UGA gets grant to help preserve endangered plants

Funding for State Botanical Garden

The State Botanical Garden of Georgia is among four conservation organizations in Georgia to receive federal funding to save 14 imperiled plant species.

The nearly $780,000 grant, awarded to a partnership led by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, will boost capacity to preserve the plants at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, the Atlanta Botanical Garden and the Chattahoochee Nature Center, while spreading that expertise and support to others in the nationally recognized Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance.

Plants often play second fiddle to efforts to recover rare animal species. But Georgia’s five-year project landed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Challenge grant on the strength of its plan to safeguard the 14 plant species and add Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance members who can do the work.

Jenny Cruse-Sanders, director of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, said conservation horticulture is the cornerstone of the alliance, a network of more than 50 Georgia universities, botanical gardens, zoos, state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, and private companies that are committed to ecological land management, native plant conservation, and protection of rare and endangered plants. Headquartered at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, members of the alliance work throughout the state to facilitate the recovery of rare, threatened, and endangered plants of Georgia and the southeast U.S.

“It takes careful observation of natural habitats, experimentation and horticultural expertise to safeguard imperiled plants,” Cruse-Sanders said. “Georgia is a leader in identifying critical habitat, imperiled species and the conservation action needed to preserve our precious natural heritage in the southeastern U.S., one of the most botanically diverse areas of our country.”

Safeguarding refers to a complex practice that varies from protecting a species’ genetic stock to propagating the plants in a nursery and planting them back in the wild. Combined with protecting and restoring habitats, safeguarding is crucial to saving populations of at-risk plants.

DNR senior botanist Lisa Kruse says the impact of the grant will be “expansive.” And that’s not only for the targeted plants, which vary from swamp pink to hairy rattleweed and are all federally listed as endangered or threatened.

“The grant is going to fortify (the Georgia alliance’s) main partners and build the diversity and number of botanical gardens that can help preserve rare plants,” Kruse said.

Georgia has 443 plant taxa – or group of related plants – rated critically imperiled in the state; 83 of those are imperiled globally. Plants purify air and water, provide raw materials and stunning beauty, shape cultures and economies, prevent erosion and play vital roles in our heritage. Kruse noted, too, that conserving plants involves restoring natural habitats, which improves the outlook for animals “up and down the food chain.”

The 14 targeted plant species are: the Alabama leatherflower (Clematis socialis); black-spored quillwort (Isoetes melanospora); Canby’s dropwort (Oxypolis canbyi); Coosa (or Mohr’s) Barbara’s buttons (Marshallia mohrii); dwarf sumac (Rhus michauxii); fringed campion (Silene polypetala); hairy rattleweed (Baptisia arachnifera); mat-forming quillwort (Isoetes tegetiformans); Morefield’s leatherflower (Clematis morefieldii); pondberry (Lindera melissifolia); smooth purple coneflower (Echinacea laevigata); swamp pink (Helonias bullata); Tennessee yellow-eyed grass (Xyris tennesseensis); and Virginia spiraea (Spirea virginiana).

Here is an example, using hairy rattleweed, of how the grant program will work:

Hairy rattleweed is pine flatwoods perennial that sports cobweb-like hairs and seed pods that rustle when dry; thus, the name. The species is federally listed as endangered and found worldwide only in southeast Georgia’s Wayne and Brantley counties. Too few of the plant’s 15 known populations are protected.

To guarantee hairy rattleweed survives, DNR ecologist Jacob Thompson and the State Botanical Garden of Georgia will collect seeds and leaf tissue from each population to capture the genetic details. The process involves strict protocols to ensure plant populations are not harmed.

The State Botanical Garden will grow plants from the seed. The homegrown plants and seeds will be shared with other Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance gardens. Over the five-year grant, the hope is to have all 15 populations represented at multiple gardens, some of which may be new alliance members.

The Atlanta Botanical Garden will use the leaf tissue to analyze the DNA and document each population’s genetic diversity – which can help determine hairy rattleweed’s available resources for adapting. The plan is to collect and analyze three populations a year, covering all 15 over the grant period.

Thompson and partners will take some of the plants grown in-house and plant them in appropriate habitat on protected lands. As part of the grant, partners are aiming to start two populations in the wild.

The goal, Kruse said, is “to not only have populations protected at the gardens, but to bring the plant back in the wild and have it thrive.”

“Hairy rattleweed is a really unique part of Georgia’s heritage, and it represents a very unique ecosystem,” she added. “This project will help us ensure that it stays in Georgia’s landscape.”

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