By Ethan Hatchett
Flyr’s nemesis is a rare plant with a unique name. Brickellia cordifolia is commonly called Flyr’s nemesis for Lowell David Flyr, a doctoral student at Texas A&M University who studied it. The reasons why the plant is named for him, however, are shrouded in rumor.
Flyr’s nemesis, which is rated globally vulnerable, is found in the wild only in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. Tall and featuring heart-shaped leaves and bright pink pompom-like flowers, the plant is a magnet for pollinators – especially butterflies. These fall-blooming flowers provide a last pitstop for many migrating butterflies making their way south to Central and South America.
In Georgia, Brickellia cordifolia has become limited to two western counties, with most known populations found on the U.S. Army’s Fort Benning near Columbus.
The species’ rarity is blamed on clearcutting and mechanical preparation for pine plantations. Fragmentation of habitat is also a significant threat, preventing pollinators from effectively bringing pollen to other populations, allowing them to increase.
Fortunately, Flyr’s nemesis is gaining interest in the native plant trade. In a nursery setting, the plant is easy to propagate. It is also attractive and hardy in the garden. Its pink flowers add a splash of color when most blooms begin to fade.
The Tragedy of David Flyr
When engaging with the natural world it is easy to overlook the people behind the names of wildlife. Over time, the stories can become obscured. There are many urban legends surrounding the name Flyr’s nemesis that all hint at some aspect of the truth.
Some claim that Lowell David Flyr became obsessed with Brickellia cordifolia while finishing his doctorate in the Brickellia genus and ended up taking his life over the plant. Others say that to finish his degree, Flyr had to travel from his native Texas to visit the most eastern member of the Brickellia genus, Brickellia cordifolia. While searching for the plant in Georgia, he was hit by a car and killed.
The reality, however, is no less tragic. Lowell David Flyr was a brilliant but troubled man that made great contributions to the knowledge of the genus Brickellia. He committed suicide in 1971 while being treated for bipolar depression. It is unlikely he ever described the species, but his peers named it in his honor.
In a 1971 obituary in the now defunct journal SIDA Contributions to Botany, Flyr’s doctoral advisor B.L. Turner writes warmly of his student and their relationship. “… I am a better taxonomist, teacher, person: having known him I carry a deeper sense of joy, laughter and, what other word, tragedy. … I never saw him flinch, beg excuses, cover eyes with shaky fingers. David wore his profound (psychotic) depression so lightly … that most of us mistook it for cautious wisdom, or aloofness born of the prairie or whatever else he managed to make it through the day with. …”
Brickellia cordifolia bears Flyr’s name well: an unassuming plant wearing blooms that leave a lasting impression on all who encounter it.
Flyr’s nemesis is a high-priority species for conservation in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan. By protecting the plant’s habitats, Georgia DNR is helping conserve this species by re-introducing fire to oak-pine woods. Reducing leaf litter and opening the understory of these woodlands provides conditions Flyr’s nemesis needs to bloom, set seed and reproduce.
Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan lists 640 animal and plant species as high priorities for conservation. The 150 conservation actions recommended focus efforts where they’re most needed and most effective.
Congress requires an approved Wildlife Action Plan for state wildlife agencies to receive State Wildlife Grants, the main federal funding source for states to conserve nongame – animals not legally fished for or hunted, plus rare native plants.
DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section leads the planning process. But this is not simply a DNR plan. Georgia’s Wildlife Action Plan was created in 2005 and revised in 2015 by more than 100 partners and stakeholders, from agencies and academic institutions to companies and private landowners.
The next revision is in the works. Conservation partners will again be critical to updating the plan and putting its recommendations into practice.
Ethan Hatchett is a communications assistant in DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section.
Top Photo: Flyr’s nemesis (Eleanor Dietrich/FNPS)