Some of rarest plants are in New Jersey

One of the most difficult plants to find in the Garden State is a blackberry that only grows in Cape May County.
The New Jersey blackberry, aka the Tuckahoe dewberry, was discovered in 1935 and wasn’t seen again until botanist David Snyder went hunting for it in 2003 and found 13 stems on four plants.

“That is the worldwide population,” Snyder said. “It doesn’t get any rarer than that.”

The plight of this relatively obscure blackberry variety highlights a larger problem many scientists, naturalists and conservationists are dealing with to protect rare flowers, trees, shrubs and grass. About 15 percent of New Jersey’s plants, or 339 species, are endangered- second on the East Coast only to Florida, at 421 species – according to a 2006 report by the state Department of Environmental Protection and Rutgers University.

Among those plants, 11 percent of the populations have become locally extinct, and the status of about half of the populations is undetermined. Locally, there are 51 endangered plant species in Atlantic County, 80 in Cape May County and 33 in Cumberland County.
 
 The threats against rare flora are daunting. Invasive species such as Japanese honeysuckle are driving out native plants in forests and other habitats, said Marjorie Kaplan, a DEP research scientist. Large commercial and residential developments and new roadways continue to replace the land where endangered plants grow across the most densely populated state in the country.
The biological data on many endangered plants is limited, and the impact climate change may have on these species is still unknown.

“Some will do well, some at risk can’t handle pests, invasive (species), extreme weather, droughts or storms. … We really can’t say,” Kaplan said.

Another problem scientists and environmentalists encounter is a lack of public interest in plant protection.

Russell Juelg, director of outreach for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said people tend to focus on endangered animals because they are charismatic and easier to identify. Certain plants that are visually attractive can gain attention, such as the swamp pink, a “showy” federal- and state-protected flower with beautiful, bright pink blossoms, Juelg said. On the other hand, a plant like the Knieskern’s beaked-rush, a rare grass-like sedge that can be found in the Pinelands, would not stand out.

“I think the problem is indigenous people all over the world have a close, intimate relationship with the plants in their neighborhood, and they know the names of the plants and the uses of the plants,” Juelg said. “In our modern, industrial society, I think we distance ourselves from that kind of knowledge and appreciation.”

One solution to curtail future problems is devoting additional research and obtaining more properties for plant preservation and management, according to state officials and environmentalists. Currently, only 26 percent of these endangered species grow on state-protected land.

Robert Cartica, administrator for the DEP Office of Natural Lands Management, said the state Natural Heritage Program, a division with six workers including Snyder, does a good job of keeping track of endangered and rare plants. There are numerous land restoration projects going on across the state. Cartica said one extensive local project the DEP and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District, is working on to protect rare native plants is the ongoing removal of common reeds and other invasive vines from the Lower Cape May Meadows, which includes Cape May Point State Park and the Nature Conservancy’s Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge.

Another nearby restoration project focused on the American chaffseed, a federally protected herb that can only be found in one place north of Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas: Brendan T. Byrne State Forest in Burlington County. In 2006, the DEP collaborated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the New Jersey Nature Conservation Foundation and the Atlanta Botanical Garden to cultivate a colony in the Franklin Parker Preserve. Five plants survived the winter last year, Cartica said.

Native endangered plants also should be protected because of the environmental and possibly economic role they could play, said Hubert Ling, a board member with the Native Plant Society of New Jersey.

Ling, a former botanist at the University of Delaware, said plants contain a wealth of genetic material that could be valuable to biochemical companies. He noted that many pharmaceutical researchers experiment with plants for anti-bacteria, anti-viral and anti-cancer properties.

Ling also said there should be more propagation efforts across the state. He pointed out that some species wouldn’t be around if humans did not lend a helping hand. One famous example Ling provided is the ginkgo tree, which was saved from extinction by Buddhist monks in China.

“Most people don’t care. ‘Why worry about plants?’ They don’t know we’re all relative,” Ling said. “The plants support the animals, and we’re an animal. There could be some changes we don’t know about. There may be some adverse effects on people when we start neglecting plants, mostly algae and bacteria. (But) these plants might make a difference, too.”

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