Pittsburgh April 13, 2018 – Scientists from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy Natural Heritage Program and Bucknell University recently discovered the rare and globally imperiled plant species, white alumroot (Heuchera alba), while surveying for other rare plant species on a steep cliffside in Shikellamy State Park in Union County.

An unexpected find, the rare white alumroot was not previously known to exist in Pennsylvania. Their discovery and research is featured in the latest issue of PhytoKeys, a peer-reviewed, open-access scientific journal focusing in taxonomy, phylogeny, biogeography and the evolution of plants.

White alumroot (Heuchera alba)

WPC Inventory Manager and Botanist Dr. Scott Schuette and Bucknell University Professor Chris Martine were rappelling a 350-foot cliff searching for golden corydalis (Corydalis aurea subsp. aurea, Papaveraceae), a state-endangered species known only to grow at this location in Pennsylvania, when they instead spotted white alumroot specimens.

White alumroot is a rare plant species previously known only from small populations in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia. Due to the plant’s narrow distribution and low numbers of populations, white alumroot is considered a globally imperiled species with only 23 known population occurrences.

“We actually misidentified the species when we first discovered it,” explains Schuette, who has been part of the Conservancy’s PNHP staff since 2012. “Chris Martine posted a photo of the specimen on Twitter, and this stirred a passionate discussion among fellow botanists. It eventually led to the unexpected and exciting identification of white alumroot.”

Ryan Folk of Florida Museum of Natural History, who was the first to identify the rare species from the tweeted image, also contributed to the article. After examining the plant specimens, the team turned to historical collections at the Wayne E. Manning Herbarium at Bucknell University to further verify the species identification.

Their research also uncovered a decades-long inaccuracy: local botanists had been misidentifying white alumroot for more than a century in Pennsylvania. The new observations and inferences, along with tips for how others might also locate and protect more populations of white alumroot, are published in PhytoKeys.

Martine features Schuette and study co-author Jason Cantley of San Francisco State University in the latest episode of his YouTube series “Plants are Cool, Too!,” where viewers can learn more about the steep cliffs inhabited by white alumroot and the efforts to preserve them.

“This discovery is not just a cool showcase for how science and modern communications outlets can work together, it also gave us key information on the status of white alumroot that can guide future conservation efforts,” says Martine on the scientific value of this discovery.

The Conservancy documents and assesses the condition of natural communities and rare, threatened and endangered plant and animal species across the state through its Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program partnership. Other partner agencies include the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

Funding for the research project and video production was provided by the David Burpee Endowment at Bucknell University and the Conservancy’s Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program.


Photos have been made available courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and Bucknell University: https://we.tl/I7xju8a37B

You can view the entire episode of Plants Are Cool, Too on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/SFApGT8cHcE

About the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy:

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC) enhances the region by protecting and restoring exceptional places. A private nonprofit conservation organization founded in 1932, WPC has helped to establish 10 state parks, conserved more than a quarter million acres of natural lands and protected or restored more than 3,000 miles of rivers and streams. The Conservancy owns and operates Fallingwater, which symbolizes people living in harmony with nature. In addition, WPC enriches our region’s cities and towns through 132 community gardens and other green spaces that are planted with the help of about 12,000 volunteers. The work of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy is accomplished through the support of more than 10,000 members. For more information, visit WaterLandLife.org or Fallingwater.org.

Media contact:
Kristen Wishon (Blevins)
Communications Specialist