for National Geographic News
U.S. National Park and Forest employees in the Appalachian Mountains were surprised this spring to come upon a highly unusual floral display: The forest was carpeted with thousands of white flowers of a plant that rarely blooms. The plant, known as turkeybeard, or mountain asphodel (Xerophyllum asphodeloides), is a rare species of lily.
It is a state-listed endangered or vulnerable species in portions of its Appalachian range and is included in the U.S. Center for Plant Conservation's National Collection of Endangered Plants.
Very few turkeybeards bloom in a given year. But the forest floors of two Virginia sites, George Washington National Forest and Shenandoah National Park, are covered with more than 25,000 of the plants. They have produced thousands of pompom-like blossoms of about 200 small flowers atop stalks 1.5 meters (4.5 feet) high. At least one impressive plant produced 27 stalks.
"None of the current park or forest employees has ever seen anything like this," said Norm Bourg, a research fellow at the Smithsonian Institution-National Zoological Parks Conservation Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia. His work has been funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Maryland, and the U.S. Forest Service.
Bourg said the unusual display, which also occurred in 2001, is the result of forest fires that burned through the sites in 1999. The situation offers a case that underlines the importance of fires to the overall health of forest ecosystems.
Fire, ecologists and other scientists point out, is a component of natural cycles of forest growth and maintenance.
Plants and animals have evolved in response to periodic disturbances in ecosystems, including fire, said Steve Croy, an ecologist for the George Washington National Forest. "An ecosystem is never really static," he said. "The only constant is change." The situation is more complicated today, he added, because people have altered the magnitude and frequency of such disturbances through technology.
Doug Raeburn, a fire ecologist at Shenandoah National Park, said many of the forest fires today that do widespread damage "are fires started by people under the entirely wrong conditions."
In recent weeks, thousands of people have been forced out of their homes and at least 1.5 million acres have been burned by raging fires in several areas of the United States.
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