A Future for Our Native and Endangered Plants and Their Habitats?

by Arabella Dane
Dec. 8, 2020

It is not only rising sea levels and the flooding of our coastlines that concerns us here in New England. How will native plants be affected by rising temperatures and changing precipitation? Can they and the critters that depend upon them in their current habitats survive? Can they migrate, adapt, and change?

What We Are Doing

Native Plant Trust1 is “on it,” identifying resilient sites to provide land trusts with a framework for protecting plant diversity, banking seeds of rare plants to ensure their survival, studying plant genetics, and more. Several of Native Plant Trust’s core initiatives are aimed at meeting goals in the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, which is part of the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity.

Native Plant News Cover, Fall 2020; Winter 2021

The most recent issue of the organization’s magazine, Native Plant News2, focuses on the result of a two-year collaboration with The Nature Conservancy’s Eastern science division. The report on conserving plant diversity under climate change scenarios, which will be published online:

  • analyzes the distribution of habitats and rare plants on the New England landscape;
  • uses two international targets to assess progress toward protecting plant diversity;
  • identifies how much of each kind of habitat needs protection—and where—to ensure plant diversity endures as the climate changes; and
  • includes interactive maps enabling users to see resilient sites and what needs protecting in the entire region, in individual states, and in specific parcels.

Land protection is one strategy for conserving habitats, and all the species that depend upon them. Efforts to protect corridors are particularly important for wildlife; one example is The Nature Conservancy’s “Connect the Coast” initiative in New Hampshire3.

Part of saving plant diversity is to focus on the region’s rare and endangered plants. For nearly 30 years, Native Plant Trust has monitored populations of imperiled plants in every county in New England each year. In recent years, it has ramped up its collection of seeds from the 389 globally and regionally rare species in New England.

Cypripedium reginae taken at Eshqua Bog Vt. Photo by Arabella Dane.

The goal of its Seed Ark program4 is collecting and banking seeds and the tissue from at least two-thirds of the 3,300 populations of these plants, to preserve the range of genetic diversity and to monitor each species’ ability to adapt to changing conditions. The Seed Ark is about halfway to its goal, with seeds of 92% of the 309 species that can be preserved and collected from about 47% of the populations. Collecting and preserving tissue from the 80 species (such as orchids) whose seeds cannot be dried and frozen is the next step.

To date, Native Plant Trust has raised about half the funding needed to fill the Seed Ark, with another $2.5 million needed to meet the goal. At this time, there is also a challenge match: a donor has pledged $500,000 to match gifts to endow the Seed Ark and support perpetual storage, viability testing, and recollecting seeds and tissue, if needed.

While banking seeds and tissue ensures the preservation of genetic diversity, conservationists want species thriving on the landscape. To that end, Native Plant Trust uses its seed bank to restore and stabilize rare plants in the wild and also collects seeds of common species for restoring degraded or threatened habitats. 

For example, Native Plant Trust is working with state and federal agencies to augment populations of Jesup’s milk-vetch (Astragalus robbinsii var. jesupii), a plant that exists nowhere else in the world but three sites along the Connecticut River in New Hampshire and Vermont that are scoured by ice flows every year.

Next year, Native Plant Trust will complete a five-year project with the National Park Service to restore the vegetation on the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, Maine. The project has involved collecting seeds from the mountain and experimenting with soil, propagation, and techniques for successfully replanting native flora in designated protected nooks and crannies off the tourist pathways. As mountaintop habitats are among the most threatened by climate change, the restoration also provides a baseline for studying impacts. Native Plant Trust is not alone in working with the Park Service in Acadia. Various conservation-minded groups, such as the members of the Garden Club of Mt. Desert, have been monitoring the status of the native plants in Acadia, removing invasive plants, and have sponsored the publication of the Plants of Acadia National Parks.

Summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, Maine. Photo by Arabella Dane.

After Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the East Coast, Native Plant Trust collaborated with the Bureau of Land Management’s “Seeds of Success” initiative,5 working in partnership with North Carolina Botanic Garden and Mid-Atlantic Regional Seed Bank to provide locally sourced, genetically appropriate plants for restoration projects from Maine to Virginia. This effort to restore all types of coastal habitat—from sub-tidal zones, dunes, and salt marshes to freshwater wetlands, forest rivers, and streams—provided seeds for 14 restoration projects in New England.6

Nick Ernst, a biologist who manages Sachuest Point and four other national wildlife refuges for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, showing the restoration of marsh grasses to Sachuest Point, RI. Photo credit Native Plant Trust.

What You Can Do

No matter where you live, you can help to mitigate the effects of climate change on the vulnerable habitats in your area. Following are a few suggestions from Native Plant Trust on how to become involved with the solutions to these problems.

Members of the North Shore Garden Club (member club of GCA and NGC) planting native plants for pollinators on town property in Manchester, MA. Photo courtesy Gina Beinecke.
  • Join the membership of a local group working to control invasive plants in your area.14
  • Become informed by taking classes, attending webinars, and following and reading about the issues. Participate in field studies,15 and monitor invasive plants in your neighborhood. Learn your pollinators and the beneficial insects that control your plant pests.
Great Golden Digger Wasp. Photo by Arabella Dane.
  • Volunteer with Native Plant Trust and other organizations in your area to protect those habitats where the most vulnerable native plants and their pollinators—and all the other native critters that depend upon them—are found.16
  • Share your knowledge, contacts, photographs, and voice.
  • Support programs such as Native Plant Trust’s Seed Ark to protect vulnerable habitats throughout New England. By working together, we may find solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change on these fascinating ecosystems.

1 http://www.nativeplanttrust.org/conservation/rare-and-endangered/
2 http://www.nativeplanttrust.org/about/our-magazine/
3 https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/new-hampshire/stories-in-new-hampshire/connecting-wildlife-habitat/
4 For information about the Seed Ark, visit http://www.nativeplanttrust.org/support/ and download the article “State of the Plants Technical Report” at https://www.nativeplanttrust.org/documents/136/state-of-the-plants-technical-report.pdf 
5 https://www.blm.gov/programs/natural-resources/native-plant-communities/native-seed-and-plant-material-development
6 Native Plant News, 2018, p. 10
7 Prairie Moon Nursery, Heather McCargo’s Wild Seed Project
 8 Xerces Society – Pollinator friendly plants
9 The members of the North Shore Garden Club of MA are working with the towns where their members live to plant pollinator friendly native plants in designated sites.
10 https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/the-senate-just-passed-a-historic-environmental-bill-heres-whats-in-it; https://www.nps.gov/subjects/legal/great-american-outdoors-act.htm
11 https://www.mass.gov/service-details/pesticide-regulations-in-massachusetts
12 https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2015/0907/Three-years-after-Superstorm-Sandy-replanting-project-focuses-on-restoring-coast
13 https://www.gcfm.org/invasives
14 Examples include Native Plant Trust; Garden Club of America, national, state and local garden clubs; horticultural groups and plant societies; Master Gardeners; and land trusts.
15 The courses offered by Native Plant Trust may help you understand the issues related to native plants in your area. Organizations offering online courses I frequent are Native Plant Trust, Coastal Maine Botanic, Ecological Landscape Alliance, Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Grow Native Massachusetts, and Xerces Society.
16 http://www.nativeplanttrust.org/what-can-you-do/

Author’s note: Arabella Dane, Native Plant Trust board member, would like to thank the staff of Native Plant Trust for their help with this article.