COLUMBUS – Attribute it to keen-eyed Ohio botanists, a near-perfect growing season, or just a quirk of Mother Nature.
But whatever the reason, an unusually large number of new and rare wild plant species were spotted in Ohio this year, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR).
“It was a spectacular year for Ohio botany – perhaps the best on record,” said Stu Lewis, chief of ODNR’s Division of Natural Areas and Preserves. “It’s been the best year ever for finding rare plant species in Ohio – at least since we’ve been keeping records.”
In a typical year, Ohio might record the discovery of one wild plant species new to the state. During 2000, no less than three new species – all previously unknown in the state – were verified by ODNR.
In addition, another five species thought to have died out more than 20 years ago were rediscovered. These extirpated plant finds were especially encouraging to biologists because the discoveries mean habitats necessary for the plants to thrive still exist in Ohio, Lewis noted.
New plant species discovered in 2000 were the Missouri rock-cress, the cuspidate dodder – both found in northwestern Ohio, and the Robbin’s spikerush found in the northeastern part of the state.
Rediscovered extirpated species included the creeping aster and villous panic-grass in southern Ohio, bearberry in northeastern Ohio, the long-bearded hawkweed in northwestern Ohio and Gattinger’s foxglove in central Ohio.
Ohio botanists worked with Dr. Tony Reznicek, a nationally renowned botanist at the University of Michigan, to verify the more difficult identifications. Reznicek said Ohio’s record year was a singular achievement that he did not see duplicated in other midwestern states.
Jim McCormac, an ODNR botanist who participated in many of this year’s finds, believes ideal growing conditions enjoyed in Ohio this year might be a factor in the resurgence of species. However, Reznicek thinks climate has little to do with the botanical bonanza.
“This year’s discoveries mean Ohio’s botanists are pretty darn good,” Reznicek said. “Finding unusual plants requires good field work.”
An informal network of professional and amateur botanists, including several ODNR employees, made most of this year’s notable discoveries.
According to Allison Cusick, chief botanist, plants may be rare for a number of reasons. One of the primary reasons for all the rarities in Ohio is the state’s geographic location in the Midwest.
Influences from the north, south, east and west all converge on Ohio, providing for a wealth of different habitats. As a consequence, many an Ohio plant is at the edge of its range.
Plants may also be rare for a number of other reasons: the plant might be obscure or hard to spot in the wild; the habitat may be difficult to access and largely avoided; the plant may be native to a habitat type that has been largely destroyed; or the plant might be on the federal endangered list and rarely found anywhere in the United States.
Some examples of these truly rare plants found in Ohio include the federally listed small-whorled pogonia found in Hocking County and the northern monkshood found in Summit and Hocking counties.
The Missouri rock-cress and the long-bearded hawkweed were found growing in the botanically rich Oak Openings area of northwest Ohio, a place McCormac calls a “treasure trove” of rare species.
The rock-cress is a showy, 18-inch high member of the mustard family and produces conspicuous white flowers in May. It was spotted in TNC’s Kitty Todd Preserve in western Lucas County by Gary Haase, a TNC employee.
Another Lucas County find was the long-bearded hawkweed, discovered by professional botanist Tim Walters. It is a member of the sunflower family and can grow to 3 feet high, producing a yellow bloom in late summer. The only previously recorded Ohio sighting was in Fulton County in 1979.
Another of McCormac’s intriguing finds in northwest Ohio was a patch of rare alkaline water-nymph found growing at the bottom of Mud Lake, a state nature preserve in Williams County. This sea weed-like plant can be native or non-native in Ohio.
Whether or not the Mud Lake population is a relic from the past (or was simply introduced into the lake in modern times) is uncertain. The Ohio Rare Plants Advisory Committee, a group of prominent botanists who convene every two years, will likely discuss this discovery at their next meeting in February 2002.
A glacial lake in Portage County turned up a specimen of the rare Robbin’s spikerush, a conspicuous member of the sedge family. Rick Gardner found this slender, grass-like plant, which grows to 2 1/2 feet high in standing water.
McCormac found a colony of Gattinger’s foxglove growing near Hoover Reservoir in Delaware County. The plant was recorded growing one other time in Ohio – in 1929. It stands about 8 inches tall and sports bright pink flowers during late summer or early fall.
A Lake Erie sand dune in Ashtabula County produced the first wild bearberry recorded in the state since 1939. Bearberry is in the heath family and is sometimes sold domestically in garden stores as a ground cover.
However, this discovery almost certainly represents a surviving native population, said Jim Bissell, a noted botanist with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Bissell described the bearberry’s dune as the “best in the state” for beachfront botany since several other rare and endangered plant species have been recorded there.
Donations to the Ohio income tax checkoff program and revenues from sales of the Scenic Rivers license plates help the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves protect rare and endangered species.
Some of these monies are spent to acquire high-quality habitats, like the areas where these rare plants were found. Checking the refund box for “nature preserves, scenic rivers, and endangered species protection” helps to protect Ohio’s biodiversity.