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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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: