t three feet tall or higher, with beautiful flame-orange
flowers, the Sandhills lily is no shrinking violet. It could hardly escape
notice, except that only about 250 individual plants of this species are
known in the world.
A native of the sandy-soiled, rolling hills of the coastal
plain of the Carolinas, the Sandhills lily was first collected decades
ago. But taxonomists of the day mistakenly thought the specimens to be
those of a look-alike lily found in the same region. In 1991, botanist
Bruce Sorrie of the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program and colleagues
from The Nature Conservancy were conducting a biological inventory of
Fort Bragg, the famed Army post that is also well-known for its natural
treasures. Amidst the fort's longleaf pine and wiregrass, they discovered
the world's largest population of the lily.
While Sorrie suspected the significance of the find
at the time, scientific discovery often follows a long and winding path.
It took a decade of further field work and research to uncover the many
ways in which the Sandhills lily differs from its close cousins: it blooms
later, has fewer and smaller flowers, a different leaf arrangement, and
different pollinators, among other distinctions. By 2002 Sorrie and lily
expert Mark Skinner had concluded that the species was indeed new to science.
In recognition of the plant's dependence on fires to keep its habitat
clear of competing shrubs, they bestowed the Latin moniker of Lilium
The rarity of the Sandhills lily is symptomatic of the
destruction of its favored habitatlongleaf pine forests and the
small streamhead wetlands found interspersed among these majestic conifers.
The Sandhills region is also a hotspot for globally rare invertebrates
(such as Mitchell's satyr, an endangered butterfly) and rare insect-eating
plants, including varieties of pitcher plants, flytraps, bladderworts,
and sundews. The more that scientists look at this fascinating natural
laboratory, the more there is to discover.