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Schweinitz’s Sunflowers

Schweinitz Sunflower

Schweinitz’s sunflower (Helianthus schweinitzii) was named in honor of Lewis David von Schweinitz, a Moravian minister who lived in Salem, North Carolina, in the early 19th century. An avid botanist, he collected thousands of plants and described more than 1,200 new species, mostly fungi. In fact, he is known as the Father of North American Mycology. 

This late-summer and fall-blooming sunflower is found in only 12 counties in the North Carolina Piedmont and two counties in South Carolina.  This sunflower thrived in the open grassy Piedmont prairies which were common in the Southeast before European settlement.  The tuberous root, similar to that of a Jerusalem artichoke, once provided a food source for native Americans.  In the last several hundred years, farming and the lack of frequent fire in the landscape has reduced the once widespread prairies to small, isolated patches, often along sunny roadsides or power line rights-of-way.  Restoring habitat for Schweinitz’ sunflowers helps preserve many other plants native to the Piedmont prairie.

A Safe Haven for Schweinitz’s Sunflowers at Caraway Prairie

In 2001, a N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) paving projectSchweinitz Sunflower threatened thousands of federally endangered Schweinitz’s sunflowers growing at the edge of Mountain View Church Road northwest of Asheboro.  Because it was a state road and no federal funds were involved in the project, there were no funds available for restoring the plants to a secure location.  Many people and organizations worked together to save the plants.  Asheboro residents Ellen Howell and David Norcom donated a conservation easement on a one-acre triangular tract of land to the Piedmont Land Conservancy.  Twenty-two workers from the NCDOT, the N.C. Zoo, the N.C. Plant Conservation Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rescued the endangered plants from the narrow road shoulder and ditches and carried bucket loads of sunflowers to the adjacent easement site for transplanting. 

The new sunflower site, now known as Caraway Prairie, is managed by Zoo horticulturists to provide a protected, off-road site for the sunflowers to grow.  Over time, removing trees, controlling invasive plants and prescribed burning is replicating a slice of Piedmont prairie, the sunflowers’ native habitat.  Yearly monitoring indicates that the plants are thriving in their new home, with numbers increasing every year.  This timely, Zoo-led relocation project prevented the sunflowers’ extinction in this corner of Randolph County.