Efforts are underway not just to protect rare plants in natural
settings, but also to preserve the genetic record of these plants.
A small wooden building behind NEWFS headquarters in
Framingham, Massachusetts, houses a chest freezer containing
cardboard boxes organized by year that contain foil packets neatly
labelled with plant species’ names and locations. This is a seed
bank containing seeds from 200 species of rare plants in New
England, drawn from more than 500 different populations. By
collecting seeds from several populations, the goal is to “capture
the genetic diversity of each species,” explained Brumback.
NEWFS’s plan is to store seeds from 300 globally or regionally
rare species in this fireproof, insulated building, both for use in
restoration efforts and as a hedge against extinction.
The seeds are collected, counted, and cleaned by volunteers
and staff. Next, they are placed in a specialized drying room
at the Society’s Nasami Farm facility to “try to slow down
metabolism – they’re living things,” said Brumback. Once dried
to 15- to 20-percent moisture content, the seeds are placed in
heat-sealed foil packets and then frozen. The freezer is maintained at a temperature of zero degrees Fahrenheit. Most New
England plant species have seeds that can withstand the drying
and freezing needed for long-term storage, and the seeds will
last for 50 to 100 years. (NEWFS has germinated seeds that are
over 20 years old.) Brumback plans to broaden the seed bank to
include common species so that local genotypes are available for
Seeds of New England’s rare and common species have
also been sent to the Millenium Seed Bank at Kew Gardens,
England, which aims to save 25 percent of the world’s bankable
seeds by 2020.
Why Save Them?
Why go to this trouble to save all of New England’s plants, some
inconspicuous and not serving any apparent purpose? “One
reason we focus on plants is that we end up conserving entire
ecosystems, including things we can’t see, such as underground
fungi, which are really important to forests,” said Aaron Marcus.
“Plants act as canaries in the coal mine. Their decline can
indicate other changes in the landscape, such as the loss of
pollinators. Ecosystems are complex. We don’t always know
what we’re losing when we lose these species.” He recalled the
famous Aldo Leopold quote: “To keep every cog and wheel
is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Marcus said,
“Biodiversity is going to be important in the resilience of our
ecosystems to climate change and to human survival.”
Bob Popp adds that rare species are part of our states’ natural
heritage. Most of the rare plants in Vermont are not globally
rare, he said, but it is important to conserve them in the
state because species at the edge of their range are often more
genetically diverse. “That’s where evolution occurs. They may
evolve into different species over thousands of years.” This
will be important as plant species need to shift ranges and
evolve in response to climate change.
“I think these species have as much right to live here as we
do,” declared Bill Brumback.
Back outside Burlington, Carla Fenner continued along the
railroad tracks, searching for additional rare plants. Suddenly,
a tall, spindly plant with drooping, cream-colored flowers and
protruding yellow stamens caught her eye. After checking her
book to make sure, Fenner confirmed it was three-leaved rattlesnake-root (Nabalus trifoliolatus), a member of the Asteraceae
family and another uncommon sandplain denizen, ranked S3 in
Vermont. Before today it was not known from this location. Her
face lit up – what a find!
Susan Shea is a naturalist, conservationist, and freelance writer who lives in
New England are often found
together in “hot spots” (darker
colors) that correspond to
areas with rare bedrock types.