Before you can save a seed, you have to find it. On a clear day this summer, our search began just a few steps off a trail near a rocky ledge in southern Connecticut.
“We’re looking for muhlenbergia capillaris, which is the hair cap muhly,” said Michael Piantedosi, director of conservation at the Native Plant Trust.
Piantedosi’s group travels across New England to search for – and save – native plants.
Earlier this summer, New England lost a plant to extinction – the smooth slender crabgrass, which state officials in New Hampshire said is one of a handful of documented plant extinctions in the region since European settlement.
But many more species are at risk. The Native Plant Trust estimates more than one-fifth of the region’s native plants are in danger from development, climate change, rising temperatures, and storm surges.
As we stand near the edge of a rocky ridge, Piantedosi scans the ground and tells me to watch my feet. That’s because I’m standing right next to a grassy clump that normally wouldn’t rate a second glance. But this is what we’re looking for. The hair cap muhly (one of its many common names), which is listed as endangered in Connecticut.
“It’s just these clumps,” Piantedosi said. “It’s not the most significant thing. But it is very rare.”
He said this is the only population he knows about in New England. And it’s here, in large part, because this ledge is frozen in time.
Across the region, Piantedosi said there are spots that are too rugged to be developed for businesses or housing, which turns them into special places for native plants.
“A lot of mountain, and alpine, and sub-alpine summits have tons of rare plants,” Piantedosi said. “Because they’re few and far between … they’re still there because it’s tough to build a hotel on them.”
Piantedosi said the work of hunting for and saving rare seeds is like an insurance policy for plants.
“If a plant does take a downward trend in its population numbers, or if it blinks out and becomes locally extirpated, we can assist it by … allowing it to eventually maintain itself,” he said.
Saving seeds to restore landscapes
A few weeks after we hunted for grass, I met up with Piantedosi at Nasami Nursery in Massachusetts. This is where wild-collected seeds from hundreds of different plants are cleaned and stored. Some will eventually get replanted for habitat restoration.
We step into a large refrigerator. Along the walls are shelves packed to the brim with tiny bags full of native seeds. It’s the cold, dry air in here that allows the seeds to go dormant.
“Seeds stored in this way,” Piantedosi said, “will last 10, 20, 30, 50 years, even without freezing.
“So you have a lot of seed that, right now, is coming up on a decade old that will still germinate with 70% – 80% germination,” he said.
Some of those seeds make their way to a nearby greenhouse. We walked in and were quickly surrounded by seedlings grown from plants that were surveyed and sampled in the wild.
Uli Lorimer, director of horticulture at the Native Plant Trust, said native plants can play a key role in habitat restoration work – because local plants are attuned to local biology.
“In addition to being adapted to the climate, plants that evolved here also have all of the relationships intact with insects and birds,” Lorimer said.
Working with other groups, the Native Plant Trust has restored a salt marsh in Connecticut, an alpine landscape in Maine, and coastlines throughout New England hit by Hurricane Sandy.
Other conservation groups are also working to restore native plants in the region, including an effort by members of the Aquinnah Wampanoag to restore a pre-colonization landscape off the coast of Cape Cod.
Piantedosi said home gardeners want native plants too. But he cautioned the work of finding, cleaning and growing native seeds is painstaking and slow. Meanwhile, the threats facing native plants are only increasing.
“A lot of different habitats are imperiled,” Piantedosi said. “A lot of different groups are coming to us – coming to others that provide a native species seed – and requesting it in abundance. And it’s an abundance we simply don’t have.”
In the coming years, he said the Native Plant Trust hopes to scale up their work at their nursery in the hopes they can keep up with the growing need across New England.