Last updated: April 17, 2012
Swamp Pink (Helonias bullata) [threatened]: Identification Guide
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Swamp Pink Identification Guide
Often hidden from the amateur eye in dense thickets of wetland vegetation, this harbinger of spring is a delight to discover for those willing to tread into the secluded, shaded and oftentimes wet landscape the plant inhabits.
Swamp pink, characterized by a bright pink flower cluster that blooms in early spring, is one of the most unique and beautiful wildflowers in the eastern United States. Swamp pink is in the lily family, although there are no other lilies quite like it. The plant's closest relatives include a species in Japan (Heloniopsis orientalis) and the bog asphodel (Narthecium americanum), another rare plant found in New Jersey and a candidate for inclusion on the List of Endangered & Threatened Wildlife and Plants.
Loss of swamp pink's forested wetland habitat and the plant's subsequent decline in distribution prompted the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to designate Swamp pink as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act in September 1988. A species designated as threatened is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a signifiicant portion of its range.
How to Recognize Swamp Pink
Swamp pink has smooth, evergreen, lance-shaped leaves (approximately 3 to 10 inches long) that lie fairly flat on the ground in a basal rosette. The leaves are shiny green when young and often attain a purplish tint as the plant matures. The stocky, hollow flower stem grows from 1 to 3 feet tall and has sparse modified leaves along its length.
In April or early May, the stem is topped by a cluster (approximately 1 to 3 inches long) of pink flowers dotted with pale blue anthers. By late May, the stem dies back and turns light brown in color. The dried flowers release their seeds by mid-June. The old stems persist until the first heavy rain or wind knocks them down.
Even when the plant is not in flower, the evergreen leaves of swamp pink can be identified year round. In fact, the plant may be easier to detect in the winter months since few other herbaceous plants are still green.
Although sometimes occurring as individual plants, swamp pink is more often found in clumps. The prevalence of clumping is likely the result of new plant growth from rootstocks and the limited distance that dispersing seeds travel. Some large populations have numbers of plants estimated in the thousands with densities up to 50 plants per square yard.
As the name implies, swamp pink is a wetland plant. Since the species cannot survive in open sun, the plant is limited to shady forested wetland areas. Swamp pink is often found with other forested wetland plants such as Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecypa tisthyoides), red maple (Acer rubrum), sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), sphagnum moss (Sphagnum spp.), cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), and laurel (Kalmia spp.).
Swamp pink often grows on hummocks formed by trees, shrubs, and sphagnum moss in forested wetlands. The hummocks keep the roots moist but not submerged in the standing water and hydric soil characteristic of the plant's habitat.
The wetlands where swamp pink is found can best be described as small meandering streamlets, wetlands at the beginning of streams (headwater wetlands), or spring seepage areas. These types of wetlands are perennially wet, with the water table at or near the surface, and with only slight fluctuations in water levels throughout the year.
Biologists suspect that many extant and seemingly vigorous swamp pink populations are in the process of a slow decline due to the impact of upland development surrounding the swamp pink populations. Although adult plants can survive in suboptimal conditions for several years, the long-term existence of swamp pink populations is dependent on the availability of high-quality, undisturbed habitat.
Swamp pink is no longer found in many areas along the mid-Atlantic states because extensive development has destroyed or degraded the plant's habitat. Clearing, draining, and filling forested wetlands can quickly destroy swamp pink and its habitat.
A more subtle assault on the survival of swamp pink includes gradual degradation of the forested wetland environment due to adjacent disturbances in upland areas that create changes in water quality and water supply to wetlands. These changes, though not always readily apparent, can eventually eliminate the sensitive swamp pink from a forested wetland without directly destroying the wetland.
Collecting and trampling of swamp pink populations and competition from non-native plants pose threats to the continued existence of swamp pink in its native habitat. In addition, the plant's very specific hydrologic requirements make it difficult to transplant or thrive in domesticated environments.
Being placed on the federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife & Plants does not provide sufficient protection for swamp pink. For plants, protection under the Endangered Species Act primarily applies to populations located on federal lands or populations affected by federal activities. Currently, very few swamp pink populations are on federal land and regulating federal activities does not adequately secure protection of the species.
Since the majority of existing populations are on private land, the future existence of the species will rely on informed and concerned citizens providing protection for the plant and its forested wetland habitat. Voluntary conservation agreements with private property owners will help to ensure the survival of swamp pink.
Searches for swamp pink sites and research to assist in understanding the specific habitat requirements of the species continue, as funding allows.
Once found inhabiting wetland areas from New York to Georgia, swamp pink is now found only along the coastal plain from New Jersey to Virginia and in isolated areas in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Containing more than 70 percent of the known sites, New Jersey represents the global stronghold for swamp pink.
If You Find Swamp Pink
Private landowners who have swamp pink on their property can help protect the species by preventing picking or digging of the plant and by leaving forested areas undisturbed. Interested citizens can help by supporting wetland protection laws and by being able to recognize swamp pink.
If you find plants that appear to be swamp pink, carefully note their location and, if possible, photograph the plant. Please do not remove the plant! Notify your state's Natural Areas Program or Natural Heritage Program and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.