Three years ago, I drove to Little Rock for the first time. I didn’t know what to expect. A year in Florida had turned me off the idea of working as a seaside tropical designer. Only a year out of design school, I was still adjusting to the idea of working outside of that cossetted and challenging environment. I had a potential job, working in the studio of my teen hero, P. Allen Smith. Despite growing up only a few hours north, I didn’t know what awaited me. The city, the gardens, the people, the plants - it was all unknown.
As soon as I pulled across the HWY 30 bridge into downtown Little Rock and saw the city spread out along the south bank of the Arkansas River, I realized that there was plenty for a landscape geek and planthunter to explore. You’ve seen the photos from my nightly walks through the Quapaw Quarter for the past three years. Historic homes, with intricate wooden detailing and beautifully proportioned windows, sit garnished with surrounding pillows of roses and hydrangeas all summer long. Spring brought wash on wash of flowering quince, deciduous magnolias and wisteria. There were plants I’d never been able to grow in any of the gardens where I’d lived - giant waterfalls of lady banks roses, gardenias whose fragrance perfumed entire blocks, camellias the size of a garden shed.
But, as much as I loved the gardens of LIttle Rock, it was the surrounding countryside that captured my imagination. Living in the area for several years, I was able to consistently visit several of the local nature preserves - observing these regional plant communities, not only in singular moments of beauty, but bearing witnessing to their change over the course of several years. Within these plant communities, I was able to encounter remarkable species - some common, some not - that are true Arkansas state treasures.
Starting at the beginning of the alphabet and the growing season, Aesculus pavia (also graced with the inelegant name of Red Buckeye) has some of the largest and showiest flower panicles of any Arkansas Native shrub. It’s not rare, but it looks like it should be. From a distance, the flower looks like the gulf coast and Caribbean native coral bean (Erythrina herbacea). I first saw Aesculus pavia in the wild growing and blooming in abundance on the rocky slopes northwest of Little Rock, heading towards Moss Mountain Farm. But the most generous population that I encountered was at Bell Slough - on the north-facing lower slopes surrounding the central wetland.
These plants were remarkably divergent in plant size and shape. Some had grown into small trees with a few bare trunks (what we’d call multitrunk standards in cultivated situations), while others were large arching shrubs 6-9 foot high, while others stayed put as small shrubs only 2-3 high and wide. Specimens of all three rough habits (and everything in between) would coexist, although it did seem that shelter and proximity to water resulted (generally) in larger plants.
There was also a good variation in flower color, with some having a clear separation of red and gold floral parts, while others were more of a faded coral. The most dramatic coloration seemed to be on the later-blooming plants, which often carried flowers that were an insanely saturated scarlet. Unsurprisingly, given its flower shape and color, Aesculus pavia is one of the plants that supports ruby-throated hummingbirds in their northward spring migration.
Sticking with plants that have significance for jewel-like flying creatures, let’s turn our attention to Asclepias. I’ve written on here before about some of the remarkably colored selections of Asclepias that I’ve encountered - a brick-red population of Asclepias tuberosa at Camp Robinson (north of Little Rock), and some super-saturated Asclepias purpurascens in western Perry County, Missouri (my parents’ county). Today, I want to introduce a species that was new to me: Asclepias hirtella, AKA tall green milkweed.
I’d gone up into the Ouachitas to chase down some Amsonia hubrichtii (threadleaf bluestar) when I came upon a clearing in the forest near the Middle Fork Barrens Natural Area in Saline County. You could tell that there was bedrock close to the surface in this spot, leaving a thin grass cover with wide patches of talinum and hypericum. The showiest plants in this unusual plant community on that late May evening were the fluffy ice-green flowers of Asclepias hirtella.
The plants had a splayed habit, each with 4-6 skinny stems raised through the surrounding loose grass matrix. My initial identification of this species as Asclepias verticillata was quickly corrected by my crew of expert plantspeople (thanks, Kelly! thanks, Eric!): Like Asclepias verticillata, Asclepias hirtella has narrow threadlike leaves - but they’re arranged alternately along the stem, rather than opposite like most milkweed species. The flowers are abundant and showy - reminding me of the translucent white-green effect of Chionanthus flowers. According to Prairie Moon, it ranges pretty freely through the central United States - apparently preferring upland locations. As I said, it’s new to me, but I’d like to see how it performs in a cultivated landscape.
While up in the Middle Fork Barrens, I saw Amsonia hubrichtii growing in its natural habitat, along a rocky streambed. This is one of those amazing plants that - despite its current relative popularity in the nursery trade - has been known in cultivation for less than 80 years. The skinny green threads of leaves in dense mounds were easy to pick out, seeming to grow directly out of the shale.
Showing up in late May as I did, the flowers were long since passed. You can have a look at them in flower on Eric Hunt’s Flickr. While I appreciate their blooms, they’re one of the less showy Amsonia species for flower - I’d cultivate them more for the fantastic foliage texture and glowing autumn coloration. The plants at Middle Fork Barrens held a few seedpods, long and skinny like French haricot vert. They were still green and milky with sap - no seeds had yet developed.
I’d been lucky to have neighbors in Little Rock’s Quapaw Quarter that had wonderful clumps of Amsonia hubrichtii in their front garden, so I’d had been privy to its incredible November foliage. I’d be interested to see what variation there might be in the flower size and coloration of wild populations, given the showier flowers of some other Amsonia species, such as Amsonia tabernaemontana (Shining bluestar) and Amsonia ludoviciana (Louisiana bluestar) which I’ve seen growing happily on my travels this spring. There are also several species native to the western US that could be interesting to grow.
Within a few days of my expedition to find some Amsonia hubrichtii growing in situ, I was completely taken aback by the flowering of a plant with which I was completely unfamiliar. I was doing one of my usual slow-drives and walks through the Camp Robinson Wildlife Management Area when I realized that one of the ridges was completely studded with flowers of yellow and pink. That’s what I expect from a Victorian wallpaper, not an Arkansas hillside.
Quick internet research revealed that this was Tephrosia virginiana (Goat’s Rue). The watercolor hues - pastel yellow banner with chalky pink wings - and lacy grey-green foliage were unlike anything else I’d seen on an Arkansas native plant. Bonap says it’s widespread throughout the eastern United States, so I guess I’ve been ignoring jewels right under my nose. Apparently, it's tricky to cultivate - so you won't see it at plant sales or in even garden centers with remarkable native plant offerings.
Considering botanical treasures, my thoughts turn inevitably to endemic plants - species that are only found in Arkansas. I don’t have any dramatic stories of finding or seeing endemic plants. One that I wish I’d encountered is the wonderful Sabatia arkansana (Pelton’s Rose Gentian). Sabatia is a really cool genus in the Gentianaceae, consisting of about 20 species - many of which are annual plants native to temperate regions of the United States. Bonap lists 6 species occurring in Arkansas. My first experience with Sabatia was 10+ years ago when it sprung up randomly after a wet spring, transforming a grassy swale at my parents’ farm into a fluttering of pink stars.
The commonest Sabatia, Sabatia angularis came in a startling flush last year. After driving back from my parents on July 4, I’d gone to Camp Robinson Wildlife Management Area (my regular wildflower scouting area) to spend a few evening hours and remind myself of what America is all about. There, the ditches were flush with this unusual annual plant. There’s something wonderful to me about annual plants as a part of native plant communities. They’re so transient. No rootedness from year to year for these beauties. They’ll spring up wherever they please. In a few weeks, they’ll be gone without a trace.
Anybody who’s heard me talk about myself - especially in the context of my family history - knows that I have a good bit of that Sabatia nomad in me. Little Rock was good for me. I got to explore so many wonderful landscapes, be involved with making some incredible gardens, and spend time with glorious people. It’s a pretty great view that I have out my rearview mirror.