Rare Plant Conservation in Rights-of-Way

by Michael Jenkins

There are more than 600 different rare plant species in Florida that are either regulated or tracked by state and federal agencies. Over a third are sun-loving, shade-intolerant plants (e.g., terrestrial orchids, lilies, pitcher plants, etc.) that can be found in the open habitat of roadsides and powerline/gasline rights-of-way (ROWs). Statewide, ROWs are one of the best places to find rare plants.

Why are they there? ROWs provide habitat open enough for these rare, shade-intolerant plants to survive. Many are species that are adapted to or dependent on fire and live in fire-maintained habitats such as wet prairies, sandhills or scrub. They have evolved in areas where Florida’s heavy shrub and tree layers were regularly “cleaned up” with large-scale, lightning-caused fires, and those lighted by Native Americans and ranchers. For millennia, this created open, unshaded landscapes that let flowers/forbs, grasses, rushes and sedges thrive, resulting in a globally outstanding diversity of herbaceous plants.

Mowing along roadside
Mowing along rights of way can be a good thing — or bad — for endangered and threatened plants. Photo by Jeff Norcini

The recent lack of proper fire management in most areas has let woody shrubs and trees dominate, so plants that were once common have become very rar, and must find refuge in the adjacent, more open ROWs. This is especially true in areas that are periodically mowed, which creates an open habitat like that of a fire-maintained landscape.

Would it be OK for these precarious, “unnatural” ROW rare plant populations to disappear? No. Chances are good that these populations are the last remaining individuals of the species in the area (maybe in the world). Should we just leave them be and let them try and persist into the future on the ROW? That would be a “no” too, if we are steadfast conservationists. Conservation genetics reveals that many of these roadside plant populations have lost genetic viability and population fitness (for a great number of reasons). They are slowly disappearing and need the help of knowledgeable botanists, plant rescuers, researchers and growers.

So what do we do when we encounter rare plants on ROWs? Get its latitude and longitude with a GPS device (noting the accuracy of the GPS and datum used) and record detailed directions. Note the status of the population (e.g., how many plants there are, if flowering/fruiting, encroached upon by shrubs, dug up by hogs, etc.), and submit the information to the Florida Natural Areas Inventory (the state Natural Heritage Program). If the plant is on a state or county road, you can also submit the information to the Florida Department of Transportation or county road department contact for the region in which the plant is located. You may also contact me for assistance.

If you want to help the plant more than just documenting it properly, seek permission to do so from the landowner. A face-to-face meeting with the private or public land owner is the best approach, as many letters sent to the landowners go unanswered. Then do some research on the plant’s conservation needs and life history (which may or may not be known) so you can develop an educated conservation plan. The needed conservation of ROW populations are a site-by-site, species-by-species basis, necessitating a well-thought-out and well-documented plan of action. Each population, even if it is one individual, is important and in need of a unique conservation plan tailored to that single population.

Small efforts to help these plants can have immediate results. Removing vegetation such as shrubs and trees from around our sun-loving, ROW rare plants really helps! Even cutting a single tree limb or shrub shading the plant may increase flowering or germination of otherwise dormant seeds in the soil’s seed bank. Tools include a pair of loppers, hedge trimmers, or pruning shears. Hand pruners fit into pockets (and come in handy when you are hiking through saw briars). One Atlanta Botanical Garden botanist is well-known for carrying pruners in the field during research and doing opportunistic, small-scale vegetation removal around rare plants, especially pitcherplants and terrestrial orchids.

In summary, the best method of conserving our hundreds of ROW rare plants species is to look at each species individually, determine their current status and future conservation needs, make a plan to conserve them, and see that plan through. They may be “sticking it out” in a ROW, waiting for a plant conservationist’s hand to help them continue their long journey through the millennia, living in the Sunshine State.

Michael Jenkins is a Plant Conservation Biologist with the Florida Forest Service in Tallahassee. Contact him at Michael.Jenkins@FreshFromFlorida.com.

Rare plant lists

Submit rare plant data to:

For Florida rare plant-life history information:

You can also contact local college and university biological departments and herbariums, Florida Native Plant Society chapters, and local preserves owned by the Florida Park Service and The Nature Conservancy.