Native Plants, Rare Plants, And Lakeshores

I recently signed up to become a plant survey volunteer for the Native Plant Trust. I am a botanist by training and identifying wildflowers was my first botanical obsession, way back when in high school and my early college years. Then the algae caught my attention and I left the flowering plants for another day. With the Trust’s plant survey volunteers, I’ll be getting back to my roots and helping monitor plants around Vermont.

A lot of information crossed the computer screen during the volunteer training, but one of the most important facts for me was this:

At present, 540 taxa, 22 percent of [New England’s] native plant taxa are listed as globally, regionally, or locally rare or historical.

State of the Plants, Native Plant Trust 2015

That’s worth saying again – almost a quarter of our native plants in the Northeast are at risk of being lost . While many of those plants have probably always been rare and adapted to very specific conditions, these locations – the only places these plants can call home – are disappearing. The Native Plant Trust estimates, on average, these plants have lost 67% of their range in New England.

In its 2015 report, State of the Plants – Challenges and Opportunities for Conserving New England’s Native Flora, the Native Plant Trust (formerly the NE Wildflower Society), dives deep into plant ecology and threats to native plants around our region. Again, a couple of things caught my eye. Vermont, in particular the Champlain Valley, has many rare plant populations (see the figure below). We also have many towns where no surveys have been conducted and the number of rare plants is unknown. Conducting a plant survey takes time and people with the skills to identify plants, resources that are in short supply. State programs like Vermont’s Natural Heritage Inventory do what they can with their limited resources, but there is still a lot of area to cover even in a small state like Vermont. There are probably rare plants growing in many of Vermont’s towns, if we look.

Towns where rare plants have been documented in Vermont. From the State of the Plants, 2015.

Habitat is extremely important for plants. The combination of soil type, light, nutrient availability, elevation, and other characteristics at a particular location means a species of plant can be right at home there or not grow at all. The State of the Plant report identified habitats where rare plants were most abundant (see the figure below) and here is where the connection to lakes comes in. Large numbers of rare native plants live in shoreline habitats and a good number live in aquatic habitats. Shorelines discussed in the Trust report were found mostly along rivers and streams, but lakes have important shoreline and aquatic habitats too. Some of those water-connected rare and threatened plants can likely found along Vermont’s lakes and in associated wetlands.

Estimated number of rare plants found in New England habitats. From The State of the Plants, Native Plant Trust 2015.

As a lakeshore owner or manager, you don’t need to be a taxonomic expert to protect rare plants. If you have and protect natural habitat along your shorelines, you’re making sure native plants have a place they can call home. Even if you don’t know what a sedge is, it can be happily growing at your feet while you enjoy a sunset or climb into your canoe.

Re-establishing natural shorelines can also benefit native plants. Seeds can lie hidden in the soil for years and sometimes decades, waiting for the right conditions to start growing. Animals and waterfowl can move seeds, roots, and tubers around too. Once mowing and other disturbances stop, these can start growing and take their place in the sun (or shade). Check out our resources page for information on how to establish and maintain natural shorelines.

You may already have hidden plant treasure, unusual aquatic plants, safe in that natural shoreline you’ve been encouraging out your back door. If you haven’t built your natural plant ‘treasure chest’ yet, now is the time to start!

Water sedge (Carex aquatilis) uncommon in Vermont. Image: Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons