The Stealthy Search for Skullcap

Written By

The 12-legged beast looked everywhere at once, a dozen eyes darting in all directions as it neared Fox Creek. 

There? No, that wasn’t even close. 

Over here? Close, but, again, no. 

Well, what about this? Nope.  

Then, not far from where the creek gurgled in its shallow bed, results – a slender plant, its leaves like fuzzy valentines, wearing a cluster of purple petals. The beast – in truth, six people, moving more or less in one direction at Greystone Preserve – stopped to marvel at the woodland find. 

Keith Bradley stooped for a closer look. Everyone moved back so Bradley, the chief botanist for South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources, could issue the verdict. He’d seen these things before. 

“Yes,” he pronounced, while his five fellow searchers grinned at each other. “This is an Ocmulgee skullcap.” 

Ocmulgee skullcap; Photo Credit:  Jennifer Koches, USFWS. 

An Ocmulgee what? For the uninitiated, Scutellaria ocmulgee is an unimposing plant that grows only in a limited range in two river basins in South Carolina and Georgia. To say that the plant isn’t commonplace is the same as saying a blue whale is sort of big: both are understatements. 

So rare is this little plant that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing listing for the plant as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and is also proposing critical habitat for the species. That decision capped a decade of research into a plant whose roots are hanging on, but barely. 

Why? Blame the usual suspects for the skullcap’s shaky status – habitat loss to development and a changing climate, for starters. And this: “Deer,” said Bradley, “love skullcaps.” 

So do botanists and others whose woodland tramps may occasionally bring them face-to-leaf with the skullcap. Finding them, as six enthusiasts learned in the building heat of a South Carolina morning, is not easy. 

The author, Mark Davis, interviewing South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ botanist, Keith Bradley; Photo Credit:  Jennifer Koches, USFWS. 

A songbird called. Its trill threaded the branches from one tree to the next, a path of sound easy to follow. Competing for attention: traffic from nearby Interstate 20, a discordant symphony of mufflers and brakes and the occasional horn. The juxtaposition of treetop carols and roadside noise was jarring. 

On the ground, the skullcap searchers came across Terrapene carolina. You would call it a box turtle. It was about the size of a bar of soap, with golden eyes as bright as candle flames. Everyone gathered to gawk, but quickly forgot it when they came across two more. That duo was in a, well, delicate position, focused on making baby turtles. The searchers lowered their voices, and moved on. 

Box turtle on the Greystone Preserve; Photo Credit:  Jennifer Koches, USFWS. 

They stopped again when Bradley pointed out a squat little plant, a splash of green against a brown forest floor – relict trillium (Trillium reliquum). And trillium, he pointed out, is sort of like the Ocmulgee skullcap’s sidekick: Where you find one, you often find the other. The trillium, searchers learned, was picked from a site across the Savannah River that was about to be developed and replanted on the Greystone Preserve. 

Transplanted relict trillium on the Greystone Preserve; Photo Credit:  Jennifer Koches, USFWS. 

Some trillium, the searchers learned, were relocated to the forest before crews built a fireworks store. Now, the plants’ rhizomes, or roots that create shoots, are asleep in the soil. Red flags mark their resting places. Come next spring, they will push new tendrils into the humid South Carolina air, and flower. 

Ocmulgee skullcap search crew walking past flagged sites where relict trillium was relocated; Photo Credit:  Jennifer Koches, USFWS

Everyone fanned out. Moments later – “here!” There, indeed, growing in a cluster of lesser green things, was the skullcap. It had shed its petals, but no matter. Bradley took notes, snapped photos, looked pleased. 

The search continued – down one hill, up another, the path leading away from the creek and to the edge of a clearing. In the distance stood the fireworks store as red and tall as the skullcap is green and small. 

What’s in a name? 

Do the most elementary research on the Ocmulgee skullcap and you learn that it derives its last name from a long-ago botanist’s declaration that the tiny petals resembled miniature medieval helmets, aka skullcaps. Do a little more snooping and you’ll discover that skullcaps pop up all over the place, with different names. 

Some skullcaps have goofy names – sticky, less, littleleaf, hairy. Others cite geography – Mexican, Havana, South American and, yes, Ocmulgee. 

(A river, the Ocmulgee, rolls through south Georgia for 250 miles. The name also is synonymous with an indigenous and ancient civilization, which left mounds in central and south Georgia. The Ocmulgee mounds stand to this day.

At least one skullcap has a guy’s name – Danny’s skullcap. Just who was Danny? That’s uncertain. 

But one thing is certain: The Ocmulgee skullcap is a lovely little thing. 

In their tramp through a slice of the preserve, Bradley and his fellow hikers came across nearly a dozen. Most had already shed their purple petals, but a few retained their colorful little bouquets. Spotting a flowered skullcap was like getting a wink from an attractive stranger: it’s not something you expect, but it's pretty neat. 

Bradley knows. He’s been tromping about in the wilds of South Carolina since 2020, and has been a botanical expert for decades. He’s so renowned for his plant knowledge that a reality TV show, “Naked and Afraid,” relies on him for advice: Is this plant good to eat? Will this plant cause a rash? In 2016, he advised two participants in an episode how to turn a yucca plant into soap. “It was the only show that had people using shampoo,” said Bradley. He managed to sound simultaneously pleased and slightly embarrassed about the whole thing. 

Another enthusiast and budding skullcap expert is Hazel Cook, the executive director of the Central Savannah River Land Trust. A nonprofit, the land trust owns the 262-acre Greystone Preserve. A native of Philadelphia, she wound up living near the South Carolina-Georgia line during a visit to the Augusta area. She happened to meet a real estate agent who had a buddy who was looking for someone to help him get a land trust off the ground. Cook, who’d recently gotten her master’s degree in international environmental policy, suggested that the man’s search was over. He agreed. Cook told her mom she wasn’t coming home. That was 18 years ago.  

She recalled her first day in Augusta, when the sight of a Pennsylvania car on a downtown street prompted a stranger’s friendly greeting.  

“He said, ‘Welcome to Augusta!’,” Cook quoted that long-ago greeting. “’You’re a long way from home.’” 

Not anymore. When she met a local guy and sparks flew, well, that was it. Cook now considers herself as much a part of the North Augusta area as that elusive skullcap. You can say they both have roots here. 

Four towers 

Even in hilly Georgia, where views vanish with every rise and fall of the roads running close to the state line, the power plant is impossible to miss. Georgia Power’s nuclear energy facility, the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant, is about 40 miles south of the preserve where skullcaps grow close to I-20. It also seems a world removed from the preserve’s green canopy and songbirds. Vogtle stands on a plain. It is surrounded by parking lots where the sun reflects off hundreds of windshields. The cars and trucks belong to plant workers and crews building the third and fourth concrete cooling towers (towers 1 and 2 have been operating for decades).    

The towers resemble structures that started as pyramids but became something else as they rose in the air, flaring as they reached a summit. Each is about the height of a 60-story building. They dominate a 3,100-acre tract that includes an array of auxiliary buildings, plus wildlife habitat.  

The towers of Plant Vogtle; Photo Credit:  Jennifer Koches, USFWS.

Somewhere in that habitat, according to an older Service survey, grows the Ocmulgee skullcap. Jim Ozier, a Georgia Power biologist, agreed to find some – or, at least, try. 

Ozier worked nearly three decades for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, where he was known as one of the department’s bird guys. If it had feathers, Ozier could ID it. In his current job, said Ozier, he’s learned a lot about plants, but admitted he doesn’t know much about the object of his search. 

Still, Ozier enjoys any chance to nose about in the woods. One afternoon last summer found him doing just that, on a tract not a mile from his employer’s towers. Trailed by two fellow searchers, Ozier stepped into the shadowed gloom of hardwoods. His trail took him down a slope that angled so sharply that he had to step sideways to descend. The slope ended at bottomland where a slough curled toward the Savannah River. In places the soil was uprooted as thoroughly as if a tractor with a tiller had gone through. Ozier’s lips formed a thin line of disapproval. “Wild hogs,” he said. Feral hogs, found just about everywhere in this country, are notorious for rooting in the soil. They’re often a major cause of habitat destruction. 

Ozier set off. A yellow-billed cuckoo let out a gurgling call. Ozier arched his head, as if to listen more closely, but said nothing. He stepped carefully over a fallen log, reminding guests that snakes sometimes stretch out under logs on hot afternoons.

Jim Ozier, Georgia Power, and the author, hiking to find the elusive Ocmulgee skullcap at Plant Vogtle. Photo Credit:  Jennifer Koches, USFWS. 

It was a hot afternoon. 

He knelt by a plant. Heart-shaped leaves? Check. Right height? Check. A visitor texted the image to Bradley, the skullcap expert from South Carolina. Bradley texted back: Common skullcap. Ozier moved on. 

Another plant, another text, another answer: No. Ozier moved up the slope. At places, it gained a 45-degree angle, but the biologist kept moving, kneeling, looking. The trio of searchers spread out, looking for a splash of purple in all that green. 

“Over here!” This time, Ozier’s voice had a ring of excitement. 

His discovery: something slender and green, with fuzzy leaves. Atop a skinny chute at the plant’s apex grew a cluster of purple petals. They looked like costume jewelry … or, if you looked just right, like tiny medieval headgear. Skullcaps. 

Another text, another response. Yes. 

Ozier stood and smiled, then knelt again for a photo. The hunter and his trophy.

Jim Ozier pictured next to his “trophy”, the Ocmulgee skullcap. Photo Credit:  Jennifer Koches, USFWS. 

That skullcap would be the only one he found that afternoon, walking along slopes where cuckoos called at him. Ozier didn’t seem to mind. An expanse of forest beats four walls and a desk. 

“It is a relief to find one,” Ozier said, getting back in his F150 to call it a day. “But one is not a lot.” 

It is not. That explains its proposed listing.

The author, Mark Davis, making field notes on his Ocmulgee skullcap journey. The subject of the piece, the Ocmulgee skullcap, graces the foreground. Photo Credit:  Jennifer Koches, USFWS. 

Editor’s note:  Mark Davis retired from the Service in late February of this year. But we have no doubt, he's still out there writing a good read, following his son's baseball team very closely, or working on an old clunker!  

Story Tags

Endangered and/or Threatened species
Flowering plants