Thursday, August 20, 2015

Wednesday's Wildflower: Harper's Umbrella Plant

Out of all of the weekly wildflowers I've covered this year, this guy is by far the rarest. Most of my readers may never see it and likely have never heard of it.

We are fortunate that it happens to live right out in our "backyard!"

Harper's Umbrella Plant can be found growing in the Mid-Western states and a handful of Southern states.

It also goes by the name Longleaf Buckwheat, and is in the family Polygonaceae, along with knotweeds and smartweeds.

Pennsylvania Smartweed (Polygomun pennsylvanicum)
It can be found growing anywhere the soil is high and dry - essentially making it a plant of arid conditions.

To help it survive it has a large, thick taproot that carves its way through stone cracks, gravel and clay, reaching for the water that trickles through the rocky substrate.

Sometimes they seem to grow straight out of the rocks themselves!

There isn't anything truly remarkable about its appearance, except for the impressive height of its flower stalk.

It has a curious life cycle.

For the first few years of its life, it remains as nothing more than a basal rosette of narrowly oblanceolate leaves.

After 4 or 5 years, it blooms, sending up a flower stalk that can reach over 6 feet tall.

The freely branching flower umbel has a characteristic umbrella shape, and can be 15 inches tall and 10 inches wide, making it visible at a great distance to the trained eye.

The individual flowers are quite small, composed of tiny white tepals surrounding a furry, yellowish center.

They usually start to bloom in mid-summer, often continuing until October.

Once it goes to seed, the plant dies; leaving its offspring to carry the torch for the next generation.

Its Latin name is Eriogonum longlifolium. Eriogonum can be translated into "Wooly-kneed," referring to its downy, jointed stems. Longifolium means "long leaf."

The thick woolen covering on its stem and leaves are meant to insulate it from the wind, which would whisk away precious moisture in its harsh environment.

There are a couple of subspecies of Harper's Umbrella plant that are even rarer.

The variety found in the Caney Fork River valley (our neck of the woods) is Eriogonum longifolium var. harperi. It exists in only three states: Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, restricted to dry calcareous bluffs and limestone glades.

It is classified as an endangered plant in Tennessee, found in only 4 counties. It is even rarer in Alabama, reported only in 2 counties. The plant is believed to be possibly extinct in Kentucky.

The other subspecies is E. longifolium var. gnaphalifolium, or Scrub Buckwheat, which is found only in the state of Florida and Federally listed as threatened.

Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants
We've become very familiar with our local Harper's Umbrella Plants.

A little over a year ago, Mark worked closely with the US Army Corps of Engineers to relocate several Harper's that were growing close to the dam.

They were in a zone that was scheduled to be sprayed and stripped of foliage in preparation for some maintenance and repair, and the Corps biologists wanted to make sure they were safely removed prior.

Mark contacted several state botanists trying to find out whether transplanting Eriogonum longifolium had ever been done, or whether it would be successful.

Nobody had ever heard of this being attempted, so he decided to go for it.

He carefully dug them up, taking as much soil from their growing sites as possible, and potted them in plastic pots.

It was early summer - not a good time of year for transplanting them, so we thought it would be better to pot them and then re-plant them in the fall.

They took to their pots surprisingly well, despite their large taproots. We surmised that they were used to growing in tight crevices, so the confines of a pot must not pose a huge problem - at least for a few months. We watered them sparingly, and gave them plenty of sunshine.

The potted plants hung out on our front porch with the house plants until Autumn, when Mark planted them in various locations throughout the park. Of those 13, 10 survived; and except for getting browsed by deer, appear to be doing quite well. Hopefully they will bloom in the coming years and distribute their seeds throughout the park, allowing them to propagate in a protected area.

Our interactions with them have helped train our eyes to spot them at a distance - which really comes in handy because most of the time they are growing very far out of our reach.

Because of their rarity and obscurity, there really isn't much documenting their uses for mankind.

The only information on medicinal purposes was that it was used to treat stomach problems.

There are many plants in the Eriogonum genus out West that have been used for medicine, but if Eastern tribes had more uses for our local species, the information is lost to history.

We are fortunate to have such a rare plant within our reach. Hopefully our relocation efforts will help expand its range and insure its future.

Like any imperiled species, its existence is dependent on us.

Be sure to join us for next Wednesday's wildflower!

Click here to read about last week's wildflower, Mountain Mint.

Medicinal information herein is shared strictly for anecdotal purposes. Do not attempt to self-medicate with wild herbs. Please consult a doctor first.

Next flower->


Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians  - Dennis Horn & Tavia Cathcart


  1. Thanks for linking up at the Weekend Blog Hop at My Flagstaff Home!


  2. Wow, what an interesting plant! I've never heard of anything like it. Thanks for sharing.
    Thanks for linking up with Green Thumb Thursday. I hope to see you back this week!