New Jersey’s plants need help

By Michele S. Byers

New Jersey’s amazing geological diversity supports a wide variety of native plants and animals. Many of them are endangered or threatened – that is, in danger of vanishing from New Jersey or, in some cases, becoming extinct.

While this state we’re in has laws protecting endangered and threatened animals, plants have little protection.

“The public generally isn’t aware there are no protections for rare plants,” says Ryan Rebozo, director of conservation science for the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. “It’s always a surprise for people to learn this.”

New Jersey has more than 2,000 native plant species and nearly 700 of them are considered rare. Here are examples of endangered plants:

• Bog asphodel – This wildflower is found nowhere on Earth but the New Jersey Pine Barrens; look for bright yellow clusters of star-shaped flowers;

• Knieskern’s beaked-rush – This grass-like plant with tiny pink flowers also grows nowhere in the world except New Jersey; it is found in five southern New Jersey counties;

• Swamp pinks – With their bright pink flower clusters atop long, slender stems, swamp pink lilies are an early spring delight. New Jersey is their global stronghold – 70% of the world’s population is in southern New Jersey. Smaller populations are found along the coast to Virginia, and in scattered places in the Appalachian mountains.

• Small whorled pogonia – This rare orchid, found in northern New Jersey, is distinctive for the whorl of gray-green leaves around its stem and its small greenish-yellow flowers. Although it is found in 18 other states and in Ontario, Canada, populations are small.

• Pickering’s morning glory – These petite white wildflowers grow on trailing vines in the sand dunes of the Pine Barrens; they are very vulnerable to habitat damage and only a few healthy and stable populations remain. Pickering’s morning glories are also found in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

• Pumpkin ash – This rare native tree is similar to white ash and is named for its enlarged base that can appear pumpkin shaped. There are fewer than five known populations of pumpkin ash remaining, all in central New Jersey.

In 1990, the New Jersey Legislature passed the Endangered Plant Species List Act. Unfortunately, all it did was make a list. The law has no provisions to protect plants.

But if a new bill becomes law, our New Jersey plants may get some help. Assemblymen Herb Conaway and Kevin Rooney are co-sponsoring the New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Plant Protection Act.

This bill would protect rare plants from intentional damage and sale or transport, and would direct the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to establish an advisory committee to develop plans for protecting and restoring priority species.

The bill would also establish a “threatened” category for plants (not included on the current state list), using language consistent with that of other states and the federal government.

Why protect rare plants, besides for their beauty?

One great reason is rare animals. New Jersey has 60 endangered and threatened wildlife species and they cannot survive without the right plants.

For example, a number of rare butterflies and moths are “specialists,” meaning they get their food from only one or a few plant species as part of their life cycle. One specialist is the endangered arogos skipper butterfly, whose caterpillars feed only on the rare Pine Barrens reedgrass plant. If those plants disappear, so do the butterflies.

As Rebozo points out, “Plant and animal communities are inextricably intertwined.”

It makes no sense to protect rare animals without protecting the habitats and rare plants they depend on.

Another reason to protect rare plants is human health. Wild plants have traditionally been used to make medicines and remedies.

For example, sphagnum moss gathered in the Pine Barrens was used for bandaging wounds during the Civil War because of its antiseptic properties, and sassafras and teaberry were brewed into medicines.

Even today, plant-based remedies are used for everything from common colds to cancer. Who knows how many discoveries are yet to be made among New Jersey’s plants?

Please help New Jersey’s rare plants. Contact your state Senators and Assembly representatives and urge them to support the New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Plant Protection Act.

For a list of the state’s rare plants, go to https://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/natural/heritage/njplantlist.pdf

Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at info@njconservation.org