“It’s not much of a plant,” John Taft conceded, as he trudged, head bowed, along an Iroquois County roadside. “It’s short, with spindly leaves and a pink spiky flower”–Polygala incarnata, in case you don’t recognize it–one of the milkworts native to Illinois. Taft, like his partner Mary Kay Solecki, is a botanist. On this June day in 1987 they made up the better part of the nonnative species visible in a relict strip of grasses and broadleaves that runs between a state hard road and railroad track just east of Watseka, 70 miles south of Chicago. Spring or not, it was a nasty morning to be out hunting for milkworts, all drizzle and diesel fumes. Taft girded himself for disappointment: “I am not encouraged.”
An alert driver would have seen many such scenes around Illinois last year. As many as 30 botanists spent part of that growing season traipsing through bogs, up bluffs and down riverbanks trying to determine the status of more than 350 species of plants that a decade ago were officially recognized as rare. The updating was a joint project of the Morton Arboretum and the Illinois Natural History Survey at Urbana, where Solecki and Taft usually are found when they aren’t up to their waists in milkweed.
Illinois is home to more than 3,100 species of plants, of which some 2,200 are native to the state. (“Plants,” as commonly used in the botany business, means vascular plants–those with stems as opposed to such lesser clans of the kingdom as mosses, fungi, and algae.) Of the surviving wild populations of our native vascular plants, roughly one out of every seven is so small or so tenuously situated that it is considered either in danger of extirpation within Illinois or in danger of becoming endangered. The pink milkwort had been spotted on this Watseka roadside some years earlier by a collector, but the plant’s existence in Illinois hadn’t been noted often or lately.
Solecki spots a purple prairie clover–not rare except in its prettiness. “That’s an ‘oh my plant” she explains. “When you see something like that, it sets a botanist’s heart palpitating.” Cardiac arrhythmia is only one of the ills that plague the field botanist. Backaches are another, as are chiggers, poison rashes, damp socks, and hemorrhoids. (One study of Illinois orchids required nearly 35,000 miles’ worth of driving.) Floyd Swink, the Morton Arboretum taxonomist who compiled the authoritative Plants of the Chicago Region, ruefully notes there that Habenaria psycodes, the purple fringed orchids, “usually occur in swampy woodlands where the mosquitoes are thickest.” Other rarities usually occur where nonrare plants are thickest. In such a jungle of stems, an eye less experienced than Solecki’s couldn’t spot a potted poinsettia. Some plants can only be spotted in the field when they are in bloom, and they may be in bloom only briefly, and sometimes even then only after a heavy rain or a hot day. Unless their flag of a flower is waving, finding such plants is like finding a needle in a needlestack.
Finding the needlestack isn’t always easy. Botanists trying to confirm the existence of previously recorded plant populations must depend on records of early collectors who often provided geographic information no more specific than “Chicago 1890.” One frustrated collector who fruitlessly combed a Kankakee River island in 1920 looking for a previously reported mallow later discovered that he was probably on the wrong island. Taft and Solecki discovered in a Lake County bog a sedge never before reported in Illinois; when they went back to the site they couldn’t find the plant, and stumbled across it only when they’d given up and were slogging back to their vehicle.
In the 1970s, Illinois had a brand-new nature preserves system, intended to protect whatever bits of rarity had survived the European occupation of Illinois. Botanists all had their own ideas, of course, but had no agreed upon list, and the state needed something more rigorous, more formal, more legally defensible.
As early as 1973, some work had been done toward assembling such an approved catalog of preciousness under the aegis of the Illinois Natural Preserves Commission, but the systematic screening of candidate species did not begin until 1977. The search began not in the field but along the dusty paths of the state’s herbaria, plant libraries full of thousands of folders containing dried plants, which constitute a massive record of the known distribution of Illinois plants across both space and time.
Botanists combed these records like genealogists prowling through old cemeteries. They counted how often the less common species had been found by previous collectors and where, and whenever possible confirmed by field observation the continuing presence in the wild of species that hadn’t been collected for a while.
Generally speaking, species that had been collected as few as six times or less were considered (for purposes of the list) in danger of extirpation within the state. Species that had been found more than 6 but fewer than 20 times were designated as “threatened.” Species that once occurred in Illinois but that hadn’t been collected in the last 50 years were assumed to have been extirpated.
Submitted for review in 1978, that first official inventory of plants at risk was officially approved in 1981. It included 312 species considered endangered and another 52 thought to be threatened.
Listed status entitles species to certain protections. Legal penalties may be applied to people who traffic in them; land that harbors one may be eligible for official designation as a nature preserve; state agencies contemplating projects that might imperil listed plants are obliged to consult with the Department of Conservation about the possible need to modify them. But the powers of plant laws are limited, and practically speaking the effect of listing is mainly talismanic, the force of law being a paltry weapon compared to the disapproving moral tone one can take with people who presume to destroy plants officially certified as rare.
“It was a pretty good list,” says Marlin Bowles, who allows that he did help compile it. Bowles is now a research associate at the Morton Arboretum, in charge of its fledgling–perhaps one should say seedling–rare-plant program. Ten years ago he was part of the staff of the Natural Lands Institute–a think tank in Rockford, where he worked with other acorns of Illinois’ sprouting rare-plant movement–and was coordinating editor of the first endangered-plant list with botanist Charles Sheviak, the NLI staffer who was that project’s director. Like all such compilations, however, the list was out of date the day it was released. In the years since its publication, some species have turned out to have been misnamed or incorrectly identified. A few species with extant populations in Illinois had been simply overlooked. New populations of species thought extirpated were discovered; a Natural History Survey botanist found a bead grass in Williamson County, for example, that hadn’t been collected in the state since 1893, which is like finding Amelia Earhart still alive. In addition, species that had never been known in Illinois were being discovered all the time–ten per year on average. Some species no longer deserved classification as endangered, either because they had died out or because they had been found to be too numerous since 1978; others, once more common, had become rare enough to earn a place on the list.
The status of some species is disputed. Consider Thismia americana, which Floyd Swink describes emphatically as “unquestionably one of the most remarkable plants of the American flora.” It occurred only at a single spot on Lake Calumet and nowhere else in the world, and has not been seen alive there for some 75 years. The plant’s closest relative dwells in New Zealand and Tasmania, which suggests tantalizing botanical dramas of exile or flight. Swink stated flatly in 1974, “It is now certainly extinct.” But in a 1987 memo, Bowles says that if an organism’s habitat survives there is always a chance that it will reappear. Bowles listed Thismia among those species that could not be located but whose extirpation from the state was nonetheless undetermined. Thismia, he wrote to colleagues, “might recur under certain conditions.” That reluctance to declare such an eccentric creature vanished (drawings of it resemble a tail-walking catfish) make Thismia local botany’s Loch Calumet monster.
The state’s endangered species act was amended in 1985 to require that Illinois’ list of endangered plants and vertebrate animals be updated every five years, and Bowles was hired last year by the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board to coordinate the first updating of the plant list. Doing it required the help of 27 field botanists and taxonomists–staff from Morton and the Natural History Survey, mainly, along with professors of botany, advanced amateurs, and staff biologists from the Department of Conservation and local forest preserve districts backed up by curators of ten herbaria. Together they amassed new records of more than 300 populations of more than 130 species. Twenty-nine new species were proposed to the Endangered Species Protection Board for inclusion on the list, and 34 were to be removed, most because they were presumed extirpated.
Science, of course, is often less a matter of finding new truths than of correcting old ones. On his searches, Bowles paid a visit to a sedge meadow in Winnebago County. It was filled with sunflowers, as meadows often are, presumably one of the commoner Helianthus. “I saw that they had hairy stems,” he recalls. “It stuck in my mind.” Now, things often stick to the botanist in the field, although they usually end up in his socks. One of the standard texts confirmed that hairy stems are a distinguishing trait of Helianthus giganteus L., a sunflower endangered in Illinois that hadn’t been collected here since the 1950s. How could botanists have overlooked the presence of a plant that stands several feet tall and that at this site numbered in the hundreds if not thousands? “Species exist on a continuum,” Bowles explains. Some Helianthus will have very hairy stems, some no hair at all, which makes identification easy. “But species identity tends to merge in the middle of the scale.”
Traditionally, botanists’ careers depended on their knowing about things like hairy stems. Linnaeus classified the entire green world according to such differences of structure; Mendel deduced the science of genetics by watching garden peas. Bowles, Taft, Solecki, and like-minded colleagues go by several names–ecologists, systematists, organismic botanists. But in some scientific quarters, no matter how you spell them such terms are pronounced “old-fashioned.” The central assumption of the science of ecology–that plants can best be comprehended in the context of the natural communities of which they are a part–has given way to the tenets of those who believe that the significant transactions in plants’ life cycles occur at the molecular rather than the community level. According to this new botany, what a plant is and how it lives matter less than how it works.
These days, any research that can be done with a plastic bag and a Bic pen is likely to be denigrated as more a hobby than a science. “It’s not very glamorous,” concedes Taft, standing in muddy tennis shoes, pants wet to the knees. “There are some people cheeky enough to suggest that it’s not even very scientific.” Field botany is so declasse at some universities that botanists sometimes complain that you can’t get a reputation in the field in the field anymore. “Plant description is not a ‘science,'” explains Solecki sarcastically. “Plant physiology is. If you document plant distribution, that’s not science either.”
Most Illinois universities, however, still have a strong orientation toward what might be called field botany. It is hard to say whether this is proof of the state’s backwardness or its farsightedness. In a society that invented environmental impact statements, that has established nature preserves that must be managed, that has arboretums and public gardens with popular education programs, botanical generalists have acquired a market value that belies their low economic status. Knowing that Juncus vaseyi, a very rare rush that grows in bogs near Rockford, is distinguishable from its close cousins by the two tiny white tails on its seeds may not get you a grant, in short, but it can get you a job.
It is January, and at the moment Bowles is staring at a specimen of Computerus personalis, which sits on his desk at the Morton Arboretum research building. The months when plants lie dormant are the season of a plant expert’s most feverish activity, as he catalogs, cross-checks, and corroborates the results of the previous months’ field expeditions. “I tell you, the word processor has transformed my life,” says Bowles in tones his professional ancestors must have used when describing the invention of mosquito repellent.
Early Illinois botanists relied on serendipity rather than systems when they began cataloging the state’s flora. The conventional wisdom is that Illinois has been heavily botanized, but its land area is nearly 56,000 square miles (the equivalent of 176,000 Grant Parks), and no one pretends that every foot of it has been studied. “Early collectors could only go where the roads and the railroads went,” points out Bowles. Accessible spots rich in flora quickly earned reputations as collecting gold mines. “Maybe just over the hill there was a spot just as good,” Bowles says. “But nobody ever looked at it.” Botanists estimate that roughly 75 species of vascular plants known to be indigenous to Illinois have been extirpated. The actual number of lost species will never be known; whole species, indeed whole plant communities such as the “barrens” described in some pioneer accounts, were wiped out before any botanist could record them.
Because of its size and location, athwart several mid-continent climate zones, Illinois stands at the edge of the natural ranges of an antic variety of plants. Prickly pear cactus live here, as do swamp cypresses and pines from the northern forests. The Illinois endangered list thus includes many species that, while rare in this state, grow abundantly as close as 50 miles from the state line.
Those sick of hearing about dying whales and diminishing ozone layers may say, “So what?” It’s hard to get people excited about plants, especially people who dismiss the state’s characteristic floristic ensemble, the tallgrass prairie, as weeds. Plants may have been here first; they may supply the oxygen we breathe and commodities to trade, but the typical city dweller’s interest in rare green things seldom extends beyond his salad bowl. The original Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act, passed in 1972, did not even cover plants; that had to await amendments in 1977. Six plant species dwell in Illinois for every one vertebrate species, but it was not until two years ago that the state’s Department of Conservation set up a botany program to monitor them. In the handsome new 224-page catalog published by the Natural History Survey, The Natural Resources of Illinois, not a single chapter is devoted to nonagricultural plants. Plants were included recently in the definition of “wildlife” supportable by funds collected via the nongame wildlife checkoff on Illinois income tax returns, but that was a triumph of lobbying, not public opinion.
Until very recently, Illinois’ official interest in plants was emphatically more economic than environmental. Basic science was done, of course, but the research agenda was often set by the commercial interests to which the state’s publicly paid scientists were beholden for their budgets. The aim of most of the plant research done at the Natural History Survey, for one, was to make the world safe for the soybean trade and the Sunday golfer, focusing as it traditionally has done on the prevention and cure of diseases and on pests of ornamental trees, shrubs, and farm crops.
More recently, however, botanists began to realize that plant economics may depend on plant ecology the way the fruit of a tree depends on its roots. Even as you read these words, researchers are perfecting ways to use Illinois plants to make biodegradable plastics, renewable energy, nonpoisonous pesticides. The medicinal uses of plants are well known; nearly half the prescription drugs dispensed in this country contain ingredients of natural origin. Many plants now endangered in Illinois were included in the Indians’ pharmacopoeia. Dog violet, known now only in Cook, Lake, and Richland counties, was used in herb teas prescribed for heart trouble; Carex plantaginea, a sedge collected once in Cook County 90 years ago and probably since destroyed, was valued by the Menominees as a snakebite medicine.
Modern concocters of potions likewise look to plants. The extract of one plant common in Illinois, Sanguinaria canadensis, or bloodroot, is an ingredient in brand name antiplaque toothpastes; and the National Cancer Institute has contracted with the University of Illinois to help test the antitumor properties of tropical plants. Tony Endress, the head of the Natural History Survey’s botany and plant pathology section, thus makes a case for the preservation of rarity on the grounds of utility. “We’re concerned to make sure that the obliteration of any plant species in Illinois doesn’t result in the loss of the genetic material that might provide disease resistance in crop varieties,” Endress says, “or contain some potential new drug.”
Then there is what might be called preservation on the grounds of Higher Utility. Allowing the extirpation of native plant species would diminish nature as well as Illinois. Species that have successfully adapted to marginal environments usually have done so because they are highly adaptable genetically. In botanical terms such populations are, in their respective families, the distant relatives with money, the ones who left home and made it abroad.
It is not the form of such plants that makes them worth preserving, but the possibilities they represent. The protection of the plants’ biological diversity, stored in distinct gene pools, has become the overarching priority of environmentalists worldwide. If their efforts fail, warns John Taft, “we’re leaving a far more sterile environment for the future to exist in.”
Plants have medicinal effects in the broadest sense when they are used to diagnose and heal sick ecosystems. Sue Lauzon, who coordinates the work of the Endangered Species Protection Board, grudgingly acknowledges that the general public thinks of endangered wildlife in terms of “glamour species” like eagles, not milkworts. But “plants are the basis of the natural community,” she explains. “When an animal goes endangered, it’s because something necessary in its environment is missing. Often that something is plants.”
Blake yearned to see heaven in a wildflower, which stretches even modern botany’s powers. But you can see the past in one. At the Natural History Survey, botanists have been making detailed observations of the state’s plant communities for more than a century. Those records make up what Endress has called a “historical tapestry” in which the story of environmental change in Illinois has been woven.
Surviving plant communities can be compared to their ancestors, and the differences between them reveal the changes wrought by climate, by pollution, by natural successional processes. A few major taxonomic groups haven’t even been systematically catalogued yet. “If we fail to devote time to their study,” Endress has written, “we will forfeit the ability to gauge future change.”
In private moments, out of earshot of legislative budget analysts, botanists confess to having other reasons for the preservation of rarity. Mary Kay Solecki argues the case partly on the grounds of beauty. “People don’t like just diamonds,” she explains. “I’m not satisfied with just phloxes. We should have 30 species of wildflowers in Illinois, not just one.”
Lots of people associate rarity with beauty, it being axiomatic in a free market economy that beautiful things will be made rare in the process of satisfying the demand for them. But biological rarity is blind to such conventional notions. The state’s list of officially protected vertebrates, for instance, includes a bat and a rat. The plant list harbors species such as grasses and sedges, which not only are not distinguished by their looks but often undistinguishable by their looks. (Even botanists make rude jokes about sedges.) A few are weeds, albeit native weeds, known as “disturbance-oriented species,” colonizers that are quick to exploit damage to habitats caused by weather, disease, or animals. Show a buffalo wallow to a mallow and you have a happy mallow.
Sue Lauzon argues for the value of things for their own sakes: “Plants have an inherent value,” she insists. “I know I feel saddened by the loss of part of the world that is no longer there.”
Steve Packard is eating lunch in the basement cafeteria of a Loop bank, where the only rare plant is a properly cooked bean. “Plants don’t live on land, they live in ecosystems,” he explains between bites. Like Bowles, Packard has devoted himself to the preservation of rareness, presently as field representative of the Illinois field office of the Nature Conservancy. “One of our local forest preserve districts had a large population of prairie white fringed orchids,” he says. “They seem to have vanished. The likely reason that the plant went belly up at that site was that a housing development went in updrainage of the site.” Because of construction in the watershed, water that used to nourish the local orchid population apparently was diverted, drying the soil; the plants were felled by bulldozers that never came near them.
Rare plants are not necessarily fragile. They can withstand fire and frost and trampling by bison and botanists. However, the specialized demands they often make on their habitats leave them especially vulnerable to human interference. Some require specialized habitats in a world where habitats are becoming generalized. The wildflower French’s shooting star, for instance, dwells in cavelike sandstone shelters facing north, south, or east and whose sandy soil is very moist early in each growing season, conditions that are found in Illinois only in a ten-mile-wide belt along the Shawneetown Ridge in southern Illinois. Other plants are dependent for survival on specific organisms that aid in pollination or the dispersal of their seeds. Some plant’s reproduce themselves slowly–a minor drawback in stable natural communities but a calamitous one in environments that change faster than such species can,
The hardest habitat to adapt to, of course, is the one that isn’t there anymore. Plowing, paving, draining, and poisoning have been prodigious in Illinois and proceed apace. Ignorance and greed are formidable enough foes, but some rare plants also have to contend with bad luck:
- Hymenoxys acaulis, known to its friends as the lakeside daisy, was a denizen of dolomite prairies in Will County. The plant was recognized as rare as early as the 1930s; by the 1970s only one wild population survived in the area, on the grounds of a Commonwealth Edison power plant–that is, until 1981, when several tons of coal were accidentally dumped on it.
- What an appreciative botanist called the biologically richest ravine in Trout Park in Elgin–home to more than 60 species of grasses plus 5 species of rare gentians and 6 kinds of native orchids–was paved to become part of the Northwest Tollway.
- 9 of 11 rare grass plants disappeared recently from the Indiana dunes when erosion converted a dune into lake bottom. Bowles got permission from the National Park Service to put the two survivors in pots and then helped transplant them farther away from shore.
In terms of the numbers of acres affected, habitat alteration is an even bigger problem than habitat destruction. “An ignorant and naive public has no idea that what they do has an effect on life downstream,” complains Bowles. “I mean, we live in an ecosystem.” “Downstream” here is meant in its literal as well as metaphorical sense. A suburban population of rare heart-leaved plantain to which Bowles has devoted much study was destroyed when mud from a subdivision being built upstream washed onto the gravel bar where they grew and buried them.
No ecosystem seems less suited to the survival of rare plant species than the environs of a big city. Yet Cook and Lake counties harbor more endangered and threatened plant species than any others in Illinois. Cook was home to 139 species on the state’s original list, Lake 116; many a downstate county has only 4 or 5.
“Diversity of habitat is the reason,” explains Kenneth Robertson. Robertson is a botanist on the Natural History Survey staff, a consultant to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and a member of the Technical Advisory Committee on Plants of the state’s Endangered Species Protection Board. He points out that in northeastern Illinois there are beaches and savannas, acid bogs and alkaline fens, gravel prairies and exposed moraines.
Presettlement Chicago was to plants what the city became to people, a haven for the migrant, the misfit, the oddball loner. Recent surveys found that Cook County boasts more than 1,500 recorded plant species, and Lake County has more than 1,300. Similarly hospitable habitat exists in the far south of the state, whose atypically hilly, rocky aspect is surprisingly Ozarkian. But in between, in the vast prairies interspersed with hardwood groves, dwell many plants but as few as 200 species per county–botanical suburbs, in effect. The prairies offered plants little refuge from the plow, with the result that for all their verdant appearance most downstate farm counties are more “developed”–and their plant communities proportionately more devastated–than all but the most urbanized tracts of Cook, Lake, and Du Page counties.
Fortunately the same qualities that endeared certain habitats of northeast Illinois to rare species have often made them hard for humans to exploit. Bluff Spring Fen in far northwestern Cook County harbors several rare orchids and the woolly milkweed and has survived because spring water at the site carried minerals that fused gravels into rock so stout that mining equipment used by local gravel miners couldn’t bust through it.
Nature’s ingenuity at protecting rare plants, unfortunately, has usually been bested by our ingenuity at destroying them. Plants of the mesic prairies were safe until the self-scouring plow was perfected, just as those of wetlands thrived until widespread drainage tiling and leveeing turned swampy ground into dry farm fields. Railroad rights-of-way have been largely untouched since the 19th century and often harbor plants long since banished from everyplace else. But even these inadvertent refuges are threatened by pollution such as herbicides drifting in from adjacent fields. “The half-life of railroad prairies is not all that great,” Steve Packard says. “I’ve witnessed the elimination of many populations myself.”
Last year Packard reported a threatened blazing star in a railroad prairie near Orland Park. How threatened became clear a few months later when bulldozers building a subdivision on adjacent land scraped away most of the plants. A few survived within inches of the bulldozer’s cut; Bowles, concluding that what was left of the site was doomed, removed the plants for safe storage elsewhere.
There is no end to the mischief people can cause plants. Drain a lake, for example, and you remove a natural barrier that may have prevented cross-pollination of genetically distinct populations of a species. Botanists, being fussy guardians, are forever worrying that such changes will enable their charges to date partners from the wrong side of the tracks. The resulting hybridization can confuse researchers using specific characteristics to trace plant distribution, among other things. Species capable of pollinating themselves really muddle the evidence. When an orchid specialist writes, “An autogamous saprophyte is nearly the ultimate in taxonomic difficulty,” the rest of us can only say, “Amen!”
Isolation, too, can be a threat to survival. Populations that become isolated (usually when nearby companions are destroyed) can become inbred, genetically feeble, adaptively stupid. For example, there are three known populations of Mead’s milkweed in Illinois, plus a fourth population as yet unconfirmed. Two of these “populations” consist of a single plant each. The species is not a prolific seed setter anyway, having opted for longevity in the parent plant as its long-term survival strategy. (There are Mead’s milkweeds known that are at least a century old.) Isolation has made seed production not just infrequent but impossible. “There’s nothing to pollinate them [with] for hundreds of miles,” explains Packard. The result is not inbreeding but unbreeding.
Consider the fate of the aforementioned lakeside daisy. The plant had been kept alive in private gardens, but repeated attempts to harvest viable seed from these lifeboat specimens failed. The problem intrigued Marcy DeMaoro, then a graduate student, now a natural resource manager with the Will County Forest Preserve District. The daisy, she learned, is “self-incompatible,” genetically armored against self-pollination, protected from the botanical equivalent of incest. Breeders had to obtain pollen from plants in Ohio, which they are using to crossbreed new plants in greenhouses.
Often the ability of a species to reproduce is hindered by the absence of some extrinsic mechanism–fire perhaps, or an insect or animal–with which its reproductive cycle has become enmeshed. Packard offers the example of the prairie white fringed orchid. To start, the seeds must be infected by certain mycorrhizal fungi, which process the orchid’s food during its first, leafless year underground. As Sheviak once put it, “We are not dealing with one plant but rather a delicately balanced association between two.” Its pollination process is both strange and complicated and involves spring-loaded traps and sticky plates inside the flower designed to prevent self-pollination while allowing penetration by pollinating insects. “Insects have to pass a test, as it were, to get inside this two-inch tube,” explains Packard. “There are not enough orchids around for insects to learn how to pollinate it.” Packard and his colleagues imitated the slow-witted insects by using toothpicks and their cunning seduction was rewarded with harvests of viable seed. He illustrates with gestures; a woman at a nearby table makes plain her hope that he doesn’t end up sitting next to her on the el.
In 1872 one E.J. Hill visited Langham’s Island in the Kankakee River and spotted a patch of leafy prairie clover there. The leafy prairie clover is a rare herb of the pea family, which today persists in only a few spots in Tennessee and Alabama, and in Illinois along the Des Plaines River between Romeoville and Joliet. In a letter to a colleague, Hill wrote, “I found but five plants after thorough search. . . . Four of these I dug up.” Leafy prairie clover has not been seen on Langham’s Island since.
The collecting of wild specimens of plants is not necessarily evil. For example, Illinois’ herbaria would not exist if people had not plucked prodigious numbers of living plants from where they found them. The vast majority of the 150,000 native Illinois specimens interred at the Natural History Survey herbarium at Urbana were collected by one man, Robert Evers. (Evers, who retired in 1976, used to tell colleagues that he could recall every specimen he had collected until the number reached 100,000 or so, after which he began to mix them up once in a while.) But when the entire wild population of a given plant can fit into a single knapsack, even collecting in the name of science can verge on vandalism.
There are differences, in short, between collecting and harvesting.
Most of the collectors patrolling Illinois’ hills and dales are not scientists. They are gardeners seeking interesting plants for a border, herbalists collecting raw materials for poultices, cooks looking for ingredients for the pot, hobbyists trying to fill the botanical equivalent of the birder’s life list. So avid can collectors be that plant preservationists are reluctant to reveal even the county in which certain rare plants occur. “Years ago,” Packard recalls, “commentators wrote about people harvesting fringed gentians and lady’s slippers by the armloads to sell in flower shops or for home gardens.” Both are now endangered. The pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurrea L.) once grew abundantly at Volo Bog in Lake County, one of only three places in Illinois. Unluckily, it grew close to a plank walk that conveyed visitors across the bog’s spongy soils. Until the state put the bog under its protection, the pickins was free. “Far too many unscrupulous collectors have visited Volo and almost destroyed the stands,” complained Evers in 1977. Confirms Packard, “People still dig up pretty plants from the forest preserves and take them home.”
The avidity of collectors even had to be allowed for in the methodology of the state’s endangered list. “Some plants which seem to have a price on their heads, like the white fringed orchid, are found in more than the maximum six populations we used to define ‘endangered,'” explains Bowles. “But because of the pressure on those populations from collectors, they still have to be considered endangered.”
The continuing commercial demand for some plants has kept hunting and gathering a viable way of life in Illinois. The demand for bloodroot by toothpaste makers has spawned a lively trade in the roots and seeds of Sanguinaria canadensis. Endangered species as a rule aren’t very showy but the bloodroot is one of the prettier Illinois wildflowers, and plant people worry that it will soon become as rare as ginseng. Demand for that plant has made it one of Illinois’ unlikeliest economic resources. The state now requires that anyone digging or selling wild ginseng must be licensed with the state, for reasons that become clear when you consider that the reported Illinois harvest in 1986 of 5,455 pounds required the destruction of an estimated 1,287,000 plants.
Some aggressive nonnative species, alas, are more easily regulated than others. John Schwegman has never had to spray herbicide on ginseng collectors or set fire to them, except maybe in his daydreams. He has done all that and more to stop certain weeds, however. Schwegman, an accomplished field botanist and manager of the fledgling botany program of the Illinois Department of Conservation, has mounted a propaganda campaign to alert a sleepy citizenry to the fact that some of the most vicious enemies of Illinois’ native endangered plants are not people but other plants. More than 28 percent of Illinois’ flora today is thought to consist of nonnative species. Most, like smallpox, property taxes, and fast food, were brought to Illinois by whites; others hitchhiked in the bellies of migratory birds. Such interlopers are known as exotics, adventives, or aliens, all terms that may be considered synonymous with “nasty.” Many become aggressive in their new habitats.
Initially most of these imports were herbaceous annuals that were a nuisance to farmers but posed no serious threat to natural ecosystems. In the 1930s, a graver threat developed in the form of new, tougher woody weeds and aggressive perennials, many of which had been deliberately introduced in Illinois as commercial landscape plants. These green vandals, once turned loose, embark on what amount to wars of conquest. “Compared to the bulldozer, exotic plant proliferation is slow,” Schwegman wrote in a 1986 article for the local Sierra Club’s Lake and Prairie, but “the results may be just as devastating to nature.”
Crown vetch, the ground cover used by engineers to stabilize road embankments, has invaded Goose Lake Prairie in Grundy County, the state’s largest nature preserve, as well as the dunes at Illinois Beach State Park, where it is threatening a population of rare purple fringed orchids. Interstate highways aren’t the only transportation systems that are sources of weedy invaders; a tiny population of Mead’s milkweed in southern Illinois is threatened by the hay plants that sprout along bridle trails from seeds spread by horse droppings. Schwegman has prepared some full-color, poster-size photos showing a Kankakee mallow being smothered by amur honeysuckle; to the plant lover it looks like a python swallowing a live deer.
None of these plant predators is more persistent than the aptly named purple loosestrife. A Eurasian native, Lythrum salicaria was introduced in Illinois as a yard and garden ornamental. Plopped into an accommodating landscape with none of the insects and diseases that restrained its spread at home, the plant has become a pestilential weed in wet places. Aerial surveys reveal that purple loosestrife is spreading across the Fox River valley like a plague. It already threatens Wauconda and Gavin bogs in Lake County. Brandenburg Bog, probably the premier calcareous bog in the state, was purchased by the state as a nature preserve in 1970; today it is so overgrown with purple loosestrife that DOC staff (to borrow a phrase from another futile war) would have to destroy the bog in order to save it.
The fact that purple loosestrife prefers wet areas makes it especially pernicious when you consider how many of the endangered plants of the Chicago region are limited to moist habitats. Only nonselective herbicides can kill it, and experts believe that the only hope of control is to introduce insect pests from the plant’s natural range. If that search fails, Schwegman for one worries that every marsh and wetland in northern Illinois will be lost.
To forestall the day when every bog and bosky dell in Illinois is captured by exotics, Schwegman drafted an exotics-control bill for the General Assembly that resulted in the passage of compromise legislation banning the sale or planting in the state of purple loosestrife, multiflora rose, and Japanese honeysuckle. The new ban may help. But because of opposition from commercial nurserymen, the new law does not mandate the eradication of such plants where they already grow, as is required of other officially recognized noxious weeds. Those who know these plants think that’s like trying to stop a flu epidemic by outlawing sneezing but not coughing.
Plant people generally agree that if the state’s rare plants are to survive, much less thrive, they will have to do so in officially designated preserves–plant zoos in effect, artificial ecosystems populated by refugees whose own habitats have been decimated by development.
It is not a new idea. Nearly 70 years ago, for example, members of the Wild Flower Preservation Society of Chicago distributed to members seeds of the Kankakee mallow in order to prevent its extinction by creating more colonies outside the wild, mainly in private gardens. Schwegman himself has been instrumental in sending plant material from endangered species such as decurrens false aster and the leafy prairie clover for propagation in DOC’s nursery in Mason County and in public gardens such as the Lincoln Memorial garden in Springfield. Seeds are also being shipped to the seed repository run by USDA’s Center for Plant Conservation, our national germ bank in effect, where they can be kept indefinitely in cold storage. Bowles also is propagating certain rare plants at the Morton Arboretum; the arboretum’s walk-in cooler, kept at a damp 36 degrees Fahrenheit, is where racks of pots containing beach peas and orchids and other strange bedfellows sleepily sit out winters much more benign than the ones outside.
Seed storage and greenhouse propagation are necessary stopgaps in the rescue of dwindling species, but they are not long-term solutions. Their establishment in public gardens and arboretums is probably a necessary next step, if only to ensure supplies of plants and seeds. (Greenhouses induce the same lack of vigor in native plants that central heating does in humans.) Plans are being approved to regrade an abandoned quarry at Morton to create a dry gravel-dolomite prairie habitat of the sort once common to the Chicago area. Bowles and DeMaoro will try to reestablish survivors of the Illinois population of lakeside daisies at the new site, along with other endangered and threatened Chicago-area species such as the woolly milkweed, the Tennessee milk vetch, and the leafy prairie and prairie bush clovers. Prairies have been restored on silty soils but not on gravel prairies where glacial till lies thin atop bedrock limestone. About his recovery plan, a nervous Bowles admits, “I have two pages of contingencies.”
Indeed. Arboretums are essential places, lifeboats in a sinking ecosystem, but even the best-appointed lifeboat (and Morton is one of the best) is only a place to stay alive, not a place to live in. The answer, when circumstances allow it, is to reestablish endangered species in the wild. “Some rare plants definitely can be transferred in one way or another,” concedes Packard. “But there are ethical questions involved.” Morton botanist Gerould Wilhelm offers the example of plans by designers of the North Point Marina being built at Illinois Beach State Park to plant bearberry, also known by the musical name kinnikinnick. The shrub is an ideal ground cover for lake dunes, and it still grows abundantly in parts of the park, having been uprooted elsewhere along the Illinois shore. “The marina’s designers were told by DOC that they couldn’t plant new bearberry there, because it would pollute the gene pool of the local bearberry population,” Wilhelm recalls. Seed could be gathered from the local population to propagate new plants, but that would take both time and the approval of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. According to Randy Heidorn, DOC’s “natural heritage” biologist in charge of the area, “Apparently the extra effort of using local genotypes was something the marina’s designers did not want to do.” Wilhelm is unconvinced. “That particular protocol will send species like the bearberry well on their way to oblivion.” Recalling the crossbreeding of the lakeside daisy, he insists, “If we hadn’t polluted that population with Ohio plants it might have vanished.”
A plant can be protected to death, in other words. But if professional plant protectors sometimes permit too little, amateurs often presume too much. About the pretty plants that people take home to replant, Packard says, “Most of these plants require specific habitats that usually don’t exist where people put them. They fool themselves if they think they’ve saved it by moving it.” Schwegman elaborates. “They’d already be there if they could survive there. Oh, they’ll live for a while and you think you’ve done something. But there may be a 20-year drought or that 30-year cold snap and they’re gone.”
“It’s like doing a heart transplant,” says Packard, “only we haven’t spent millions researching how to do it. However, if excellent ecosystems of the type the plant lived in can be found, I think they ought to be put back.”
Hence the evolving discipline known as management for recovery. The restoration of complex plant communities (particularly tallgrass prairies) has had some success in Illinois, and has endowed the state with a very practical generation of botanists experienced at substituting for vanished insect pollinators, simulating the prairie fires of old, and standing in for absent predators against invading weeds. Indeed, the role of the field botanist is shifting from describing the ecosystems of endangered plants to duplicating them.
“We didn’t really realize the need for restoration because people were not doing monitoring of species until the 70s,” Bowles explains. “There have always been nurserymen and botanists around who grew rare plants in their own homes. But as a bureaucratic venture it’s quite new.” Bowles and DeMaoro for example enjoy the cooperation and the facilities of the University of Illinois at Chicago in the production of relatively huge populations of what used to be hard-to-propagate plants. (“They’re tired of just growing soybeans,” says DeMaoro with a smile.) The greenhouses are equipped with sodium vapor lamps, which, by simulating spring, give transplants a several-week head start on nature. “In the past there hasn’t been that blend of field biologists and greenhouse people working together,” notes Bowles. It was a greenhouse person who delighted field botanists with the news that the Tennessee milk vetch can be reproduced from cuttings; it was the botanists who explained to the greenhouse people why it was worth trying in the first place.
The complexity of the tasks set for botanists is reflected in the techniques needed to accomplish them. Tools, for example, range from Packard’s pollinating toothpicks to construction equipment. The new Du Page County toll road will plow through some 76 acres of wetlands and marshes. The toll road authority is working cooperatively with the Morton Arboretum, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Forest Preserve District of Du Page County, and other agencies in projects to mitigate this disaster by restoring or creating similar wetlands elsewhere along the route. The graders treaded especially carefully at Churchill Prairie, where they removed topsoil then redeposited it at a similar site in a meticulously constructed artificial wetland. Carried in that soil were the still-viable seeds, bulbs, corms, and rhizomes of the approximately 170 native species found at the site. This seed bank contained Carex atherodes and Carex rostrada, sedges endangered in Illinois.
The next season individuals of roughly 70 Churchill Prairie species sprouted at the new site. “That blew us all away,” says Wilhelm. “We could not have predicted that kind of success.” Among the survivors were single stems of each of the rare sedges. “This is new ground,” Wilhelm warns. “We don’t know how well our water levels approximate the originals, so we don’t know whether those plants have the long-term capacity to grow there.” But it is an encouraging start.
If Wilhelm and company applied the skills of the engineer to their restoration, Charlie Schwegman plays forest ranger at his. Schwegman devised a restoration plan a few years ago for the leafy prairie clover on the Kankakee River island. The ecosystem in which the plant had once thrived on its river island home in Kankakee County was complex–it was a dry site with shallow soil, protected by a “vegetation break” created by the river (which barred other species’ migration from shore) and modified by seasonal scouring by river ice, the occasional fire, and animal interference (beavers felled shadeproducing trees, elk and bison grazed, and deer browsed shoots). The physical site was not much changed from a century earlier, but its flora was, the site having been overrun with honeysuckle and other weeds.
Schwegman’s restoration plan for the clover (approved by the state Endangered Species Protection Board and begun in 1984) called for prescribed, controlled burning to roughly duplicate the impact of the vanished animals, and weed killers to at least slow down the spread of honeysuckle. Within three years the number of plants that had flowered–always the sign of a contented plant–had increased.
Bowles has undertaken a similar project in Messenger Woods near Joliet. He replanted 15 heart-leaved plantains in different spots, using local ecotypes obtained from Milwaukee, the better to ensure their adaptability to the site’s miniclimate. The locale was subsequently inundated by a storm flood, then parched by drought, and only four plants survived the year. Having seen those few live, Bowles next hopes to see them reproduce and form self-sustaining populations.
“Some people wonder about the wisdom of restoring rare plants in new locations,” admits Steve Packard. “They worry that people will think that saving endangered plants is not as dependent on saving original habitats as we thought.” The executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund raised precisely that objection recently in the New Vork Times. The anxiety is reasonable. The various campaigns to salvage original habitats cannot survive much more inattention than they already receive, and there are no guarantees that ersatz wetlands or gravel prairies will ever achieve the biological richness of nature. No one knows better than those attempting it how hard rescue and restoration can be.
Choosing between restoration and preservation may be a luxury Illinois will not enjoy much longer, in any event. “The difference between ‘endangered’ plants and the more widespread native species,” warns Wilhelm, “is strictly bureaucratic. Of the 1,542 species which used to live here in the Chicago area,” he insists, “33 percent are already either very rare or gone. In an ultimate sense, 90 percent of the surviving local flora is de facto endangered, since it survives on only about one half of one percent of the total land area of the region.” Sue Lauzon’s observation–that the demise of “glamour species” of vertebrates often is traceable to the devastation of the plant communities that sustain them–acquires sudden weight when you recall that we are the most glamorous species of them all.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.