Mar 03 2016

Wildflowers Of The Carolina Lowcountry

By Martha Zink for The Island Connection


The Kiawah Island Garden Club were guests of the Kiawah Island Nature Conservancy for a fun and informative talk by Dr. Richard Dwight Porcher, retired biology professor at the Citadel and author of several books. He was the author of “A Guide to Wildflowers of South Carolina” and is working on Wildflowers of the Carolina Lowcountry, with Dr. Joel Gramling.

Dr. Porcher mentioned that much of the land in the Nature Conservancy is where he explores and takes his digital photography. Since he wrote a book on the lowcountry wildflowers years ago, which is now out of print, so much of the nomenclature has changed and he’s thankful that Dr. Gramling, who took over his professorship at the Citadel, is researching that aspect of the book. Dr. Gramling runs the Herbarium at the Citadel also.

There is incredible natural diversity of the Carolina Lowcountry, a natural transition stretching from Cape Fear to Florida, with over 2000 plants in the plain alone. Some plants are contained in remnant communities from when the glaciers receded, such as Beech trees (a mountain species) along creeks. The Waccamaw River and Sugarloaf Mountain areas contain remnant communities, as do native shell deposits.

Two million years ago the coastline reached far inland, to near Columbia, and the deposits laid down then form the limestone and marl formations over which our land stretches, and on which many calcium loving plants thrive. The ancient sand hills in the Upstate are the old shore line. The Maritime grassland thrives because freshwater is lighter than saltwater and sits atop sand, and it is there that the Common Marsh Pink grows.

The tidal freshwater marsh is formed as freshwater backs up when the tide comes in; thousands of acres of abandoned rice fields which were built there have reverted to marshland.

Another unique habitat is formed in peat-based “Carolina Bays.” The origins are debated but they could have been formed by wind and water affecting the barren landscape left when the ocean receded. Sweet Bay and Loblolly Bay trees grow in these areas. There are also clay based Carolina Bays where the clay base holds water and hardwoods can’t thrive: the result is many wildflowers including all sorts of orchids. Many of the Bays have been drained for agriculture.

Native Americans used over 4,000 plants for medicine and food. “Indian Pink” was used to treat intestinal worms, “Black Willow” which contains salicylic acid was chewed for pain, and “Blood Root” was used for dye as well as insect repellent. A distant cousin of Dr. Porcher, Francis Peyre Porcher (1823-95) was asked by the Confederate army to identify more than 400 of these same plants as a source of medicine for the soldiers, such as “Marion’s Weed”, a substitute for quinine used by Francis Marion in the Revolutionary War. Another was “Longleaf pine” which was boiled and used as an astringent to treat dysentery.

There were three kinds of Native American shell deposits: rings, mounds and middens. They would live on a hummock in rivers and toss the oyster shells around them. There are 25 middens along our coast and maritime shell forests have grown on them, deciduous forests in a generally evergreen region. The Native Americans used rare plants on these middens for dye and food, such as “Indian Midden Morning Glory” whose tubers are edible. Another plant most likely introduced by the Natives was trillium, as it is only dispersed by ants, who could not swim to the middens. These plants were also used in traditional black medicine, such as “Rabbit Tobacco”, used for toothache, cramps, etc.

St. Johns Parrish in Berkeley County, which was flooded when Lake Moultrie was formed, was the home of four very famous botanists. Thomas Walter (1740-89) came from England and was the author of Flora Caoliniana, published in 1788 and introducing 88 plants new to science. Every young botanist makes a pilgrimage to his grave if he can. Henry Ravenel (1814-1887), and a great uncle of our speaker, had many plants named in his honor. Francis Porcher was the botanist called by the Confederacy for help with native medicinal plants to treat the army.

With his entertaining and interesting talk, and his research, authorship, teaching and mentoring career, Dr. Richard Porcher certainly carries on a distinguished tradition of scholarship.

The next Garden Club event will be on March 14 at the Cassique Club, where the chef will demonstrate cooking with flowers, followed by luncheon featuring those flowers. There are a few spots left, with details in the Club newsletter.

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