Alabama is blessed with many places of natural beauty and biological importance. That is the basis for 2020 being designated as the “Year of Natural Wonders” by the Alabama Tourism Department.
State officials have compiled their list of “20 for 2020” natural wonders to explore. The designation has also spurred conversations about other unique places in the state where biological diversity is thriving.
“Just to see that habitat – it is absolutely amazing,” said Dan Spaulding, senior curator at the Anniston Museum of Natural History and a co-author of a recent inventory of plant life found at or near Flat Rock Park.
Operated and managed by Alabama Power, Flat Rock is a 25-acre day-use park that sits on a shelf of granite overlooking the company’s Lake Harris, also known as Lake Wedowee. Part of the granite shelf, or outcrop, extends 20 acres beyond the recreation area and hosts a remarkable variety of plants.
Tom Diggs, a botanist at the University of North Georgia, led the survey team that included Spaulding and Katie Horton, a Ph.D. student at the University of Missouri. They spent months identifying the plant life on and near Flat Rock. In a report issued in February, the team tallied 365 plant species growing at the site during the course of the 2019 growing season. Among them were 67 species never recorded in the county before. The spotted scorpion weed in Alabama grows only on rock outcrops in Randolph County.
Granite outcrops are rare and present a unique habitat for plants that are tough enough to exist in harsh conditions, especially during the heat of summer.
“They look like a moonscape,” Spaulding said.
And yet, during the hottest times of the year, granite outcrops can explode in colorful flora, Diggs said. “Late winter, early spring you have these incredible plants that come out of these vernal pools.”
Vernal pools are small, eroded depressions that fill up with clear, nutrient-poor water that collects off the rock shelf during rains.
One of the more showy and rare plants at Flat Rock is the elf orpine, which – if conditions are ripe – will bloom in a burst of red with tiny white blooms, Diggs said.
In summer, the granite outcrop can explode with thousands of knee-high stone mountain daisies and longleaf sunflowers, along with purple, small-head blazing star.
“These flat rock outcrops, large numbers of species are associated with them and them only,” Diggs said.
In the report, surveyors documented 10 “species of conservation concern” found at Flat Rock that face some, or even serious, risk of extinction because of their rarity, their restricted range or because their populations have seen steep declines. Among them are the spotted scorpion weed, Harper’s dodder and granite flatsedge.
The survey listed a number of invasive plants, such as Japanese privet, yellow bristlegrass and sheep sorrell, that have made their way into the ecosystem.
Jeff Baker, a biologist at Alabama Power, said the company is working with the survey team, the Alabama Glades Conservation Coalition and others to help preserve the habitat, which is adjacent to but distinct from Flat Rock Park’s popular recreation area. He said the company has taken steps to protect the area from vehicular traffic while still allowing pedestrian access for those who want to enjoy its scenic beauty and botanical bounty.
“Alabama Power has been very responsive,” Diggs said.
Baker said, “This is a unique opportunity to work with others to protect the outcrop and help manage the unique and rare plant community so that people can enjoy it for years to come.” And with Pollinator Week 2020 underway, Baker noted, “Many of the flowering plants found at the outcrop are an important food source for many pollinators as well. Pollinators benefit from conservation of natural areas like this.”
Spaulding said the diversity of plant species at Flat Rock isn’t the only reason protecting the granite outcrop habitat is important.
“There’s a lot of reasons you want to preserve the diversity. It’s an interwoven web – a delicate balance in nature. We don’t know, if you remove species, what will happen and topple.
“It’s not only the diversity. It’s beneficial to humankind – for its educational value, and for its psychological and aesthetic value,” Spaulding said. “It is just beautiful.”