According to Jared Franklin, an environmental specialist at the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Naples, FLORIDA is home to MORE than 2,840 native plant species and is the most botanically diverse state in the United States.
Among them are 168 species that are considered rare worldwide but have not been secured in any conservation collection. Until now.
The Rookery Bay Research Reserve and the Naples Botanical Garden are collaborating as part of the statewide Florida Plant Rescue seed collection initiative, coordinated by the California Center for Plant Conservation. The goal is to create seed banks of these rare species to protect them from extinction and have plants available that can be restored if necessary.
“The Florida Plant Initiative is fairly new,” says Chad Washburn, vice president of conservation at the Naples Botanical Garden, noting that planning began in 2019 and collection began earlier this year. “When the opportunity presented itself to focus our efforts in Florida, we jumped at it immediately.”
The garden and reserve have already worked on seed collection. Stretching from Keewaydin Island to the Ten Thousand Islands and encompassing 40 percent of Collier County’s coastline, the 110,000 acres of Rookery Bay Research Reserve are prime habitat for a wide variety of plants. They are also home to the first two plants the garden should collect seeds from: the twin flower of pine (Dyschoriste angusta), an endangered wildflower, and the many-flowered thrift (Calopogon multiflorus), an orchid.
“Jared Franklin has been a huge help,” says Jessica DeYoung, the garden’s director of conservation horticulture. “He is our field leader.”
Mr. Franklin has led teams of up to 14 gardeners on about 10 seed collection trips, guiding the group to locations he knows to find the target plants.
Both the many-flowered grass pink and the pineland twinflower have small natural ranges and face threats to their natural habitat, Franklin says. Many-flowered grass pink is a terrestrial orchid found only in open pine forests in the southeastern United States, primarily Florida, he adds. “It flowers within a few weeks of a fire, so firefighting limits this plant’s ability to reproduce.
Pineland Twinflower is only found in southern Florida and the northern Bahamas, two areas that are facing significant urban development pressures,” he says.
Mr. Washburn explains that the garden staff suggested collecting the plants first, and the Florida Plant Rescue team evaluated everyone’s ideas. The selected plants are not represented in collections of botanical gardens, universities and other institutions.
“As an individual scientist,” says Mr. Washburn, “you can’t know everything. But when you bring us together with our records and experience, a fuller picture emerges of what is going on with a species in the wild.”
Ms. DeYoung says the many-flowered grass pink and pineland twinflower were chosen in part because they are coastal species. “There are so many changes with rising water along the coast and storm intensity that are affecting the ecosystem,” she says, adding that the plants are also at risk from invasive pests and urban sprawl.
In addition to collecting seeds, the garden also collects photos and information about where the plants are found, when they bloom, when to seed, what type of soil they grow on, and other important data. Kate Talano, who holds the garden’s new GIS specialist position, is joining the teams to help with these coordinates.
“Your work contributes a lot to the strategy,” says Mr. Washburn, noting that this information would aid in restoring an ecosystem if needed. “It helps bring science to conservation.”
For example, Ms. DeYoung notes that the project has identified where the many-flowered grass pink is found. Since fire is required to thrive, this could help the Rookery Bay Research Reserve identify locations for the mandated fires they run.
She also says collecting these rare plants could have other scientific benefits. “Because they are so poorly conserved and understudied, they may be of medical importance to humans,” she notes.
Mr. Washburn adds that conservation efforts often revolve around “charismatic” flowers like the ghost orchid. “Just because something isn’t a big, iconic plant, and we may not know what function it has in the ecosystem, it can still have value.”
The collection of these seeds began in the spring and is planned for a year. The goal is to have enough seeds – ideally 300 – to store them in the Botanical Garden of Naples and share them with other institutions.
The garden stores seeds in a freezer kept at -20 degrees Celsius. “In theory, we could store seeds for a few hundred years,” says Ms. DeYoung.
Mr. Washburn says once enough seeds are collected they might try to propagate some plants. “That doesn’t sound like a big deal; plant a seed and it grows. But if you have a limited number of seeds and don’t know how to grow them, you could potentially lose value and strategy.” He says a lot of preparation and research will go into developing the propagation protocols.
He shares that the garden has 80,000 seeds of a rare plant found in Haiti that have yet to grow into a mature plant. They rate water and soil issues as potential obstacles.
Although collection of the multiflowered grass pink and twin pine flower continues, garden workers outside of the Rookery Bay Research Reserve have plans to collect seeds from other plants in 2023. They will provide details when these projects are confirmed.
They will also continue the general seed bank program launched in 2019 with a focus on seed genetic diversity.
“This is very encouraging,” says Ms. DeYoung of the collaborative seed bank initiative. “It’s something I was hoping for.” ¦