THE STATE WE’RE IN: A little bit of respect…for native plants!

New Jersey is home to about 2500 native plants, and over one-third are considered rare! Some have always been rare – like the Stalked Woolgrass – which was just re-discovered by NJDEP State Botanist David Snyder along the Delaware River in Sussex County after not having been seen in over 100 years.

Many others are rare due to lack of wildfires, habitat destruction, filling of wetlands, over-browsing by deer, or harm from invasive species or diseases. The last known population of the beautiful Northern Blazing Star in New Jersey succumbed to a highway ramp near Cheesequake State Park a few decades ago. The Showy Ladies Slipper Orchid and American Ginseng have been driven to near extinction in New Jersey by collectors.

Pickering’s Morning Glory, a dainty rare flowering vine that grows in the sunny, dry sand dunes of the New Jersey Pine Barrens forest, grew in about 27 places in the late 1800s. Now, the plant is found only in about 15 places. Only two out of the original 27 are considered healthy populations. Many of the sites were lost to forest shading since a lack of wildfires allowed the forest to creep into the sand dunes, towering over the sun-loving morning glories.

Today there is a new threat to Pickering’s Morning Glory: damaging impacts from illegal off-road vehicles. Many off-road enthusiasts seek out open sand dunes, spinning around in tight circles at high-speed. This tears the fragile soil into clouds of dust and disturbs or destroys the plants and animals.

These sand dunes are also critical nesting habitat for many species of rare reptiles and insects. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Pinelands Preservation Alliance, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, and Duke Farms are working hard to restore sand dune habitats, curtail illegal off-road vehicle use, and prevent the Pickering’s Morning Glory from going extinct in New Jersey.

Callie Valent and Charles Barreca of Duke Farms are growing the morning glories from seeds collected in the wild. It’s a difficult plant to grow, so they researched previous attempts and developed their own protocol.

“Typically the process involves a sulfuric acid soak or mechanical scarification to break down the very tough seed coat and encourage germination,” explained Charles. “We used a rock tumbler – designed for polishing gems – to remove the seed coat.”

“The scarified seeds germinate within three or four days of being placed into wet sand, but often the seed leaf, which emerges first, will wither and die,” said Callie. “But sometimes up to a month later the lateral shoots will come up, so we have to keep watering.”

They now have 36 healthy plants with taproots and lateral shoots. These plants will be placed into experimental populations on protected sand dunes in the Franklin Parker Preserve this fall.

“I’ve been propagating native plants for eight years,” said Callie. “This has been so incredibly fulfilling and such a wonderful learning experience.”

Eventually, Pickering’s Morning Glory may rebound. If the sand dunes are protected, these extremely rare plants may return to their historic levels of a century ago.

To learn more about the Pine Barrens and the challenges in protecting rare plants, visit the Pinelands Preservation Alliance website at www.pinelandsalliance.org

For more information on Duke Farms, visit their website at http://dukefarms.org/

To learn more about the state’s rare plant species, visit the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection website at https://www.state.nj.us/dep/ds r/plant/

And for information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

Michele S. Byers is executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation in Morristown.