Blog 2.0

A Growing Plant Conservation Network in the Southeast

Two weeks ago I attended the Southeastern Partners in Plant Conservation (SePPCon) meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. Held on the grounds of the Atlanta Botanical Garden and organized by the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Center for Southeastern Conservation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Forest Service, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and members of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, SePPCon’s aim was to bring together government agencies, land managers, botanical gardens, university programs, and botanical experts to inform each other on best practices and topics relevant to rare plant conservation and to form a cohesive network of resources to support regional efforts for at-risk & listed plant species in the Southeastern U.S. 

The meeting was attended by about 160 people from 22 states, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, and by representatives from NatureServe, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, The USDA Forest Service, The Center for Plant Conservation, The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, The North Carolina Botanical Garden, the Missouri Botanical Garden, The American Public Gardens Association, The Center for Biological Diversity, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, The Gulf Coastal Plains and Ozarks LCC (me), the South Atlantic LCC (Rua Mordecai), and various Natural Heritage Programs/Commissions, Universities, and other organizations. The official footprint of this conference included the following states and territories: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri (Southern), North Carolina, Oklahoma (Eastern), South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas (Eastern), Virginia, West Virginia (Southern), and Puerto Rico & the Virgin Islands. A meeting summary and indexed recordings of the presentations will be available at the SePPCon Website in December 2016.

The Venue:

Chihuly sculpture in an Eastern Woodland garden setting

Chihuly blown glass stalks amidst oak-leaf hydrangea, witch hazel, and spice bush in back

The Atlanta Botanical Garden and its Cneter for Southeastern Conservation provided an amazing setting for this event. The conference kicked off just after the final day of Chihuly in the Garden, an installation of elaborate original glass sculptures by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly. Most of the pieces consisted of arrangements of dozens of individual colorful glass forms inserted directly into their garden settings or supported by elaborate metal frameworks. Watching the slow and careful process of workers disassembling the installations was as interesting as the installations themselves.

These eccentric, sometimes serpentine, floristic forms were particularly at home in the indoor gardens of the Fuqua Orchid Center, where tropical orchids and other epiphytes (plants that grow attached to a host but are non-parasitic, such as lichens here in the Southeast) are displayed in three separate display structures. The first, a Tropical Rotunda (pictured above), is about three stories high and features an impressive pinkish curtain of aerial roots and plants from equatorial regions. The Tropical High Elevation House (not pictured) features plants from the high elevation zones of the Andes mountains, the Tepuis of southern Venezuela, and Mount Kinabalu in Borneo. Temperatures in the High Elevation House are maintained at between 76 F in the day and 55 F at night. Since these montane plants require an environment that is moist as well as chilly, traditional air conditioning won’t work, and the house is cooled by a mechanical air washer that draws air from the basement and distributes it through the greenhouse via large tubes.

The third room of the Orchid Center is the Orchid Display House, which features a formal stone masonry pool and cedar pergola in the front and more naturalistic displays in back. Attendees who arrived Monday were invited to tour the gardens in small groups after hours, and at dusk the highlight of the Orchid Display house was the Darwin’s Orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale, which has an extremely intense spicy fragrance only present at night. Another highlight of the evening tour of these gardens was the frog chorus, which you can hear on this short video. An album with more images of the gardens and the conference is here on my flickr.

Keynote Speaker: Alan Weakley, Director of the University of North Carolina Herbarium

Dr. Weakley’s opening talk, “The Native Flora of the Southeastern U. S. – Deep, Diverse, Durable, Deserving, and Endangered,” describes the region as a biodiversity hotspot at many taxonomic levels. Southeastern biodiversity is driven by a multiplicative function of geology x soil x fire x rainfall x time. Across the region, biological activity occurs in a multitude of geological settings and soil types and in a context of more fire, more hurricanes, and more lightning strikes than is common elsewhere on the planet. Furthermore, large areas of the Southeast have been available as dry land for the entire history of land plants on Earth. Many plant species have been on this land for a very long time.

The talk focused on rare plants found in four distinct southeastern habitat types:

  • Mountain tops in the Southern Blue Ridge: some plants found on only a few mountain tops have relatives in New Hampshire and Nova Scotia. Others have relatives in British Columbia, Alaska, and Japan.
  • Serpentine Barrens: These are very isolated and limited environments with many disjunct species. As with other habitat types characterized by high rates of endemism, new species are still being discovered.
  • Coastal Plain: Biodiversity here has only recently been widely acknowledged, as  Reed Noss points out in Forgotten Grasslands of the South (2013). As with the other types, many locally rare species have relatives in distant parts of the world. The Florida worm lizard, with relatives in South America, is an example. A number of Coastal Plain endemics show a pattern of occurring in isolated patches in northwestern Florida, Coastal North Carolina, New Jersey, and Nova Scotia. Pine Barrens Gentian is an example.
  • Rockhouses, which occur in seepage areas, cliff bases and under overhanging ledges. This characteristic microclimate buffers the extremes of the climate of the Southeast: they never get too cold, too hot, too wet, or too dry. Here we find Hypochilus pococki, a spider in the lampshade weaver family with relatives in Asia.

Species that are locally rare but that have relatives in distant locations are said to be relictual, a really cool word that I don’t often hear but was used many times at this conference. Reading further on my own I find that this pattern on the land indicates ancient age: the common ancestor may have occurred when these locations were closer together in space; continental drift and climate change are possible agents of isolation of relictual species. Returning to Weakley's talk: rare and endemic species tend to show up in areas with high biodiversity: they seem to be showing us where the hot spots are. And areas that have maintained high biodiversity through past eras of climate change are more likely to continue to do so through the present and into the future. These are reasons why plant conservation is an important contribution to the larger project of global environmental conservation. However, conservation efforts directed towards animal species receive much more money from federal agencies than projects that focus on plants. Several other speakers made this point as well.

Weakley concluded with a rundown of the many things that have changed for the better in the past 40 years. In 1976, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) were brand new. Only a few Natural Heritage Programs existed. Email did not exist, and neither did GPS or GIS. The Nature Conservancy had about 100 employees worldwide, whereas today they have about 3200. Floristic manuals were written by professors, for professors, and USFWS and USFS had few botanists on their payrolls. Today we have a more diverse community of conservation professionals utilizing a suite of amazing tools. One such tool is FloraQuest, a smart phone app produced by the University of North Carolina that allows the user to identify native plants of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic States using an interactive dichotomous key and an illustrated glossary of botanical terms, with results filtered by GPS location.

Other speakers: common themes

As I mentioned, a number of other speakers referred to the mismatch between the number of plants protected by in the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Vivian Negrón-Ortiz, Botanist for the Panama City Field Office of USFWS, has a recent publication going into more detail about the pattern of expenditures for plant conservation under the ESA (see table, right).

Another hot topic was best practice protocols for ex situ conservation, meaning the propagation and growing of plants outside their natural range, such as in herbaria or botanical gardens. Some argue that ex situ conservation undermines in situ practices, which involve the protection and conservation of a species in its natural habitat. Another danger of ex situ is that it can constitute (or be perceived as) a form of “green washing” a project that in reality has no conservation value. Johnny Randall, Director of Conservation Programs at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, explained that for some high-priority species, and especially in cases where populations are small and/or highly fragmented, or that lack seeds, pollinators, or genetic diversity, ex situ conservation is an appropriate action. David Bender, Botanist with the South Florida Ecological Services Field Office, described an example of what he termed an uncooperative species, a spiny shrub called Florida Ziziphus (Ziziphus celata). Originally collected in 1948, the plant remained unidentified and unnamed until 1984, when it was presumed extinct. It was rediscovered in 1987 in Polk County, Florida, as a small population consisting of a single genotype. Prospects for recovery were slim until other small populations were found, and some genetic diversity was obtained through hand pollination, but the plant prefers distinct mating types. “It’s very picky,” Bender explained, “and we say it is uncooperative because you do a lot of things to try to save it but it just doesn’t want to work with you.” Bender contrasted this species to the more cooperative Garret’s Mint (Dicerandra christmanii), a small fragrant shrub found only in Highlands County, Florida. Although its habitat is under extreme pressure from development, new populations have been discovered at Lake Wales Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, where the plant cooperates with practitioners by sprouting new seedlings after fires.

Botanists and Conservation Professionals discussing ex situ and in situ safeguarding during the Species Workshop Sessions

Another topic that frequently arose was the fact that plants are named as species of greatest conservation need (SGCN) in only 17 of our State Wildlife Action Plans (SWAPs), and in only four states and two territories in the Southeast (Louisiana, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands), Reasons for this include the fact that federal law requires states to name animals but not plants, and the US congress forbids allocating State Wildlife Grants (SWGs) to plant conservation specifically, but these funds can go towards conservation of specific habitats and thus benefit threatened and endangered plants indirectly. In some states, the State Fish and Wildlife Service lacks the authority to manage plants. In these cases plant conservation is managed by the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Environmental Quality, or the Department of Agriculture. I would like to point out here that most of the SWAPs I have read, and certainly the plan for my home state of Mississippi, approach the recovery of the identified animal species in terms of habitat conservation, and that plants, in addition to abiotic elements such as soil, land form, and climate, constitute a major component of habitat. Although excluded from SGCN lists, specific plants are named (common name only) in the habitat descriptions of the Mississippi SWAP.

Since plant conservation cannot be funded directly through SWGs, state-level Plant Conservation Alliances (PCAs) fill this gap. The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance is the gold standard, the model for other southeastern states. Since its founding in 1995, the GPCA has grown from a small group of dedicated individuals to a network of 42 public gardens, agencies, schools, companies, and conservation organizations providing over $1.3 million in direct and indirect support for plant conservation. The GPCA recently received special national recognition from a the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies celebrating the organizations “outstanding contributions” to advancing professional fish and wildlife conservation in North America. In 2013, the GPCA received a Program Excellence Award from the American Public Garden Association. I don’t know how many other southeastern states have Plant Conservation Alliances. I know that Alabama has one and that Mississippi does not.

The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance exists in a supportive atmosphere for plant conservation at the state level. The state of Georgia’s statutory definition of “wildlife” includes plants, which is uncommon, and their State Wildlife Action Plan identifies 290 plant species as a high priority for conservation. Discussions at SePPCon indicated that Georgia and North Carolina are the only southeastern states with enforceable plant protection laws.

 There are national organizations supporting plant conservation, and these include the American Public Garden Association, represented at SePPCon by Pam Allenstein. Their Strategy for Plant Conservation can be read at There is also the national-level Plant Conservation Alliance that supports three working groups: medicinal plants, alien plants, and restoration. At the international level we have the Botanic Gardens Conservation International.

 The Southeastern Partners in Plant Conservation is an emerging and still-developing coalition of Conservation Professionals seeking a platform for collaboration at a regional scale, that is, somewhere between the state and national levels. As was pointed out at the conference, different agencies and organizations identify the “Southeast” in different ways (Virginia either is or is not a Southern State depending on whether you are with USFS or USFWS, see image, right). The ambiguity of “Southern” identity was referenced at SePPCon when a presenter from Kentucky rather cheekily argued that Cincinnati is the northernmost southern city, and was met with head-shaking and mild expressions of skepticism from the group.

To sum up: A distinct and direct focus on the Plant Kingdom illuminates challenges and opportunities for large landscape conservation. For instance, plants tend to move much more slowly than animals as climate change affects the geographical configuration of suitable habitats. The role of plant conservation community in relation to the larger landscape conservation community is evolving. Southeastern Partners in Plant Conservation is an example of a developing, Meso-scale network, smaller than national and larger than state organizations. Landscape Conservation Cooperatives and Joint Ventures, initiated with the purpose of working at this same scale, are ideally suited to partner with and facilitate this emerging network.

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