It has been 203 years since Curator Thomas Nuttall read his description of a new species of small subaquatic plant he discovered to the other members of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
The new species was Hemianthus micranthemoides, and he discovered it along the Delaware River in Kensington, in Philadelphia. The species was later called Nuttall’s mudflower in his honor.
The mature plant was no more than 2 inches high with, Nuttall wrote, “Flowers white, scarcely a line long….” At the time, these flowers could be seen, albeit with some difficulty, from late August through September in wet places from Virginia to New York.
Sadly, no one today is likely to witness the modest bloom of Nuttall’s mudflower, as it is the only plant species native to Pennsylvania that is now thought to be extinct. The demise of the last individual mudflower probably went unnoticed at the time. Even a botanist with a strong affinity for “ugly” plants would have to admit it lacks the charisma of a polar bear or panda.
But it is unlikely we are simply overlooking this species due to its unassuming appearance. No specimen has been collected for over 50 years, and all expeditions to locations where it was found previously failed to locate a single individual.
An internet search for the name Hemianthus micranthemoides (or a later applied but equivalent name Micranthemum micranthemoides) would seem to provide some hope from the aquarium community, as numerous supply stores advertise the species under the common name “pearl weed” or “pearl grass.” Alas, the situation turns out to be an example of a taxonomic mixup.
The plant called “pearl weed” is in fact Hemianthus glomeratus, a related species native to Florida. This misidentification was confirmed when Academy Botany Curator Emeritus Ernie Schuyler ordered some pearl weed and compared it to the preserved material of Nuttall’s mudflower in the herbarium, including Nuttall’s original specimen collected in 1817 in Kensington. As far as we know, the only mudflowers left in the world are pressed on paper inside the metal cabinets of herbaria.
This rather tragic story highlights the importance and utility of natural history collections. Specimens of Nuttall’s mudflower provided information on historic collecting localities to serve as a starting point in looking for living populations of the plant as well as physical material for comparison with misidentified material from aquarium supply stores.
As wild habitat continues to be lost and species face the ongoing challenges of urbanization, climate change and invasive competitors/predators, collections in herbaria like the Academy’s will provide essential baseline data for conservation monitoring and planning.
Projects to digitize natural history collections are ongoing and provide a freely available resource to conservationists, land managers, policy makers and the general public. With the aid of these resources, perhaps we can honor the humble memory of Nuttall’s mudflower by preventing other botanical casualties in our Mid-Atlantic home.
For a list of ongoing projects and available databases in the Botany Department, visit our page on the Academy’s website.
By Jordan Teisher, PhD, Collection Manager, Botany Department
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In the Academy’s “Spotlight on the Collections” series, we tell stories about specimens chosen by our scientists and also how researchers and others around the world depend on our collections for issues involving climate change, water quality, evolution, and biodiversity and extinction.
To read previous installments in the “Spotlight on the Collections” series, visit: