Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for American Chaffseed - Schwalbea americana   L.
Members of Orobanchaceae:
Only member of Schwalbea in NC.
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Section 6 » Order Scrophulariales » Family Orobanchaceae
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DistributionNow limited to the Sandhills region, but historically there were populations southeast to Bladen and Pender counties.

This is a seriously rare and strongly declining species across its entire range, which is (or was) from MA southward to central FL, and west to LA, sparingly in southeastern KY and east-central TN. Only a handful of records for each state now, and certainly extirpated from some states.
AbundanceUncommon on Fort Bragg (in Hoke and Cumberland counties), in sites that are frequently burned. Now extirpated elsewhere in the state. The NCNHP has about 30 records, of which about 20 are from this military reservation; some are still extant but others have not been found in recent years (Tracy Huskins pers. com.). However, the other roughly 8-10 records are all historical now. This is a Federal and State Endangered species, highly dependent on frequent fire, perhaps mostly fire in the growing season. The State Rank given by NCNHP was moved from S2 to S1 in 2021, as it is so dependent of frequent fire management.
HabitatThis species is limited in NC to Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) based natural communities, typically in Mesic Pine Flatwoods or in Pine/Scrub Oak Sandhills where there is mesic/loamy soil. It does grow in some places with seepage, such as sandhills/pocosin ecotones, and formerly occurred in one or two savannas (but not currently).
PhenologyBlooms in May and June (rarely as early as late April), and fruits in August.
IdentificationThis is a medium-sized, unbranched species, with the stem reaching about 1.5 feet tall; the entire plant is rather woolly/tomentose. It has a great number of alternate leaves along the entire stem, and they almost always are strongly ascending, such that the entire plant is quite narrow and spire-shaped, and the stem can be nearly hidden by the leaves. Each leaf is about 1.5 inches long and 1/3-inch wide, lanceolate and sessile at the base. The flowers are from the axils of the upper stem leaves to form a leafy raceme, often 4-6 inches tall. Each flower is maroon-purplish in color, with some yellow on the inside, but the flower is tubular and always appears "closed", though the flower is rather large at about 1-1.5 inches long. In addition, the flowers almost always are ascending, and with the strongly ascending leaves, the entire plant at all times is quite narrow. The flowers are not strongly bright or rich purple enough to easily catch your attention, and it is very important that before searching for it, carefully look at photos and line drawings to make sure you know what to look for. For whatever reason, the species has always been extremely rare on the very large Sandhills Game Land, with just two records; most of the Longleaf Pine stands there are on burn rotations of several years, and thus management is not an issue for its near absence there.
Taxonomic CommentsNone, other than the fact that the species is monotypic -- there is just this one species in the genus.

Other Common Name(s)Chaffseed. Though this is the only Schwalbea species, most references tack on the modifier "American", though this seems unnecessary -- unless there is some other plant in the world also with a name that uses "Chaffseed".
State RankS1
Global RankG2
State StatusE
US StatusLE
USACE-agcpFAC link
USACE-empFACU link
County Map - click on a county to view source of record.
Photo Gallery
Janet GrayHoke County, 2009, Coleman Impact Area. HokePhoto_natural
B.A. SorrieHoke County, 1993, Fort Bragg, McPherson Impact Area. Scan from slide. HokePhoto_natural
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