WHILE RESEARCHING a story about the endangered status of native trillium in North America recently, I was happy to meet botanist Wesley Knapp.
Our trillium conversations got me thinking about how headlines like the trillium one, highlighting reports of the accelerating threats of extinctions of plant or animal species, are so common in the news these days.
But how are those predictions calculated, I wondered, and also: do we know what species are already gone–from the small tree that gardeners covet that is extinct in the wild called Franklinia (historic illustration above by William Bartram, one of its discoverers), to various others that are less well-known. And how do we know where to focus our conservation efforts?
Wesley Knapp, a Ph.D. student at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is Chief Botanist at NatureServe, the authoritative source for biodiversity data in North America. He previously worked as a botanist and ecologist for the Maryland and North Carolina Natural Heritage Programs.
Read along as you listen to the June 13, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
taking stock of natives’ status, with wesley knapp
Margaret Roach: Hi, Wes – are you in the home office in VA this week or off in the wilds somewhere?
Wesley Knapp: I am in the home office. I live in Asheville, North Carolina, which is out here in the mountains in the beautiful Blue Ridge.
Margaret: Yeah. Oh, it’s beautiful country. Definitely. So before we get into our topic, I wanted to get a little background on you and about NatureServe. So maybe you first… I’ve read that you have a particular passion for relatives of trillium, which we’ve talked about before and for relatives of Juncus, the rushes. And I sort of get the trillium thing because who doesn’t love them?
But what about those rushes, and just tell us, how did those plants grab you initially?
Wes: That’s a really funny take because most people who know me say, “I can’t believe you’re working on something as pretty as trillium.” So when I started my career, I started with the Maryland Natural Heritage Program as a field botanist. It was really my dream job.
I studied the rare plant list a lot, because every state will have a rare plants of your state. And the cryptic plants, like the grasses, sedges and rushes, are really the underappreciated ones that botanists don’t often pay attention to, but can be very meaningful for high-quality habitats or relic components of our natural world. So if you don’t know those cryptic organisms as a field botanist, you really don’t know the flora, because they can be as many as 25 percent of the plants you’re seeing on a given field day of exploration.
It would be like meeting the botanist who says, “Oh, I just don’t do the trees.” I mean it would be laughable. You have to pay attention to those organisms.
Wes: So I kind of got hooked because there were so many of them.
Margaret: O.K. And you said cryptic, they’re cryptic meaning hidden? Meaning not so showy? Meaning what?
Wes: Yeah, not so showy. The parts are often highly reduced. So instead of having big, showy petals you’ll have little tiny, like maybe a few millimeter long petals for some of these species. Like the sedges don’t have petals at all; they just have a flower and a rack. So they’re really the opposite of charismatic megafauna.
Margaret: Right. And so the charismatic ones, like the trilliums that we talked about in the “New York Times” story we did together. So how charismatic flora like those pretty trilliums [laughter]. [Above, Trillium grandiflorum ‘Quicksilver’ from Mt. Cuba Center.]
Margaret: Yeah. So NatureServe. It’s not just an effort, it’s a nonprofit. It’s not just an effort by the staff there in the office, but a giant collaboration. So tell us about NatureServe.
Wes: Yeah. NatureServe is an international nonprofit based out of Arlington, Virginia. We are kind of like nature’s tech firm, in that we have all the data on where species are found, including rare plants, animals, and high-quality habitats.
And we try to answer the three fundamental questions for biodiversity conservation, which is: What is it? Where is it? And how is it doing? And we are truly a collaboration, because we have 60-plus member programs who provide data from their sub-national units, be it the state or province or territory, like in Canada.
It’s kind of upticked into a centralized database where we can look at the data holistically. So we have states who can track their rare components of their flora or fauna. And then we can compile what are called global conservation ranks to vet what are the rarest components out there, and that needs conservation attention, and how do we prevent extinction of these organisms.
Margaret: O.K. I, the kind of subheading on the website of NatureServe says “Unlocking the power of science to guide biodiversity conservation.” So that’s kind of what you just explained is using all this data to guide decisions about protecting and conserving species. Yes?
Wes: Yeah. So our biodiversity dollars are really limited. So we better make sure we’re spending them on the right organisms and in the right place. And if you’re not using NatureServe data or data from the network, you’re using the wrong data.
Margaret: Right. And so there’s another part of it that was the part I knew before you and I met through the trillium report and the story that we did, which is called the NatureServe Explorer. And the reason I like that is because I’m a self-confessed sort of range-map geek. I’m a person who likes to see … When I read about a plant, a native plant, I want to see where it exists.
And so I’m always looking at different places for range maps. And yours are sort of a little bit same but different. But so the Explorer, just quickly explain what that is because that’s kind of a search tool that I find myself using from time to time.
Wes: Well, great to hear you use it. Yeah. So NatureServe Explorer is our outward-facing source of the data. You can search any species and find information on the species. For instance, if you’re interested in a very rare trillium, say Trillium tennesseense, which is known only in two places in the world, you can type that into the Explorer and find information on that plant in Tennessee, what habitat it’s found in, and what we know about its rarity, threats and trends, which will be emphasized in the global rank or the G rank, which is presented in NatureServe Explorer.
Margaret: I mentioned in the introduction that it seems like every day or every week we hear about predictive rates of endangered species going extinct, or all these threats in the news all the time now, among all the other happy headlines.
And so I wanted to know a little bit more about how those are figured out. And I saw that you had collaborated with other scientists on a paper not so long ago about that, about sort of forecasting and understanding, what’s already gone and what we think is in peril, as you were just talking about.
So I wanted to hear a little bit about that work, and it’s both on the ground but it’s also analyzing data, as you said. Looking at the research, right?
Wes: Absolutely. So my interest in extinct plants came about as my career developed as a field botanist in Maryland first. I had studied that rare plant list and I saw we had an extinct plant in Maryland, and that kind of surprised me.
I didn’t realize extinct plants were in our backyards. And that plant was Nuttall’s Micranthemum. So I took it upon myself to try to rediscover it, and I couldn’t. So there’s a lot of field work on extinct plants, as you can imagine, trying to rediscover these things.
Margaret: And what’s Micranthemum[laughter]?
Wes: So Nuttall’s Micranthemum is a very cryptic, small plant found in intertidal habitat. So the areas between high tide and low tide. It was found from the Hudson River all the way to Virginia in tidewater habitats. And now it’s extinct. It hasn’t been seen since I believe 1931.
So I realized that, oh, there’s this weird extinct plant in my backyard. And I talked to other botanists about what was extinct in their states. And I was often met with blank stares. People may have heard of Franklinia, which is usually the only extinct plant people have heard of.
Margaret: The tree, that small tree that was in the Southeast maybe? Beautiful white flowers. It’s a garden treasure. I think people, gardeners, want to grow it.
Wes: Absolutely. I want to grow it. I just can’t get a plant. It was described by Bartram, who was just traveling through Georgia and collected this beautiful plant, and named it after Benjamin Franklin. And that was among the last times it was ever seen. [More on 18th century botanists John and William Bartram and the Franklinia. Photo about from John Bartram Association.]
We don’t know why it went extinct, but thank goodness we have it in the trade and we can grow it and use this as a poster child to reach people without extinct plants.
So I started asking botanists what was extinct in their areas and people generally didn’t know. So I started asking, “Well, why don’t we know this already? Why has no one done this work?”
So it turned into that large collaborative project that you mentioned. And for me, I’m not really an academic scientist. I’m a field person, at least in my previous career before internship. So I wanted this to be part an academic question, but how does it impact conservation to learn from our conservation failures? Because extinction is a conservation failure.
Wes: If you don’t look at your failures, you can’t improve on your conservation actions.
Margaret: O.K. And as you say, with limited dollars we have to focus. So we have to learn as much as we can, do as much homework as we can ahead of time, before assigning those dollars to projects.
Wes: Right. That’s exactly right.
Margaret: Yeah. So, it was very interesting reading in that paper the list of what’s gone. And I think it was 51 species and 14 infra-specific, which I think are things below the species level or like subspecies or cultivars. Anyway, it was like, there were a number, several species of hawthorn, for instance, were gone, and a couple of potentillas and a couple of sunflowers. And so you knew this from the records, from previous records?
Wes: Yeah. So we had to do a deep dive into the literature and floras and manuals, the books that describe the plants that surround us to look for, first, what’s recognized as a species because as you can imagine not all experts agree on what constitutes a species.
And then we had to look and see what was known about these plants. When was the last time they were seen? Have people even looked for these things? Because that’s also part of the challenge is a plant could be like a big showy sunflower like you described, or it could be a small annual that only appears every few years. So detectability is a challenge when you want to declare something extinct. How much effort has been put into the rediscovery over the organism?
Wes: So there were 51 species and 65 what we call taxa, which means varieties and subspecies. We don’t normally use horticultural forms in conservation. So we use varieties or subspecies and we use the umbrella term. We use either infraspecific taxa, which is pretty stuffy, or we just say taxa to mean 65 entities.
Margaret: Right. So, of course, naughty me, because I’m a gardener I said cultivars [laughter]. So sorry.
Wes: Oh no, it’s fine. But that’s part of the education and why it’s important to talk. Because I respect gardens and cultivated forms, but they’re just not taxonomic units-
Wes: … that we would be concerned about conserving.
Margaret: Correct. O.K., cool. That’s good.
Wes: And one of the big take-homes from that extinction work was that 42 percent of the extinct plants were only known from one place on the earth. So there’s a disproportionate number of extinctions happening of these extremely limited geographical species.
And we currently don’t have those identified for priority action. So that’s one of the real research projects that have come out of that extinction work was, O.K., what are the plants we know from just one place on the planet in the United States and Canada that we can prioritize for conservation and prevent the extinction?
Margaret: O.K. Right. So of course. That’s an, right, an extra degree of peril if you’re only in a very limited place and that place may be under pressure itself as a habitat.
Wes: That’s right. They didn’t get the memo that all your eggs in one basket is not a good thing.
Margaret: Not a good thing. So, Franklinia was, you said, extinct in the wild. So that’s EW those are marked. And so does that mean not extinct? I mean, I know that some gardeners grow it, so it’s not completely extinct. Tell us about that sort of EW category.
Wes: Yeah. That’s an interesting category. I didn’t quite appreciate it until I got into this project. We have it turns out five plants that have no naturally occurring population, which is the definition of extinct in the wild.
So they may be found in conservation gardens or you can plant at your house. And some of the gardens who had material for these extinct in the wild plants didn’t realize they were either the last, or among the last, living organisms for the species.
These are truly like the black rhinos of the plant world. So we’re working on a project right now with the Mt. Cuba Center and the U.S. Botanical Garden to get all five of these extinct in the wild plants together as part of a display to reach the public about the crisis around plant extinction.
And it kind of shows the power of working with conservation gardens, in that if you have a plant only known one place in the world, if you can get it offsite, you can prevent the species’ complete extinction. Now being extinct in the wild isn’t really what you want for an organism, but it’s much better than being completely extinct.
Margaret: Right. And so I believe when we talked about trilliums for our story, we talked about, for instance, the collection of trillium genetics that is there at Mt. Cuba. Many of them not native. I know there were like 83 taxa or some … there were a lot [update: 84]. I don’t remember the number.
And they’re there, and they’re there … I believe Amy Highland, who participated in this story with us, said they were there for the day when it’s needed to put them back into the wild to propagate from, right? They’re a collection for preservation and future re-population, so to speak, efforts. [Above, Trillium cuneatum at Mt. Cuba Center.]
Wes: Yeah, we have options. And that’s really important to have options. Now one of these extinct plants, extinct in the wild plants, really shows the importance of this. It’s you say the Franciscan Menziesia, which was believed to extinct. Rediscovered in 2007-2008, but unfortunately was rediscovered on a road leading up to the Bay Bridge in San Francisco that was going to be improved and expanded.
Margaret: And what is this plant like? Just tell me what the plant … I don’t know that plant. What is it?
Wes: Yeah, it’s a genus we don’t get a lot in Eastern U.S. It’s a member of the Heath family. So it has little white flowers that are kind urn-shaped. This is a low-growing woody plant. Kind of like a sub-shrub, if you will.
But unfortunately it was in the footprint of this or shovel-ready road project that was going to immediately make the species go extinct again. So as a community, the native plant society in California, dug this plant up and helped move it to a nearby area where it’s still surviving and the cuttings have been made.
It’s in cultivation now. It’s in conservation gardens. So it has backup collections. But unfortunately the plant is still considered extinct in the wild because there’s no naturally occurring populations. But now we have material offsite that can be used for future conservation efforts.
Margaret: Right. Huh. And so what about the Franklinia? Is it going to someday go back to the wild or, I mean, do you know what I mean? Are there any of these efforts with these plants, these five EW taxa that you’ve talked about, is there an effort underway to put any of them back or…?
Wes: So we haven’t crossed that bridge yet. At least we have the option. Because now we’re getting into the arena kind of like assisted migration translocation, where we’re trying to think about how do we want to handle this changing world, and all these lost species.
Now I know Franklinia has been planted at places along the Altamaha River, but I don’t think it’s taken, which might tell you something about why this species went extinct. Because determining why something goes extinct is often very difficult, unless that site was directly destroyed by man.
Wes: It’s so oftentimes conjecture. We don’t really know. And that’s also the case with Franklinia. But with these other top four extinct in the wild plants, we have options, once we finally get enough material created. Like the hawthorns we talked about were from the Central U.S.
And if we so desired as a community, we can decide now, do we want to put this back? Do we want to track it at these sites and see how it does?
Now, I’m not the one that’s going to make that decision, but I’m fine to talk about the possibilities of it. But having the option is the first important piece of that story.
Margaret: Very interesting. So when we talked about trilliums before, you shared an anecdote. It was kind of like you were thinking aloud about some of your work in the field, and as a young botanist what you had seen and what had grabbed hold of you, so to speak.
You were talking about the rushes and their relatives and why, and the trilliums and their relatives and why. And you talked about how kind of looking forward and looking back, like what botanists a generation before you and a generation ahead of you would be struck by. And so I just kind of wanted to hear a little bit about that.
Wes: There’s a few things that come to mind in that we need charismatic plants to speak to people, to get them interested. And I remember one of those transformative moments for me was as a student at Catawba College, which is in central North Carolina. We took trips to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the coast of North Carolina every year. And I just remember being completely inspired by the spring flora of the Great Smoky Mountains.
And I also remember clearly the first time I saw Venus flytraps naturally occurring in the field in coastal North Carolina. That was a really special moment for me.
And thankfully these places exist because they’re protected natural areas. And if they didn’t, a future generation of botanists couldn’t go there and be motivated by the same amazing places.
But when I was working at the Maryland Natural Heritage Program, one of my counterparts in central Maryland, Dick Weigand, was a fantastic field botanist. He had the most amazing dataset on orchids in the Catoctin Mountains. And he documented over the course of his career a catastrophic decline in all of the orchids species found throughout those mountains. [Above; some orchids of the Catoctin Mountains; photos from NatureServe.]
And the results are probably because deer, the herd was much too large, and just really hammered the entire flora. And orchids were just a component of what they were eating. You walk into these forests and their trees don’t even regenerate because their vary is so great.
And I remember looking at Dick’s data, where he would literally have documented thousands of a species of orchid at a site. And I had maybe never even seen this orchid. It made me realize we’re probably losing these important messengers for botanists. I probably wasn’t as into orchids at the time, because I just wasn’t encountering them because we have a drastically different world now than we had a generation ago or even two generations ago.
Margaret: What are some of the other plants right now in the field that are kind of attracting passion and attention? What are some of the other charismatic flora, so to speak, of today that are calling out to botanists? Are there any others that are really headliners, so to speak?
Wes: Oh, sure. Carnivorous plants usually reach people immediately. We’re talking pitcher plants, Venus flytraps, bladderworts, butterworts. Especially when you realize it’s more than just Venus flytraps and pitcher plants. Like there are other carnivorous plants. That’s usually kind of a plant gateway drug to get you interested in nature.
Wes: When I speak to small children’s groups, like my daughter’s kindergarten class many years ago now, you show a picture of a Venus flytrap eating something, kids get excited. Like that’s pretty wild.
So carnivorous plants definitely speak to people. Orchids really speak to people. I remember when I would speak to plant groups in Maryland, I’d ask who had seen an orchid native in the field in Maryland. There are people who had no idea that orchids were in a part of our landscape. And we had I think 52 species of orchid in Maryland. Orchids are very powerful. And trilliums, those kind of garden crossovers, if you will. Where people will get very interested in the diversity of trillium and they’ll get interested in some weird morphologies of different species.
Trees are another group that really generally speak together for various reasons. Who doesn’t love walking through an old-growth forest and looking up in the trees?
But those are the groups that come to my mind that really reach the public.
Margaret: O.K. I see that NatureServe has a campaign now for donors called Adopt a Species.
Margaret: Yeah. It’s something … Here in New York State we have a Breeding Bird Atlas, citizen science data and scientist data collected to every so many years to update the status of breeding birds in a particular geographic area.
And they have that as well. And you can adopt a species to help donate to the cause of doing this work and so forth. So tell me a little bit, a little bit about that because those species that are there assume are ones that the public is kind of … they kind of reach out to the public, right?
Wes: Yeah. Well the Adopt a Species … I’m really glad you brought this up, because we are a nonprofit. We aren’t federally backed permanently. We try to identify funding to maintain these conservation ranks.
And the Adopt a Species program is kind of tiered-based on the global rarity of the organism. So if you want something really rare, like maybe a federally endangered or G1, it’s going to cost a little more than a common like white oak, for instance.
And the Hirst Brothers’ panic grass is known from fewer than five places in the world. I knew Frank Hirst before he passed away, one of the people the plant was named after was named after. He and his brother, Bob, who discovered it new to science in New Jersey. And it’s literally known from a handful of sites in New Jersey, Delaware, North Carolina, and Georgia. And that is it.
Margaret: Interesting. See with the birds, I chose the bird who lives in a very, very old white cedar with shaggy bark right outside my office window, the brown creeper. This very unseen little bird that you don’t really notice except if you happen to, next to your window, have this very, very old tree that it loves and has always been in all the years I’ve been here [laughter].
Wes: Yeah. And we all have those species that speak to us personally. And that’s why I picked the Hirst Brothers’ panic grass right is to honor Frank and his memory.
But I know people who’ve adopted plants in honor of their father or family members who introduced them to the flora or fauna and helped ignite their passion.
Margaret: So you’re going to be probably going out to the field. You probably can’t wait to go back. What are you working on now? What’s your thing at the moment?
Wes: Field work isn’t a huge component of what I do, but I just returned from a week-long expedition in Big Bend National Park, where we were looking for an extinct oak species called Quercus tardifolia, the late-leaved oak.
So I do very prioritized field work when possible that has immediate conservation gain. And this involved us taking burros deep into Big Bend with a multi-hour hike of thousands of feet of elevation, where we camped out for a week because the time it takes to get into these remote sites where this extinct species may occur is so time-consuming that you need to stay on site if you’re going to survey the area in a proper thorough way.
Margaret: So looking for an extinct oak. O.K.
Wes: Yeah, that was certainly a highlight recently. I’m working with collaborators from many organizations on an assessment of U.S. trees, where we identify first… We provide a list of the trees, how rare each species is, and where they’re found to give information on where conservation efforts should be focused.
Wes: And kind of the state of the trees right now. Kind of similar to the trillium assessment that we talked about previously.
Margaret: Well, Wes, I’m so glad to speak to you again and to learn more about NatureServe and how this work is done of figuring out what are the critical projects to devote our time and our dollars to. So thank you for making time today. And I hope we’ll have more conversations.
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 13, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).