I recently had the privilege, along with other plant-obsessed nature lovers, of visiting the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Led by The Nature Conservancy and state botanists and naturalists, we embarked on a "plant safari" searching out rare and threatened native orchids. I write about this remarkable experience in the September 22nd, 2005 House & Home section of the New York Times.
While the object of our field trip was to view wild orchids, we saw some other fascinating--some might say bizarre--plants that thrive in dry sandy soil or moist boggy conditions. In this posting I share a few photographs of the marvelous and curious flora not found in your average suburban garden.
It was a very hot and humid morning in New Jersey when I joined
eleven others at the Nature Conservancy's Pine Barrens office. Our
guides had promised to show us rare, late summer orchids, but before we
embarked on our journey those of us who were not state or conservancy
officials were handed blindfolds.
I was amazed to learn that orchids growing in south-central New Jersey are still being poached--stolen to sell to rare-plant collectors. Poaching, along with disappearing habitat,are the main reasons these native orchids are rare and now fiercely protected by the naturalists and botanists familiar with the Pine Barrens.
Plantanthera clavellata "Green wood orchid"
"People think that removing a plant from the wild and planting it in their garden actually helps preserve it," said Neill Heath, one of the conservationists leading the group. "But in truth, you are reducing the wild population, and endangering the species." Volunteer Linda Kelly, an ecologist/botanist and our safari guide, had stronger words, "Any removal of rare plants from the wild is poaching, regardless of the motive."
I was deeply moved when our guides lead us to a spot where we got to see the rarest of the rare--the endangered yellow-fringed orchid, Plantanthera ciliaris. These flowers were similar to the white fringed orchid, but in a bright citrus-orange color. There may be as few as 20 known plants in New Jersey, and we were looking at a half a dozen of them.
We saw other remarkable plants that day, such as the carnivorous round-leaf sundew, Drosera rotundifolia. These and other species like the pitcher plant I grow in my garden, Sarracenia flava evolved into carnivorous insect traps in order to supplement the nutrient lean soil of moist habitats.
Drosera rontundifolia, Carnivorous sundew
This tiny, seemingly insignificant plant is part of the ecosysytem found in the Pine Barrens. It attracts insects with a sticky secretion, then traps them with leaves that fold inward, and then slowly "digest" its prey.
The fading autumn leaf, or "pitcher", of the carnivorous pitcher plant, Sarracenia flava
In spite of the heat in the Pine Barrens, each time our guides told us we could remove our blind folds the site of these rare jewels caused me to instantly (if momentarily) forget any physical discomforts; so consuming were my emotions; a mixture of delight, awe, and reverence.
Spiranthes lacera "Slender ladies' tresses" orchid
As I travel around the country speaking to various groups, and in all of my books, I stress my version of the "horticultural Golden Rule": We gardeners should always strive to improve the health of the earth, leaving the places we live better off than we found them. This idea not only applies to our actions in the garden, but also to our treatment of the world outside our garden's gates.
We gardeners have a special connection to the earth, which makes us the ideal advocates for the natural world. We have a stewardship to honor:
- We must educate ourselves.
- We must speak out against harm to the environment, doing whatever we can to limit sprawl, preserve open space and protect the few natural areas we have left in this country.
- We should join local chapters of native plant societies dedicated to protecting local threatened species.
- When we see a beautiful plant in the wild, we should take pictures only.
Larger conservation groups are a rich source of informations and advice: the New England Wild Flower Society is one of the best in the U.S. and the North American Native Plant Society is a great resource in Canada. The Native Plant Conservation Campaign web site provides a list of local chapters that can provide you with information regarding native plant enthusiasts in your aarea.
And most importantly, when purchasing wildflowers for your garden, be sure they are nursery propagated plants not just "nursery grown". Look for the claim nursery propagated and if you do not see it ask the nursery owner or manager where their wildflowers came from. And if you see threatened species for sale at big box stores, do not buy them.
The best way to procure wildflowers for your garden is through native plant societies and plant sales conducted by conservation groups and botanic gardens. If you are smitten with our native orchids or carnivorous species, two reputable nurseries, California Carnivores and Vermont Ladyslipper Company, Ltd. offer commercially propagated plants. Purchasing plants from reputable nurseries like these actually helps to stabilize populations of threatened species in the wild.
Finally, in the recent Timber Press edition of my book The Natural Habitat Garden you will find inspiration and guidance for creating habitats for local native species.
It is a trite saying, but when it comes to our dwindling natural habitats it is all too true: "if you aren't a part of the solution, then you are very likely part of the problem."