or walnut family that closely resembles black walnut. Butternut or white walnut was a prominent tree in history with many uses from delicate woodworking to Indians creating nut butter from boiling the nuts. In 1967, a fungal disease was discovered on a butternut tree in Wisconsin. While the fungal disease, butternut canker, was likely an accidental import from Asia, it has decimated butternut populations in the midwest and northeast. Cankers produce spores and they are transported to other trees via wind, rain, and insects. Once the tree is infected it is nearly 100% fatal. Unfortunately there is no cure or resistance in native butternuts.


Appalachian Gametophyte, Vittaria appalachiana

When looking at the different lineages of plants, ferns are their own line pre-dating gymnosperms and angiosperms. Fern lifecycles have both gametophytes and sporophyte phases with the sporophyte being the long lived dominate stage in the cycle. At one point before the last Ice Age, the Appalachian gametophyte had both a sporophyte and gametophyte spreading across the Appalachian mountain range. When the glaciers and cold moved into Appalachia, the fern was forced into sandstone rock houses where it consequently lost the dominant sporophyte. What remained was a long living gametophyte that reproduces asexually though gemmae.

When the gemmae reach maturity they separate from the gametophyte and grow new genetically identical gametophytes. Since gemmae are much large than single cellular spores, they can only disperse short distances via wind, water, or animals. A 1995 publication by Kimmerer and Young showed that bryophyte gemmae have been dispersed short distances by slugs. Due to the unique range of V. appalachiana, the short dispersal capability is confirmed by the absence of any individuals north of the last glacial zone. In addition, there is no new colonization of suitable habitats created by recent disturbances such as road tunnels.

The hypothesis that the current populations are being sustained by long-distance dispersal can be rejected due to previous allozyme studies. This supports the earlier notion that at some point Appalachian gametophyte had fully functioning sporophytes during a period when a warmer climate allowed for tropical growth in Appalachia.

Other Experiences

cowwheat: Melampyrum lineare

Cowwheat is a native hemiparasitic plant that attains nutrients from both photosynthesis and invading roots of other nearby plants. The typical hosts of cowwheat are pine, poplar, sugar maple, red oak, and low brush blueberry. In the area where I photographed cowwheat there was a significant amount of blueberry. Cowwheat was once used medicinally by Native Americans.

sassafras: Sassafras albidum

Sassafras is a native tree that has uniquely lobed leaves that are fragrant when scratched, “scratch-and-sniff.” At one time sassafras lumber was used for everything from barrels to canoes to posts because of its durability. The outer bark of the roots can be used to make tea and were once an ingredient for root beer. The twigs and fruits are a popular food choice for many species of wildlife from songbirds to black bear.

cinnamon fern: Osmundastrum cinnamomeum 

Cinnamon fern is a native species that grows in wet shaded areas with moist, rich acidic soils. Cinnamon ferns are dimorphic in that they produce separate sterile and fertile fronds. The fertile frond appears in the spring with cinnamon colored sori. Historically, cinnamon fern was used by many different native nations for food and medicinal purposes. Today cinnamon fern is commonly planted along streams, ponds, and water gardens.

American cancer root or squawroot: Conopholis americana

American cancer root is a native, fully parasitic plant that only grows collocated to certain species of oak such as chestnut oak. The surface structure or inflorescence only appears after the roots attach to an oak root system and form a woody gall. Although American cancer root has no cancer treating properties, ‘squawroot’ was used by Indians as an astringent and for other medicinal purposes specifically for women.