Conserving our limited resources and threatened plants through thoughtful cultivation.

Plant conservation amid an ever-changing climate

Juniper Level Botanic Garden has been at the forefront of the introduction of thousands of plants that are well-equipped to thrive in an ever-changing world. Our research areas and gardens contain many plants that are nearly extirpated (botanical lingo for completely gone) or in some cases completely extirpated in the wild. JLBG provides a safe space where these rare species can flower and be appreciated by the public, studied, propagated, and shared. We also believe that a diverse landscape supports a diverse ecological web of life. The more variety we have in our plantings, the more birds, butterflies, bees and beetles we find in our garden.

A changing climate doesn’t mean we can all go out and plant Coconut Palms and expect them to survive. We must find plants that tolerate extreme drought, heat, humidity, and cold. Success involves finding and introducing those gems that are aesthetically pleasing, thrive in our climate and do that without needing special treatment. Many of our most adaptable introductions come from the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion, the Edwards Plateau or right here in our back yard in the Southeastern US Coastal Plain.

Incredible introductions such as Asclepias angustifolia ‘Sonoita’ have transformed our idea of how milkweeds can be utilized without supplemental water in even the smallest of gardens and completely overlooked plants like Berlandiera pumila ‘Chocoholic’ and our amazing local native Euphorbia corollata ‘Carolina Snow’ impress even the most traditional gardeners with their stunning design capabilities and performance. There are many other plants that surprise us with their adaptability from nearly every corner of the globe. JLBG has been instrumental in amassing and sharing one of the largest collections of native and near native American plants as well as plants that may not be native, but provide all of the resource-wise traits we desire in a modern landscape.

A case for ex-situ conservation and free sharing of plant genetics

Over the last several decades, the plant conservation pendulum has swung strongly in favor of in-situ conservation (Lat. “in place”) as the gold standard, not just for preserving ecological habitats, but also for preserving endangered, threatened, and rare plants. In our humble opinion, this is neither the most effective nor most logical choice for rare plant preservation.

When did nature become static?

In-situ plant conservation only makes sense when climates are static, and as we all know, our current climate is anything but static. So, if the climate isn’t static, why do plant conservationists expect plant populations to remain static?

Federally endangered Baptisia arachnifera (G1 Rank) in full bloom at JLBG.
Federally endangered Baptisia arachnifera (G1 Rank) in full bloom at JLBG.

Native is not a place in location; it is only a place in time. America has been glaciated 17 times. Plants have been moved around throughout the continent, many left far from where their genetics originated. In-situ conservationists often insist that rare plants will not grow outside their “native” habitat, or that we must keep populational genetics pure. In most cases, rare plants occur where they can compete, not where they grow best in the absence of competition. These places are often on the edge of what other plants can tolerate and so they persist. This is a secret that horticulturists have known for hundreds of thousands of years.

Our efforts in ex-situ conservation should focus on plants which have a very narrowly distributed habitat and have always been rare and now face the challenge of rapidly changing climate as well changes in land use (e.g., development and fire suppression). Conservation is critical in case these plants may offer potential benefits to humanity, be that medicinal, culinary, aesthetic, or economic. We feel it is incumbent on humans to facilitate the movement of these plants from their current habitats via propagation to as many suitable habitats and gardens as possible.

Critically endangered (IUCN) Agave albopilosa in-situ, Huasteca Canyon (Credit: Greg Starr)
Critically endangered (IUCN) Agave albopilosa in-situ, Huasteca Canyon (Credit: Greg Starr)

The best modern day example of functional ex-situ plant conservation, propagation, and distribution is undoubtedly the Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis). With less that 100 plants in situ, this critically endangered plant was propagated and distributed worldwide. Not only is the public awareness of the Wollemi pine incredibly high, conservationists were able to grow, propagate, and sell the plants with monies generated going to assist with conservation efforts.

Yavia cryptocarpa, an extremely rare Argentine native barrel cactus has a similar story. After its discovery in 2001, The British Cactus and Succulent Society worked with Argentine authorities to collect seed and distribute them widely to commercial cactus propagators.  Plants were commercially available to collectors by 2003, removing the pressures of illegal collection.

The rare Agave albopilosa is endemic to a single canyon wall in Northern Mexico. With seed becoming available, collectors would have probably extripated the entire population. Baptisia arachnifera is a Federally Endangered native to only two counties in coastal Georgia. Without nursery seed propagation to take the pressure off wild populations, who knows if any might remain in the wild.

We are not saying that in-situ conservation should be abandoned, only that in the face of climate change, the best chance to actually save and multiply endangered and threatened plant species is not by leaving then alone in areas where they evolved some 10,000 to 100,000 years earlier and hoping for the best. We feel that the best solution is via ex-situ conservation, propagation, and unrestricted sharing.

If you’d like to learn more about ex-situ conservation, check out Tony’s full article.

Preserving plant genetics for the future

Juniper Level Botanic Garden serves as a permanent repository for genetic material from our own plant collections and that of our collaborators. We are proud to preserve the impressive collection of the late Aroid expert Alan Galloway, which includes many rare and endangered Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema) and Corpse flowers (Amorphophallus) with some taxa found in few or no other collections in the world.

Arisaema sp. nov.
Arisaema sp. nov.

Many of Alan’s plants require specialized care such as one undescribed taxa of Arisaema, known only by his collection number AGA 024, which is not only cold hardy but produces incredible yellow flowers in the heat of summer and could provide precious genetic material for the development of new and exciting cultivars. Another incredibly rare species from Alan is Arisaema nonghinense, distinguished by its unique spadix which appears tattered and branched.

Arisaema nonghinense
Arisaema nonghinense

The immense value of our garden’s power to preserve the hard work of other researchers is perhaps best exemplified by the outstanding collection obtained from Victor Lambou. This collection was rescued at the last minute and is certainly the largest and most complete collection of cold-hardy Spiderlilies (Hymenocallis) in the world. It includes many species that are otherwise unknown in cultivation and extremely rare in their native habitats such as the stunning Hymenocallis henryae which is found in very limited areas in only 3 counties in the Florida panhandle. Through careful cultivation and sharing, we are ensuring that this collection continues to live on and grow. Please read about our rescue effort below.   

Rescuing Victor Lambou’s Hymenocallis (Spiderlily) collection

Victor Lambou of Tallahassee, Florida, is a well-known, retired Environmental Aquatic Biologist, who had a career with the EPA as a fish specialist. In his latter years, Victor became interested in native aquatic plants, primarily in the genus iris and hymenocallis. His career travels through swamps and bogs allowed him to locate and rescue several rare and significant plant species, as well as numerous variants within those species. His work in cultivating and later breeding these plants resulted in a botanically significant world class collection. Unfortunately, Victor was no longer able to take care of his collection due to age. It sat neglected for four years until we got a call from the American Iris Society. They had been contacted to gauge their interest in the iris collection of a Florida plantsman, Victor Lambou. “Had I ever heard of Vic”, they asked. That call set in motion a series of events that would culminate in a massive plant rescue, with plant material going to a series of botanical gardens in the Southeast US.

Rows of plastic tubs containing over five thousand plants
Rows of plastic tubs containing over five thousand plants

To put Victor’s hymenocallis collection in perspective, the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), which maintains the world’s only global database of living plant collections in botanic gardens, only lists 118 hymenocallis taxa (taxa = genetically distinct individual). Victor’s last plant inventory in 2017, showed 617 unique plant taxa. In other words, Victor had almost five times the world’s entire collection of hymenocallis in his backyard.

Once we began the site rescue, we discovered that approximately 10% of the collections were no longer alive, leaving approximately 555 living taxa. Our rescue efforts were not focused on named cultivars of plant species that were already established in commerce (approximately 93 taxa), or un-identified taxa (approximately 24 taxa), or open pollinated seedlings (approximately 10 taxa). Our rescue efforts were aimed at the 428 most important taxa.

Because of the aquatic nature of Victor’s plant collection, all plants were grown in approximately 2,000 sealed-bottom tubs of mud, each weighing 60-100 lbs. Plants were meticulously arranged by block, row, and then position within the row. None of the tubs were labeled, but thankfully Victor had extensive bed maps. Without these, the plant collection would be botanically worthless. Two full days were spent extracting plants from the muddy tubs. We tried an array of extraction methods, but finally found it best to employ the back-breaking task of upturning each container and sift through the muck to extract the plants. Small quantities of some varieties were labeled and stored in Ziploc bags, while larger quantities were stored in community pots. 

Soaked in rain and muck we carried on…

The rescue became slower and more challenging, when unbeknownst to us, Tropical Storm Mindy had formed virtually on top of us, during our second day of rescue. Consequently, there wasn’t a dry eye…or anything else in the place when we finished and loaded the U-Haul for the return trip.

JLBG spent 392 labor hours on the rescue, including 76 hours on site at Victor’s garden. Our team from Juniper Level Botanic Garden was able to rescue 291 taxa. Taxa that were too tender to live outdoors in our Zone 7b, have been distributed to 9 botanical gardens and 5 private collectors gardens in warmer zones. 5000 of the rescued plants are now planted in the research area at JLBG. We were able to rescue 19 hymenocallis that Victor has selected and named, along with 3 of his named/selected Iris. Victor’s collection consisted of over 123 of his hymenocallis hybrids which are still in need of evaluation. Any of these that prove to be distinct and exceptional will be propagated and introduced to the horticultural world, via our nursery division, Plant Delights Nursery.

Before the Lambou rescue, JLBG already grew 42 taxa of hymenocallis, which number has now swelled to 263, making it almost certainly the most extensive collection of hymenocallis taxa in the world.

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