The Plant Sleuths

Here it was: The small white lady-slipper, an orchid last seen in northern Missouri in 1947, now growing in a hollow in the southern part of the state. It was an unexpected find for Bill Summers, who was searching for other lady-slippers in 1990.

Summers is a botanist who specializes in orchids and works for the Conservation Department and the U.S. Forest Service. "It was thrilling to me to find this site," Summers says.

Summers' discovery saved this wildflower from being declared "extirpated" in Missouri, a status applied once a plant has not been seen for 50 years. Extirpated means exterminated or, literally, "pulled up by the roots." Vanished.

While the small white lady-slipper (Cypripedium candidum) now is listed as "endangered" in the state, many other plants remain missing, in spite of searches of previously known sites during the 15-year Missouri Natural Features Inventory that concluded in 1995.

But remember, Bill Summers found the small white lady-slipper in a completely unexpected place, not at a site once identified for it, and 43 years after the last sighting in the state. Botanists also have recently rediscovered bogbean and reed bent grass. They found running buffalo clover, missing since 1907, in 1994. Doesn't that make you wonder if other missing species might be thriving in out-of-the-way places? And you, out for a ramble, might have the thrill of finding such a plant and declaring it alive and well in Missouri.

Tim Smith, Conservation Department botanist, says he welcomes leads on rare plants. In the past, much of the Conservation Department's plant information has come from landowners, amateur botanists, and other agencies' personnel who have come across unusual plants.

"We benefit from having all those eyes out there on the landscape," he says. "We certainly don't have enough people to look at every acre of ground." With more people aware of the characteristics of missing species, the chances of finding them increase.

Here are a few of Missouri's missing flora, all listed as extirpated in the state. If you see one of these species, note the exact location and write Natural Heritage Database Manager, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, 65102, or call (573) 751-4115, ext. 200. If possible, photograph the plant or make an accurate sketch showing the flower, leaf and stem. Since Missouri has around 2,700 plant species and many are similar to others, a botanist needs details to