By: Alana Pugh
On a calm, partly cloudy May afternoon, conservation fellow, Dr. Élan Alford, and a team of dedicated volunteers made a remarkable discovery – a species in the buttercup family not seen at Mt. Cuba Center in more than 20 years. Awestruck, the team beamed at their finding. After taking it in, they explored the area further to assess the extent of the population. They discussed the findings and site conditions and recorded the details necessary to complete their data sheet. These discoveries are worth celebrating; most excursions made by this plant conservation team end much differently due to significant native plant loss throughout the region.
Currently, 40 percent of plant species in the world are at risk of extinction. In the United States, six out of the top 10 states with the most loss or at-risk plants are in the Northeast, with Delaware in fourth place in the nation. Long-term stressors such as habitat loss, deer browsing, climate change, and invasive species continue to threaten native plants, altering habitats that no longer support diverse ecosystems and wildlife. Alford expects extinction events to become more common without intervention and work.
Mt. Cuba’s gardens are home to more than 1,000 species of native plants, many of which are threatened by extinction. Teamwork, Alford explains, is how at-risk plants may survive the challenges imposed by climate change and other threats. In May of 2021, Alford wrote the blog Connecting Across Conservation, which you can read here. The conservation team at Mt. Cuba works with other conservation organizations and scientists to collaborate, establish networks, and share knowledge to further rare plant conservation – something that is rooted in Mt. Cuba’s mission. The work that Alford and the conservation team do at Mt. Cuba is essential for building a dataset that they, and others, can monitor and research. Progressing with our work and sharing what we learn, be it successes or failures, helps inform others so collective knowledge can build more successful conservation strategies.
In addition to working with external conservation groups and scientists, Mt. Cuba’s conservation team also connects across departments at Mt. Cuba. For instance, both horticulture and conservation staff collaborate to grow rare plants from Delaware and the broader Mid-Atlantic region in Mt. Cuba’s greenhouse and gardens, often supplying them to supplement field populations of regional, at-risk plant species.
For rare plant surveys, field work begins in early spring, targeting the earliest bloomers, and continues throughout late fall; however, the process begins long before. When conducting field surveys, background research is vital. Historical records provide information about what species are known to occur in the area and allows groups such as the conservation team to familiarize themselves with the plant community. Alford relies on records collected over several decades to create plans for future conservation work.
Through investigation and field work, they utilize databases to determine what plants are supposed to be in the area and can report back to these same databases about the information they collect. By reporting data to the state, information can also be added to national databases, like NatureServe. This enables Mt. Cuba to contribute data and thereby participate in national collaborations that are critical to understanding how flora may be affected by site-specific threats and climate change, and which species are more at-risk than others.
Native plants provide food and habitat needed by local wildlife and are critical to healthy ecosystems. Monitoring biodiversity by working together to search for these plants is imperative. Creating healthy ecosystems by increasing the presence of native plants, and therefore supporting native fauna, will help to restore rare Mid-Atlantic flora, Alford says. “That is the ultimate goal. I don’t want to ask, ‘What happened here?’ ‘Why is this species not here anymore?’ I want my work to prevent these losses.”