April 19, 2018

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.

April 18, 2018

If we’re going to save species, we probably ought to have a good handle on what a species is. But nearly every day, Paint Rock raises important new questions about what a species is, and how it fits into the community around it. Addressing those questions is one of the core missions of this forest research plot.

These deciduous rhododendrons on top of the plateau, for example, don’t seem to be particularly fond of our file drawers full of species names. The locals would call these honeysuckle azaleas, and leave it at that. Botanists who live by the book would most likely call them Rhododendron canescens, or maybe they’d be tempted to say Rhododendron prinophyllum or Rhododendron periclymenoides. Or maybe they’d be honest enough to acknowledge that these azaleas don’t really fit any description, so to get out of a fix, they’d write them off as “hybrids.”

As Ron Miller points out, that’s essentially what the famous azalea hunter Henry Skinner did nearly 70 years ago when he saw these strange creatures blooming only here in northwesternmost Alabama and southeasternmost Tennessee, on the southern outcrops of the Highland Rim. Skinner went on the become the much esteemed director of the National Arboretum, so few thought to double check his assumptions.

But the problem is that this “hybrid” has no obvious parents anywhere in the vicinity, and the plants, while displaying extremely variable flower characteristics within each population, are dead-on consistent in other characters across many miles.

 

We saw these azaleas ready to burst out in bloom weeks ago, thought they were curious, and asked Miller to help us sleuth them. And what we’ve found, now that they are in bloom on the Sharp Bingham research site, is not only surprisingly beautiful – they also appear to be quite unlike any other azaleas described.

 

Getting to those azaleas had proved to be a challenge. We first found them on a muscle-grinding hike up the slopes. There had to be an easier way.

 

But Dr. Govind Sharma, professor emeritus for biological sciences at Alabama A&M and principal researcher Luben Dimov exhibited extraordinary patience as we tried road after road in the dimming light of the afternoon. We were enchanted by our first encounter with a few blooming specimens in a sinkhole. But when we finally found our way back to the largest population, dripping with blooms over the waterfall, we were all overwhelmed. In the name of science and great beauty, Dr. Sharma missed an appointment that evening, and Luben (once again) came home after dark. They were both gracious. Dr. Sharma seemed elated. We can only hope their families back home were understanding when they saw the pictures of these stunning azaleas late that evening.

April 17, 2018

Beautiful sites are so common in Paint Rock, you can almost for a moment forget how beautiful they are. But then another one slams you in the face: The falls at Honey Hollow are overflowing. It’s a cornucopia of water, a place where the energy of life springs right out of the rocks.

 

While Beth attended to our wounded mule and the public television crew had a field day shooting footage of the falls, David Lubertazzi from Harvard and  Doug Booher did what ant people do: They traveled an inch an hour looking for ants on the slopes of Honey Hollow.

 

Late in the day, we were joined by Doug Phillips, the host and series creator of Alabama Public Television’s Discovering Alabama. Doug recalled the days when he first engaged with this part of the world.

 

By the end of the day, thanks to the efforts of our hunting club members and nearby residents, we had vehicles to carry us around, and the wounded mule was delivered to the parking lot, fully repaired. There are good people living around this good place.

And Beth got to see in person the famous Clemmons tractor. It was almost as beautiful as that repaired mule, and one day we’ll have to tell you the story of this remarkable tractor, the remarkable man who helped create it, and how he helped make the Paint Rock Research Center possible.

April 16, 2018

Red bud spring is turning into dogwood spring in Paint Rock. Blue long-spurred violets are giving way to blue crested iris, and the breathtakingly blue phacelias are replacing the breathtakingly blue bluebells.  And as Alabama Public Television winds up its shooting for the week, it reminds me to ask, Why is there so much blue in Paint Rock?

 

Yellows for the bees, reds for the birds, but who and what in nature besides us is seeing all of this blue, and how are they seeing it? There’s so much beautiful blue here in spring, it’s almost spooky, and you have to wonder what is it about Paint Rock that has evidently made blue such a signal color.

 

But seeing Paint Rock is partly about the challenges of seeing it. Its beauty is in part a result of its isolation and the difficulty people have in accessing it.

 

The mules, as a result, have become indispensable for travel through this forest. Some are disappointed when they discover the mules have four tires rather than four feet. I’ll admit, I’d rather have the latter, too. But these motorized, four-wheel drive mules are almost as sure-footed on these mountains as the real thing, and a whole lot smoother.

 

You appreciate how hard they have to work after riding up and down these thousand foot drops repeatedly during the day.

Monday opened cold, with the Paint Rock River in full flood and streams gushing. The falls descending deep toward China in the mouth of Keel Sinks Blowing Cave entertained the film crew for much of the morning. It was apparent the water falls coming high off the plateau were going to be equally spectacular, and we had two mules full of film crew, film equipment and ant specialists ready to get from the sunken bottoms to the high tops.

 

As we ground toward the top, one of the mules just sat down and quit. It was our only significant glitch after weeks in the field. Fortunately, you don’t need a drive belt to come down off the plateau.  Luben Dimov patiently ferried everyone down in his mule, and since everyone knows everyone hereabouts, Dennis and Tim got us in touch with the person who knew more about sick mules than anyone else in Alabama. His shop was just down the road in Paint Rock.

Bill Finch