The Smallest and Rarest Water Lily

Nymphaea thermarum is both the smallest and the rarest water lily in the world. It is so rare that it no longer exists in the wild. Back in 1987 it was discovered growing in the mud of a hot spring located in Rwanda, Africa. The botanist who discovered it, Eberhard Fischer, realized that it was quite rare and collected a few specimens to bring back to Germany. Indeed it has never been found growing anywhere else. This was a wise decision on his part because after decades of habitat degradation, the hot spring was destroyed by locals in order to divert water for laundry. 

For years, the original specimens were not doing so hot in captivity. It was looking like this species was going to be lost forever. That was until a handful of seedlings ended up in the hands of plant germination specialist Carlos Magdalena of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Carlos saw a challenge in this species and realized that his efforts could possibly be the last chance this species had at survival. 

Carlos tried many avenues of approach to growing this species and none seemed to be working. He messed with water chemistry, nutrients, and water depth, all the while the plants seemed to languish, never reaching maturity. In a final attempt to make things work, Carlos returned to the original literature. Here he found something interesting. Apparently, N. thermarum was not growing in water at all. Instead, it seemed to only grow in the wet mud surrounding the hot spring. 

This was the key that unlocked the door to propagating this species. Instead of growing this water lily submerged like every other water lily species, Carlos decided to grow the plants as they once grew in the wild, in mud. This was it! Carlos successfully grew 8 new plants to maturity. This may seem like a small amount but for the last remaining members of a species, every little bit counts. Recently in 2009, the first of Carlos's plants flowered. This marked a milestone for this species. While it has been wiped out in the wild, this species can still persist in cultivation until experts can decide on what the best course of action is for its future. 

Further Reading:
http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/nymphaea-thermarum

The Plight of the Venus Fly Trap

The fact that endangered plants do not receive the same protection as animals speaks volumes towards our perception of their importance. If one were to gun down an endangered bird, regardless of where it happened, they would likely face jail time. This is a good thing. However, regardless of how endangered a plant may be, as long as it is on private property and written consent is given by the land owner, one can harvest to their hearts content. It could be the last population in existence. The point of the matter is, endangered plants only receive protection on federal lands. Even then, enforcement is difficult at best. 

Plant poaching is serious business. The victims are usually pretty species like orchids or valuable species like American ginseng. The rarer something is, the higher the price. Someone will always be willing to pay top dollar to add something rare to their collection. This story is repeated time and time again throughout the world but one particularly interesting example centers on a plant that most people are familiar with and have probably attempted to grow at one point in their lives - the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula).

It may be counter intuitive to believe that a plant so often sold in grocery stores could be in trouble but the Venus flytrap truly is. In the wild, Venus fly traps are what we call endemics. They are native to a small portion of land in the Carolinas and nowhere else. Sadly, the long leaf pine savannahs and Carolina bays that they call home are being gobbled up by golf courses, pine plantations, and housing developments. The Venus fly trap (as well as over 100 other endangered species) are quickly losing the only habitat in the world that they exist. 

Of the 107 Venus fly trap populations that remain, only 65 of them are located on protected land. If habitat destruction wasn't enough, plant collectors, both legal and illegal, descend upon this region to get their hands on wild fly traps. This, my friends, is the definition of stupidity and greed. A simple internet search will turn up countless hobbyists and nurseries alike that culture these plants in captivity. It isn't very hard to do and it can be done on a massive scale. 

There is simply no reason to have to harvest Venus fly traps from the wild. None. Despite the plight of this unique species, legal protection of the Venus fly trap is almost non existent. It is listed as a "species of special concern" in North Carolina, which basically means nothing. For poachers, this really doesn't matter. Thousands of plants are stolen from the wild on protected and unprotected lands alike. Recent felony charges against Venus fly trap poachers offer some hope that the situation may be changing but that still does nothing to protect plants that, through senseless loopholes, are collected legally. 

This circles back to those plants we often see for sale in grocery stores. If they are in a red pot with a clear plastic cup on top, you can almost guarantee they came from the Fly-Trap Farm. This company openly admits to buying and selling plants collected from the wild. Despite the afore mentioned fact that culturing them in captivity is done with relative ease, the demand for these carnivorous curiosities coupled with their perceived disposability means that wild populations of this already threatened plant are growing smaller and smaller. 

Venus fly traps are endemics. They grow nowhere else in the world. If their habitat is destroyed and demand for wild plants continues, there is no Plan B. This species will be lost to the world forever. Again, there is no reason to buy wild collected plants. Plenty of hobbyists and nurseries such as The Carnivore Girl, Meadowview Biological Research Station, and California Carnivores (just to name a few) offer reasonably priced cultivated Venus fly traps. Whereas it is difficult or even impossible to squash poaching for good, we as consumers can always vote with our wallets. 

It is tough to say whether or not there is hope for the Venus fly trap and its neighbors. This region of the Carolinas is growing in its human population. So many Venus fly trap populations have already been lost forever and more are likely to disappear in the near future. There may be hope, however, and it comes in the form of land protection. Recent acquisitions of large tracts of Venus fly trap habitat are promising. Regardless, unless the public speaks up about the plight of these long leaf pine savannahs and Carolina bays, no one is going to listen. Plants deserve the same protection as animals. Heck, we wouldn't have any cute and fuzzy megafauna if it were not for healthy plant populations. Protecting plants needs to be a priority. 

Photo Credit: NC Orchid (http://bit.ly/1MUlE0x)

Further Reading:
http://archive.audubonmagazine.org/features0803/carnivorousplants.html

http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/39636/0

http://wunc.org/post/north-carolina-enacts-venus-flytrap-theft-laws-how-big-problem-really#stream/0

A Case of Sexual Fluidity in the Plant World

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In humans, sex is determined at fertilization. The embryo receives either an X or a Y chromosome. Many other organisms have their sex determined in a manner similar to this as well. The case with plants is not so rigid. Many plants produce both male and female parts on the same flower, others have flowers that are either male or female, while some can change their sex throughout their lifetime. The latter is quite interesting and offers an insight into the differences in maleness and femaleness. 

The green dragon (Arisaema dracontium) is an arum related to jack-in-the-pulpit. It is wide spread throughout the east but declining in much of its northern range. This species produces a single inflorescence that can be purely male, both male and female, or, in some rare cases, entirely female. The mechanism for this has been a subject of interest for many botanists as it does not seem to be dictated solely by genetics. It has been discovered that any given plant may switch up its flowering strategy from year to year.

What researchers have found is that male flowers are most often produced in younger plants as well as plants that are stressed. In years where environmental conditions are not as conducive to survival or if the plants have not had enough time to build up energy reserves, it is not uncommon to find only male plants. This is advantageous since male flowers and pollen are a lot less costly to produce than ovaries. Also, the plant does not have to allocate resources into developing seeds. In good years and also in older, larger plants, inflorescence are produced that are both male and female. If the plants are less stressed and large enough, more energy can be allocated to seed production. In some rare cases, very large plants have been known to produce only female flowers. This seems to be a strategy that is adopted only under the best of conditions. 

It should be noted that whereas there seems to be a threshold for environmental conditions as well as plant size in determining what kinds of flowers will be produced, each green dragon population seems to vary. In essence there is some genetic determination for how the plant will respond in any given year but this is where teasing the gene environment out of the actual environment gets tricky. Studying these plants is giving us more insight into the advantages and disadvantages of each sex as well as helping to inform how sensitive species like the green dragon will respond in a changing climate. 

 

Further Reading:

http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=ardr3

http://www.jstor.org/stable/2656980

http://www.jstor.org/stable/2445597?seq=1

American Heart's Tongue Fern

When looking for ferns, it is easy to have a specific kind of search imagine in your head. Your mind's eye is tuned into the long, lacy look of dissected fronds but there are ferns out there that will challenge you to break that mold. I have had the wonderful privilege of meeting some of these fern species this year, but there is one species in particular that has really stuck out.

Meet the American hart's tongue fern, Asplenium scolopendrium var. americanum. The hart's tongue, as you can see, is absolutely striking. Its long, slender, uncut fronds form a disheveled rosette and the sori running along the underside make each frond look like a big, green centipede. Asplenium scolopendrium itself is a wide ranging species of fern, growing on limestone outcroppings throughout Europe but populations in North America are rather sparse and disjunct. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed it as a threatened species. There are some morphological distinctions between the European and North American populations but the major difference is in their number of chromosomes. European hart's tongues are diploid whereas North America's are tetraploid. Because of these differences, botanists consider them distinct varieties.

Why the American variety is so rare is not fully understood, but human activities have not helped matters. Mining, logging, and development have wiped out many historic populations of these ferns. Their habitat specificity mixed with their already low numbers make for little to no range expansion for most populations. They seem to grow in close association with dolomitic limestone, which is high in magnesium. 

They also seem to rely on a specific mix of bryophyte communities, low light levels, moisture, and snow pack in order to persist. Spores that land on significant bryophyte patches seem to germinate better. Young ferns seem to perform better in mixed light levels, especially near canopy gaps. It has also been shown that snow pack is directly correlated to the vigor of each population. In years with below average snow pack, the plants seem to have trouble retaining enough moisture to survive.

This is such an incredible species of fern. To lose it would mean a serious loss for our planet. There is a good effort being put forth to protect, study, grow, and form a deeper understanding with the American hart's tongue fern. The more we learn about this species, the better we can understand what it is going to take to ensure that it persists far into the future.

Photo Credit: James Johnson (http://imgur.com/a/J1Ez5)

Further Reading:
http://www.fws.gov/northeast/nyfo/es/amhtfrecovplan.pdf

http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.3159/TORREY-D-11-00054.1

http://www.fs.fed.us/

http://www.centerforplantconservation.org/