WEST JEFFERSON — Plant conservationists from across North Carolina trekked up a steep, overgrown mountainside, braving forecasted summer thunderstorms as they searched for a rocky outcrop blooming with a rare plant species somewhere atop Paddy Mountain on Tuesday, Aug. 13.
“We are collecting and monitoring data for “Liatris helleri,” or Heller’s blazing star, which is a protected plant species that is sort of the flagship of the Paddy Mountain plant conservation preserve,” said N.C. Plant Conservation Program Manager Lesley Starke. “Heller’s Blazing Star is a narrowly distributed species — it grows in the cracks of the rocks, and in incredibly thin soils that develop in these little rock pools — really fragile habitat.”
Heller’s blazing star, a small purple bloom, is known to only grow in North Carolina, limited to a few high, rocky peaks in Ashe, Avery, Watauga, Caldwell and Burke counties, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Guided by GPS, the conservationists — a mix of 14 scientists from N.C. Department of Agriculture, Appalachian State University, Blue Ridge Parkway, Friends of Plant Conservation and other western North Carolina conservation groups — walked through thickets of stinging nettles and more than a mile up a precipitous ridgeline to find the exposed cliffside where a moderate population of the rare purple flower bloomed.
“Paddy Mountain isn’t suddenly going to appear somewhere different,” Starke said. “You have to protect the plants where they grow, that’s why this site is here.”
The Heller’s blazing star population at Paddy Mountain sits on 335 acres of land owned and protected by the State of North Carolina, with no public access to the plot, and no maintained trails — to prevent trespassing, according to Starke.
“This species has a few threats, and one of them is trampling,” Starke said. “It doesn’t take much disturbance to cause a disproportionate amount of damage.”
Using rulers and treading carefully, the team of plant conservationists spent the better part of an hour measuring the Heller’s blazing stars that had previously been marked by numbered aluminum tags, recording the flowers’ diameters, blooms, heights and other parameters.
“Knowing how they’re doing is critical to actually protecting them,” Starke said. “If we say that our goal is to protect the native flora of North Carolina in their natural habitats now and for future generations, we need to be able to check up on that and be able to say if they’re doing okay.”
As a result of the data collected on Paddy Mountain, calculations can be made to estimate how many seeds the Heller’s blazing stars will produce, thus giving conservationists an idea of the population’s health and future outlook as compared to past years, and as compared to other populations being monitored elsewhere, according to Blue Ridge Parkway Botanist Dr. Chris Ulrey.
Other rare and threatened species grow on Paddy Mountain, according to Starke, making it all the more significant that the mountain is left to its natural state.
“It’s not that we don’t want people to know about it,” Starke said. “There are other sites the public can see the species.”
A rumbling thunderstorm overhead shooed the conservationists from their work and back down the steep mountain before all the blazing stars could be measured, but the data collected seemed to reassure Starke that the Paddy Mountain population of Heller’s blazing star is doing well.
“This population is ranked as one of the best in the state, meaning it has one of the largest populations and is expected to be viable in the long-term, given our current understanding about the population’s trend,” Starke said.
Elsewhere on Paddy Mountain, 154 acres adjacent to the eastern border of the state-owned nature preserve land was purchased for $945,000 by J. Randall Eller, according to a land transfer finalized by the Ashe County Register of Deeds June 18.
Randall Eller is listed as the owner and president of Independence Lumber, a company that operates forestry and harvesting operations spread across northern North Carolina and southwest Virginia, according to its website. Since June, Eller and Independence Lumber have not answered multiple Ashe Post & Times inquiries regarding the company’s intentions for the land.