Effort to save plant in Arundel is fruitful

Once near extinction, rare shrub is growing

July 29, 2002|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Not only has Maryland's rarest plant lived another year -- to the surprise of some conservationists -- but what last year was the state's lone wild box huckleberry plant is staging a mini-comeback during a drought that is starving other vegetation.

"It doesn't look like it cares if there's a drought, does it?" said restoration ecologist Keith Underwood last week during his annual visit to what last year was a shrinking and ailing plant on a wooded slope by the headwaters of Anne Arundel County's Magothy River.

Last year's sickly twig has since spread. It sprouted four tiny shrubs in an area so sandy and dry that one could effortlessly scoop up a fistful of pale grains.

Underwood, part of a team working to rescue the Maryland box huckleberry from extinction, yanked out greenbrier and other low bramble shading the plants to get more of the woods' dappled sunlight to strike the little evergreens.

From his vantage point next to the nodding stems that are a few inches long and a few inches tall, Underwood pronounced the little clumps happy and healthy -- even as nearby moss was so water-deprived that it flaked.

Box huckleberry, also known as boxwood huckleberry and by the scientific name Gaylussacia brachycera, holds a fascination for many botanists. It is an Ice Age relic about 10,000 years old -- older than the giant Sequoia trees.

Growing about a foot tall, it has delicate stems and glossy oval leaves no more than 3/4 of an inch long that remain dark green year-round. In spring, the plant grows tiny white or pinkish flowers, followed by flavorless, fat, bluish-black berries. A creeper, it spreads by underground runners to form documented colonies over several acres.

About 100 colonies exist worldwide and, with what was one known plant in the wild in Maryland, it is on the state's endangered list.

What was in 1911 a carpet of box huckleberry shrank from an estimated 2,000 plants on the Pasadena slope to one struggling remnant. Conservationists blame its demise on home and street construction that sent silt cascading down the hillside onto the viney growth and trash tossed down the ravine, both of which choked out its light.

Fearing that the low-spreading evergreen was doomed, Underwood and Philip M. Sheridan, director of the Meadowview Biological Research Station in Woodford, Va., began several years ago the rescue of what scientists think is a unique cultivar. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources credits them for bringing the near-demise of the plant to its attention and working to form a partnership with the DNR, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the county to save it.

At the Arboretum

Snippets rooted from what were then two plants in the sandy ravine have spread into large creepers at the National Arboretum in Washington, where Robert J. Griesbach, a USDA plant geneticist, supervises research on them and monitors growth.

The wild plant's new shoots don't shock him, based on his experience with the local box huckleberry at the arboretum. A damp fall and winter followed by a dry spring and summer -- some of which the region has experienced during the past year -- seem to satisfy the plant.

Griesbach explained that the plant prefers a moist fall and winter because that is when its root system sends out runners and starts new shoots -- a lesson painfully learned when cuttings refused to root in the summer.

Having the ground dry out as the temperatures warm in spring is fine, he said, because the plant is summertime drought-tolerant. It will live in dappled light, but it will flower and grow plump berries in bright, full sun provided it has experienced a cold winter, he said.

"Now we have enough information so that we can select a site and manage the plants so they are happy," Griesbach said.

In the fall, he expects to take 100 or so cuttings from his Maryland offspring plants, hoping they will be ready to transplant a year later.

The group will work to select sites for re-establishing the plant. Underwood is eyeing two in Anne Arundel County, and some plants might be placed near the parkland where the cultivar grows. Officials have not ruled out trying to establish it outside the county.

Anne Arundel County bought that slope to protect the plant. But it has not removed the bramble, in part because botanists knew little about the plant's life cycle, likes and dislikes, and because they feared exposing it to possible predators, said Brian Woodward, chief of natural and cultural resources for the county's Department of Recreation and Parks.

"It's a delicate balance between giving it some light and making it stand out like it's in a buffet line," he said.

Sheridan advocates thinning the immediate area of some competing plants and adding a few transplants, as well as finding new sites.

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