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Survival of Plants Takes Root

Botanic institutions nationwide seek to restore more than 600 rare species, some of which offer the promise of medicines.

May 25, 2003|Cheryl Wittenauer | Associated Press Writer

ST. LOUIS — Kimberlie McCue has nearly two dozen precious charges that require plenty of patience and attention.

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

After all, these species flower and sweeten the air, halt floods, cleanse the environment, balance the ecology 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. Man came perilously close to losing the species whose chemicals fight childhood leukemia and Hodgkin's disease.

Native American plants by the hundreds are close to extinction because of a decades-long process 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, with colleagues from 31 other botanic institutions in the United States, are trying to restore more than 600 rare native American plants that probably would limp into extinction without help from humans.

The institutions, in places ranging from Hawaii to New England, make up a network known as the Center for Plant Conservation, which has identified the plants as its "National Collection" of imperiled species.

The center, founded in 1984, originally had offices at Harvard's Arnold Arboretum. It relocated in 1991 to St. Louis at the invitation of Missouri Botanical Garden Director Peter Raven, a leading botanist and advocate of conservation and biodiversity.

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

Many plants are on the federal endangered species list, but not all. Kathryn Kennedy, the center's executive director, said the center wants to restore imperiled plant species even before they wind up on the list.

One of McCue's species is the genetically 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 said. Potentially, stored seeds grown in a greenhouse can be used to restore a lost population.

Two major restoration projects that McCue has been tackling for years appear headed for success, but she remains cautious, saying restoration is a long-term proposition.

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

McCue's other restoration project involves a rare plant long believed 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 of land within 20 miles of where it was discovered growing wild on private land. Working from gathered plant material, McCue reproduced the plant, which takes its name from the early Virginians who ground its yellow flowers to use as snuff.

The Center for Plant Conservation is hailing the success of Robbins' cinquefoil, removed from the federal endangered species list last summer. The tiny plant thrives in the extreme conditions of New Hampshire's Mt. Washington but couldn't handle the trampling of hikers. The New England Wildflower Society restored populations of the plants in its greenhouse. Then it arranged for a popular hiking path to skirt the cinquefoils.

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