One Woman's Fight to Save Endangered Shrub
Some Rhus michauxii colonies are located
in a military training camp
Image © Fort Pickett
The rare and endangered dwarf sumac has found a potential savior in Elaine Nash, a botanical guardian for the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance.
About 40 of the shrubs, which are on both the federal and state endangered species lists, are now growing in eastern Newton County under the care of Elaine Nash.
Half of the known populations of Rhus michauxii (Anacardiaceae) have died during the last century, according to the Center for Plant Conservation, a national group that seeks to prevent the extinction of endangered native plants.
Nash said that dwarf sumac, also known as false poison sumac, once grew naturally in Newton County, but at some point the plants died off. The open, sunny habitat necessary for the establishment of Rhus michauxii was historically provided by fire, while today most populations are found in sites that are cleared artificially. Unfortunately these sites - roadsides, rights-of-way, railroads, agricultural fields and even military training grounds - are under the constant threat of catastrophic disturbance.
The Nature Conservancy of Georgia gathered some sumac from a South Carolina nursery and replanted it in Newton County. Nash was appointed as a "botanical guardian" through the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, which pairs botanical gardeners with endangered species that need help surviving. Nash keeps the location of the dwarf sumac site a closely held secret.
Another small cluster of dwarf sumac grows in Elbert County, roughly 90 miles away. A few also grow at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.
Nash spends her time and money making sure the shrub is well-tended, but she's got a difficult task. That's because the species does not reproduce easily.
To further complicate matters, only the females of the species are located in Newton. That means the shrub isn't being pollinated at all right now.
Nash attempted to help things along by performing a sort of artificial insemination with frozen pollen taken from the male plants at the Botanical Garden.
First, she tried to dab the pollen on the sumac using a small paintbrush, but that didn't work well.
"I was like a big clumsy giant trying to do something that flies do better ... The flower is probably maybe 1/8 of an inch to 1/4 of an inch across, and it's hard to even see without a magnifying glass. I was having to do it hit or miss like that," Nash said.
So instead she dabbed the pollen on insects so they could do the work, but that also failed.
Transplanting the males could be a problem at this point, because it might disturb the shrubs' germ plasm, or DNA, Nash said. The plants need to be propagated until the population can withstand the removal of a few males, she said.
"We hope to get seeds to make sure we get what genetic diversity is there and keep it viable," she said.
Once the males and females are commingled, there will still be a serious problem: The males tend to bloom earlier than females, making it more difficult for reproduction to occur. So why is this shrub so much trouble to keep alive?
"Rare plants are rare because they've got strange habits," Nash said.
It all goes to show the crucial importance of individual efforts in saving rare species.
Extracts courtesy The Newton Citizen