Saturday, May 10, 2003

Native plants put down roots worth saving

Conservationists protect species for future generations, medical uses

By Cheryl Wittenauer
The Associated Press

[IMAGE] Biologist Kimberlie McCue checks specimens of the endangered Pyne's ground-plum at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.
(Associated Press photo)
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ST. LOUIS - Kimberlie McCue is not a parent in the traditional sense, but she has nearly two dozen precious charges that require plenty of attention.

McCue, a biologist at Missouri Botanical Garden, is trying to conserve 22 species of native Midwestern plants and lift them from the brink of extinction for future generations' benefit.

After all, these species flower and sweeten the air, halt floods, cleanse the environment, balance the ecosystem and offer the promise of medicine, she said.

Skeptics need only look to the rosy periwinkle and its striking, tiny pink flowers, which deforestation nearly wiped out in its native Madagascar. Humankind came perilously close to losing the species whose chemicals fight childhood leukemia and Hodgkin's disease.

More than 600 to rescue

Native American plants by the hundreds are close to extinction because of suburban sprawl, loss or alteration of habitat, and a wave of invasive species.

"People ask me, 'Don't you get depressed?' with the doom and gloom of loss of species," McCue said. "I tell them, 'No, I get feisty.' "

McCue, together with colleagues from 31 other botanic institutions in the United States, are trying to restore more than 600 rare native American plants.

Those 32 institutions, from Hawaii to New England, make up a network known as the Center for Plant Conservation, which has identified the 600-plus plants as its National Collection of imperiled species. They are what Kathryn Kennedy, the center's executive director, refers to as "treasures and jewels" best kept in the wild.

Responsibility for plants on the National Collection is spread among the 32 participating institutions. McCue's 22 species fall into her seven-state Midwest region.

Many of the plants are on the federal endangered species list.

One of McCue's species is the genetically unique and delicate Tiny Tim, whose roots, stem and flower are less than an inch long, and which grows in rapidly diminishing sandstone glades of Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana.

"I love this plant. It's so unique," McCue said. "It grows in an inhospitable place . . . but it's evolved a strategy that's allowed it to survive."

A Missouri highway expansion destroyed a glade, but not before the plant's seed was collected, dried and refrigerated in an airtight foil bag at a Missouri Botanical Garden seed bank. The strategy is insurance against losses in the wild, McCue explained. Potentially, stored seeds grown in a greenhouse can be used to restore a lost population.

Possible success stories

Two major restoration projects McCue has been tackling for years appear headed for success.

In one case, the rare and endangered Pyne's ground-plum, endemic to Tennessee, is being re-established in that state's Stones River National Battlefield as well as on private land acquired by the Tennessee Nature Conservancy. Loss of habitat shrank the plant to just three spots in the wild.

University interns working for McCue at Missouri Botanical Garden tried various soil types and water and planting regimens until they settled on fall planting in a porous medium that replicated the rocky shallow soil of the plant's native glade.

McCue's other restoration project involves a rare plant long thought to grow only in Virginia. It was found in a sinkhole near Pomona in the Missouri Ozarks.

The Missouri Department of Conservation will try to establish Virginia sneezeweed on two plots within 20 miles of where it was discovered growing wild on private land.

The plant, which takes its name from the early Virginians who ground its yellow flowers to use as snuff, has some anticancer properties.

Outside the Midwest, the Center for Plant Conservation is hailing the success of Robbins' cinquefoil, which was removed from the federal endangered species list last summer. The tiny, hardy plant thrives in the extreme conditions of New Hampshire's Mount Washington but couldn't handle the constant trampling of hikers.

The New England Wildflower Society restored populations of the plants with material grown in its greenhouse. It then arranged for a popular hiking path to skirt the cinquefoils.

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