Unconventional plant discovery points to biodiversity right under our noses
by Sydney Cromwell
Discovering a new species sounds like a page from an adventure book: trekking through deep jungles or vast tundras to find something never before seen by human eyes. But occasionally, a new species can be found in a backyard garden — or in a Facebook group.
Fairhope resident Gena Todia is an environmental consultant through her company, Wetland Resources Environmental Consulting. When she’s out in the field doing botanical surveys or wetland identification, especially for sites that are about to be developed, she sometimes digs up a few plants to bring back to her own garden.
“A lot of times, I’m the last person there who sees the natural plant community, whatever type it is, before it’s developed,” she said. “… If it’s something that is rare and I know it’s going to be destroyed, then I know I want to save that.”
When Todia scooped up a clump of Hexastylis plants at a site in 2011, she accidentally brought along a species that had never been identified before — and hasn’t been seen in the wild since.
It would quietly grow in her garden, alongside pitcher plants, azaleas, cinnamon ferns and other native species Todia has bought or collected, for nearly a decade before its true identity was realized.
There are about a dozen species of Hexastylis plants, all part of the genus of plants known as “wild ginger.” These plants, native to the Southeast, are also something of a hidden beauty: you have to lift the clusters of heart-shaped leaves to find the flowers resting on the ground below.
The flowers themselves have characteristic cup or jug shapes. In fact, one species, Hexastylis arifolia, is commonly known as “Little Brown Jug.”
Little Brown Jug is what Todia thought she was bringing home in 2011. It was those distinctive flowers, however, that eventually clued her in that she had a mystery plant on her hands.
While most Hexastylis plants have blooms on stalks that lay on the ground, Todia noticed in 2019 that two of her plants were sending their flowers up into the air, with the “jugs” turned to face back toward the ground.
Todia posted a picture in the “Flora of the Southeastern United States” Facebook group, asking for help in identifying the plants. Her post intrigued University of West Alabama professor Brian Keener.
“When I saw it, I knew instantly, on Facebook, that it’s a new species,” he said.
Keener, who also curates UWA’s Herbarium and directs the Alabama Plant Atlas, has identified a few new Alabama plant species before — including another Hexastylis species, Finzel’s wild ginger, which a Huntsville science teacher discovered in 2019.
“This is why I went into botany,” Keener said. “… For me, as a plant taxonomist, the biggest joy of what I do is finding a plant that doesn’t have a name and getting to name it. It’s the best and most exciting thing that I can do in my career.”
He reached out to Todia to see if they could work together to give this plant an official identity. The result was Hexastylis rollinsiae, or Rollins’ wild ginger, named for Todia’s grandmother. Keener and Todia published their results in the Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in December 2021.
“It’s exciting to think that still, even though it’s 2022, there are species out there that haven’t been described,” Todia said.
She and Keener have tried to find other examples of Rollins’ wild ginger in the wild, but unsuccessfully.
Part of the problem is how many years passed between Todia bringing the plants home and the new species’s identification. She no longer remembers exactly when and where she collected the Hexastylis plants.
Based on her project notes, Todia said it was most likely at a site in Enterprise, now home to a shopping center. However, she’s made multiple visits to nearby undeveloped areas since then and has been unable to find any more Rollins’ wild ginger.
“It was completely obliterated. All the nice plants that grew there were gone, … so I’m glad I saved it,” she said.
Were the Hexastylis plants destroyed during construction of the shopping center? Were they somewhere else entirely? It’s impossible to say.
Todia said she’s not done looking, in the hopes that Rollins’ wild ginger continues to survive somewhere outside her garden.
“We haven’t given up. We’ll probably try again next spring,” she said.
Todia said the experience has caused some changes in how she looks at plants when working in the field.
“Well, I can hardly walk by a Hexastylis without peeking under the leaves, looking for a flower,” she said.
Though Rollins’ wild ginger and Finzel’s wild ginger both appear to be rare, Keener said new species aren’t always hard to find. Sometimes people walk right by them and just don’t know what they’re seeing.
“There was nothing special about that site,” Keener said of the Enterprise shopping center, “but how many places in Alabama, perhaps there’s nothing special about that place but there’s a plant that’s been sitting there for years,” until they’re found by luck or the right pair of eyes.
Keener said he had a colleague who discovered a new species in the African violet family growing in someone’s home. Spotting an unidentified plant on Facebook, however, is still pretty unusual.
This marks the ninth new plant species that Keener has helped to describe and name, most of them in Alabama.
“I go after it with gusto,” he said.
Alabama is already known for its stunning biodiversity, especially in aquatic animal species. Keener attributes that in part to the varying geology of the state, allowing a wide array of habitats to thrive, from Ketona glades to longleaf pine forests to the Mobile Delta.
“Alabama is full of surprises. We’ve got the most diverse geology of anywhere in the country,” he said.
And Rollins’ wild ginger is far from the last undiscovered species Alabama has to offer, he said. There are plenty more waiting to be found.
“No doubt about it,” Keener said.
Main article image by Alan Cressler, courtesy of Brian Keener.