With the full moon rising high into the midnight sky I recently visited one of my favorite prairie wildflowers. I brought along two lights, a tripod and a camera, as well as my iPhone—which has a camera of course—in a quest to photograph Wide-leaf False Aloe (Manfreda virginica subspecies lata) by moonlight.
Midnight may seem an odd time to photograph prairie wildflowers but I wanted to experience the spicy sweet nighttime aroma (similar to a Gardenia or the Mexican Tuberose Polianthes tuberosa) it uses to attract nocturnal pollinators.
More importantly I wanted portray this beautiful prairie wildflower and the peril it faces. Over the past century and a half probably 99 percent of its habitat has been plowed up. Although the evocative fragrance still wafts across the grassy darkness in late May and June, it is probably in vain at the few sites where it still exists. Apparently the hawkmoth, or maybe even the bat, that once did this valuable service is no longer present. After they bloom the flowers just wither without setting fruit. I have visited a half dozen sites over the past twenty years and have never seen a fruit. I have heard rumors that they may still set fruit but it is curious that nearby populations of American False Aloe, which occurs from Florida north to Virginia and Ohio then west to Missouri and south to eastern Oklahoma and Texas, readily set fruit…
Although several of the twenty-five to thirty species in the genus Manfreda (most of which are found in Mexico and Central America) have showy flowers—the tepals of both American False Aloe and Wide-leaf False Aloe remain tightly closed around the protruding stamens and the white, sticky three-lobed stigma. The herbaceous leaves, and more importantly, the fact that the entire plant doesn’t die after flowering, led British botanist Richard Anthony Salisbury to name them Manfreda in 1866.
Wide-leaf False Aloe, however, was not even collected until 1948–in Oklahoma. Initially the specimens were assumed to be American False Aloe, until three years later when it was discovered in Texas in a Grayson County prairie south of Sherman. Lloyd H. Shinners—the iconoclastic botanist at SMU in Dallas—examined these Texas specimens and recognized at once the uniqueness of the short, wide leaves and named them Agave lata in the journal Field and Lab.
In his formal description Shinners noted that he visited the Texas site near Sherman in July 1951 hoping to collect fruits to add to his description, but found only withered flowers. Sadly even then this rarity was probably becoming what some have called the living dead—meaning it can no longer reproduce from seed.
Today Wide-leaf False Aloe is one of north Texas prairie’s rarest wildflowers. It hangs on in only a handful of tiny memorials that preserve the memory of the vast wildflower-laden landscapes that once covered much of northern Texas and southern Oklahoma. But it is unable to spread.
It is an under-the-radar rare plant with no formal protection; perhaps this is because so few botanists have seen it; or maybe it is because it has been doomed to a kind of taxonomic no man’s land. In her 1975 doctoral dissertation at Cornell, Susan Verhoek-Williams couldn’t find justification for treating it as a species. However in 1999 Robert O’Kennon, George Diggs and Barney Lipscomb named Wide-leaf False Aloe as a variety of American Aloe in their Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas.
Providing formal protection to rare and threatened species is hard enough—but it’s an even harder proposition when the rarity in question is just a subspecies or maybe not even a species at all…
A couple days later I visited two more sites on a hot afternoon in early June. At the first site I went—where there had been dozens not so long ago I found not a single one. But, at the second site, swaying ever so easily on a thin stalk held aloft above the eastern gama grass was a single flowering panicle of Wide-leaf False Aloe. A generation ago there had been a few dozen there too. But I could only find one. Spreading the dense grass with my hands I found another roseate or two sheltering from the sun in the dense green grass. We have so much to learn. And so much to save.