One of the rarest wildflowers in New Jersey – and the entire northeastern United States - is American chaffseed (Schwalbea americana), a perennial in the snapdragon family.

Twenty years ago, the future was dim for this native flower with reddish-purple blooms – and it’s been listed as a federally endangered species since 1992. But today there’s new hope for the chaffseed!

American chaffseed was never common, but populations occurred along the East Coast from Massachusetts to Louisiana and inland to Kentucky and Tennessee.

But as of 2000, the only known colony in the northeast was at Brendan Byrne State Forest in the Pine Barrens. The existence of this “last stand” was precarious. The plants grew along a roadside, vulnerable to cars, road salt, mowing and chemical herbicides. If they were to die, American chaffseed would become regionally extinct.

But saving this rare plant wasn’t as simple as collecting their seeds and growing them elsewhere. For years, researchers had been unsuccessful at growing chaffseed. The seeds would sprout, only to wither and die, leading scientists to speculate that the population might be too genetically inbred to successfully reproduce.

In 2001, a Rutgers graduate student named Jay Kelly (now a professor at Raritan Valley Community College) landed a part-time job monitoring the lone chaffseed colony. That year, its population surprisingly exploded from 130 to about 700 plants, disproving the theory that the plants couldn’t reproduce.

Kelly was intrigued and became determined to crack the mystery of what makes them grow and thrive. “It was a tremendous opportunity to learn about what the plant prefers,” he said. That was the start of his two-decade mission to save chaffseed from disappearing in the northeast.

It was known that the plant was partially parasitic, with young plants needing to attach to the roots of a host plant to get nutrients and water. Jay’s analysis identified the dainty Maryland golden aster as a key host, as their dense roots grow close to the soil surface.

He also learned that chaffseed plants are even more “picky” about where they grow than previously thought. They like open, sunny areas and benefited in the past from wildfires that swept through the Pine Barrens, clearing away shading plants. They’re neither a wetlands or uplands plant; they prefer the slim margins where wet soil meets dry.

With this new knowledge, Jay started experimental plots at New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s Franklin Parker Preserve in the Pine Barrens in 2006. He also began cultivating chaffseed in greenhouses.

Unfortunately, the original American chaffseed colony at Brendan Byrne State forest has not had another successful year since 2001. The colony declined to about 80 plants, possibly due to changing soil hydrology from adjacent agricultural water manipulation. To combat this threat, a few dozen nearby pitch pine trees have been girdled; the pitch pines have died and can’t usurp the soil moisture needed by the chaffseed plants. The standing dead pine trunks will become habitat for cavity nesting birds and feeding sites for birds that eat insect larvae.

The good news is that their genetic descendants are alive and well. There are now five experimental plots at Franklin Parker Preserve, with a total of about 80 mature plants that are carefully tagged and monitored. “This year, one of the colonies started to explode and we’ve had a lot of seedlings coming in,” Jay reports.

Greenhouse production is also going strong. Seedlings are now grown at the Duke Farms greenhouses in Hillsborough. To improve their survival odds, they’re not transplanted until after their second growing season when they’re large and strong.

“We have about 35 plants now that are healthy and happy and ready to be planted this fall,” said Jay. There are many more new plants in their first growing season, and lots of seeds waiting to be germinated. Jay is now searching for new places where they might thrive.

“It’s gratifying to know that our hard work has amounted to something,” said Jay. “We can sleep at night, knowing we’re not going to lose this plant entirely in the northeast.”

There was even more good news a few years ago, when a healthy population of American chaffseed was discovered growing on private property in Cape Cod in Massachusetts. “Who knows, there might be other populations in New Jersey or others states,” said Jay. “There’s always a chance some are out there.”

With luck, and lots of help from the scientific community, maybe a time will come when American chaffseed can be taken off the endangered list!

To learn more about chaffseed, Schwalbea americana, go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website at www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/plants/american-chaffseed/.

And for information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources – including habitat for American chaffseed and other rare wildflowers – visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

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