It’s understandable if on May 13, 1864, Confederate troops camped along a shady slope near Resaca paid little attention to the scattered plants flowering white and blue across the forest floor. The men were bracing for a massive Union attack that would break at dawn the next day, the first major battle in the Atlanta Campaign.

Yet while the battle is history, that population of large-flowed skullcap lives on. And because Resaca Battlefield is owned by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and managed by Gordon County, this rare herb that is federally listed as threatened has more than a fighting chance where Civil War armies once raged.

Large-flowered skullcap is found in the wild only in northwest Georgia and southeastern Tennessee. Named for the helmet-like upper lip that curls over the flower’s lower lip, this member of the mint family can reach 2 feet tall but it is neither hardy nor prolific. Only one-in-four seeds are fertile, on average. Threats include logging, development and competition from invasive and even native woody plants, such as poison ivy.

DNR technician Nate Thomas, who discovered the Resaca Battlefield population, said a prime large-flowered skullcap site in Georgia is one with more than 100 plants. Resaca has 300-plus. “This is one of the state’s premiere sites,” said Thomas, who works for the agency’s Nongame Conservation and Game Management sections.

Nate Thomas showing large-flowered skullcap at microburn site 5_Resaca_622016_Rick Lavender_GaDNR
DNR’s Nate Thomas shows a large-flowered skullcap at Resaca Battlefield. (Rick Lavender/DNR) At top is a large-flowered skullcap in bloom. (Nate Thomas/DNR)

The fact that the state owns the land and Gordon County is ready to help both factor into that rating. The county worked with Thomas on two small prescribed burns this winter to measure the impact on the plants and habitat. During a recent visit, Thomas and Ken Padgett, chair of the county’s Historical Preservation Commission, discussed ways to control spreading stands of invasive Japanese stiltgrass.

“We’re working closely with Nate,” said Padgett, a Civil War re-enactor who hunted the property as a teen, finding mini-balls and cannonball fragments, and later helped push to preserve it. “We support DNR’s effort 100 percent in preserving the plants. It’s only another plus for us and the site.”

Surveys by Thomas have also uncovered other large-flowered skullcap populations and promising conservation partnerships in the region. A hardwood drainage owned by the Dalton-Whitfield Solid Waste Authority and protected under a conservation easement features skullcap and lanceleaf trillium, a species DNR monitors.

Although the site is not open to the public, the authority is willing to do its part for the plants, suggested Assistant Executive Director Dirk Verhoeff. “Having the skullcap located within and adjacent to a wetland conservation easement will ensure the success of these colonies,” Verhoeff said. “In addition, our staff will be on the lookout for additional colonies for future conservation.”

Such partnerships could help large-flowered skullcap win its battle to not only survive, but thrive.

Skullcap Insights

  • Large-flowered skullcap has leaves that are, in Nate Thomas’ words, dog-ear soft. The top and bottom surface of the leaves are covered in small, gland-tipped hairs.
  • Surveys for skullcap are best done when the plants are flowering, about mid-May. “They look like candles in the woods,” Thomas said.
  • The plants are usually found on drainage slopes in mature hardwood or hardwood-pine forests that have few shrubs. In Georgia, the species is known from only seven counties in the northwest part of the state.
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