Despite the large, heavy-duty waterproof boots he wore, Scott Sherwood stepped with a dancer’s delicacy through a mucky meadow, trying to avoid crushing the tiny yellow wildflowers blooming all around him.
After all, this flower grows only in this one location in New Jersey — and no place else on Earth.
It was a challenge not stepping on the wildflowers, known as Hammond's yellow spring beauties. Not only were they tiny and strewn across the entire meadow like yellow popcorn, but the mud created a suction that pulled at Sherwood's boots, as if trying to pluck them off with each step.
That unusually wet meadow provides a unique habitat that allows this flower to proliferate.
“This meadow is a rare inland acidic seep,” said Sherwood, the land steward for a number of preserves owned by the Nature Conservancy in northern New Jersey. “The groundwater comes up out of cracks in the bedrock and runs along the top of the bedrock. The water is pretty acidic, with a pH of 5.5 or so.”
To protect these rare little flowers, the group has bought up about 100 acres of land surrounding the meadow.
The five-petaled yellow flower of Hammond’s yellow spring beauty is smaller than a dime, and it has an appearance similar to buttercups.
“This flower is an amazing thing, and not found anywhere but here,” said Barbara Brummer, the Nature’s Conservancy’s New Jersey director.
The wildflower blooms in May, mixed in with white chickweed and purple violets, New Jersey’s state flower.
The seep lies in the eastern foothills of the Kittatinny Mountain Range in Sussex County. The non-profit calls the protected area the Arctic Meadows Preserve, where the unusual plants share real estate with black bears, beaver, coyote and bobcats in the most densely populated state in the country.
Unlike most of the conservancy’s preserves, this one is not open to the public. On occasion, the group will host a field trip to the site for botanists from New Jersey and other states, Brummer said, and occasionally will open the preserve by appointment.
The wildflowers were discovered by local naturalist Emilie K. Hammond more than 50 years ago. She thought they had a resemblance to one of the most prevalent native wildflowers in eastern North America, the common spring beauty. But that plant has a white flower with pink stripes on the petals.
Hammond contacted the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, which researched the flower and decided it was merely a color variant of the common spring beauty.
That changed in the mid-1980s, when a friend of Hammond’s saw a house being built near the unusual meadow. Worried that the flowers could be destroyed by development, she told David Snyder a Nature Conservancy botanist, about it.
Snyder took a closer look. He noticed that the yellow spring beauties were in an odd spot.
"When I saw them blooming in a wetland with skunk cabbage, it didn't seem quite right, since common spring beauties grow in moist but well-drained soil," he said.
And every one of the flowers was yellow — not a single common spring beauty was in sight.
"What really blew me away was the fact that the yellow variety kept flowering, through the summer and even into September, while by mid-May you're lucky to find a few common spring beauties still around," he said.
Snyder, who is now New Jersey’s state botanist, concluded the meadow was home to an entirely separate type of spring beauty. He worked with two botanists who were experts on the common spring beauty, and they conducted genetic testing, though this was before they had access to DNA testing.
"We still could conclude that this was definitely different from every other race of spring beauty," Snyder said. "Today, if I had the time to do DNA testing, I'm sure I'd have no trouble elevating the yellow spring beauty to its own species," he said.
Two years ago, the Nature Conservancy allowed a botanist from California to take 10 specimens of the flower to conduct genetic research, Brummer said. She hopes it could provide the information to definitively name the Hammond’s yellow spring beauty as a distinct species from the common spring beauty.
There are a few other plants that grow only in New Jersey, but most are located in the Pine Barrens, Brummer said.
Among them is a native New Jersey blackberry bush that grows in Cape May, and a bog asphodel, which grows only in the Pinelands after populations in Delaware and the Carolinas were wiped out, Snyder said.
In addition to the Arctic Meadows Preserve, the Nature Conservancy owns seven other preserves in northern New Jersey. One of them is the 800-acre Johnsonburg Swamp Nature Preserve along the border of Sussex and Warren counties, where the common spring beauty grows.
The preserve protects a limestone forest and is considered one of the most important and species rich natural areas in the state. A trail meanders through woods and limestone outcrops that contain several caves. At this time of year, Jack-in-the pulpit and columbine bloom on the forest floor.
The trails lead to an overlook called High Rocks with a dramatic view of Mud Pond, a limestone wetland with numerous rare plant species. The limestone produces calcium-rich soil that helps unusual species thrive, from hoary willow and ebony sedge to leathery grape-fern.
“It’s another special set of circumstances,” Brummer said. “Often we don’t know these unique places are unique until they’re gone. When we find unique or rare habitats, we try to protect that land so it’s not developed.”
All of the preserves the Nature Conservancy owns include an easement that prohibits development on the land even by future owners.
Another unusual resident of Mud Pond is the lesser bladderwort, found at only three other sites in New Jersey. The plant produces tiny yellow flowers that float on the water.
“It’s a really cool little plant — it has what are like air bladders with a trap door,” Brummer said. “When an insect brushes by the trap door opens and causes a vacuum and it sucks the insect in and then digests it.”
A carnivorous flower — somehow that sounds like the perfect New Jersey plant.