August 19, 2019

New England plants in danger> Study finds 20 percent of region’s native flora at risk of disappearing

Nearly 20 percent of New England’s native plants — including such wildflowers as Robbins’ cinquefoil, found atop the White Mountains and nowhere else on Earth — are at risk of disappearing, according to an exhaustive new survey.

The list of 576 threatened plants comes from a four-year study by the New England Plant Conservation Program and scores of botanists throughout the region. The study, the first to thoroughly document the state of the area’s native flora, will serve as a critical baseline for monitoring the health of regional plant life.

“There’s no doubt in my mind, we’re seeing a loss of certain species” largely as a result of human activity, said William E. Brumback, administrator for the program, a collaboration of botanists, government agencies and private conservation groups.

“It seems to me we have an obligation to save for the next generation as much natural diversity and wonderment as we found in ours,” said Brumback, who also is conservation director for the New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, Mass.

The list of rare plants, published in the current issue of Rhodora, the journal of the New England Botanical Club, represents nearly 20 percent of the approximately 3,000 plants native to New England.

Some are found only or mainly in the six-state region and thus are considered globally rare. Others, while found elsewhere, are considered regionally or locally rare. Still others on the list are considered “historic,” meaning they haven’t been seen in at least 26 years, or “indeterminate,” requiring further field investigation.

Among the 57 globally rare species in New England are Robbins’ cinquefoil and Plymouth gentian, found along the shores of the kettle ponds of Cape Cod, Plymouth and a few other places. Massachusetts, in fact, has the world’s largest number of occurrences of Plymouth gentian.

But activities such as hiking, mountain biking and groundwater consumption have threatened the plants, although some conservation efforts have been taken.

“It’s an important issue to keep a heads-up about, as we do land management planning at town and state levels, so we don’t lose these resources,” said Paul Somers, botanist with the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, and one of the many volunteers doing field work for the list.

While previous catalogs of New England plants have been based on an individual state’s natural heritage program or on museum specimens dating from as far back as the 1800s, the new list is the first to compare the flora in the six states and include only recently spotted plants, those seen in 1970 and later.

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