Rare Flowers and Rattlesnakes on Naked Mountain!!

July 3rd was one of the most enjoyable days I have had in 25 years of owning and protecting nearly 300 acres of Naked Mountain in Nelson County, Virginia.  The MOST exciting day of all was the discovery of thousands of blooming Shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) in the warren of barrens on the Southeastern face of the mountain.  But July 3rd was second best!  The reason – the preserve was visited by three highly experienced experts to find, on the one hand, a rare flower that exists in only 50-100 sites in the world and, on the other hand, gestating and possibly den sites for timber rattlesnakes!

The rationale for the joint expedition arose because on two previous occasions when Gary Fleming, Senior Vegetation Ecologist with the Natural Heritage Division of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and I ventured down into the barrens to try and find the rare flower – Pycnanthemum torreyi, or Torrey’s Mountain Mint – we were stopped by the rattlesnake pictured below.

Timer Rattlesnake in barrens on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming

For the plant search, Gary engaged a colleague at Natural Heritage, Chris Ludwig, Chief Biologist at DCR-Natural Heritage and an author of the recently published Flora of Virginia. Chris had found the Torrey’s Mountain Mint in 2005 when he first explored the barrens of Naked Mountain, along with several local colleagues, to see if the vegetation there, and other ecological features of the property, warranted protection by the state of Virginia. Chris was puzzled by a few mountain mint plants that differed from the two other mountain mint species blooming in the barrens. He was unsure if it was truly Torrey’s or a hybrid. He took a specimen back to Richmond and showed it to Gary.  Gary was convinced it was not a hybrid, but the very rare Torrey’s Mountain Mint found in just 14 limited sites in Virginia and ranked as a G2, “imperiled” by Natureserve. He has wanted to “re-find” it ever since and send a specimen to the herbarium for documentation.  Like the Shooting stars, this would be a “first” for Nelson County.

For the timber rattlesnake search, Gary engaged a different colleague, William “Marty” Martin, a retired federal park ranger who is the mid-Atlantic’s best timber rattlesnake expert.  He has conducted research for 35 years in Northern Virginia in the Bull Run Mountains under the auspices of the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy.  You can read more about Marty’s research and the knowledge he has contributed to our understanding of this fascinating species that is quickly disappearing from its home range in the Piedmont of Virginia and surrounding states here.  It was a privilege to have Marty and his Bull Run Mountains Conservancy colleagues on Naked Mountain last week.

Here is a group photo of our joint expedition:

Our July 3rd expedition (please note snake chaps!): Left to Right — Anna Ritter, BRM Conservancy; Michael Kieffer, Ex. Dir. BRM Conservancy; Lance Benedict, Assistant to Mr. Martin; author; Chris Ludwig, Chief Biologist, VA DCR-Natural Heritage Div.; Adam Christie, Steward, VA DCR-Natural Heritage Div.; Gary Fleming, Senior Vegetation Ecologist, VA DCR-Natural Heritage Div.; William Martin, Herpetologist/Timber Rattlesnake expert.

So what did we find?  PYCNANTHEMUM TORREYI!!  As in 2005, there were only three mature, blooming plants and a few immature stems.  Here are two photos by Gary Fleming.

Pycnanthemum torreyi blooming in the barrens on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming.

Close-up of Pycnanthemum torreyi on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming.

We also found TIMBER RATTLESNAKES!!  One large pregnant female was found in a different site than Gary and I discovered three years ago.  She disappeared under a rock before we could photograph her.  She never rattled at anyone, just took cover.  Then Marty took his crew to a neighbor’s property that has the largest open barren on the Southeastern face of Naked Mountain.  There they found another pregnant female rattlesnake that also ducked under a rock.  Nearby was a pregnant copperhead.  Both were basking in the sun on the rock outcrop before being disturbed by the search crew.

So, a very successful day – one of the best!  A friend videotaped the expedition and interviewed Marty, Lance and Michael about their research efforts and understanding of timber rattlesnakes, and Chris and Gary about Pycnanthemum torreyi.  I will be posting the video on this website in the coming weeks (or months) once it is edited.

Gary took a few more photos of other plants blooming in the preserve.  The Milk Vetch (Astragalus Canadensis), according to the Flora of Virginia, is rare in the mountains and infrequent in the Piedmont and on the Coastal Plain.  Nevertheless, it is blooming in profusion under my powerline. The Appalachian Fameflower (Phemeranthus teretifolius), which grows in a barren near the summit of Naked Mountain, refused to open up for Gary’s camera, but the picture shows the habitat the plant thrives in – basically almost no soil, dry, exposed rock.  Each bloom, a knock-your-socks off vibrant magenta with 10-20 bright yellow stamens, opens for just one afternoon then quickly evolves into fruit.  The plant is infrequent to rare in the Piedmont.

Milk Vetch (Astragalas canadensis) blooming in profusion under powerline on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming

Appalachian Fameflower (Phemeranthus teretifolium) blooming (almost!) in a barren near the summit of Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming

And finally, below is a photo of a plant several of us passed by in the woodlands surrounding the barrens: Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana). This plant really lived up to its name; it was at least four feet tall!

Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana) blooming in the woodland near the barrens on Naked Mountain. Photo by author