June 17, 2005

Retired Mechanic Finds New Flower Species

BAUXITE, Ark. (AP) -- Hiking in the Ouachita Mountains one day, retired mechanic John Pelton's eye caught a pink flower that he hadn't noticed before. The man with a passion for plant life couldn't figure out just what kind of flower he had found in Saline County.

He contacted Theo Witsell, a botanist with the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, who couldn't find the plant in any books or on any Web sites.

Witsell spent years classifying the plant and will officially unveil it as a new species found only in two rare Saline County habitats in an article to be published next month in the botany journal Sida, Contributions to Botany.

The small, pink flower is named Pelton's rose-gentian.

"It's bloomed in Arkansas beside all the known species for years," Witsell said. "It's not every day that you find a new plant species in a temperate climate like North America."

The plant is rare because it's habitat is rare, Witsell said. In one spot it grows in a bed of igneous rock covered with about a foot of soil. In the other location, shale rock deposits create the same conditions.

"Many plants growing here are holdovers from a drier age, a more desert-like Arkansas that existed about 5,000 to 8,000 years ago," Witsell said.

Johnnie Gentry, director of the University of Arkansas Herbarium, said without Pelton's sharp eye the new flower likely would not have been discovered.

"John is really quite the student of flora of Arkansas," Gentry said. "A lot of people see things, but don't notice the significance of them."

Pelton is a former president of the Arkansas Native Plant Society. He only became interested in botany when high winds would sometimes spoil his fishing trips. While waiting for the winds to subside he spent time photographing wildflowers in the Arkansas hills.

Pelton also noticed a flower in the Ouachita Mountains in the 1980s that was thought to only grow in Tennessee and Missouri. Gentry says two other brand-new species have been discovered in the past 15 years in the Ouachita Mountains.