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Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
Ellington Agricultural Center
440 Hogan Road
Nashville, TN 37220
(615) 781-6500
Water Stitchwort Surveys Indicate A Species Well Adapted to Survive

Of all the rare vascular plants in Tennessee, Water Stitchwort (Stellaria fontinalis) is one of the most under-appreciated. While individual plants are not anything spectacular, in large populations the lime green patches look like a luxuriant moss cascading down a seepy bluff.

This winter annual of uncertain affinities was discovered early in the 19th century in Kentucky. Botanists cannot pin down to which Genus this plant belongs. Since the time it was discovered, it has been placed in Stellaria, Sagina and Arenaria. One of the oddities that leads to confusion is the fact that most plants have flowers without petals but occasionally a plant will have flowers with one to three petals. It seems the plant itself can't sort out its identity.

This identity crisis in no way detracts from its ability to survive. Although the flowers are only a few millimeters across, each fruiting capsule can contain from 10 to 15 seeds that likely float on water and attach themselves to moss mats along streams and rivers. It is rare to find plants that are not associated with moss -- often in very dynamic environments where the water rises over the plants in times of peak flow. Debris in the stream flowing by could scrape the moss away. The coarse scale habitat where the species is found is fairly broad: as long as there is moss, adequate light, and the area stays wet or damp from November to mid-May, Water Stitchwort can grow there. The plants are more compact in full sun sites and just a few inches tall. In heavy shade plants can be a foot long, trailing along the rocks and moss.

In 1993 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) was concerned enough about this species to fund a search for new populations in Tennessee and Kentucky, which resulted in the discovery of 35 new sites in Tennessee.

In recent years there has been some concern that more energetic storm events and increased flooding could be having profound effects on Water Stitchwort habitat. As a result, the USFWS funded a project in 2014 to assess the condition of the known populations in Tennessee and Kentucky.

The range of the species extends from Kentucky to Alabama through 14 counties in central Tennessee. During the project a number of new populations were discovered, but unfortunately some of the lower ranked sites had suffered losses, and some populations were no longer extant -- most of these occurring in or near developed areas in Davidson County.

The 1993 survey found several populations in the lawns of homes in some very nice neighborhoods. Only one of these was found to be extant in 2014. A few of the extirpated sites were well away from developed areas, along streams that showed evidence of powerful events that had overturned flat rocks and scoured the shoreline. Other sites were faring better than they had in 1993. A follow-up survey in 2016 to check on the better ranked sites found that many were doing fine, and some were extremely robust. The USFWS provided valuable logistical support in 2016 that allowed the Tennessee Division of Natural Areas to visit more sites than would have been possible otherwise. The best site in Tennessee is estimated to have over 45,000 plants and is in a stable environment.

In Tennessee it appears this species is secure with a number of robust healthy populations to offset those that have declined. Water Stitchwort is also protected in Tennessee via the Rare Plant Protection Act of 1985. However, neither Kentucky nor Alabama have the same level of protection. Further analysis of the current data may show that the range-wide health of this species is such that the species is not in need of further protection. There is ample information from the work in 2014 and 2016 to make that decision.

Download a fact sheet on this Water Stichwort project, illustrated with photography.


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