News | December 7, 2023

These native Southern plants are under threat

The smooth coneflower is a threatened perennial herb found in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

From the Blue Ridge Mountains to Carolina beaches to the swamps of southern Alabama, our region is full of beautiful and important native plants.

Unfortunately, some of the South’s most beloved flora is at risk of extinction. Because of human activity, especially habitat destruction from development, these extraordinary beach protectors and ethereal blooms are only found in a handful of places across the South. A big reason these special plants are still here is because of the Endangered Species Act, one of the most effective and comprehensive conservation laws in the world. 

In recent years the ESA has been weakened at a time when it’s needed more than ever, especially as climate change introduces new threats to our native plant life in the South. Here at SELC, we are fighting to protect the ESA, so it remains a science-based effort to conserve our region’s rich biodiversity. 

As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the act, we celebrate the success of this popular and bipartisan conservation tool and recognize more work must be done to guarantee it is able to continue protecting these amazing Southern plants for another 50 years.

Alabama canebrake pitcher plant – endangered

This striking carnivorous plant traps and digests insects in its tubular leaves. Some ecosystems rely on periodic fires, but fire control measures in this pitcher plant’s habitat has increased competition and caused its population to decline across the South. Habitat destruction, herbicides, and over-collection of the plant are also threats. These pitcher plants are only known to live in wetlands of just three central Alabama counties.

Seabeach amaranth – threatened

This plant is an indicator of healthy beach ecosystems on the east coast. Seabeach amaranths bind to the sand and protect against beach erosion. They were found in only two of the nine Eastern states in its historic range by the 1980s, but the plant is rebounding thanks to conservation efforts, with populations spreading throughout its historic range. This species is currently threatened by human activity including beach stabilization structures, vehicle use, and climate caused sea level rise.

Morefield’s leather flower – endangered

This rare perennial vine is a cousin to poppies and buttercups. It is found in only four counties in Alabama and Tennessee. Human development is this plant’s primary threat, and its fragmented habitat make it hard to pollinate. Invasive species, including certain honeysuckle populations, also threaten the Morefield.

Price’s potato bean – threatened  

This elegant flower is a member of the pea family and produces yellow-green pea-like beans. It grows from stout, edible, potato-like tubers, and vines can be 15 feet long. It grows in hard wood forest openings where ravines slope towards streams. This plant’s historic range includes Alabama and Tennessee.

Little amphianthus – threatened 

This tiny aquatic herb is part of the figwort family. A majority of its remaining populations are found in Georgia, with a few others in Alabama and South Carolina. They live in vernal pools that retain 1 to 4 inches of water for several weeks after a heavy rain. Rock quarrying is one of the biggest threats to the species.

Whorled sunflower – endangered

This sunflower species is now only found in Alabama, northwest Georgia, and southwest Tennessee. They live in prairies, including woodland openings near creeks. Currently those conditions are often found near roadsides and rail right of ways.

Dwarf-flowered heartleaf – threatened

This groundcover plant is endemic to limited parts of North and South Carolina. Development is blamed for its rapidly disappearing habitat. The heartleaf is classified as a perennial herb, but has an evergreen layer, and is happy during hot and humid summers.

White fringeless orchid – threatened  

This perennial herb blooms late July to early September. Its range spans most of the Southeast, where it is usually found in shaded bogs near headwaters. The white spurred flowers are pollinated by numerous butterfly species and the scent is so strong it attracts nocturnal moths.

Smooth coneflower – threatened 

This sun loving, perennial herb is found in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Highway construction, invasive species, development, and herbicide use during highway right of way maintenance threaten this species of coneflower’s habitat.  With ESA protections, the coneflower has made important steps toward recovery and was reclassified from endangered to threatened in 2022.

Pondberry – endangered  

This wetlands plant grows in more shaded areas but can be found in full sun. Drainage ditching is the biggest threat to this species’ habitat. Hog and cattle farming, along with timber harvesting also impact some sites. Its range includes the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama.