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Of bogs and blooms: Acclaimed botanist leads exploration of a Carolina Bay habitat

Pitcher Plant bog
Marvel at a pitcher plant bog flanked by white sedge and coreopsis 

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“I’m a throwback, an anachronism,” declares the noted SC field botanist Dr. Richard Porcher. Indeed, it would be easy to picture Porcher in the 19th century, roaming the undeveloped blackwater riverbanks and tidal marshes, the diligent botanist, naming the smallest mosses.

But the forests and fields of SC have changed a lot since the 19th century. The landscape where his ancestor Dr. Francis Porcher conducted field work is now under Lake Marion, four-wheelers gut swathes of national forest, and precious isolated wetlands are drained to build subdivisions and strip malls.

But thanks to Dr. Porcher’s work -- the stuff of legend -- today’s naturalists can still discover the state’s rarest surviving treasures. He has crawled on his hands and knees through a pocosin Carolina Bay discovering new species. He has flown over the coast to identify the unique and mysterious maritime shell forest. He is the champion of the last remaining wilderness, precious pockets of wild growth and stunning biodiversity.

Dr. Porcher and group
Anachronism or revolutionary? - Dr. Porcher  

On a sunny Saturday in May, Dr. Porcher led an eager group tromping through a Carolina Bay in the Francis Marion Forest. Immediately, the group was awed by a pitcher plant bog, a rare and wonderful sight. Everyone tiptoed around the magical space, peering into the pitchers of three different types and studying the blossoms. Pitcher plants, the botanist taught, are fire resistant with stems underground. “Look as much as you can,” he said. “In two weeks this will all be different.” Native iris tridentata and lovely pale pogonia were found nearby. The whole group took sweet refreshment from the wild blueberry bush. 

A list of everything seen that morning ran two pages long and included white sedge, pool coreopsis, club moss, St. John’s Wort, sweet bay, the host plant for the Palamedes swallowtail, several of which accompanied the group. Through a glade of longleaf pines sprinkled with bay iris, the group came upon a rare feature – an isolated wetland, which is, Dr.Porcher explained, a rare swamp fortified only by rainwater and host to many different species of wildlife and plant. A prothontary warbler flirted with the group, piping his strong song from the cypress.

Picking their way through the bay, witness to rare plants and wildflowers as striking as their seasons are brief, Dr. Porcher regaled the group as only a knowledgeable and passionate scientist can with plant lore and facts about what to look for and how a plant can be used. “Stinging nettle is an aphrodisiac,” he teased.  

red milkweed
Red milkweed. All photos: Cameron Allen 

Every now and then, he’d refer to his own book, A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina, a work of love and passion, indispensible not only for identifying flowers and habitats, but for understanding the importance of the state’s native flora and the diversity of ecosystems we inhabit, often carelessly and without awareness. Though he would not call himself an activist, Dr. Porcher’s care and attention to detail for the plants he knows so well makes him an advocate for the good stewardship of the state’s natural habitats.

Inspiring a love of field botany, Dr. Porcher sows the wild seeds of an environmental ethic that begins with curiosity, moves to enthusiasm, and cultivates care for the pitcher plants, sundews, trillium – all the strange, wonderful species yet to be discovered, and the larger habitats they need to survive.

View the slideshow below to see what's blooming and learn the names. Subscribe to recieve the next article, in which you can learn of themystery of the Carolina Bay and Maritime Shell Forest and how the Native Americans used plants to heal.

Comments

  • jerry johnson 4 years ago

    Great article and slide show.

  • Dave Sandersfeld, Oregon Nature Examiner 4 years ago

    Insightful as usual!

  • lynn 4 years ago

    magical! The article made me feel as if I were there with you. Thanks for reminding me that I can't do it all, but there are those out there such as yourself who can share it with me in a delightful way!

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