More than 3,000 native species of plants live in Alabama, which is one of the most biologically diverse states in the country. Unfortunately, the state’s rapid growth and urbanization are killing off many rare species of wildflowers that can be found only in Alabama or in a handful of places in the Southeast. Just a few years ago, the federal government stepped in to protect two of Alabama’s rare plants—the whorled sunflower and fleshy-fruit gladecress.
While Alabama’s wildflower population is threatened, you can still find several rare species in the spring and fall. Here are a few of the rare plants you can see among the woods, glades, and bogs of Alabama.
1. Whorled Sunflower
For many years, this towering sunflower was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the 1990s in a small portion of Alabama, Georgia, and West Tennessee. The plant can grow to be seven to 10 feet tall with large, bright yellow flower heads that have 13 petals.
The whorled sunflower blooms from September to November, and you’ll find them in pastures and along roads in the Coosa River Valley, including Etowah and Cherokee counties. Whenever people discover them along the roads in Cherokee County, the county immediately sets up “do not mow” signs to prevent maintenance crews from chopping them down.
2. Fleshy-Fruit Gladecress
Considered one of the most threatened plant species in the Southeast, the fleshy-fruit gladecress was placed on the endangered list in 2014. The plant is part of the mustard family and can be found in northwest Alabama in a biologically rich area of the Bankhead National Forest known as Indian Tomb Hollow. Some plants have also been reported along the Tennessee River in Lawrence County near Wheeler Dam.
The plant lives in open, sunny areas of forests in meadows or prairies. The beautiful flower of the gladecress has four bright white petals that are about half and inch long with a notch in their tip. The center of the bloom is a vibrant yellow color.
3. Alabama Snow-Wreath
You would never know from its appearance, but the Alabama snow-wreath is actually part of the rose family. The shrub can be anywhere from three to six feet tall and include three to eight clusters of one-inch-wide flowers that have no petals. Instead, the blooms are white, fluffy stamens that together resemble a bottle brush.
The snow-wreath can only be found in Tuscaloosa and Bibb counties, generally at the confluence of the North and Black Warrior rivers in Tuscaloosa.
4. French’s Shooting Star
If you’re seeking rare wildflowers, you should really make a trip to Tuscumbia and visit the Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve. From spring through early fall, the trails through the canyon are ablaze with color and countless varieties of wildflowers, including the rare French’s shooting star.
Named for George Hazen French who discovered the plant around 1870, French’s shooting star is fussy about its environment and only grows under sandstone overhangs. Cane Creek provides just that.
The plant itself has a base rosette of green leaves from which a stem measuring one to two feet emerges. The plant is topped with six to 40 dangling white or pink flowers.
5. Alabama Canebrake Pitcher Plant
One of the rarest of the carnivorous plants found in the state, the Alabama canebrake pitcher plant grows in only 11 seepage bogs in Autauga and Chilton counties. As water percolates down certain hillsides, it reaches land with a rocky base and collects just below ground level to form a bog. You’ll find one of the bogs at Camp Tukabatchee, a Boy Scout Camp in Prattville.
The Alabama canebrake pitcher plant has a long, yellow-green tube with red veins that resembles an old fashioned milk pitcher that is topped with a small cover or hood. Nectar forms inside the tube and creates a pleasing aroma that attracts insects. When insects enter the tube, they become trapped and the plant produces enzymes that dissolve the insects and provide the plant nutrients.
The canebrake pitcher plant has a stalk that can measure up to two feet long and is topped with five beautiful, fragrant maroon flowers that bloom in April and May.
6. Menges’ Fameflower
Menges’ fameflower is a remarkable plant that you can find along the sandstone outcroppings and glades of Little River Canyon National Preserve.
It grows in the shallow pockets of the sandstone where there is only a very thin layer of soil. The fameflower grows to about 15 inches tall, and from April through October it blooms with a five-petal flower that’s pink or purple. But, if you want to see the flower, you have to be there at the right time, as it only blooms for two to four hours in the afternoon, usually around 2 pm.
7. Alabama Leather Flower
A close relative of the buttercup, the rare Alabama leather flower grows only in the northeastern part of the state in a few counties—Blount, Calhoun, Cherokee, Etowah, Jefferson, and St. Clair.
The leather flower has a clump of upright stems that measure one foot long and grow from the ground around March. At the top of the stems, thick, leathery petals encase flowers that bloom in April and May and resemble fanciful purple bells.
The best place to view the flower is along damp but sunny open areas of the Coosa River Valley. Try searching along Dry Creek in St. Clair County and at the Nature Conservancy’s Gulf Creek Canyon Preserve.
8. Morefield’s Leather Flower
The Morefield’s leather flower, another close relative to the buttercup, grows at the Land Trust of North Alabama’s Keel Mountain Preserve.
Morefield’s leather flower is a vine plant that can stretch out some 16 feet. The large purple flower has a thick, hairy texture that’s shaped like an urn, and it can grow to be as long as 1.5 inches.
Written by Joe Cuhaj for Matcha in partnership with BCBS of AL.