To survey and protect a rare sunflower in the Carolinas To survey and protect a rare sunflower in the Carolinas

To survey and protect a rare sunflower in the Carolinas

Follow this Duke Energy environmental team as they look for the endangered Schweinitz’s sunflower


Take a minute to think about ways you protect the environment. You may recycle, monitor your energy use or cultivate a pollinator garden to help save the bees.

Duke Energy environmental scientists prioritize the environment every day through preservation, enhancement and restoration programs like the annual Schweinitz’s sunflower survey.

Duke Energy Environmental Health & Safety researchers Wilson Ricks and Eryn Molloy on the hunt for Schweinitz’s sunflowers.

This small but mighty flower is a federally listed endangered species, as well as a North Carolina and South Carolina endangered species. These flowers, which usually bloom in fall, often grow in utility and highway rights of way, including an area along the Catawba-Wateree River managed by Duke Energy. To protect the species, the location is kept confidential.

In the most recent survey, Duke Energy Environmental Health & Safety researchers Wilson Ricks, Eryn Molloy and Mark Auten identified and documented each vegetation plot by transecting multiple subplots to count how many flowers were growing.

Auten said they may find Schweinitz’s sunflower growing among competing plants like mimosa, autumn olive or Chinese privet. This flower can be identified by the leaves that feel like a cat’s tongue or sandpaper as well as their yellow buds. Deer also find them to be a delicious snack.

Duke Energy’s protection and maintenance of suitable habitat for the Schweinitz’s sunflower (Helianthus schweinitzii) has been in place since 2015 when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission renewed the company’s license for the Catawba-Wateree Hydroelectric Project, which sets out how the company will manage 225 miles of river from North Carolina to South Carolina.

Wilson Ricks inspects a Schweinitz’s sunflower.

“The results of this survey will be used to protect the habitat,” Molloy said. “Our goal is to allow these flowers a chance to not just survive, but to thrive.”

Duke Energy isn’t the only group interested in the survival of these flowers.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Natural Heritage Program (NCNHP), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) help in making recommendations for habitat management that will better protect the Schweinitz’s sunflower.

“We see many protected plant species, like the Schweinitz’s sunflower, on Duke Energy transmission and distribution right of ways,” Ricks said. “This allows us the opportunity to preserve and enhance these areas to be beneficial ecosystems for years to come.”

The Schweinitz’s sunflower plant can grow 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide. It is listed as an endangered species and is found in the Piedmont of North Carolina and South Carolina.

Each year, the health and status of the population of the sunflowers is documented.

The Duke Energy survey showed an increase in 2020 and 2021 but a drop in 2022. If the team determines that the population is in decline, additional consultation with the USFWS and the NCNHP will take place to determine the cause of the decline and what steps can be taken to reverse the trend.

“The Schweinitz’s sunflower is one of the most beautiful flowers I have ever encountered, and its prestige has brought people together to ensure the species is protected,” Ricks said. “Duke Energy has strong partnerships with state and federal agencies, botanical gardens, land trusts, universities, nongovernmental organizations, and citizen scientists with the same goal in mind: protect these stunning sunflowers for future generations to admire.”

You, too, can do your part by monitoring your surroundings and reporting if you find this small flower on your personal property. 

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