It’s a lazy summer afternoon at 92 degrees. A hiking trail leads to a large, open area of exposed limestone surrounded by thin, gravelly soil. The sun bares down, the heat is intense and the ground is cracked. It’s not exactly prime conditions for most living things.
Then you look around and notice one particular plant that seems right at home: the Tennessee coneflower. Its striking pink blooms are scattered all around this desert-like environment, emerging from what appears to be almost bare rock. In fact, they seem to be thriving here. But this wasn’t always the case.
Botanist Augustin Gattinger first discovered this species in 1878 in Rutherford County. But for much of the 20th Century, the Tennessee Coneflower was thought to be extinct until Vanderbilt biology professor Elsie Quarterman rediscovered it in Davidson County in 1968. In 1979, the plant became one of the first Tennessee wildflowers to be listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
In the years that followed, several local, state and federal agencies – as well as landowners, volunteers and other individuals – worked together to protect the plant’s habitat and establish new colonies from seed. And then in August 2011, thanks to 30-plus years of dedicated conservation work, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the Tennessee coneflower from the endangered list.
For botanists, conservationists and nature lovers in general, the Tennessee coneflower is one of Tennessee’s brightest success stories.
“When I went to work at Cedars of Lebanon State Park in 1972, we were not to tell anyone where they were for fear the few remaining ones would become extinct,” says Long Hunter State Park Manager Thurman Mullins. “It’s great to see them make the comeback they have made.”
Despite its resurgence, the Tennessee coneflower will likely never become a widespread plant. It’s found only in three U.S. counties – Wilson, Davidson and Rutherford counties in Middle Tennessee. Within those counties it occurs only in the rare desert-like areas known as cedar glades, which are characterized by exposed limestone and thin, rocky soil surrounded by cedar trees.
From a distance, cedar glades might appear to be barren wastelands. Historically many of these areas were used for dumping grounds. But on closer inspection, there’s a vibrant world of unique wildflowers, mosses, lichens, ferns, cactus, shrubs, and trees that do quite well here. Several cedar glades are now protected by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation under its state natural areas program and are frequent destinations for school groups, hikers, photographers, and botanists who marvel over the rare and unusual plants found there.
“The increased occurrence of this species and ease of access to sites offer an opportunity for us to educate students visiting from nearby schools and public program participants about the Tennessee coneflower and cedar glades in general,” said Tennessee State Parks Interpretive Specialist John Froeschauer. “It provides a forum for learning about the role of government in preserving the coneflower’s unique habitat as well as other issues concerning endangered species.”
The Tennessee coneflower (scientific name Echinacea tennesseensis) is a remarkable plant in many ways. The first thing people tend to notice is the beauty of its long, slender, pinkish-purple petals. Unlike most coneflowers, whose petals droop downward, its rays spread outward or turn upward – giving it a robust, vibrant appearance.
And then there are the coarse hairy stems and leaves, which help the plant retain moisture during the hot, dry summer.
The plant is also noted for its long taproots, which creep down into the cracks of rocks, seeking out moisture. Because of these extra long roots, Tennessee coneflower can’t be dug up and replanted; it must be grown from seed.
Finally, the plant seems to defy all odds: It blooms during the hottest part of the year (from May to July, usually peaking in mid-June) in the most inhospitable of habitats. It’s nature’s ultimate survivor.
Currently there are an estimated 900,000 Tennessee coneflower plants in Wilson, Davidson and Rutherford counties. About 75 percent of these occur naturally; the rest have been established from seed.
Two of the largest natural populations occur at Couchville Cedar Glade (next to Long Hunter State Park) and Vesta Cedar Glade, near Cedars of Lebanon State Park. Both of these state natural areas are open to the public and include hiking trails that make it possible for everyone to see Tennessee coneflower in its natural habitat.
Tennessee coneflower blooms are nearing their peak for 2014, so there’s still time to see them in all their glory. Long Hunter State Park conducts wildflower walks and tours of Couchville Cedar Glade on a regular basis.
Check Long Hunter’s schedule of events at tn.gov/environment/parks/LongHunter or its Facebook page at facebook.com/longhunterstatepark for program information, or call the park office at 615-885-2422.
Jason Allen is a Nashville-based naturalist, writer and photographer.