Hot on the trail of Frozen Garden species

Conservation project in Pittsburgh collects, saves seeds of native plants

September 29, 2002|By Douglas Oster | Douglas Oster,PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

PITTSBURGH - For Jeff Polonoli, seeing a drift of Blue-eyed Mary in bloom is breath taking.

"It's a blue haze. It looks like mist floating along a stream bank," he said.

The rare sky blue flower (Collinsia verna) is especially impressive against the dark bark of trees after a spring rain.

Polonoli, plant recorder for Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, also oversees the Frozen Garden, a project formed in partnership with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's' Herbarium.

"We wanted to start a conservation project to save seeds, to preserve the diversity of our native flora. It's hard to stop habitat loss and destruction," Polonoli said.

The Frozen Garden contains more than 100 native species and continues to grow. Each spring, Polinoli collects more seed. His knapsack is filled with a field notebook, maps, collection permits, digging tools, plant press, paper bags for the seed and a portable GPS unit. The global positioning system is used to exactly pinpoint the location of a group of plants so the colony can be found again.

"We look to collect seeds from plants that are in natural areas - state parks, county parks, private land that has not been disturbed," he said.

Polinoli wants seed from naturally growing plants rather than garden specimens, because in the wild it's survival of the fittest. Wild plants have stronger genes.

In his journeys through the forest, he has made some wonderful discoveries. He thinks he's found one of the largest populations of Snow trillium (Trillium nivale), nearly 1,000 plants. This plant, which has bluish green foliage and likes steep, wooded hillsides, is rare because of habitat loss.

The three-petaled flower is creamy white and smaller than other trillium. An early bloomer in late March or early April, it is frequently found under hemlocks. Collected seed is dried, then stored in a freezer. It is made available for plant restoration projects and research to nature conservancies, universities and government agencies.

Beachwood Farms' native plant nursery is now working on germination tests. The plants will be planted in its reserve. Saving native seed maintains natural diversity, Polinoli said.

"The more diverse an environment is, the healthier it is. You need diversity in the natural ecosystem to help form natural checks and balances.

"Because of habitat loss, we're losing this diversity. Non-native plants are exploiting these disturbed areas and outcompeting the natives. The non-natives don't have the same predators or diseases and in many cases aren't eaten by the animals."

He hopes the project will make a difference.

"I would like to see these planted out and help establish more of the disturbed land and get more of our native species out there."

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