Swamp Pink Surprise


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Swamp Pink Surprise

Introduced at Mountain Bog, Rare Plant Produces Seedlings

By Carrie Radcliffe

Swamp pink had a red-letter day last October.

That’s when scientists and students working at a Chattahoochee National Forest mountain bog uncovered the first known instance in Georgia of a swamp pink that had been planted to help restore this imperiled species actually producing seedlings.

Students from Southeastern Technical College in Swainsboro had teamed with U.S. Forest Service and the Georgia Department Natural Resources to help restore a mountain bog, one of the rarest natural communities in the Southern Appalachians. As workers cut and moved brush away from patches of sphagnum moss containing sensitive plants, botanists documented a surprise years in the making.

Since 1995, member organizations of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance have maintained collections of rare plants for conservation. The Alliance has also “safeguarded” rare species in native habitats, adding to existing wild populations from plants in cultivation and introducing plants in other suitable places. Mountain bogs are the most important of these safeguarded habitats.

Swamp pink seedlings, with mature plants in backgroundOne of the first safeguarding efforts involving mountain bog species revolved around swamp pink (Helonias bullata), a unique member of the lily family. In 1942, botanist Wilbur Duncan made the first recorded occurrence of swamp pink in Georgia, describing the plant’s beautiful flower as rose-pink with blue anthers. Swamp pink is now federally listed as threatened. Georgia represents the southern extent of its range. Here, the plant was once restricted to a single bog on private land where ditching and agriculture had permanently altered the site’s hydrology.

Despite efforts to moderate the ecological damage, the bog has become overgrown and shaded, diminishing its ability to support rare bog species. Swamp pink is the only rare plant left. It persists by its thick rhizomes. Seedlings have never been seen here, and the last time the plants were observed blooming was in 2008.

Yet, Atlanta Botanical Garden propagated hundreds of plants using seed collected from this lonely colony of swamp pink. Many of those plants have been used to create safeguarding populations in the Chattahoochee National Forest, where volunteers with The Botanical Guardians keep close watch over them, reporting updates to the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance.

In 2010, guardians saw that one introduced swamp pink outplanted nearly two decades ago had finally produced a flower and dispersed seed. (This followed clearing around bogs earlier that year that increased sunlight on the areas, work funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.)

Then, last fall, the work group involving the Southeastern Tech students discovered many swamp pink seedlings (pictured above) next to the plant that had flowered and set fruit the year before!

Beyond this being the first documented swamp pink seedling recruitment in Georgia, researchers are excited because reproduction and recruitment are the first steps toward establishing a healthy population of rare plants.

Jennifer Ceska, conservation coordinator for the State Botanical Garden, said swamp pink has been “a puzzle for safeguarding.” “And after 20 years of intelligent tinkering to finally hit on the combination of needs for this species to reproduce in the wild feels like a huge success.”

Swamp pink is being safeguarded in three protected Georgia mountain bogs. Other rare bog plants and animals, such as mountain purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea ssp. venosa var. montana), Carolina laurel (Kalmia carolina), Cuthbert’s turtle-head (Chelone cuthbertii), Canada burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis) and bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii), are also being safeguarded.

Thanks to collaborative restoration efforts, these species restricted to one or few naturally occurring sites in Georgia are being conserved in managed areas – efforts their survival may depend on.

Carrie Radcliffe is a botany intern with the Nongame Conservation Section, a Botanical Guardian and mountain bog project coordinator for the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance. The swamp pink discovery was also featured as a U.S. Forest Service success story.

More on …
Mountain Bogs

In Georgia’s Blue Ridge province, very few of these small, fragile wetlands remain intact. Although a vast network of boggy areas once spread across North Georgia, as the region was settled, most wetlands were drained and ditched for agriculture and development, leaving only some of the more remote bogs. Even these do not persist without natural disturbance from periodic fire or beaver activity, both of which have been greatly suppressed. Biologists and volunteers monitor bogs and regularly hand-prune invading trees and shrubs to keep them open. Each bog is unique and is managed using an adaptive approach that evolves as restoration goals are met. Mountain bog restoration is a high-priority conservation action in Georgia's State Wildlife Action Plan.

 

The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance

The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance has been successful at coordinating safeguarding efforts for species of conservation concern in our state. Founding institutions of the alliance include The State Botanical Garden at The University of Georgia, Atlanta Botanical Garden, Chattahoochee Nature Center, Georgia DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service. The Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance’s mission is to study and preserve Georgia's flora through multidisciplinary research, education, and advocacy; facilitate the recovery of rare, threatened and endangered plants of Georgia and the southeastern U.S. through collaborative efforts in our state; and communicate the importance of preserving biodiversity worldwide. The alliance serves as an umbrella organization that facilitates conservation networking and coordination.

 

Quoted

"Bog species like swamp pink thrive on disturbance. Through field observations, we can tell that seedlings will regenerate in the ecotone between nutrient-poor organic soil and where the sphagnum moss proliferates. Seedlings are slow to develop and can easily be overwhelmed by abundant sphagnum moss. "

Ron Determann, Atlanta Botanical Garden conservatory director


“When the team re-located that original (swamp pink) plant, fat and hardy in its rhizome, we were all thrilled. It was like finding a long lost friend asking us, `Where have you all been? I've been waiting to show you!’ And after 20 years of intelligent tinkering to finally hit on the combination of needs for this species to reproduce in the wild feels like a huge success.”

Jennifer Ceska, State Botanical Garden conservation coordinator

 

“As we observed the original site, we noted that the water table was gradually lowering due to ditching that occurred in the 1940s. We noted (the) loss of pitcherplants and Carolina bog laurel. Swamp pinks rarely bloomed and clumps were disappearing. (As conditions worsened), we knew we had to try something different. We wanted to try to find a suitable place to establish some plants where they would have a chance to survive.”

Tom Patrick, Georgia DNR Nongame Conservation Section botanist




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