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FLORA: Great Aunt Myra Baldwin’s pressed flower

It’s hard to believe that this pressed flower is vivid-pink trailing phlox. Photo by Jock Lauterer

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist
Six weeks ago I was all set to tell a story about sundrops, Oenothera fruticosa, my identification for Jock Lauterer’s great aunt’s pressed four-petaled, yellow, early-May wildflower in “A Thousand Words.” However, other spring occurrences kept pushing that story to the backburner.

Finally it’s now up front and wow, what a long flowering season sundrops are having. You may still find a few late ones out in the Mason Farm fields and other places you explore.

But there’s one slight problem with this story – Jock’s aunt’s pressed flower is not a sundrop. Thankfully I sought assistance from staff at the botanical garden. Before I was able to stick my neck out, I learned first from Carol Ann McCormick and then from J.C. Poythress and Chris Liloia that the pressed plant is Phlox nivalis var. hentzii, trailing phlox.

This vivid-pink trailing phlox dries yellow as a pressed specimen. Photo by Bruce Sorrie

Well now, trailing phlox is neither four-petaled nor yellow; it has five pink petals! So there’s a different story to tell.

Assistant herbarium curator Carol Ann McCormick is my Sherlock Holmes of botanical sleuthing. I have yet to offer a botanical mystery that she cannot unravel with the amazing resources at hand in the UNC Herbarium (check out herbarium.unc.edu).

Following are Carol Ann’s own words describing how she immediately recognized that pressed specimen as Phlox nivalis in spite of the four yellow petals.

”It was the long tube that said ‘Phlox’ to me and the narrow hairy leaves that said ‘nivalis.’ The bloom date (May 2) is also good for Phlox nivalis. The four petals are bothersome, but after looking at the 50-plus N.C. specimens, lots of them press so that the number of petals is difficult to discern. One has to be very careful when pressing Phlox to hold the flower just so to get all the flaring lobes spread out and unwrinkled. Most of the Phlox nivalis in our collection have indeed faded to a straw color.”

Yellow sundrops may still be found flowering along roadsides. Photo by Ken Moore

Carol Ann said that when pressed between non-acid-free papers, as was that 1943 specimen, flowers turn yellow with age. As the paper ages, the residual acid left in the paper from the manufacturing process renders the paper yellow and brittle, and the same thing happens to flowers pressed between acidic paper pages. Nowadays, herbaria use 100 percent acid-free paper to preserve specimens for hundreds of years.

Another part of this story is that Edgar Wherry, professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania, described our local Phlox nivalis var. hentzii in the 1950s based on a dried specimen, now in Harvard’s Gray Herbarium, collected near Chapel Hill in 1830. Wherry named this phlox in honor of Nicholas Marcellus Hentz, professor of modern languages at UNC from 1826 to 1830, who so long ago collected that very same specimen. Curiously, Hentz, best known as an arachnologist, is credited with describing 124 spider species. There’s another story to be told.

So, Jock, with great appreciation to Carol Ann McCormick, you have your plant identification and much more.
Like your Aunt Myra, we should all keep a diary of our daily wanderings, accompanied occasionally with a pressed specimen or two.

Email Ken Moore at flora@carrborocitizen.com. Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

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