A colony of rare plants is being marked for preservation by Duke Energy.

A routine environmental survey along the Duke Power transmission lines between Eastpoint and Carrabelle has revealed something highly unusual.

Telephus spurge, Euphorbia telephiodes, isn’t much to look at but it is quite rare. This relative of familiar plants like poinsettia, crown of thorns, and pencil cactus, is found only in Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties within four miles of the Gulf of Mexico.

Biologists Annie Doyle and Lee Walton of Flatwoods Consulting Group, an environmental consulting firm employed by the energy giant, were surveying along transmission lines in Gulf and Franklin counties prior to pole replacement when they discovered a colony containing about 1,500 of the rare spurge plants.

Walton said Dr. Vivian Negrón-Ortiz, at the Panama City office of US Fish and Wildlife (USFW), was excited about the discovery.

 “It is an important find because telephus spurge habitat is usually in conflict with development, so management they will be providing is important,” she said.

Negrón-Ortiz, who is the recovery lead for 10 listed plant species in the Panhandle, has written extensively of telephus spurge. She said the plant is unusual in that it exhibits tremendous genetic variation, which may indicate it was once common in its current range. Surveys conducted between 1988 and 2007 indicate fewer than 20,000 remain.

Telephus spurge is protected under Florida law. It is illegal to dig, damage, transport or sell this perennial herb, which the USFW lists as a threatened species.

Telephus spurge is threatened due to development and wildfire suppression.

The plant thrives in disturbed areas like power line easements and in pine forest with an open canopy. Populations tend to appear after a wildfire or a disturbance like mowing, and dwindle as taller plants increase in number.

The newly discovered group of plants is located in an area of scrub adjacent to a wetland.

Walton and Doyle said this is not the only unknown colony of telephus spurge they have found during their power easement survey, but is by far the largest, and possibly the second largest known colony in existence.

Populations are also known to exist in Box R.

The spurge was first described by famed Apalachicola botanist Alvan Chapman in 1860. It has a male and female form and a large tuberous root that allows it to persist in times of drought. It can grow to be 12 inches tall. It has several stems and waxy foliage with cuplike reddish-green flowers that appear from April through August.

Negrón-Ortiz praised Duke Power for its cooperative attitude in managing the rare plant.

According to a five-year status review for telephus spurge prepared by Negron-Ortiz, the species has a high potential for recovery. But in a telephone interview, she said global climate change could negatively affect telephus spurge because of its limited range.

Wayne Richardson, environmental specialist for Duke Power, said the area would be marked with cardboard signs until metal signs can be installed. He said measures would be taken to protect the plants from routine mowing.

Negrón-Ortiz said the power easement is an ideal area for managing the rare plant since there is no tree canopy. Richardson said the colony would be monitored for two years after the new poles are installed.

Negrón-Ortiz said a new survey of known populations of telephus spurge is planned for next year.