Searching for rare or endangered plants has become a passion for me. It’s always exciting to find something that hasn’t been seen by very many people. It’s also special when I can share these finds with someone close to me who cares as much about them as I do. I am rather lucky in that my husband, Joe, is also a botanist and shares my passion for finding rare plants. Our household pursuit has even become a bit competitive. I will freely admit, when Joe spots a rare plant first, there is some jealousy intermingled with my excitement that we were in the right place at the right time.
For the last couple of years, we have been on a quest to find Viola glaberrima, a yellow violet last seen in Pennsylvania in 1920, May 30th, 1920, to be exact.
I’ve pressed my friend Harvey Ballard, a professor at Ohio University and a renowned Violet expert, for details about habitats to investigate, the characteristics that distinguish the plant from other violets, and any tidbits I could glean to help us find this elusive plant. At least a dozen of my emails to Harvey involved questions about information I’d found in other sources relating to the plant commonly called the smooth yellow violet.
In all honesty, I was suspicious that this violet ever grew in Pennsylvania, even going so far as questioning Harvey about whether he had correctly identified one of the historic specimens. In many ways Viola glaberrima resembles other yellow violets. Pennsylvania has about 30 different kinds of violets, five of which are yellow. The other yellow stemmed violets known to occur in the Commonwealth are usually many stemmed with stems that more-or-less lay down on the ground. These other violets also have either heart shaped or what are termed hastate shaped leaves, that is leaves with outlines reminiscent of a spear point with two points protruding from its base. Many of the plants in this group have flowers that are yellow on the front and back. Some of these flowers develop purple coloring on the back of the petals with age. The violet we’ve been searching for has a single, upright stem with cuneate or wedge-shaped leaves and always has purple on the back of the petals.
Harvey served as a coach for our search for Viola glaberrima, and in doing so he did much more than advise us to look on moist wooded slopes. Many floras list our target plant as merely a variety of Viola tripartita, a flower commonly known as the threepart violet. Harvey assured us that Viola glaberrima is a good species in its own right, and provided additional motivation by making a prediction. He told us that if we found it in the field we would have a “Eureka” moment, because the species is visibly different from the other yellow violets.
Historically, the smooth yellow violet was collected 5 or 6 times in Pennsylvania. The earliest collection is pretty vague, “Mercersburg Pa. in 1845.” The other collections aren’t any more precise. One collection from 1900 is from somewhere “between Ruffsdale and Jacobs Creek in Westmoreland County.” There are two collections from the area of Hillside, PA collected in 1907 and again in 1909. The site we felt we had the best chance of relocating this difficult to find violet was Killarney Park in Fayette County. This seemed to be the most precise locality and the most recent. In May of 1920 Otto Jennings of Carnegie Museum fame and Ernest Gress, a student of Jennings who later worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, both collected this violet at this location on the same day. Killarney Park, established in 1909, was a popular place for folks to get out of town and have a picnic or a reunion. It featured a dance hall, lakes for boating, picnic grounds and overnight accommodations. With a stop on the Indian Creek Valley Railroad, the park was easily accessible to rail travelers.
The park property changed hands a few times over the years. Its name changed in 1926 and again in 1939, and it was eventually sold in 1941 to the Christian Church of Somerset for use as a summer camp. Thus, the current name of Camp Christian came into being. In June of 2016, Joe and I spent some time at Camp Christian helping guide field trips for the Botanical Society of America, Northeast Section Joint Field Meeting. I got to know the manager of Camp Christian and told him about the rare violet that had last been collected there. June was a little late, the violets were pretty much done blooming. We looked around for the violet without any luck, but the manager invited us to come back and look anytime. Last year, 2019, we spent parts of two days looking around the property again for the little yellow violet that seemed so elusive.
Most of the violets had already gone to fruit at the time of our 2019 visit, which coincided with the historic collection calendar date of May 30. This year, we visited earlier in May, found many violets blooming, and checked thousands of them without finding a smooth yellow violet.
So, in the process of doing field work and looking for other rare plants, it became a habit for us to look for what seemed to be mythical yellow gems. During a field work day in Indiana County on May 16, while cutting up over a hill to take a shorter route back to the car, we came upon a small patch of yellow violets that were different than any we had seen before. They had single stems, with lance shaped leaves and purple coloring on the backs of the petals. There was no denying that this violet was different than any we had seen before. The plants fit all the characteristics that Harvey had so patiently described for us over the many e-mails. This was finally our promised “Eureka” moment.
Begrudgingly I’ll admit that Joe was first to spot it. (He walks faster than I do.) Of course, Harvey was one of the first people I contacted, I sent him several photographs and to my delight we received the following response: “Hi Bonnie and Joe, YOU NAILED IT!!! You found Viola glaberrima! What a great find! It is likely rare and sporadic along that mountain range. Congratulations. Big ice cream sundaes for you!” How did Harvey know I love ice cream sundaes?
I would love to say this was a “Eureka “moment 100 years in the making, but it was only 99 years and 351 days.
Bonnie Isaac is the Collection Manager in the Section of Botany. Museum staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.