Making the Case for Plants In a low water year, rare Vermont Native plants are making an appearance---and botanists are taking note.

Aaron Marcus has been studying plants since middle school. As a 13-year-old boy, he read plant biology books and studied illustrations in his spare time, and declared to his teachers that he was going to be a botanist when he grew up. No questions asked.

The commitment paid off. Now, Aaron can rattle off the Latin names of hundreds—if not thousands—of plant species in Vermont and New England, and can identify the same number alongside roads, stream banks, and wetlands. He uses his craft professionally as a botanist for the Agency of Natural Resources to identify and collect data on plant populations across the State and add it to a large online database.

Joining Aaron Marcus in the field to inventory Vermont’s native plants one of his regular outings is eye opening, to say the least. But there is something that made excursions with Aaron this past summer and fall an especially rare treat: drought. Abnormally dry conditions around the State this year have created an opportunity for botanists to survey extremely rare plants that only grow when water levels are low enough to allow them to take hold.

Being with Aaron in the field to search for these rare plants is like spending an evening looking at comet through a telescope with a NASA scientist.

It’s rare, it’s exciting, and it can tell us a lot of useful information.

Low water levels during this unusually dry summer and fall have exposed sandy river banks and lake shores to air and sun, creating perfect conditions for rare plant seeds that lay dormant underwater to emerge. When conditions persist, the rare shoreline plants have a chance to grow to full maturity and produce seeds, making it easier for botanists to identify and document the plants. .

“Low water years are 'where the party is at' for some of these plants—they’re all coming out,” Aaron explains.

The party mood extends to plant biologists and conservationists who are looking at the dry weather as a rare chance to augment the Vermont Natural Heritage Inventory—a huge database that stores information about thousands of occurrences of plant species in the State. The database plugs into several public mapping and data tools that allows researchers, town planners, and conservationists to make decisions that protect rare plant areas, and to understand how populations may boom or shrink with a changing climate.

Think twice! Popular beaches used for volleyball, swimming, and summer picnics make great habitat for unique and globally rare sedges, grasses, and rushes.

Beaches along Lake Champlain were some of the biggest target areas for finding rare plants this particular year, as sandy shores gained temporary real estate because of near record-low water levels in Lake Champlain. “Nobody thinks of beaches or exposed sandy shores as prime areas for great natural communities,” Aaron says. Sandy beaches along lake shores with a heavy recreational crowd, such as North Beach in Burlington, make fine substrates for unique sedges, grasses, and rushes. Botanists worked with parks this summer to rope off sensitive areas and remind visitors to gently watch their step to protect the possibility for these plants to grow in the future.

Take a deeper dive on a mission to find Wright's spikerush.

It's a late-October afternoon and getting chilly, though the sun is out.

The color of the rushes confirm it's autumn. Aaron arrives to Sandbar State Park in Milton, Vermont, to search for Eleocharis diandra, or in common language: Wright's spikerush (or spikesedge). Parking at the far edge of the parking lot towards the mouth of the Lamoille River, the only way to start searching for the rare plant is to wade into the dried sea of thriving rushes, grasses, and sedges and start looking.

In a normal year, this freshwater clam would be submerged underwater in shallow water in Lake Champlain. It is a decorative piece among semi-aquatic plants that have embraced a year of living in plain air, a departure from the arrangements of typical underwater living.

Unlike previous sites visited in the day, it takes only about fifteen minutes before Aaron exclaims his first sighting. It's fairly obvious to Aaron that the plant is a Wright's spikerush, given that he's been surveying for it all summer along Lake Champlain, but the best way to confirm the find is to look at its seeds under a hand-held lens.

Aaron collected one specimen from the site to send to a botanist who is conducting research on the plant.

Confirmed: Wright's spikerush.

Like threatened and endangered fish and wildlife species, plants also have rankings based on their rarity or threat of extinction. The Wright’s spikerush is a globally rare species (G2). There are fewer than 30 sites known globally for the Wright's spikerush, most of which are in Vermont. In Vermont, the species conservation status is ranked S1—meaning it is very rare or critically imperiled in the state due to extreme rarity, steep declines or other factors.

Aaron's discovery of the Wright's spikerush at the State Park is the first record of a population being documented in the town of Milton---another geographic milestone for the summer. If it was in Franklin County, it would have been a new County record for the rare species.

Because this was the first documented population in Milton, Aaron collects seed samples to add to the record.

Is the Wright's spikerush protecting itself by adapting to the snacking habits of migrating geese?

Look at the background picture to the right. There are two individual Wright's spikerush plants: the one to the left stands tall and holds three-dimensional shape; the one on the right is flattened towards the ground. Why are these plants holding themselves so differently?

No one is quite sure, but Aaron speculates that the plants may be responding to feeding pressure from migrating geese. Geese enjoy snacking on the seeds of spikerushes and other neighboring plants, and the plants with a flattened form make it harder for geese to reach the seeds and eat them.

With a grin, Aaron Marcus tries to demonstrate how a spike rush plant might push itself towards the ground to make it harder for geese to reach its seeds.

The ecological connection.

Geese love feeding on Wright's spikerush. It's like a rare food treat during this year’s migration—This apparent affinity for the plant should give extra reason for hunters and bird-watchers to want to document native rare plants. Who knows how critical their role may be in the ecosystem? Or as a seasonal food source in dry years when other plants are difficult to find? How much do we know, really?

A migratory fowl hunting blind, a ripe red-orange sunset, and the rare slender bulrush illustrate the unknown connections between animals, plants, and climate. The slender bulrush is very rare in Vermont and throughout New England.

Why rare plants?

As Aaron says, “People don’t care about plants as much because they’re not furry and they don’t have eyeballs. Actually, some plants are furry…but they definitely don’t have eyes.” Hikers, hunters, bird-watchers, anglers, artists—people whom love exploring the outdoors and seeing wildlife—are coming to understand more how plants are part of the picture when it comes to wildlife conservation. Even if the contributions of a rare plant species to Vermont's ecosystem is not immediately clear, the future role of certain plants---especially the ones that are disappearing, or rare--are important to preserve. The idea is:

to preserve possibility. to maintain bio-resilience.

This detailed, intricate world deserves as much attention from conservationists as that earned by the bobcat, black bear, and other more prominent wildlife characters.

Human life and wildlife depends on plants. By documenting populations of threatened plants, scientists and conservationists can continue to work towards understanding their role regional ecosystems, and plan to preserve their possibility in the future--especially with an uncertain climate future.

In the short term, plant inventory data is used for real conservation decision-making.

The data collected during plant surveys all goes somewhere. Most of it is downloaded into a massive database hosted by a non-profit and public sector partnership called NatureServe. In Vermont, scientists working at the Agency of Natural Resources pull data from this database and other in-house collections to display rare and common plant data into mapping applications for use by developers, project analysts, and the general public.

One example of how plant inventory data is being used in Vermont today is through use of the Agency's BioFinder tool by municipalities. BioFinder is an interactive mapping tool that gives towns direct access to data that will help them make conservation decisions and plan to preserve critical and ecologically important locations across their portion of the state's landscape. Rare and threatened plant species is one of several data layers that feed into the calculations that determine high-priority areas for conservation. When municipalities are looking to make strategic conservation decisions or reconsider zoning regulations, rare plant data is being referenced when Biofinder is used to inform the decision. That's plant data at work.

FINDING vermont rare Plant data:

  • For landowners or consultants: The Natural Resources Atlas displays areas where rare or threatened species are found based on a plant database that is updated quarterly. For confidentiality reasons, the maps cannot display exact species names or counts. E-mail fwinformation@vermont.gov or call the Fish and Wildlife Department at (802) 828-1000 to request specific data from a Wildlife Diversity Program specialist if you need more information about a plant data on a particular property you own.
  • For geospatial mapping techies: Download data sets to use in ArcGIS and other mapping applications using the Agency of Natural Resources OpenGIS Data Warehouse. Includes data layers for rare, threatened, and endangered species, important bird and bat habitat areas, and much more.
  • For any person looking for a reliable New England plant identification resource: GoBotany is an indispensable tool for the plant hobbyist as well as the professional to identify or learn about any plant found in New England. The pictures are great. It’s run by the New England Wild Flower Society, and comes highly recommended by the Fish & Wildlife Department's botanists and wildlife diversity specialists.
  • For the scientific researcher: Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department is a member of the NatureServe network. The Department's Wildlife Diversity Program collects and submits plant inventory data to NatureServe that is then added to national databases with standardized data terms. NatureServe is a non-profit and public sector partnership that connects and conforms plant inventory data from across the country through an online data sharing platform. Look up data by species name or natural community types for over 70,000 plant species in the U.S. and Canada on NatureServe Explorer.
Respect. Protect. Enjoy.

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