The Story of the Streamhead Lobelia, Lobelia batsonii

A closeup of the Streamhead Lobelia (Lobelia batsonii).

by Bruce A. Sorrie1

Illustration for Feb 2021 newsletter article on Lobelia batsonii by B.A. Sorrie
Streamhead Lobelia (Lobelia batsonii), a newly described wildflower found only in the Sandhills of North & South Carolina. Photo by B. A. Sorrie

Since the mid 1990s, references have been made to an undescribed lobelia in the Sandhills region of North and South Carolina. Albert B. Pittman of the South Carolina Heritage Trust was first to note that this lobelia was very similar to savanna lobelia (Lobelia glandulosa Walter) but differed in several points. In a letter to me in the mid 1990s, Bert stated that “the new lobelia is close to L. glandulosa which is distinctly hirsute [hairy] in the throat of the corolla…the new species completely lacks hairs inside the flower.”

When the news originally spread through the grapevine, it was exciting news to botanists and ecologists. The Sandhills region, although part of the Coastal Plain province, has differences in soil types, soil nutrient and mineral content, and presence of some distinctive habitats that are absent or rare on the flat portion of the Coastal Plain. Most notable, the rolling topography produces countless streamheads that, coupled with recurrent fire from adjacent longleaf pine communities, have evolved a unique suite of natural communities. The name “Streamhead Pocosin” has generally been used for the Lobelia’s community, but I prefer “Streamhead Shrub-Tree” because the Sandhills community differ in several important ways from true pocosins of the flat Coastal Plain.

Illustration for Feb 2021 newsletter article on Lobelia batsonii by B.A. Sorrie
The Sandhills region extends unbroken from central North Carolina through South Carolina to east-central Georgia, then as scattered pieces to west-central Georgia. The rolling hills contrast sharply with the flat terrain of the rest of the Coastal Plain. Elevation within the Sandhills region ranges from about 70 feet on larger rivers to about 650 feet on the highest hilltops.2


Significantly, there are a number of plants that are entirely restricted to the Sandhills Region and absent from the flat Coastal Plain. These include Sandhills bugleweed (Lycopus cokeri), Sandhills pyxie-moss (Pyxidanthera barbulata var. brevifolia), Sandhills arrowhead (Sagittaria macrocarpa), Sandhills lily (Lilium pyrophilum), Streamhead heartleaf (Hexastylis sorriei), bog spicebush (Lindera subcoriacea), resinous boneset (Eupatorium resinosum), Sandhills blazing-star (Liatris cokeri), Sandhills bird-foot violet (Viola pedata var. flabellata), Sandhills ground-cherry (Physalis lanceolata). Thus, adding another endemic to the Sandhills list was exciting news!

Long story short, botanists in North Carolina and South Carolina kept finding and collecting this novel Lobelia and kept careful track of where it was found and how many. Herbaria were checked for old specimens of both species, and differences were noted. Over two decades, they finally gathered enough specimen material and enough morphological data to officially name it in 2020. It was Bert Pittman’s wish to name it after Wade T. Batson (1913-2015), his major professor at the University of South Carolina and a lifelong student of the flora of the Carolinas. “Lobelia batsonii (Campanulaceae), a new species from the Sandhills of the Carolinas” by Bert Pittman and me was published in November 2020 in the online botanical journal, Phytoneuron.3

How does one distinguish streamhead lobelia from savanna lobelia? Both have slender stems up to two feet tall, with skinny leaves that taper to a point. In most characters, streamhead lobelia is smaller/shorter than savanna lobelia. But you do not need a millimeter ruler; there are other “eyeball” points of difference. We know that streamhead lobelia is hairless on the inside of the flower tube (vs. densely

Illustration for Feb 2021 newsletter article on Lobelia batsonii by B.A. Sorrie
Streamhead Lobelia has been found only in the Sandhills region of North and South Carolina. Botanists are on the lookout for it in Georgia.

hairy).  Its sepals lack little bumps (tubercles) on the margins (vs. obvious).  Mature seeds have soft, corky coats (vs. firm). It inhabits wet streamheads with active seepage water and in adjacent openings where disturbed by road cuts; also upper ends of beaver ponds (vs. +/- flat savannas and pitcher-plant flats with rainfall runoff). So far as we know, savanna lobelia does not occur within the Sandhills proper.

Streamhead lobelia has been documented from Harnett County in North Carolina, southwest through the Sandhills to Lexington County in South Carolina. It has been reported without specimen from Aiken County in South Carolina, and should be sought in the Augusta area of Georgia.

Where can you go to see streamhead lobelia in its native habitat? Since this species inhabits streamhead thickets, most populations are inaccessible to all but the most intrepid naturalist. In addition, the roads of the Sandhills Game Land are sand — frequently quite deep sand — and can be flooded at any time of year. A vehicle with high clearance and four-wheel-drive is recommended. That being said, a good place to see Lobelia batsonii is at the Scotland Lane Annual Burn Site in the Sandhills Game Land in Scotland County, North Carolina. Plan on going in late-September to mid-October while the plants are in full bloom.


Illustration for Feb 2021 newsletter article on Lobelia batsonii by B.A. Sorrie
Map of portion of Sandhills Game Land showing location of Scotland Lane Annual Burn Site, one place where streamhead lobelia can be found in North Carolina.

From the BP gas station (35.026473 latitude, -79.559433 longitude) in Hoffman, North Carolina, go north on US 1 about half a mile; turn right on School Drive and go across the railroad tracks and past a school and continue into Sandhills Game Land on SR 1602 (Butler Road). Note the nice longleaf community and Broadacres Lake on right. Past the lake, the road will enter Scotland County and turn to  sand. Its name is Watson Road (SR 1328), but there are no road signs. Continue southward until you come to a four-way crossroads. You will see open areas where horse people congregate and park their trailers. This crossroad is Scotland Lane. Go right onto Scotland Lane (again, no sign) for about 1/2 mile or a bit more. Going down a slope you will see the Annual Burn Site on the left–a big canebrake. Park at bottom of the slope at the small outlet creek. The wet roadside/shrub border has Lobelia batsonii plants.*





Wade T. Batson, Jr. (center, in rocking chair), for whom Lobelia batsonii is named, celebrates his 100th birthday in 2013 surrounded by many of his students. Photo by Bonnie Dutton4  
(L-R) Douglas A. Rayner, Wade T. Batson, Jr., Richard D. Porcher, and Albert Pittman in 2015. Porcher is holding a copy of A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina, authored by Porcher & Rayner, published in 2001 by University of South Carolina Press.

1.  Bruce Sorrie has been an Herbarium Associate with the University of North Carolina Herbarium since 2003.  He earned a B.S. in Vertebrate Zoology from Cornell University in 1967. After serving in the United States military he was a botanist with the Massachusetts Natural Heritage Program. He moved to North Carolina in 1991 to work with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program. Since his retirement from the Heritage Program in 2014, he has continued to study the flora of the southeastern United States.

2.  Sorrie, B. A.  2011.  A field guide to the wildflowers of the Sandhill Region:  North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia.  University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.  map, page xii; text page 2.

3.  Pittman, A. B. and B. A. Sorrie.  2020.  Lobelia batsonii (Campanulaceae), a new species from the sandhills of the Carolinas.  Phytoneuron 2020-79:  1-9.  Published 18 November 2020.  ISSN 2153 733X

4.  Holleman, Joey.  2015.  Botany professor Batson taught life lessons at USC for 30 years. The State [newspaper], 1 April 2015.  Columbia, South Carolina. accessed on 13 January 2021.  Photo by Bonnie Dutton.

* Bruce Sorrie’s beautifully illustrated book A field guide to the wildflowers of the Sandhill Region:  North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia is available for purchase in the the North Carolina Botanical Garden shop and in the Visitor Center of Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve in Southern Pines, NC.  NCBG hopes to have a field trip to the Sandhills led by Bruce Sorrie in the autumn of 2021.  Remember one of the benefits of Garden membership is a discount on field trips, classes, and programs!