Partnering with Plants

By Harrelson, Dave | Endangered Species Bulletin, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Partnering with Plants


Harrelson, Dave, Endangered Species Bulletin


Once, clouds of a unique wildflower, the decurrent false aster (Boltonia decurrens), lined the banks of the Illinois River, but the construction of a system of locks and dams has nearly eliminated the plant's habitat. Loss of wetlands habitat also was a primary reason for the decline of the swamp pink (Helonias bullata), a plant endemic to freshwater wetlands along the eastern seaboard. In 1992, a single specimen of Delissea undulata was discovered in North Kona, Hawaii. Botanists were able to germinate seeds from this plant, which was thought to have been extinct since 1971, and today the species appears to have a chance for recovery. Elsewhere in Hawaii, at least 12 native plant species are represented by only a single known individual.

Faced with the expanding development of natural areas, competition from invasive non-native species, loss of pollinators, and over-collection for ornamental and other uses, many of our native plants face an uncertain future. Hawaii, California, Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico have the greatest number of rare, imperiled, and federally listed plant species. Some plants, such as the endangered Tennessee coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis), are known to contain substances that can be used to treat human illness. Two-thirds of the native plants of conservation concern are closely related to cultivated species.

As of March 31, 2001, 736 native plant species were listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. According to the Center for Plant Conservation (CPC), over 4,000 species of U.S. plants, roughly 25 percent of our country's entire known native plant species, are at some degree of risk. Of these, many hundreds could vanish in the next few decades.

Since its founding in 1984, the CPC has been working with the Fish and Wildlife Service to conserve and recover America's imperiled plant species. The CPC is one of very few national organizations in the U.S. dedicated solely to the conservation of our native plants. Based at the Missouri Botanical Garden, the CPC's network of 30 botanical gardens, arboreta, and related institutions collectively maintain the best-curated and most secure collection of rare native plants and plant materials anywhere in the world. The CPC also maintains information on thousands of rare and endangered native plants. The status of these species in the wild, and especially those held in conservation collections, is constantly tracked. The CPC then provides this information to scientists, conservationists, land-management agencies, and many others.

The many rare and federally protected plants for which the CPC cares are maintained as security against extinction and as a pool of genetic material for use in restoration, research, recovery, and education. The CPC's participating institutions are currently reintroducing several endangered and threatened plant species to secure habitats in the wild. Just as important, the CPC undertakes efforts to conserve rare plants in their natural habitats. With this in mind, the CPC has been recognized by the Service for its technical and leadership qualities in the controlled propagation of rare native plants for recovery purposes. In July 2000, the CPC and the Service signed a memorandum of understanding at the World Botanic Congress in Asheville, North Carolina, establishing a framework for cooperation in plant conservation.

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