DNR ecologist finds holy grail of rare plants on State Natural Area

While surveying a State Natural Area in west central Wisconsin, DNR ecologist Ryan O'Connor found a rare plant not documented in the state since 1958. O'Connor spied the green violet growing by the hundreds.

The night before DNR Ecologist Ryan O’Connor left on his first extended trip of the field season to survey state lands for rare species and assess native ecosystems, his 6-year-old daughter Sophia wrote him a note.

“Dear Dad, I hope you find lots of rare stuff," she said. Her note would prove to be prescient and good luck.

While surveying a State Natural Area in west central Wisconsin, O'Connor found a rare plant not documented in the state since 1958. Green violet, (Hybanthus concolor), was growing by the hundreds. 

The plant was on a short list of “holy grail” species known to have been present once in Wisconsin but thought to have disappeared.

"It really drives home several things, including that there are still important things to discover on State Natural Areas and that our SNAs are vital to the conservation of plants and animals, some of which are found no where else in the state," O'Connor said.

Fully 75% of wildlife species listed in Wisconsin as threatened or endangered and 90% of state-listed plants are supported on State Natural Areas. These sites, owned both by the DNR and by more than 50 partners, represent Wisconsin’s best remaining native forests, wetlands, prairies and geological and archaeological sites and their primary purpose is to maintain this natural heritage for future generations.

O’Connor’s discovery also underscores the importance of conducting “biotic inventory surveys” to document the different rare species on state-owned lands and assess how the native ecosystems they are part of are faring. O'Connor is in his 20th year of conducting such rare species inventories, including 13 for Wisconsin DNR.

"When I found it, I started shaking a bit" 

On that fateful day, May 5, 2021, O' Connor pulled up to a State Natural Area with a “southern mesic forest” and was several hours into his survey of the site, which boasts large sugar maple, basswood and red oak. At the time, the ground was carpeted with spring ephemerals and other wildflowers including Dutchman’s breeches, spring beauty and trillium. 

He looked up and saw a plant 30 to 40 yards away that was in a clump and was very different from what he had been seeing at the site. He hiked closer, suspecting it was either a rare plant or an invasive plant. As he came up to it and examined it, he realized it was green violet, a plant that hadn’t been seen in Wisconsin in over half a century.

“When I found it, I started shaking a bit,” O’Connor said. “I forced myself to go through a mental checklist of what else it could be. I wanted to be really sure what it was.” O’Connor had seen the plant twice before in Michigan, where he grew up, and where it is also rare.

Green violets, discovered May 5, 2021, were on a short list of “holy grail” species known to have been present once in Wisconsin but thought to have disappeared..

“Very quickly I came to the conclusion that it couldn’t be anything else. At that point, I started tearing up a bit. Somehow, I was the one who had the honor of finding it,” he said.

O’Connor took photos with his smartphone and when he returned to an area with good cell phone reception, emailed them to DNR colleague and botanist Kevin Doyle, and to Mary Ann Feist and John Zaborsky at the University of Wisconsin Herbarium. “They wrote back right away and said, ‘yeah, that’s it!’”

O’Connor shared news of the discovery in an email to his DNR colleagues and with his wife Kara O’Connor and daughter Sophia. “I told her, ‘your note worked!’”

State Natural Area "one of the richest" forests In Wisconsin 

The site where Ryan O’Connor found this new population of green violets is one of the richest forests in the state and occurs on a steep slope, which protected it from grazing and extensive logging.

There are a lot of sugar maple dominated forests in Wisconsin, but there are very few as rich, meaning they have carpets of spring wildflowers and overall great diversity, according to Kevin Doyle, DNR botanist and coordinator of DNR's Rare Plant Monitoring Program.

Four more rare plant species are found here: state-threatened snow trillium and muskroot and two species listed as special concern (Short’s rock-cress and goldenseal).  

This site also is unique in that it is largely free of invasive species like garlic mustard, buckthorn and honeysuckle that threaten many other State Natural Areas. Routine monitoring for the early detection of invasive species is the primary management goal for the site, along with monitoring rare plants, according to Dean Edlin, the DNR district ecologist responsible for the site. 

More about green violets

  • Green violets are native to the eastern United States and Wisconsin is at the very northern edge of the green violet range. Across its range, green violet is limited to rich mesic forests on limestone soil. Unfortunately, a lot of these sites have been lost to logging, grazing and invasion by weeds like garlic mustard and honeysuckle.
  • Historically, green violet was only known in Wisconsin from one population near Platteville, but that site has been logged and grazed and the green violet population was presumed lost from the site and, therefore, the state, too.
  • Most violets have white, yellow or purple petals and green sepals, but green violet has much less showy flowers. The plant’s scientific name, Hybanthus concolor, refers to the petals and sepals being the same color (green). The word “concolor” is Latin for “same color.”
  • Like other violets, green violet has a gelatinous substance, called an elaiosome, attached to its seeds. The elaiosome is rich in fats and proteins, which attract ants. The ants bring the elaiosomes back to their nests to eat, and as they move them around, distribute the violet seeds.

Source: Kevin Doyle, DNR Botanist and Coordinator of the DNR's Rare Plant Monitoring Program