The Pine Lily


The pine lily (Lilium catesbaei) is one of North America’s finest species of lily. It produces the largest flowers of the genus on this continent and to see one in person is a breathtaking experience. The pine lily is endemic to the Southeastern Coastal Plain where it prefers to grow in mesic to wet flatwoods, wet prairies, and savannas. Though it enjoys a relatively wide distribution, today it rarely occurs in any abundance.

The pine lily’s rarity may be a relatively recent status change for this wonderful plant. Historical records indicate that it was once quite abundant in states like Florida. Today it occurs in scattered localities and predicting its presence from year to year has been a bit tricky. Indeed, the pine lily appears to be very picky when it comes to growing and flowering.

One aspect of its biology that might lend to its limited appearance is the fact that it can remain underground in a dormant state for years. Like other members of this genus, the pine lily emerges from a bulb. This underground storage structure is small by lily standards, which means that most pine lilies are operating on marginal stores of energy in any given year.

Some have estimated that individual bulbs can remain dormant for upwards of 5 years before the right conditions for growth flowering present themselves. Of course, such dormancy can be a nightmare for proper conservation of such a unique plant. Aside from the individual flower borne at the tip of a long, slender stem, the rest of the plant is very dainty. In fact, its flowers can be so heavy compared to the rest of the plant that some stems simply topple to the ground before they can set seed. The slender stem, small leaves, and tiny bulb equate to a small operating budget in terms of energy stores. That being said, we are starting to get a clearer picture of what pine lilies need to thrive and it all comes down to fire.


The key to acquiring enough energy for growth and reproduction appears to be a proper amount of sunlight. Without it, plants languish. This is where fire comes in. The pine lily lives in a region of North America that historically would have burned with some frequency. Wildfires sweep through an area, burning away competing vegetation like saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) and clearing the ground of accumulated debris like sticks and leaves. By burning away the competition, fire creates open areas where delicate plants like the pine lily can eke out an existence. Indeed, research has shown that pine lilies produce more flowers and seed immediately following ground-clearing burn followed by a subsequent decline in flowering and seed set as the surrounding vegetation begins to grow back.

If a pine lily does have enough energy to flower, then one of the most stunning flowers in all of North America is presented with its face towards the sky. Its 6 large petals are brightly colored and taper down into what looks like tiny tubes. Nectar is produced within these tubes and, coupled with the bright coloration, attract numerous insect visitors.


Not all insects are capable of successfully pollinating such a large flower. In fact, it would appear that only a couple of species take up the bulk of the pollination of this incredible plant. As far as we know, the Palamede swallowtail butterfly (Papilio palamedes) and perhaps the spicebush swallowtail (P. troilus) are the only species large enough to properly contact both anthers and stigma while feeding at the flowers. The large wingspan of these butterflies do all of the work in picking up and depositing pollen. All other insects are simply too small to adequately achieve such feats.

Though we still have a lot more to learn about the pine lily, what we do know tells us a story that is repeated for fire-dependent ecosystems throughout the world. Without regular disturbance from fire, biodiversity drops. The pine lily is not alone in this either. Its fate is intertwined with countless other unique plant species that call the coastal plains their home.

Photo Credits: [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

Meet The Compass Plant

Few prairie plants stand out more than the compass plant (Silphium laciniatum). With its uniquely lobed leaves and a flower stalk that rises well above the rest of the vegetation, it is nearly impossible to miss. It is also quite easy to identify. Seeing a population in full bloom is truly a sight to behold but the ecology of this species makes appreciating its splendor all the more enjoyable. Today I would like to introduce you to this wonderful member of the aster family.

Any discussion about this species inevitably turns to its common name. Why compass plant? It all has to do with those lovely lobed leaves. When they first develop, the leaves of the compass plant are arranged randomly. However, within 2 to 3 weeks, the leaves will orient themselves so that their flat surfaces face east and west. They also stand vertically. This is such a reliable feature of the plant that past generations have learned to use it as a reliable way in which to orient themselves.

Of course, helping humans find their way is not why this feature evolved. The answer to their orientation has to do with surviving in the open habitats in which they grow. Anyone who has ever spent time hiking around in prairie-like habitats will tell you that the sun can be punishing and temperatures get hot. What's more, the range of this species overlaps with much of the rain shadow produced by the Rocky Mountains meaning water can often be in short supply.

By orienting their leaves in a vertical position with the flat surfaces face east and west, the plants are able to maximize their carbon gain as well as their water use efficiency. At the same time, the vertical orientation limits the amount of direct solar radiation hitting the leaf. In essence, compass plant leaf orientation has evolved in response to the stresses of their environment. Research has shown that the sun's position in early morning is the stimulus that the plant cues in on during leaf growth.

Aside from its fascinating biology, the compass plant is also ecologically important. Myriad pollinators visit its large composite flowers and many different species of birds feed on their seeds. However, it is the insect community supported by the compass plant that is most impressive. Surveys have shown that nearly 80 different species of insect can be found living on or in it stems. Many of these are gall making wasps and their respective parasitoids. With individual plants producing up to 12 stems each, these numbers soon become overwhelming. Needless to say, this is one of the cornerstone plant species anywhere it grows naturally.

Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]



The true harbinger of spring on the northern prairies of North America, Europe, China and Russia is none other than the pasqueflower (Anemone patens). It bursts forth from the ground with its fuzzy, dissected leaves often before all of the snow has had a chance to melt. It then proceeds to put on quite a show with flowers that range the spectrum from white to deep purple. Everything about this plant is adapted to take advantage of early spring before competing vegetation gets the upper hand. 

One of the coolest aspects of pasqueflower life are its flowers. These parabolic beauties need to be able to function despite the constant risk of freezing temperatures. To stay warm, the flowers will actually track the sun's movement across the sky. In this way, they are able to absorb solar radiation all day. What's more, the parabolic shape and reflective surface of the petals serves to bounce solar radiation towards the center, thus amplifying the amount of heat. Pasqueflower blooms can actually maintain a daytime flower temperature upwards of 18 degrees Celsius above ambient temperatures, not only providing a warm spot for pollinators but also increasing the rate at which the seeds develop. 


The seeds themselves are quite interesting structures as well. Getting into the soil can be a difficult task when your neighbors are thick prairie grasses. Pasqueflowers get around this problem by producing seeds that literally bury themselves. Each seed is attached to an awn that is made up of alternating strands of tissue. Each strand varies in its ability to absorb moisture. As spring rains come and go, the awns will twist and turn with the resulting effect of drilling the seeds directly into the ground. 

Once the surrounding vegetation begins to wake up, pasqueflower is already getting ready to go dormant. By mid-July it is usually back underground. It is a prime example of how breaking dormancy early can help a plant beat the competition of the growing season. Also, pasqueflower can be very long lived, with individuals persisting upwards of 50 years in a given location. Not only is this plant is both hardy and beautiful, it also has the added ecological benefit of providing early prairie pollinators with a much needed boost of energy. 

Photo Credit: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2]


A Mallow Called Kankakee

In the spirit of this week's podcast I would like to take a look at a very special plant. It happens to be one of the rarest plant species in the lower 48. What may surprise you even more is that this species is endemic to a small island in the middle of the Kankakee River of Illinois called Langham Island. I am, of course, talking about the Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota).

It is strange to think of something endemic to a 20 acre island in the midwest but that seems to be the case. Though disjunct populations have been located in Indiana, experts feel that these were the result of early attempts at saving this species from extinction. In fact, the rarity of this plant was realized quite early on. A series of taxonomic revisions made it so that by the early 1920's, botanists knew that Iliamna remota was distinct from similar species such as liamna rivularis and Iliamna corei.

Despite its uniqueness, there doesn't seem to be too many explanations as to why this species is limited to Langham Island. Perhaps our recent glacial past has something to do with it. It very well could also be due to the fact that roughly 80% of Illinois has been converted to farmland. It is also due, in part, to the lack of life-giving fires that the prairies so desperately need. Indeed, after decades of attention, Langham Island and the Kankakee mallow seemed to have faded from the spotlight.

In 1981, botanists realized that most of the plants on the island had disappeared. Only 109 individuals remained and no seedlings were found. It was starting to look like this species was doomed to extinction. Growing up in their place were thick stands of Japanese honeysuckle and multiflora rose. Luckily a handful of concerned biologists decided to light some fires. Wherever the fires burned away the invasive competition, seedlings began to emerge. Close inspection would reveal that these were the next generation of Kanakakee mallow!

A missing piece of this biological puzzle had been restored. The mallow seeds were waiting in the soil for a fire to release them from the tyranny of these invaders. It would seem that the future of this species was a bright one. Sadly, another round of budget cuts coupled with a decrease in public interest had swept through the region. When a group of botanists again went looking for this species in the summer of 2014, they realized that, to their horror, history seemed to have repeated itself. Gone were the remaining populations of the Kankakee mallow. Honeysuckle and multiflora rose had returned with vengeance.

It was clear that if this species were to be saved, Langham Island would need more dedicated attention. Thus the Friends of Langham Island was born. Since then, brush cutting and controlled burns have meant that the Kankakee mallow has once again rose from the ashes, literally. Ongoing attention from a concerned group of citizens may be the only means left at saving this endangered plant.

Photo Credit: Prairie Moon Nursery

Further Reading:

Check out The Brain Scoop's video about this plant

Listen to a podcast episode dedicated to the restoration of these species' habitat