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A Rare Native
By Bob Dunlap
Southern Illinois is the home of many rare plants including the attractive Carolina Silverbell tree. The scientific name of this member of the Styrax family is Halesia tetraptera or Halesia carolina depending on which botanist you talk to. "Halesia" comes from Stephen Hales, an 18th century English scientist/inventor/clergyman and "tetraptera" translated from Latin means "four winged", referring to the tree's distinctive fruits/seeds. Other common names include Snowdrop-tree and Opossum-wood.
Silverbells are small to medium sized trees usually attaining a height of 30-40 feet and are generally found in the forest understory in shady locations. They prefer soils that are rich and somewhat moist so you won't find them on dry ridge tops. Specimens in ideal sites can grow to 70-80 feet or more with trunks 3 feet in diameter but it is doubtful any of our "locals" get this big.
The common name refers to the shape of the white, sometimes pinkish, flowers which emerge in early spring. After pollination, a four-winged fruit appears which eventually turns brown and drops in late summer or early fall although some may persist through the winter. The leaves are finely toothed, alternate and elliptical in shape. The bark of young trees is striped but this feature gradually fades away as they mature.
Range of Halesia tetraptera
Silverbells have been found in Pope and Massac counties in Illinois, which appears to be close to the northern limit of its native range in the central part of the country. Across the river in Kentucky they have been found in McCracken, Marshall, Trigg and Lyon counties. There are historical records for two counties in Ohio but attempts to relocate specimens have been unsuccessful. The tree is more common in the south and can be found in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
The future seems bright for the Silverbells in our area as far as threats from logging and habitat destruction are concerned. The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission established a private preserve in Massac County all the way back in 1975 to protect a population growing there. Similarly, several specimens can be found at the Metropolis Lake Nature Preserve established in 1984 by the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission. Finally, Dr. Edward Chester and his associates from Austin Peay University have located several populations growing within the boundaries of Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. While limited logging is allowed at LBL, I'm sure they will stay away from the areas where these trees are found!
Search for undiscovered populations
There is a very high probability that additional populations are out there in the woods waiting to be discovered. The Silverbells at Metropolis Lake were found in the year 2000. The easiest way to find them is to head for rich, wooded slopes the first two weeks in April and look for trees with white flowers. Most of their neighbors have not "leafed out" yet which helps the search effort. You will find plenty of serviceberry and hawthorn trees in bloom at this time but keep looking and you may just come across one of the area's rarest trees!
About the Author
Bob Dunlap is an amateur naturalist living in Paducah, KY.
Copyright © 2005 by Jim Jung and licensee. Images copyright as noted beneath images. All Rights Reserved.