The Domain is host to a rich diversity of habitats and species. On the unique habitat of some of our sandstone outcrops, Diamorpha smallii flourishes in harsh environmental extremes of temperature and moisture. Elf Orpine, also know as Small’s Stonecrop, has been listed as endangered by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation because of it’s rarity, narrow habitat requirements, and vulnerability to extirpation from the state.
Despite it’s endangered status, Elf Orpine is remarkably tolerant to a range of environmental extremes that prevent other species from surviving. D. smallii can survive frost, submersion, high temperatures, and extremely dry conditions. Emerging in winter, the small green leaves start to turn red in February and March. Elf orpine flowers in late March into April, requiring ant, bee, or other small flying insect pollination in order to produce the seeds that will then emerge next winter. The condensed life cycle of this small flowering plant allows it to avoid the harsh temperatures and droughts of summer and the freezing temperatures of winter. Elf Orpine cannot self pollinate, and will not produce seeds without the pollinating activity of ants or other small insects. D. smallii entices ants and other small insects to pollinate with a small amount of nectar at the base of the small white flowers.
I highly recommend all nature enthusiasts to hike out towards Piney Point on a sunny April afternoon, and to turn north off trail about a quarter mile before the overlook at Piney point. Look for clusters of Virginia Pine encircling openings in the forest where the Warren point Sandstone is exposed. Amidst patches of mosses and lichens D. smallii grows in unmistakable dense patches of white flowers on delicate red stems and round succulent leaves. But tread lightly as you explore these other-worldly ecosystems, because however resilient these plants may be to environmental stresses, while in their flowering stage they are no match for the trampling capacity of our hard-soled boots.
Diamorpha smallii is a biodiversity gem on our rich domain, and we should not only appreciate its beauty, but we should study its biology in the interest of conservation. Broadening our understanding of Elf Orpine and other rare species is critical to maintaining the Domain’s status as a host to such incredible biodiversity. Grab a magnifying glass, tread lightly, and be amazed.