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The Serendipitous Re-Discovery of Eared False Foxglove in Wisconsin

Updated: May 31, 2023

Originally published in “Wisconsin Flora,” February, 2000

Photo © Larry Leitner

Some discoveries in science are the product of careful planning and logical expectations. Then there are those that are unexpected, the result of fortuitous circumstances. An example of the latter is the recent [i.e., 1999] re-discovery of the eared false foxglove (Tomanthera auriculata) in Wisconsin. Long considered to be extirpated from the State flora—as best as I can determine, the last collection was made from Racine County in 1900—the species is apparently nowhere common throughout its native range, which extends from Texas to Minnesota, east to South Carolina and Ohio. Historically in Wisconsin it has been known only from Racine, Dane, and Lafayette counties. Accounts of its habitat include prairies, open woods, moist open soil, thickets, wood borders, and old fields. It is a listed species in several states and is a category 2 species for possible federal listing as threatened or endangered. New stations have been recently discovered in Ohio, Minnesota, and Illinois.

This past summer [Sept., 1999], Ron Kurowski, who is [was] the naturalist at the Kettle Moraine State Forest Southern Unit at Eagle, informed me of a degraded prairie in the Scuppernong Marsh that he had burned in April. He recommended that I take a look at it because it was reverting to its former prairie status. Ron is a strong advocate of prairie and oak savanna management—he has burned and brushed quite a few sites in the southern Kettle Moraine. In late August [1999], I happened to be conducting plant inventories in the Kettle Moraine area for SEWRPC’s natural area files and decided I had sufficient time remaining in the afternoon to do a plant survey of the prairie. It was as Ron had described—becoming dominated by native prairie species, including a good population of the State Threatened prairie Indian plantain (Cacalia tuberosa). As I was leaving, I met Ron, quite by accident, on the adjacent road. He was waiting for Waukesha County Naturalist Jerry Schwarzmeier in order to show him the same prairie. The three of us then walked through the prairie. As we were about to depart, Jerry, almost off-handedly, asked whether I had seen the unusual flower in the far end of the prairie that he had noticed about a week ago, and which he hadn’t had a chance to precisely identify. He believed it to be a species of Penstemon. He tried giving directions, but finally decided to lead us there himself. After some searching in the tall sunflowers and goldenrods we located the plant. It was as he had said—approximately ¼ meter tall, penstemon-like, obviously in the Scrophulariaceae [foxglove family], with large, attractive, rosy-pink corollas. The stems were very rough hairy, and the leaves had small lobes near their bases. It was a species that none of us could ever recall having had seen before, and that none of us could readily identify. As we only located a few plants (about 15) and only a fraction of these were in flower, I wasn’t prepared to collect a specimen. I was without any keys at the time, but I felt that with such distinctive characteristics I could identify the “penstemon” in the office from memory. Alas, that was not the case; none of the Penstemon species would quite fit. The next day I re-visited the site to take a closer look. With a somewhat more extended search, I located about 160 individual plants, of which at least 50% were in flower, and I felt safe in collecting a few specimens. However, back in the office, it soon became obvious that no matter how hard I tried the plant wouldn’t key out to a species of Penstemon. In addition, the species, whatever it was, was just beginning to flower in late August/early September; penstemons, on the other hand, flower much earlier, in June or July, sometimes extending into early August. Starting with the family key, it easily keyed out to Tomanthera auriculata, the eared false foxglove. All the characteristics fit.

Photo © Larry Leitner

But, there is more to the story. When I informed Ron of the identification of the plant, he said that earlier that week he had been leading a nature hike through a prairie near Bluff Springs in Walworth County. Someone had asked him for the identity of a plant with large rosy-pink flowers, and he was stumped. He later realized that was probably the same species as the one at Scuppernong. At the time he had noted a few plants, perhaps 20 or 30. He asked me to confirm his suspicions. A week later I was able to visit this Bluff Creek site and indeed it was the eared false foxglove. By this time, the peak of flowering had apparently passed, and the relatively low height of the plant combined with the copper-purple color of the stems and leaves made the plants blend into the background foliage of goldenrods, asters, sunflowers, and gray dogwood. However, over the 30 or so hectares of prairie I was able to count at least 600 individual plants in numerous patches. Ron told me that he had burned the site in 1991, and had been brush-cutting since.

Photo © Larry Leitner

This begs the question: Why wasn’t the species observed in the intervening years? It is annual, so that it must re-seed each year. How long can its seeds remain viable in the soil seed bank? From a cursory search of the literature, I have noticed a paucity of information on the eared false foxglove. I believe that the species has been growing, flowering, and producing seed each year. However, the locations are somewhat off the beaten track; there is no overriding reason for a botanist to survey either site. I had never visited either site doing research for SEWRPC’s Natural Areas Plan. I think this is a case of competent observers being in the right place at the right time (or, for a hundred years, not being in the right place at the right time). I also believe that prescribed burning has stimulated the populations. At both sites, woody species were invading, probably suppressing the eared false foxglove. Even after management, and despite having relatively large showy flowers, the species has a remarkable ability to hide within the dense tall prairie foliage of the late summer. There were times that I had to be within 3 or 4 meters to notice a specimen, made even harder if the corollas had fallen off. But if these two populations are any indication, it seems reasonable to assume that other populations exist in the southern Kettle Moraine, and perhaps at other historic sites, waiting for someone to be there at the right moment.

Thus, a series of accidental events led to this species being re-added to Wisconsin’s flora—Ron’s burning the prairie and recommending that I take a look at it; my decision to go there at a particular day and time; happening to meet Ron, who happened to be waiting for Jerry; who both happened to be looking at the same prairie as me; Jerry’s chance discovery of an unknown flower the previous week; the decision for the three of us to search for the unknown; and my decision to return to the site because I couldn’t identify it as a penstemon.

-- Lawrence A. Leitner


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