New protections may come for native Pennsylvania plants

Update on classifications will affect land and water use decisions

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  • The prickly pear cactus -- the only cactus native to Pennsylvania -- blooms on the cliffs above Milford in early summer (Photo by Pamela Chergotis)

By John Hayes

It's such a pretty little plant. A vertical column of magenta blossoms bursting above green grasses in wet meadows.

But the purple fringeless orchid is its own worst enemy. A complex species native to Pennsylvania with limited reproductive opportunities, its unique beauty attracts admiring crowds who venture off the walking trails to sniff it, photograph it and too often, pick it.

The last time state botanists evaluated the wildflower in the 1980s they were concerned that its vulnerability to collection could jeopardize its survival in Pennsylvania. Without enough evidence to prove it, however, they gave it a placeholder ranking, “tentatively undetermined."

Now the orchid is on a list of native plants whose conservation classifications may change pending a series of votes by the Pennsylvania legislature. Last month the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources recommended an update of regulations that apply to the conservation of native wild land and aquatic plants.

“Pennsylvania is home to about 3,000 plant species — about two-thirds of those are considered native to the commonwealth, and 347 of them are currently considered rare, threatened or endangered," said DCNR secretary Cindy Adams Dunn, in a statement."

The department proposes updates that include the addition of nine plants, moving another nine to a higher bracket, downgrading two, dropping 31 from special protections and updating the scientific names given to 79 native plant species. If the updates are made to the Chapter 45 laws governing the management of wild plants, the purple fringeless orchid would bump up two protection grades.

The regulations were last updated in 1993. Prior to proposing the changes DCNR staff reviewed more than 20 years of field notes and taxonomic data.

“That's the challenge," said Rebecca Bowen of the department's Bureau of Forestry. “There are so many plants in Pennsylvania it's hard to be an expert on all of them."

But the updates are necessary, she said. Natural ebb and flow of plant ranges is complicated by loss of habitat, range fragmentation, introduction of invasive plants, changes in the populations of animals that impact them, loss of pollinators and gradual changes in Pennsylvania's climate. While some species have gained protections through state and nonprofit acquisition of land tracts, other plants like the purple fringeless orchid have been put in jeopardy by the opening of new trail systems that expose the flowers to their adoring if detrimental human nemesis.

“It's a robust process to give something a (conservation) listing," said Ms. Bowen. “It's more than just, one person saw one plant and thinks it's in danger — more than just keeping a running list."

Most are doing fineWild plants are ranked in eight conservation categories, each attached to a level of protection enforced by law, with violators subject to escalating fines.

The good news — kind of amazing — is that the overwhelming majority of Pennsylvania's 2,000 native plant species are doing fine and ranked in a category with no need for special protections. No plants are currently included in the “special concern population" category, but ginseng, goldenseal and yellow ladyslipper are classified “vulnerable" because they can be legally picked for their economic value. More information was required for “tentatively undetermined" species, and “rare" plants are contained by geographic limitations that could pose a threat to their regional survival. If proper management isn't applied to “threatened" plants including the purple fringeless orchid they could become endangered, and “endangered" plants are at risk of extirpation — becoming extinct in this state. “Extirpated" species once existed in Pennsylvania but there is no evidence that they remain. Federal conservation classification are separate from those issued by states.

The classifications are important because they impact land and water use decisions. The presence of a threatened or endangered plant could influence the routing of a new highway or force a change to industrial outflow patterns. Development of new neighborhoods could be approved in a location where the native plants are not vulnerable.

Vast amounts of new data were available to DCNR's plant classification staff including improvements in collection techniques and the advent of genetic science and speed-of-light information exchange that didn't exist when the plants were last classified. Researchers in the 1980s, for instance, didn't know that the purple fringeless orchid could keep up with the pace of human plucking if only it reproduced like most other plants.

“Orchid seeds are extremely small and are produced in large numbers," said Ms. Bowen. “However, the seeds have no developed embryo and carry no food with them and must encounter very specific environmental conditions, including the presence of a suitable fungus, in order to germinate and grow."

The seeds develop a symbiotic relationship with a particular fungus species. If they fall anywhere else the seeds cannot germinate, and the fungus thrives under patches of purple fringeless orchids.

Predominantly an Allegheny Mountain species, the flower was previously documented in 44 locations in 11 Pennsylvania counties including Allegheny, Westmoreland, Indiana, Fayette, Somerset, Bedford and Cambria. Today DCNR botanists can confirm only 21 populations of purple fringeless orchids in seven counties. Among them are Westmoreland, Fayette, Somerset and Indiana.

Related story"So pretty, so nasty: Invasive plants in our area":

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