If he could have anything named after him, Harry LeGrand said, he would probably choose a flower.
But he was still caught by surprise when he found out earlier this week that he is the namesake of a rare flower species he discovered 26 years ago.
“If it’s going to be a plant (named after me), I’m glad it’s something people are going to be interested in, something attractive,” said LeGrand, a biologist in the N.C. Natural Heritage Program.
Alan Weakley, the UNC herbarium director and biology professor who named the plant, said he began extensive research on it 20 years ago.
Weakley, along with UNC biology graduate student Derick Poindexter, formally described the newly named Marshallia legrandii in a scientific journal published Monday.
LeGrand discovered the species in Granville County while studying related species. He noticed that the flower’s characteristics did not match with any classified species.
The new species is about twice as tall as its relatives and has a bigger flower and broader leaves, he said.
“So I was excited about what I found, but I wasn’t sure,” LeGrand said. “I wasn’t thinking new species at the time.”
Poindexter said Weakley’s choice to name the flower after LeGrand was appropriate.
“I agreed immediately because of Harry’s instrumental role,” he said. “I think his expertise is unparalleled.”
Weakley said a long amount of time between a species’ discovery and naming is not atypical. Naming formally recognizes the existence of a new species.
“When naming a new species, one wants to be careful and sure that it’s warranted,” Weakley said.
The discovery of a Virginia population of the species by another UNC professor helped convince Weakley that the Marshallia legrandii was indeed a new species.
Only two populations of the species — in North Carolina and Virginia — are known to exist naturally.
Misty Buchanan, the natural area inventory manager for the natural heritage program, said the species is classified as “significantly rare.”
The species has been planted in the N.C. Botanical Garden for conservation purposes.
Chris Liloia, a curator at the botanical gardens who is responsible for the area of the gardens where the species is growing, said conservation of the species is important to the entire region.
“One of the cool things in the piedmont of North Carolina is a rare plant community … that is dependent upon this particular geography,” she said.
Weakley said there’s a very good chance for the species’ continued existence, even if the natural populations were to die out.
“It could be reintroduced from seed that’s being maintained for that purpose,” he said.
Weakley said the two natural populations are protected because they exist on state-owned land.
He said UNC researchers have named 11 new plant species throughout the last 10 years, and 10 additional species are in the process of being described.
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