Delmarva’s Rare Plants with Wes Knapp Part I

by Dave Wilson

Here is part one of a conversation about Delmarva's rare plants between naturalist Dave Wilson and botanist Wes Knapp.

Dave Wilson:
Today we begin the first of a two-part series on rare and native plants of Delmarva. We'll talk about these plants and the state of biological diversity on the peninsula.

In the studio we are lucky to have Wes Knapp, the Eastern Region Ecologist & Botanist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Program. He has worked for DNR for the past 15 years and is currently the Eastern Region Heritage Ecologist. He has described a number new species of plants around the US.

So, Wes, in your work in the field certainly you've done a tremendous amount of research on rare plants and the science is pretty good. Can you tell us about some of the rare plants we have here on the Eastern Shore.

Wes Kanpp:
Sure, Dave. Here on the Eastern Shore we have quite literally hundreds of native plant species and most of these species are southern species at their northern limit of geographic distribution, so they're southern. They've reached their terminus up here on the Delmarva. Most people don't understand the diversity of rare plant species we get.

If you think of orchids, we have rare orchids. If you think of trilliums, we have rare trilliums. We have rare grasses. You name the group, we probably have a representative rare species in that group here. Some of them are incredibly disjunct which means they are not found for hundreds of miles and then all of a sudden you find them here on Delmarva. Some of them are continuous up the coastal plain in the Southeast and we just happen to get the last few here on the Shore.

In terms of spring things, (we are all wanting spring), we have a couple beautiful things we find in the state only here on the Eastern Shore. We have the dwarf trillium-- the trillium pusillum var. virginianum. If you're on the shore and you see a small trillium, that's a rarity and I'd be very interested to know where you are because I'm sure there are populations of this yet to be discovered on the Shore. We also have the beautiful Atamasco lily which jumps from Southeastern Virginia, large showy lily of woodlands with white flowers. We have a sole location on the Shore for that.

Dave Wilson:
Wes, I'm curious as to what kind of habitat you find most of these species in.

Wes Kanpp:
There is no just one habitat to look for rare plants, but most people are shocked to find out that the majority of our rare plants are pyrophytic or fire loving. So if I want to find a rare plant species, I will look at power line right-of -ways. I will look at recent clear cuts for timber harvest operations. Because most of the species require light, and with the lack of fire in our habitats, you have to have removal of the tree canopy. So it is a very high correlation of roadsides and power lines with rare species here on the Eastern Shore.

Dave Wilson:
What are some of the biggest threats to our rare plants?

Wes Knapp:
Woody plant succession is a major threat where forest regeneration comes out and removes all the habitat for a rare species, so lack of fire or forest regeneration is a major one. Invasive species is a major one, but lastly, habitat destruction. I have seen in my short career, beautiful places destroyed and you'd think we live in a time that it wouldn't happen anymore, but it does.

I remember old time botanists when I first came up telling me about great places they'd seen, what used to be great places that are gone and now I tell young botanists those same stories. At some point this has to stop. We have to stop destroying great natural areas that we still have.

Dave Wilson:
Is a lot of the destruction due to conversion to pine monoculture, development, or both?

Wes Kanpp:
Oh, a combination of both, Dave. We get some protections with wetland habitats here on the shore, but even the biggest buffer is only a 100 ft. wetland buffer, so if you have a rare species in uplant habitat that is going to be logged for timber harvest, that could certainly impact the species especially if it is a high quality natural area that's going to be cut down and replaced with loblolly pine which is native but not indigenous to many of the areas then planted.

I've seen development projects proposed where there is no legal reason or no legal mechanism to stop a development plan. And it happens and that's the landowner's right but then that place is gone. So it's a combination of all the things we've previously talked about: invasive species, development, habitat destruction.

Dave Wilson:
What kind of protection do rare plants have in Maryland? Say I want to develop a 100-acre parcel and there's a rare plant right in the middle of where I want to do work, what kind of recourse would the plant have?

Wes Kanpp:
So, I'm not sure if we want to advertise this, but the truth is, rare plants get zero protection in the State of Maryland. Only if that plant is found within a wetland it can be protected or in the buffer of a wetland it can be protected. This is a major misnomer that I see all the time in my work because I have to review development projects and timber harvest proposals.

Let's say we have this rare species here and someone thinks we can't do anything. Well I have to tell them you actually own this rare plant even if the State says it is endangered, even if the federal government says it is endangered. The landowner owns this species and he can do with it what he wants. He can destroy it if he wants, spray it with Roundup if he wanted to. So that's how we still lose things. There is no protection for rare plant species.

Dave Wilson:
How much do we know about the biological history of plants in Maryland?

Wes Kanpp:
I've been working on the checklist of the Maryland flora for the last eight years and I am fascinated at the historical literature. So Reveal, who is the old curator at the University of Maryland, did a great series of papers. They actually went to London, went to the British Museum and the Oxford Museum. They looked at the old specimens from the colonial era and this is like the rare threatened and endangered plant list.

There are so many things they just happenstancely collected that are now significantly rare, extirpated or disjunct great distances and there are numerous collections of these plants so that tells you that Maryland was a very different place in the colonial era than what we see today.

Click here to find out more about Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Program.