the optimism of new england wild flower society’s dr. elizabeth farnsworth
I’VE BEEN DIGGING this spring—the expected outdoor kind, and then when it’s dark or pouring or something else prevents the garden variety, I’ve been digging around the New England Wild Flower Society website, online home of the oldest organization in North America dedicated to the conservation of native plants. I’ve been reading about the state of native plants and efforts to save them, about relationships between plants and pollinators, about invasive plants, and more more more.
I was recently treated to a conversation with the Society’s Senior Research Ecologist, Dr. Elizabeth Farnsworth, who agreed to indulge my insatiable curiosity first-hand on all that—and about topics as diverse as why to love (not loathe!) ants, or what roles ferns play in ecosystems, and her bottom-line optimism despite so many despairing headlines environmentally.
Elizabeth, who has worked at the Society since 1999, has directed several special projects there, including more than one-hundred Conservation and Research Plans for rare plants, and the building and promoting of Go Botany—an online resource that we’ll hear more about in a moment. She has conducted research on plant ecology, physiology, evolution, and responses to climate change, serves on several graduate faculties, and has authored and/or illustrated seven books.
Read along as you listen to the May 8, 2107 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
native plant q&a with dr. elizabeth farnsworth
Q. As I said in the introduction, I have been rooting around and have learned so much, and am grateful for the website. When I first visited Garden in the Woods, one of the headquarters of the Society, and I continue to be inspired by your online presence as well. Good stuff.
Just a very quick sort of mission statement, perhaps for those in other areas, or who have never visited the Society or its website: What does the Society do and for how long has it been doing it?
A. We’ve been around for about 117 years, so we are the oldest organization in North America dedicated to the conservation of native plants. Our mission is to conserve and promote the region’s native plants, in order to insure healthy and biologically diverse landscape. That’s a lot of what we’re about.
Q. That’s pretty serious; 117 years. Many people think this is new, the thought of native plants—like we just all started thinking of that. But quite to the contrary.
A. No, in the early part of the 1900s, there became an awareness that there was a tremendous amount of over-collecting of native plants in the wild, by people who were collecting bouquets. They began to collect almost industrially. This Society and a number of other societies, like the Hardy Fern Society, really sprung into action at that time—and the Audubon Society.
Q. I have a confession, Elizabeth: I am addicted to GoBotany; I am powerless over GoBotany…
A. Yea; yea.
Q. …which is a tool on the Wild Flower Society website that’s easy to find—GoBotany dot NewEnglandWild dot org—I use it all the time. I’m not technically in New England; I’m in New York State, but whatever. Can you tell us briefly tell us about what it is, and what people use it for? I know I use it because I love the range maps [left side of sample plant-profile page, above] especially as mentioned, to see where plants are native to specifically, as opposed to saying just, “native plant,” which is a little generic.
A. Go Botany came about because we had just published the Flora Novae Angliae, or Flora of New England, which is a key in a book form to all 3,500 species of plants native to or naturalized on the New England landscape. We wanted a way to be able to get that out to many more people in an interactive form, and we also wanted to be able to draw a younger generation, who are obsessed with technology, to be obsessed with plants via their obsession with technology.
So we wrote a grant to the National Science Foundation; they funded us for $2.5 million—thanks to everyone whose tax dollars have paid for this. There are worse things to spend them on. It was a four-year project to develop an interactive and fun key to all of the plants of New England.
We have several ways of approaching how to identify plants. You might find yourself in front of a plant in the wild, or around your neighborhood, and you have your cellphone. You can take your cellphone out and use Go Botany, and it’s entirely free anywhere you have wifi or a cellular connection.
You simply go through a few steps to be able to narrow down what your species could be. We take you through those steps; we ask you some simple questions about the plant. We show you photographs of possible matches to the plant you’re trying to identify.
We also do have a technical dichotomous key for more expert botanists to use—but all of the terminology on the website, the botanical terminology, we’ve tried to keep to a minimum with our interactive keys—but they’re all defined on rollover. So if you roll over your cursor on a particular term, or tap on one you don’t understand, you will get an illustration and definition of that term.
Alternatively, you can simply search on a species you are interested in.
Q. And that’s what I am addicted to, I will confess.
A. [Laughter.] There you go. So you want to learn everything you can about Acer saccharum, our sugar maple [above], you use our search tool. Our search tool is very forgiving—you can search on the common name, or on the species name—the scientific or Latin name.
Or if you happen to know your species by a scientific name that is no longer recognized—oops!—such as Cornus canadensis. That our lowly bunchberry, for example, which is now known under a totally different Latin name. This is how botanists keep off the streets; we change the Latin names. [Wikipedia image of bunchberry below by D. Gordon E. Robertson.]
Q. You are so naughty; so, so naughty.
A. I know. I am still deeply in mourning for Cornus canadensis, because I cannot actually pronounce the genus name that it now has. [Laughter.]
Q. Oh, dear. [Note: Try saying it yourself: Chamaepericlymenum canadense.]
A. But you can search under the synonyms, the previous names—and the search engine will give you an answer. The other thing about Go Botany is that we wanted to create a community, of people who were interested in plants at whatever level, whether you’re an expert, or just getting into plants. So we created an online interactive community a little bit like Facebook, if you will, for plant geeks. We call it Plant Share—we were going to call it FacePlant, but it did not work out. [Laughter.]
That’s a place that you can go, and you can post sightings of plants you’ve seen in the wild, or interact with our research biologist Arthur Haynes, if you’re having a little bit of trouble identifying any plants from Go Botany. You can post photos of those plants and get an answer back.
Q. So lots of ways to use it, and dip in. I use it as a reference tool or encyclopedia—a plant database—but lots more ways to use it. I think it’s a great tool, even if people don’t live literally in New England. It includes a lot of information about plants that may be more widespread [in their native ranges] than just New England.
A. Absolutely. It’s relevant to a much larger region than New England. We get requests to use some of the 37,000 photos on that site from all over the world. It’s great.
Q. In my further digging that I described in the introduction, I read the admittedly pared-down pdf 10-page version of the bigger report from 2015 about the state of the plants of New England. Can you tell us a little about what some of the top insights were from that project?
A. We looked across all the plants of New England, and wanted to compile the very rich database of information about plants. New England has an incredibly rich scholarly tradition of studying plants, so we were able to bring together hundreds of references going back even hundreds of years to understand how the state of the plants had changed over the course of time.
One of the major insights we have had is that about 22 percent of the native plant species in New England—so that’s a little over a fifth—is listed as globally or regionally rare. Some of those include some plants that we know have gone extinct in the region.
We also know that most of the species that we consider to be rare in New England are also rare in nearly 40 percent of the other states or Canadian provinces in which they occur outside of New England.
That points to both widespread challenges to their continued survival, but it also says that if we can figure out ways to conserve them in New England, we can devise strategies for conserving them throughout their entire range. So that’s some good news about that report.
There are about 600 species that we conservation biologists lose sleep over, but we are taking positive steps throughout the region and developing model programs for being able to manage and conserve these species.
We also know that about one-third—about 31 percent—of the plants are non-native. But only about 10 percent of those (so about 3 percent of the total flora) do we consider to be truly invasive, that is that they take over habitat or pose direct threats to the native species in the region. We have a pretty good handle on what those species are and the priorities for managing them as well.
A key priority for that is early detection, so we and other allied organizations have been training volunteers to go out and recognize early established populations of invasive species that we might have to worry about. For example, we have kudzu in Massachusetts. We have had people who have been monitoring early establishments of that plant, and eradicating them before they get a foothold.
Q. The invasive plants: there was a really great discussion of that on the Society website, and a list of key invasives of the region and little profiles of each one—an extremely helpful shortcut for people who are just overwhelmed to just dig in and say: Is that on the most-wanted list? Is this a little bad, a lot bad? The website lists helped me to focus. [Garlic mustard, below, a regular in Margaret’s area, is on that list.]
A. A key thing in dealing with invasive species is to understand that it’s a struggle to take them out, if they have well established, but once you have taken them out—if you have gotten rid of the ones that are plaguing your garden—it’s important to put something back to take them place. Because if you simply leave bare areas…
Q. Oooh, nature loves a vacuum. [Laughter.]
A. Nature loves a vacuum. So there are lots of suggestions out there for alternative plants that will have some of the same horticultural value and interest as the invasives had. So there are lots of abilities for you to put in plants to replace those invasives and return your garden to a functioning ecosystem.
Q. The importance of supporting pollinators: there is lots of information on the Society website, including a great chart of important pollinator plants. That’s a really hot topic lately, and for good reason. Pollination refers to flowering plants, of course, but I want to ask you about plants that don’t flower, the ferns, which you have a particular expertise in. If they don’t make pollen, or fruit, or seeds, what is their function in the ecosystem—what’s your pitch for planting native ferns?
A. I’ll admit to being a little biased, because I wrote the “Peterson Field Guide to Ferns” [laughter].
Q. I know.
A. But let’s start very basically. Ferns, like every other plant on the planet, photosynthesize and actually give off oxygen. Most of us know we breathe oxygen.
Q. So ferns get one gold star there.
A. One big gold star there. And they have been around a lot longer than flowering plants have as well, so they are incredibly versatile and very resilient. They have seen a lot of change over the course of their evolutionary history.
But in the present tense, ferns provide excellent cover for birds, mammals, and other creatures—they are habitat—and for all of the other creatures that are using your garden. Here is an example: Hummingbirds use the soft cinnamon-colored fuzz that they collect from the stems of cinnamon fern. They use that wonderful substance to line their nests. They collect that fuzz from cinnamon fern and line their nest with it.
Given their resilience, some ferns are very easy to grow in otherwise very tough places. As another example, and I have seen this first-hand, they are some of the first species to colonize bare ground after a volcanic eruption.
A. Walk across the lava fields of Hawaii, and the plants that you will see there are ferns. So they can subsist on very little soil, and can recolonize very difficult-to-use areas.
I will say for our benefit and the benefit of other animals, our ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)…
Q. And I love it, love it, love it—and give it a big space in my garden [seen emerging at Margaret’s, above].
A. And it needs a big space.
Q. It does, and likes to run all over the place.
A. They will, but have that with a beautiful Hollandaise sauce and a Sauvignon blanc and you will instantly appreciate ferns. There are so many ways in which ferns are a functioning member of the ecosystem.
Q. Then I have a question about another functioning member of the ecosystem, and something else you have tremendous expertise and credentials in. People ask me how to get rid of things—weeds, woodchucks, and especially ants, which..,,
Q. I know; I am always happy to see ants, unlike some of my readers. I don’t eat them like my friends the flickers, who come in to investigate every anthill on my property—and seem to know where every anthill is and investigate them systematically.
Q. But what is your alternative pitch in behalf of ants, for celebrating ants. What do they do?
A. You mentioned anthills. Ants are constantly reworking and turning over the soil. They do more of a job of that than earthworms do. They can enrich it as they excavate their own nests. They are constantly cleaning out their colonies and nests, and enriching the soil.
There was a study done a number of years ago at the Harvard Forest that calculated that ants can create an inch of new soil every 250 years. Now that may sound like not much…
Q. Well, yes, but…
A. …they are really regenerating the topsoil we depend on.
The other thing is that ants disperse the seeds of some of our favorite spring ephemeral plants. These are the things that are coming up now. Think about bloodroot [flowers in second-from-top photo, seeds above], columbine, Dutchman’s breeches [below], violets—many other species. They collect these seeds because these plants have produced these interesting little appendages to the seeds that we call elaiosomes. They are full of protein and fats and sugars, and taste like a chocolate eclair to an ant.
Q. Ant treats. [Laughter.]
A. Ant treats, exactly. So ants will congregate around these seeds, where they are falling from the parent plant, and they will drag those seeds off. They are not interested in those seeds particularly, but they are interested in those wonderful protein-rich bodies.
They’ll snip off the elaiosome [see bloodroot seed photo two photos above], bring the elaiosome into the nest, and leave the seeds on these very rich, rejuvenated soils. So they are essential for helping many of our most charismatic spring wildflowers disperse from under the parent plant. They don’t want to grow up in the shadow of Mom; they need to get somewhere else and find some rich soils. So that’s another thing that ants do.
Q. So gardeners: Stop hating ants.
A. Stop hating ants. They also take away a lot of the dead stuff. They recycle the detritus in your garden. The famous biologist E.O. Wilson, with whom I worked at Harvard, said: Ants are “the little things that run the world.”
And they are. And they are beautiful—many of them are beautifully colored. Get out there and take one up in your hand.
Q. Love the ants!
You talk about the state of the plants report, and many species in peril, and I feel like you could get bogged down with bad news. But I think you are an optimist. Your voice sounds like an optimist’s; your writing that I have read elsewhere, like your essays that you do for the Hitchcock Center website. So what keeps you hopeful?
A. There is so much hope in a seed, for example. I am helping to process the seeds of hundreds of rare plant species in New England, thousands of populations. Seeds are amazing to look at, but they are also miraculous little packets of future plants. By being able to bank these seeds—to be able to store them away for future opportunities to restore populations or potentially to expand populations, as a bet-hedging strategy against the vicissitudes of climate change: That’s an activity that constantly enthralls me.
Both to look at these beautiful seeds, and also to inspire other people to appreciate how incredible they are. So there is a lot of hope in seeds, and new growth.
I also take the long view—I look back into the history, the longterm history, of plants. We realize from pollen records and various other evidence that plants have undergone major declines, but also major recoveries. Our native hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, is one example. It all but tanked about 5,000 years ago.
Q. I did not know that.
Q. And it’s having a hard time at the moment, yes? [Note: With the pest called hemlock woolly adelgid.]
A. But look at how it rebounded between 5,500 years ago and 10 years ago, when it was a dominant plant species (and really still is, in Northern areas) on the landscape. It has survived climatic vicissitudes, it has survived attacks of insects—and yet it was able to rebound.
Right now we lament the fact that is hemlock woolly adelgid is defoliating large stands of hemlock, but we are also identifying strains of plants, of hemlocks, that are resistant to these insects. So if we can just let evolution do its thing [laughter], and not interfere too much, and create good, nurturing habitats for plants—both rare plants and common plants—I believe that they have been around a lot longer than we have, and they will be around a lot longer still.
more from new england wild flower society
- The Society website
- Calendar of all Society programs, both webinars and in-person
- Go Botany plant “encyclopedia” with ID tools and more
- Pollinator plant chart
- Visit Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts
- Visit Nasami Farm seasonal garden shop for plants
- State of the Plants 10-page pdf
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 8, 2017 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
(Photo of Elizabeth Farnsworth by Nancy Cohen. Plant photos except as noted from New England Wild Flower Society website.)