Understanding how to conserve forests like this – particularly as climate changes – is going to depend on how well we understand what species are and how they interact with each other. But plants don’t wear labels. And sometimes the things that bind plants and other creatures together in species-like groups aren’t the things we humans are likely to notice.
That’s why we we’re anxious to understand more about the genetics of the plants of Paint Rock. Their molecular patterns and chromosome structure can sometimes tell you surprising things about the familial relations of a species that would never be obvious to by looking at the plant.
So there was something just right about having Rick Myers and his wife Wendy along to see the Paint Rock azaleas in full bloom, for the first time in full daylight. Rick is president of HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, the groundbreaking genomics campus in Huntsville.
Rick sees this forest not only with the eyes of biogeneticist, but also as a son of Alabama, one who spent his childhood roaming the woods of central Alabama and his college years roaming the Appalachian Trail.
Maybe the current species filing system will demand that these azaleas be seen as interesting but minor variations on already described azaleas (WHICH azalea these could be a variation on is not going to be easy to demonstrate). But more careful genetics work could allow us to determine whether they are polyploids, having extra sets of chromosomes. In their variability, strong fragrance and rich colors, they do resemble the famous polyploid azaleas of the world, the mountain flame azalea, the Red Hills azalea, and the luteum azaleas of Europe. If the azaleas of this Highland Rim population does prove to be a polyploid, it ain’t going to fit neatly in anybody’s filing cabinet, and Paint Rock may have another secret to share with the world.
Rick appreciates that as well as anyone. But this morning, Rick and Wendy are just lost in the beauty of the place.
Beth and I returned to further explore the sandstone cap that afternoon. Mountain laurel line the bluffs, and blueberries form what old-timers might call “blueberry hells” – thickets of blueberries that force you to squat to make it along the ridgetop. But the blueberries open onto another crevice in the bluff, and more populations of these strange azaleas. The azalea experts will be here next week. Stay tuned. We’ll let you know.