The Curious Disjunct Range of the Miccosukee Gooseberry (Ribes echineiium)

The Miccosukee Gooseberry grows in just 2 counties hundreds of miles apart.  One population clings to the shoreline of Lake Miccosukee in northwest Florida, and it numbers about 5,000 individuals.  The other population lives in McCormick County, South Carolina near the eastern border of central Georgia 1.5 miles north of Clark Hill Lake.  In this county there are 2 separate populations: 1 group is in Sumter National Forest and the other is located in the Steven’s Creek Heritage Area.  The McCormick County population is estimated to number between 13,000-160,000 bushes.

Leaves, flowers, and twigs of the rare Miccosukee Gooseberry.  I couldn’t find a photo of a whole bush on the web.

I suspect the Miccosukee gooseberry had a wider, more continuous range during the Pleistocene and maybe as recently as the Colonial era.  I hypothesize its decline to relict status is probably tied to the extinctions of the mastodon and the passenger pigeon.  Several clues support my hypothesis.  Notice the remaining populations grow near water.  They grow near the shore of Miccosukee Lake in Florida, and on a steep north-facing slope along Steven’s Creek.  Mastodons were semi-aquatic, and passenger pigeon flocks roosted along water ways.  The surviving colonies are likely remnants of once larger colonies that thrived thanks to the bio-activities of mastodons and passenger pigeons.  Mastodons facilitated the growth of gooseberries by eating branches and leaves of overstory trees, thus allowing more sunlight to reach the low growing bushes which don’t exceed 3 feet in height.  Mastodons helped spread gooseberries by eating the bushes–the pruning caused the plants to spread vegetatively–and by spreading the fruit seeds in their dung.  Passenger pigeon flocks had the same effect.  When the incredibly enormous flocks of passenger pigeons roosted in one area, their dung would cover the ground, killing the trees through overfertilization, and opening the canopy to the benefit of plants such as gooseberry which became one of the first floral species to colonize a pigeon roosting area after the tree kill (pokeberry and ginseng are 2 other plants noted for growing in this type of environment).  Poultry manure also raises the ph level of the soil.  The Miccosukee gooseberry only grows on alkali “sinks.”  The pigeons were also known for berry consumption and were capable of spreading the seed far and wide due to their highly migratory habits (their scientific name is Ectopistes migratorius).

Miccosukee gooseberries have a low germination rate, probably contributing to their relict geographic range.  This species may have been more widespread during the Pleistocene when mastodons roamed the land.  Mastodons helped propagate this species in several ways.  Mastodons ate tree branches, thus allowing more light to reach the low growing gooseberries.  When mastodons ate the gooseberry bushes, it facilitated the growth of clonal colonies which spread via the root system.  The gooseberries may have had a higher germination rate after passing through a mastodon’s digestive tract.

Miccosukee Gooseberries may have also relied on passenger pigeons to spread their seed.  Passenger pigeons carrying gooseberry seed in their gut could spead the species far and wide.  It’s probably no coincidence that the last 2 populations of Miccosukee gooseberries are located in the kind of habitat where massive flocks of pigeons formerly roosted.  The manure from the massive flocks of roosting pigeons raised the ph level of the soil.  This type of gooseberry only grows on soils with a high ph.

Scientists attempting to ensure the survival of this species of gooseberry face some obstacles.  The Miccosukee gooseberry has a low germination rate.  This low germination rate supports my hypothesis that its decline coincides with the extinctions mentioned above.  It’s likely gooseberry seeds need to go through the digestive tract of a mastodon or pigeon to improve germination.  Efforts to transplant and propagate the Miccosukee gooseberry have been a complete failure.  This species has low genetic diversity, but there is a high degree of genetic divergence between the Florida and South Carolina populations, evidence they’ve been isolated from each other for quite some time.  The species wasn’t known to science until 1924, a generation after the extinction of the passenger pigeon.  There’s no telling what its range was during the 19th century.  The South Carolina colony wasn’t discovered until 1957.

The Steven’s Creek population grows under a canopy of oaks, hickories, and beech.  Gooseberries leaf out in November and lose their leaves in mid-summer, thereby taking advantage of the increased sunlight they experience when deciduous trees drop their leaves.  Bumblebees and blueberry bees pollinate the flowers.  One source claims the fruit is delectable but sour; another source says the fruit is of poor quality.  I suspect the latter source is closer to the truth, but I don’t know because I’ve never eaten this variety.

Unlike the Miccosukee gooseberry, the eastern prickly gooseberry is more widespread ranging from the midwest to the southern Appalachians.  Reportedly, they are fairly common on Grassy Mountain in the Cohutta Wilderness Area of north Georgia where they grow on boulderfields in the understory of a birch-maple forest.

The eastern prickly gooseberry (Ribes cynosbati) is common throughout the midwest and as far south as the southern Appalachians.  Reportedly, they are a frequent component of an interesting forest growing on Grassy Mountain within the remote Cohutta Wilderness Area of the Chattahoochee National Forest.  According to Jennifer Moore who wrote her college thesis about the forest on this mountain, the prickly gooseberry grows among the boulderfields on Grassy Mountain.  The name is a misnomer–it hasn’t been grassy for over 100 years since pastoralists abandoned the land, and trees began growing in the absence of livestock grazing and fire.  The boulders are the result of severe Pleistocene freeze and thaw cycles that broke up the rocky mountain surface.  A forest of mountain maple, yellow birch, tulip tree, basswood, and buckeye dominates over a shrub layer consisting of smooth hydrangea, strawberry bush, raspberry, prickly gooseberry, and marginal wood fern.  Windthrows are common here, aiding the growth of the shrubby zone.  Much of the mountain is inaccessible to non-hikers, making it a real destination for people seeking solitude with nature.  Better bring pepper spray–I bet there are lots of bears here.

I’ve never eaten a fresh gooseberry.  They aren’t cultivated in Georgia as far as I know.  I tried growing some a long time ago but the plants croaked in the merciless heat.  The canned ones taste like sweetened okra.  Even canned gooseberries are rare in Augusta–none of the local grocery stores currently carry them.

Here’s a related article on Pleistocene Passenger Pigeon Populations. https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2010/08/27/pleistocene-passenger-pigeon-populations/

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6 Responses to “The Curious Disjunct Range of the Miccosukee Gooseberry (Ribes echineiium)”

  1. James Robert Smith Says:

    When I was a teenager I didn’t live that far from Grassy Mountain. It has a very easy trail leading to the summit from Lake Conasauga (the highest lake in Georgia). There is (or was when I was a kid) a fire tower on the summit. I used to climb it to get a look at the scar on the land to the north called Copper Hill TN, formed by the mining and smelting of copper ore which killed off all of the vegetation for something like 50 square miles. I would look north and see this hideous reddish-brown smear on the land. From what I’ve read, it’s pretty much healed over now since the smelting ceased and there is no longer sulfuric acid components to the air around Copper Hill.

    I think Grassy lies outside the Cohutta Wilderness boundary, but it’s still a fairly wild and isolated place. We used to be able to gather ramps there in the spring. In fact, I think ramps grew more profusely on the high slopes of Grassy than anywhere else I’ve ever seen.

    I was planning on being on Grassy in a few weeks, but our plans have changed, so I probably won’t be heading over there. But if I do, I’ll look for the prickly gooseberry.

    When the Passenger pigeon went extinct, the people who had lived with the gigantic flocks couldn’t believe that they were, in fact, gone forever. A common thought from Americans who found it hard to grasp that they were extinct was that they had all “flown to Australia”. People could not handle the idea that they were really gone and so figured the sky-darkening flocks had merely moved on to (in their eyes) a bigger place.

    I recently read a study that poses the invasive starling may have had a huge hand in killing off the Passenger pigeon. They just out-competed them for food and space. But others say that it was the constant depredation on the animal by humans that caused their populations to collapse. One zoologist claimed that they had evolved to “need to be in the millions” and that when the numbers dipped too low the surviving pigeons became so stressed from not hearing their fellow pigeons that they became vulnerable to disease. Basically, it was said, they just became extinct from what would be called clinical depression if we were talking about humans.

  2. markgelbart Says:

    People thought the pigeons flew to Australia? How laughable.

    It’s pretty obvious overhunting exterminated the pigeons. This species needed to live in large colonies. Their survival strategy was predator satiation, that is there were so many of them in one place that predators couldn’t eat them all. They were incapable of surviving in low numbers.

    Grassy mountain is on my list of places to visit. Sounds beautiful.

  3. James Robert Smith Says:

    You’d like Grassy. Camp at the campground at Lake Conasauga. Walk the trail around the lake (Songbird Trail I seem to recall) and then hit the Grassy Mountain Tower Trail to the summit. If the tower is still there and still open, you can climb to the top for some spectacular views.

    Yeah, the average person who had experienced the Passenger pigeon flocks that could black out the sun refused to believe that they’d help kill off the pigeon, and had decided that they’d all migrated to Australia. It was a common and popular idea.

    Hog drovers would go into the pigeon rookeries when the fledglings would hop down to the ground and run their pigs through the trees. The pigs would siphon up every single young pigeon. If any failed to fall out of the trees, the drovers would climb up and shake the limbs until they fell out to be consumed by the pigs.

    Sometimes I almost wish I was around to experience the extinction of the human race.

  4. markgelbart Says:

    Thanks for the suggestion. I’m already planning a trip to Land between the Lakes this summer, but if I have time for an overnight trip, Grassy Mountain is only about a 5 hour drive from my house.

  5. da Says:

    Been thinking on the plight of this gooseberry for a while now. Here is something to think on, because if anyone knows the people to brainstorm ideas to do something, it might be you.
    There was a mistaken belief that the tambalacoque tree on the isle of Mauritius depended on Dodo’s to germinate; So Turkeys were tried and it seemed to work – though the guy trying it did not see if they germinated without the Turkey (cough). (See
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sideroxylon_grandiflorum)
    Funny thing, the article ends with the fact that Turkeys and abrasion are both being used to germinate the tree to more quikcly restore it to greater numbers..
    Has anyone tried any of the other pigeons, including the invasive ones? Or birds with similar feeding habits to the passenger pigeon, such as we can ascertain? What of Elephants? Or are their any other creatures with similar guts? (hopefully the gooseberry is *not* posionous to them.)
    In other researches I found that gardeners home abrade seeds through various means. Would have to assume (?) its been tried.

    The trick is, what would alkanize the soil to the degree needed? Or is this a problem? Given to a species that might disperse it, one hopes that this would sometimes occur around the right places.

    • markgelbart Says:

      I’ve heard about that symbiotic relationship between the dodo and that tree.

      There’s probably not much economic incentive to increase the population of Miccosukkee Gooseberries.

      I doubt city pigeons would stay in the type of environment gooseberries prefer.

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