Finding and identifying any new species growing on Ozarkedge is always an exciting event. In this instance, I was hiking in a low, damp area, along a creek bank in mid April. It wasn’t Featherbells I was looking for – the elusive Lady’s slippers were on my mind. They still remain elusive. Instead, I had the unexpected discovery of the featherbells.
My hike was uneventful until I happened upon a huge stand of Iris cristata. I dropped to my knees to examine them and when I looked up, on a bank just above the iris, I noticed a larger grouping of plants with slender green leaves. This plant was new to me, and that is always exciting.
Featherbells before bloom in mid April
I carefully photographed the leaves and surrounding vegetation to help me with my detective work. Despite pouring through my wildflower books and favorite internet sites, I could not identify the plant. Of course, I didn’t have much to go on–just the leaf type. Returning in May, I found the plant sending up a tall wand with buds–almost like a day lilly– but taller. I couldn’t tell what color the blooms would be and so identification was still beyond my reach.
Featherbell Raceme in May
Featherbell flower buds in May
I wasn’t able to return the whole month of June and I was afraid that I’d missed the bloom time. But, on the July 4th holiday, I hiked down to the creek bank–despite the heat and the snakey environment (wearing my trusty pair of snake-proof boots and my belief that snakes don’t really mean any harm). There they were–in full bloom. Absolutely beautiful- wispy, dreamy, droopy, light as a feather—-Featherbells. Of course, I still didn’t know what they were, but now my research could definitively identify them. What a find!
Latin Name/Common Name- Featherbells are in the Liliaceae (Lily) family. The latin name is Stenanthimum gramineum. The word stenanthemum is derived from two Greek words–stenos meaning “narrow” and anthos meaning “flower”. Gramineum means grasslike and is very appropriate. If you see this plant in early spring, it would be easy to mis-identify it as a type of grass.
As usual, there are several common names for this plant. The most common seems to be Eastern Featherbell, but it is also known as Featherfleece and grass-leaved lily.
Stand of Featherbells on Ozarkedge
Bloom Color- The long raceme (or wand) bears a multitude of both upright and nodding, tiny white flowers, which Carl Hunter (in the book- Wildflowers of Arkansas) described as a long feathery plume. Before maturity, the star-shaped flowers have a greenish cast, which returns after the blooms peak.
Featherbells in bloom July 3rd
Wispy, Dainty, 5 foot tall Featherbell blooms
Description- The long grass-like leaves arise from a basal rosette. They have a center crease that would allow one to neatly fold each in half length-wise. The smooth racemes reach up above the green leaves to heights of 3 to 6 feet. Each raceme seems to dance and sway as any slight breeze catches the multitude of flowers. After blooming the seed pods are beak like and turn from green to almost black as they fall to the earth. A stand of Featherbells in bloom is truly a wonder to see in nature.
Featherbell leaves with center crease and smooth flower stem
Nodding Featherbell flowers with greenish cast.
Bloom Time- In Arkansas Featherbells start blooming at the end of June and extend through August.
Featherbells going to seed
Habitat- On Ozarkedge I have only located one stand of Stenanthimum gramineum and they were growing on a slight ridge in low, damp woods. My research shows that this habitat is typical, although featherbells also seem to be able to survive with more sun and drier conditions.
What’s Growing Nearby?- The Ozarkedge Featherbells live very near a large stand of Iris cristata.
Large stand of iris cristata near Featherbells and one beautiful iris bloom
Other plants that love the same damp woods, sharing habitat with the Featherbells include all kinds of ferns, Podophyllum peltatum (May Apple), Thalictrum thalitroides (Rue Anenome), Trillium recurvatum (Trillium recurvatum), Aureolaria laevigata (Smooth false foxglove) and Cunila origanoides (Dittany). Dogwood and Red Buckeye also decorate the nearby woodland.
Companions- Fern, May Apples, Rue Anenome (above) and Dittany and False Foxglove (below)
Endangered List- Featherbells are becoming quite rare. If you find them in the wild, it is to be celebrated.They are native to the southeastern United States. Their western-most extent is Texas (a few eastern counties) and they extend north to Pennsylvania and a little bit of Michigan.
Unfortunately, Featherbells are on the endangered list in 3 states (Florida, Illinois and Indiana) and the threatened list in 3 states (Kentucky, Maryland and Ohio). Featherbells are presumed to be extirpitated in the district of Columbia. You can find out more information on the USDA plant site through this link- http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=STGR2. But be sure to click on each state. As you’ll see, even though the broad map indicates that featherbells have a wide range, the state view reveals they are only found in a few counties of each state. This beautiful plant is not found in abundance anywhere I could find.
A Conservation assessment from the USDA Forest Service in November 2002 found that featherbells have been extirpated from 9 counties in Missouri (http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/wildlife/tes/ca-overview/docs/Plants/Stenanthium_gramineum-Featherbells.pdf). This publication listed Featherbells as S3 in Arkansas which means rare or uncommon. In Tennessee and Missouri Featherbells were listed as SR, meaning significantly rare.
I saved some seed from the plants on Ozarkedge and hope they will germinate in the spring. My goal is to establish a new stand in another area on the property. Update–I had no luck with the seeds. I’ve moved a few plants to other habitats on the property in the hopes of increasing the overall number of plants. After 2 years, the plants are still alive but have not bloomed. Clearly there is a lot more to learn about these fascinating plants.
Beautiful, feathery Featherbells
Interesting Tidbits- It’s hard to find interesting tidbits about a plant that is not well-documented and is becoming quite uncommon.
A single blossom