Where Do the Wild Things Grow?
If the past few springs are any indication, native plants will get a lot of attention in 2022. Most garden centers will carry more than a few plants labeled “native.” But just as we know that storks don’t deliver babies, we know that native plants didn’t begin their journeys on earth in black plastic pots.
Unfortunately, most native plants in the horticulture trade lack the genetic diversity of wild plants. Genetic diversity contributes resilience against environmental extremes, pests, and diseases. Commercial plants may also lack regional adaptations, which are sometimes critical to insects and other wildlife (see bit.ly/CT-endangered).
These are just some of the reasons that wild native plant populations matter.
Enter the Native Plant Trust, an organization known as the New England Wildflower Society until a few years ago. The trust was founded in 1900 with a mission of conserving New England’s native plants. It was the first organization of its kind in the U.S.
A Citizen-Science Program is Born
By 1990, the Framingham, Massachusetts organization's leaders became alarmed at the number of plants that seemed to be disappearing from places where historical records showed they'd once been present. Recognizing there were too few professional plant scientists tracking and updating the status of these plants, the trust convened its first class of 15 citizen-science plant hunters in 1993.
"Volunteers went in search of 45 rare plant populations that year," says Micah Jasny, Botanical Coordinator and manager of the Plant Conservation Volunteer (PCV) program at Native Plant Trust. "A few of the searches were based on plant records as much as 100 years old...A lot had changed. But they found 35 species out of 45."
By 2000, the PCV program had established a corps of PCVs in all six New England states. Today, there are upwards of 200 PCVs in Connecticut alone. The information they gather is destined for the Natural Diversity Database (see bit.ly/Natural-Diversity).
The PCV program recruits new surveyors each fall by contacting conservation groups, nature centers, garden clubs, colleges, and universities. The program also offers several internships.
"We cast a wide net to find anyone who's interested in native plant conservation," says Jasny. "The volunteers usually have some plant knowledge, but they certainly don't need degrees in plant science to participate."
The ideal new applicant, says Jasny, needs a commitment to native plant conservation.
“Good observation skills, a sense of adventure, and their own transportation help as well,” he adds.
Volunteers attend spring training sessions, where they learn how to use the program’s plant-finding protocols. They learn how to track plants and report their findings and how to adhere to the program’s meticulous permission system for conducting searches on private as well as public land. Training also covers the sensitive topic of secrecy.
“Since we are working with rare plants and fragile environments, we need to protect the locations,” says Jasny. “We’ve seen two or three incidents where wild plants may have been poached.”
But plant theft is not the biggest problem.
“The bigger problem is that once the location is known, it becomes popular. Lots of people want to see the plants, and visitation is likely to degrade the habitat,” he says, adding, “I have photos of bike tracks going through a rare plant population.”
As a result, volunteers commit in writing to keeping locations private. Only trained volunteers participate in the excursions.
‘More Like a Scavenger Hunt’
I corresponded with several PCVs, each of whom referenced the element of adventure in their plant hunting.
Caroline Driscoll of New London says the plant-hunting process is “more like a scavenger hunt than a walk in the woods.”
She joined the PCVs in 2019 and participated in three surveys in her first year.
“It is quite an intense endeavor,” Driscoll says. “Plant-finding has a rigorous protocol and its own vocabulary.”
Like other PCVs, Driscoll is active in various outdoor organizations, including the New London Beautification Committee, the Master Naturalist Program, and the Connecticut College Arboretum.
She mentions that while rare plants are most often in out-of-the-way places, “I was surprised to learn the number of rare plants the volunteers find in power line right-of-ways and along roadsides.”
Stonington resident Lydia Pan joined the PCVs in March 2020.
“The scouting trips involve a lot of learning by doing,” she says.
Pan is no stranger to conservation work. She is president of the Connecticut chapter of Wild Ones, a volunteer at Coogan Farm in Mystic, and a docent at the Connecticut College Arboretum. Yet, her PCV excursions are full of learning.
“For me, I’ve been glad to be mentored by more experienced surveyors who are also better botanists,” she says. “It’s been valuable for honing my field skills.”
She also mentions that plant hunting has helped build her mapping, compass, and GPS skills.
Vince Long of Chester joined the effort in 2019. He has a career in environmental science, which gives him a unique insight into the plight of wild native plants.
“Loss of biodiversity concerns me,” he says. “I joined the PCVs because I wanted to get out in the field and see where wild plant populations reside. I want to see issues facing their habitats and be in a position to make recommendations.”
Long agrees that scouting trips can be adventures.
“On my first outing, we were given notes from past surveys that described site features. Those features should have been visible, but when we arrived, everything had been reworked,” he says. “We had to wade through the Eight-Mile River. Then, I got a ride on a tractor.”
“Past surveyors had recorded the plant’s location, but when we followed the instructions, we found a cliff between ourselves and the location,” he says.
Eventually, they figured out that the earlier surveyors had used binoculars to verify the plant.
John Markelon of Litchfield became a PCV in 2019. He, too, notes that the program takes volunteers on some unique woodland adventures.
“Most plant species of concern are in challenging landscapes, like rocky ledges, wetlands, remote woods,” he says. “Once, I needed a canoe to locate my species of concern on the edge of an open-water habitat.”
All the volunteers agreed that scouting trips usually require four to six hours, plus the drive. According to Caroline Driscoll, plants sometimes “migrate” from their recorded locations into nearby places, which adds some challenge.
Sometimes plants are found on the first visit, but others after two or three scouting visits. Sometimes, none are found.
“Most volunteers accept one to five projects per year,” says Jasny. “But a few do 20 to 40 surveys each year. Sometimes they discover new plant populations.”
After volunteers accept assignments, Jasny’s office obtains written permission from landowners for the volunteers’ intended dates. At the right time of year, Jasny’s team sometimes asks volunteers to collect a small amount of seed for Native Plant Trust’s seed bank. If invasive plants appear to be infringing, volunteers sometimes remove the invasive species.
After plant data is submitted and vetted, Jasny’s office uploads the reports to each state’s natural heritage program. In Connecticut, the information is part of the Natural Diversity Database.
Driscoll says, “I’m someone who will take any excuse to be outdoors. By searching for rare wild plants, I get to do something fun for me at the same time as I contribute information to a critical process.”
To learn more about wild native plant conservation, see bit.ly/Plant-Volunteers. Reach Micah Jasny at email@example.com.
Kathy Connolly writes and speaks on landscape design, horticulture, and landscape ecology from Old Saybrook. Kathy@SpeakingofLandscapes.com.