Preserving rare plants: In search of Heller’s blazing star

Heller’s blazing star in the Amphibolite Mountains. Photo: Crystal Cockman

How do you protect a plant that grows only on rocky outcrops at high elevations in one mountain range in northwestern North Carolina?

That’s where teamwork from groups like the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program, Friends of Plant Conservation and The Nature Conservancy comes into play. A rare plant known as Heller’s blazing star (Liatris helleri) is a great example of how public agencies and private nonprofit groups can work together. 

Recently, I was able to take the day off and volunteer with the Friends of Plant Conservation and the NC Plant Conservation Program to help monitor a population of Heller’s blazing star.  The Amphibolite Mountains near Boone, which this brilliant plant calls home, are named for a particular metamorphic rock that composes them, and are found only in Ashe and Watauga Counties in North Carolina. 

Photo: Crystal Cockman

Bluff Mountain, owned by The Nature Conservancy, is in the Amphibolite range. I won’t list the name of the exact mountain I climbed to visit the Heller’s blazing star to help protect the sensitive location of the plant. The NC Plant Conservation Program has a couple of preserves in this area, which they own in order to protect various rare plants found there. The purpose of our recent trip was to help monitor the population, so we counted and measured individual plants.

The NC Plant Conservation Program is vital across the state, with more than 20 preserves. Several of their plant preserves are near Charlotte. One of these is the Redlair Preserve in Gaston County. This site is a significant preserve for the rare species known as bigleaf magnolia. The landowners, the Rankin family, first worked with Catawba Lands Conservancy to place conservation easements on the property. They ultimately transferred it to  NC Plant Conservation Program, who will be able to manage the property in perpetuity. 

The proceeds of the sale of the land to the state form the basis of the Redlair Foundation, which provides for the management of the land. Another site near Charlotte is the Suther prairie, which may be the only remaining natural Piedmont prairie known to exist in North Carolina. More than 250 plant species are found on that property, including the rare Canada lily. Three Rivers Land Trust and the Cabarrus Soil and Water Conservation District assisted the NC Plant Conservation Program in the acquisition of that site.

Heller’s blazing star is only known to exist in eight locations, and is federally listed as a threatened species. The estimated wild population is just 3,000 individuals. They grow up to about 20 inches in height, with purple flowers that grow on a three to eight inch long spike, and bloom from July to September. They are striking, especially with a backdrop of misty mountains. 

Because Heller’s blazing star is confined to small areas on rocky mountain summits, it faces several threats. They grow in thin soil in open areas, where they can outcompete species that cannot survive such harsh conditions. However, without the presence of fire or other disturbance to keep these areas open, sometimes the plants can become overshadowed by vegetation. Another major threat to the plants is from trampling by hikers. They also face threats from acid rain and air pollution, which are common in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But one threat they won’t face is a lack of organizations dedicated to seeing Heller’s blazing star, and other rare plants, survive and thrive. 

Crystal Cockman is Director of Conservation at Three Rivers Land Trust. She is also a board member of Friends of Plant Conservation.