Have you ever seen a Pickering’s morning glory, an American chaffseed flower or a three birds orchid?

If you have, you’re probably an experienced botanist! They’re among New Jersey’s rarest native plants.  But unless action is taken to protect these rare plants and others, you may never get to see them. Without protection, they could disappear entirely!

For centuries, plants have gotten the short end of the conservation stick.

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Wildlife and forestry agencies were established around 1900 to manage timber and game. Protecting endangered animals became a popular cause around 1970, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that a Natural Heritage Program within the state Department of Environmental Protection was created for New Jersey’s rare plants.

Unfortunately, the Natural Heritage Program has never had the resources to implement most of its rare plant protection strategies.

Our state’s Endangered Plant Species List Act of 1989 only requires a list of our endangered plants, as well as those considered “species of special concern.”  There’s no real statewide protection for these rare plants.

You may be surprised to learn how many rare plants occupy this state we’re in. Although New Jersey is the nation’s most densely populated state, it is also home to nearly 2,200 native plants. Of those, more than a third - 882 plant species – are considered rare. Fifty-two are globally rare, and a handful is found nowhere else in the world!

Why should we care about plants? One compelling reason is to preserve biodiversity. If a huge chunk of our native plants disappear, so will many rare animals – for example, butterflies like the Arogos Skipper, whose caterpillars feed only upon a particular dwindling plant.

It’s possible to rescue rare plants on the brink, like Pickering’s Morning Glory (Stylisma pickeringii), a native of the Pine Barrens. There were once more than 25 large, healthy populations, but today only three remain.

To address this dwindling population, volunteers from New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Pinelands Preservation Alliance and the New Jersey Natural Heritage Program began blocking illegal off-road vehicles, cleaning up dumped construction debris, cutting tree limbs that were shading the plants, and collecting data on population size and reproductive success.

Jay Kelly, a professor at Raritan Valley College, is working to save the federally-endangered American Chaffseed (Schwalbea americana) from the brink of extinction. Once found from North Carolina to Massachusetts, the plant now survives in only one small patch in Brendan Byrne State Forest in the Pine Barrens.

Chaffseed must have growing-season wildfires to create its habitat, and its seeds must land amidst the roots of a host plant, usually a native aster. Dr. Kelly figured that out and is now growing seedlings to maturity and painstakingly returning the plant to its former haunts!

Hundreds of other rare species are declining due to development, ill-timed cosmetic mowing of roadsides, hungry deer herds, draining of wetlands, lack of wildfires, logging that lets in sunlight and invasive weeds, and even poaching.

It’s not too late for New Jersey to protect its rare and endangered plants.

The Pinelands Preservation Alliance, Partnerships for New Jersey Plant Conservation and New Jersey Conservation Foundation have drafted a New Jersey Native Plant Protection Act that, if enacted, would legally protect rare plants and rare ecological communities. It won’t succeed without the help of outdoor enthusiasts, naturalists, botanists and all individuals and groups concerned with rare species, biodiversity and natural beauty.

For information on this initiative, please visit the Pinelands Preservation Alliance website at www.pinelandsalliance.org/protection/work/currentissues/ecological/rareplantprotection or contact Amy Karpati at amy@pinelandsalliance.org  to sign on as a supporter or to schedule a presentation for your organization.

And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.