GLENCOE, IL (June 26, 2014) – Volunteers with the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern—a citizen-science corps in its 14th year of monitoring rare flora—recently prevented the shadbush from disappearing from a preserve in western Cook County. The shrub, native to woodland stream banks, is named for its pretty white flower, which blooms at the time the shad return to their spawning grounds. Habitat loss and degradation threaten the survival of shadbush in Illinois, and by 2011 the preserve’s population was reduced to a single plant.
Plants of Concern monitors observed the last shadbush (Amelanchier interior), clinging to an eroding bank, and worked with Forest Preserves of Cook County staff to restore the rare plant. This summer, offspring of the parent shrub are growing in a more stable section of the same preserve, offering hope the shadbush will continue to provide food and shelter for the pollinators, birds and mammals making the preserve their home.
The shadbush is just one of hundreds of rare, threatened and endangered plants monitored by Plants of Concern throughout the Chicago region. The city may be known for its vibrant music scene, but the area’s heritage extends far beyond the blues. “The Chicago area has an incredibly rich floristic history,” says Rachel Goad, manager of the Plants of Concern program.
The region is home to ravines, fens, bogs, dunes, marshes, tallgrass prairies, woodlands, river corridors and more, says Goad. The surprising mix of habitats—the legacy of the last Ice Age and other geomorphological events—supports many uncommon plants. Adding to the area’s considerable biodiversity are parasitic plants, carnivorous plants, wild orchids with unusual shapes and more.
Such unusual plants often need protection. Time to call in Goad and the more than 700 volunteers who have worked for Plants of Concern since the program began in 2000. The network is currently watching over rare, threatened and endangered annuals, perennials, vines, aquatics, shrubs and trees at 275 public and private sites throughout the metropolitan area.
The specially trained citizen scientists work in the field from early spring through fall, spending long hours flagging, counting, measuring and tracking plant populations. The job calls for keen observation, meticulous record keeping, and a tolerance for all manner of non-plant wildlife, including snakes and swarms of mosquitos. “They are people with a deep connection to nature,” Goad says.
Meet Barb Wilson. She greets you with a firm handshake and a warm smile that adds to the glow of her deeply tanned face. Her car license plate—FENLADY—speaks to her commitment to a very special place, Lake in the Hills Fen, created by retreating glaciers in land now managed by the McHenry County Conservation District. It’s one of the few fens—nutrient-rich wetlands fed by springs—spared from gravel mining.
On a breezy afternoon in May, tree swallows swoop in and out of our field of vision as Wilson points out the geologic features and wildlife residents of the verdant, bowl-shaped area. The three vultures circling overhead fail to spook Wilson. Speaking in a melodious voice and British accent, she says, “They all have their purpose.”
We walk past crayfish holes, skunk cabbage, bottlebrush sedge, golden alexanders and marsh shield ferns, accompanied by a chorus of frogs, the territorial cries of the red-winged blackbird and the broken-wing act of the killdeers. Wilson demonstrates intimate knowledge of the fen, its niche ecosystems and the rare plants that live just here or there. She says, “That’s the way it should be—a little bit of this and a little bit of that and everything coexisting.”
Many of the plants under Wilson’s stewardship are fussy creatures, growing only where conditions are exactly right. Such highly specialized adaptations make them vulnerable to changes in habitat. Wilson and her team of volunteers monitor their ongoing struggle for survival, and report threats to the plant populations. She says, “I like to think I’m helping make something safe.”
Imagine hundreds of passionate citizen scientists like Wilson, each a steward for a niche ecosystem, and you start getting a feeling for the power and impact of the Plants of Concern Program. Data collected through more than 17,000 volunteer hours provide a critical source of information in a time of scarce public resources. Helpful in understanding trends for rare plants, the data is shared with the program’s vast network of partners. They include forest preserve and conservation districts, The Nature Conservancy, land trusts, conservation organizations like Openlands and Lake Forest Openlands, numerous park districts and municipalities, Department of Natural Resources for both Illinois and Wisconsin, private landowners, various landowners in the Indiana Dunes, and the U.S. Forest Service. As Wilson notes, we’re all connected: “I think we’re part of nature just as much as that flower is. It’s all a big wonder.”
Learn more about Plants of Concern by visiting our website: http://www.plantsofconcern.org/. Read the following blogs to see how Chicago Botanic Garden conservation scientists incorporate Plants of Concern data into their research: