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History & Current Status of Rare Plant Found at Chinsegut Hill

posted Aug 31, 2013, 3:04 PM by Hernando Chapter Florida Native Plant Society
by Judith Simpson

Brooksville bellflower (Campanula robinsiae) is a small, flowering annual with blue petals, that has only been found at two sites in Hernando County and one site in Hillsborough. It is one of the rarest plants on earth. In March, 2013, a team of scientists and volunteers lead by Cheryl Peterson from the Rare Plant Conservation Program at Bok Tower Gardens, surveyed locations where the plant has been previously found, and counted a total of 8,263, individual plants, of which 8002 were counted on former USDA property near Chinsegut Hill, and the remainder were found at four adjacent locations in Hillsborough River State park. [1]

The Brooksville bellflower, also known as Robin’s bellflower and Chinsegut bellflower, was first collected on the north slope of Chinsegut Hill in 1924, by botanist John Kunkel Small. The original type specimen, with Small’s botanical description (protologue) is in the herbarium of the New York Botanical Garden. [2] Small reported the “New Florida Bluebell” in a journal published by the Torrey Botanical Club in 1926. [3] In his description, Small states: “The plants grow most abundantly about half way up the hill from Lake Lindsay and near the summit. The species is named for Mrs. Raymond Robins who was present when the specimens were discovered.”

George Cooley also collected Campanula robensiae from the Chinsegut Hill area. The UF herbarium description reads: “George R. Cooley 6029 [coll. with] Carroll E. Wood, Jr., Kenneth A. Wilson, 25 April 1958. United States: Florida: Hernando County. [...] Scattered in moist seepage areas in open shade on down-hill side of large live-oaks. Associated with Eryngium, Juncus, Carex, Ranunculus, Hydrocotyle, Centella. Plants rooting adventitiously. Corolla deep purple; lobes spreading, flowers erect. [4]

The area where Campanula robinsiae was originally located has been overgrown with exotic invasive species as well as native trees and shrubs normally curbed by fire or grazing. [5] The hydrology of the previous seep from a natural spring appears to have been altered by overgrowth. No specimens of the endemic bellflower have been found there in many years. [6]

Brooksville bellflower was thought by some authorities to be extinct by by 1980. [7] Subsequently two populations were discovered within two miles of each other and close to the original site. One is the former USDA site which had the highest recorded count in 2013, and another is on private property. Both are described as near “cow pasture ponds,” on the margins of seasonally wet areas, and both sites are now at risk due to development, run-off and lack of management for species protection.

In 2006, Carmel Van Hoek, a long time member of Florida Native Plant Society collected a “vivid blue flower” at Hillsborough State Park, in similar growing conditions as the Hernando populations. In consultation with Dr. Bruce Hansen, the curator of the USF  Herbarium, this find was identified as a previously unknown population of the extremely rare Campanula robinsiae. [8] In 2009, Shirley Denton captured this image (right) that reflects the delicate structure of the plant. This close-up is at least 10x the size of the actual bloom.

Since then, the Bok Tower Gardens (BTG) Conservation Program has monitored and collected seeds from all of these sites, and has begun efforts to propagate and establish Brooksville Bellflower in protected locations in Hernando and Hillsborough Counties. BTG will continue to survey each site as long as access can be maintained. BTG’s most report on these efforts notes that due to uncertain future for the former USDA property adjacent to Chinsegut Hill, and the potential development of the private property location in Hernando County, these populations are in jeopardy, and future surveys there may not be possible.

Now that funding has been secured to preserve the Chinsegut Hill Manor House and grounds, and Hernando County Environmentally Sensitive Lands funds have been allocated for removal of exotic species on that parcel of land, perhaps it will be possible to restore the site of the original “Chinsegut bluebell” to its condition at the time of the first find. A nature trail through such an area leading downhill from the Chinsegut Hill summit towards the pasture and ponds below could offer interpretive signage and attractive views for ecotourists, highlighting Hernando’s cultural and natural history.

[1] Cheryl Peterson. Section of Final Report for state of Florida grant #18698, Rare Plant Conservation Program, Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales, FL , July 2013

[2] http://sweetgum.nybg.org/vh/specimen.php?irn=417233

[3] TORREYA, a Bi-Monthly Journal of Botanical Notes and News, edited for the TORREY BOTANICAL CLUB by George Hastings. Vol. 26 March-April, 1926 No. 2

[4] http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/herbarium/cat/search.asp?accno=147539

[5] Personal observation, July 12, 2013

[6] Cheryl Peterson, ibid.

[7] Ward, D.B. Keys to the flora of Florida - Campanulaceae, http://archive.org/stream/phytologia39glea/phytologia39glea_djvu.txt

[8] Clear, M. http://www.sptimes.com/2007/09/24/Hernando/A_rare_flower_makes_b.shtml
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