Preview performance of the Huntington Theatre Company's James Joyce's The Dead, September 7, 8, and 9, at the BU Theatre

Vol. V No. 3   ·   31 August 2001 


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Ah! Wilderness
Botanist's battle to stem wildflower depletion

By Brian Fitzgerald

America's native wildflowers are growing scarcer in every state, except for a few new species that are flourishing at the expense of the rest, says Richard Primack, who has been studying disappearing plant species in forests across the world.

  Richard Primack examines a jack-in-the-pulpit that he planted in Jamaica Plain's Allandale Woods in 1989. The three-inch-high plant had flowered when he checked on it in 1991, but, he notes, it should be at least two feet tall now. Photo by Vernon Doucette

In fact, Primack, a CAS biology professor, has been leading plant restoration efforts from Belize to Borneo. But he is especially interested in preserving plant diversity in the Boston area. During a recent hike in Jamaica Plain's Allandale Woods -- a reservation where he planted native species more than a decade ago -- Primack bemoans the fact that local wildflower populations have been depleted in Massachusetts cities and suburbs over the years.

"The numbers lost are alarming," he says. He notes that a survey in 1894 listed 422 plant species in the Middlesex Fells Reservation in Medford, Mass. A count by Primack from 1990 to 1993, however, listed only 272 species. So for years Primack, fellow BU researchers, and volunteers reestablished seeds and seedlings of missing plants -- such as columbine and cardinal flower -- in the Fells and Allandale Woods, as well as in nature reservations in Newton, another city whose woodlands have been reduced by urban sprawl.

How fruitful have their efforts been? Primack, a Newton resident, says that it's too early to call the experiment a success or a failure: under field conditions, many seeds have to undergo a long period of dormancy before they germinate. He reports "decent results" with bluets and marsh marigold seedlings that were planted in Newton's Hammond Woods in 1994. In 1998, with the help of the Newton Pride Committee volunteer beautification team, he planted native flowers, including blue flag irises, in the city's Cold Spring Park. In addition, Primack and BU students planted native shrubs on the banks of the Charles River near the Newton Marriott in 1999.

It will probably take a few years to verify whether or not the plants reproduce in numbers adequate to establish a permanent population, but Primack is heartened by the publicity the plantings have generated. "Children from Newton's elementary schools have been involved in the project, and the Newton Pride Committee is also selling wildflower bulbs and seedlings to help fund more plantings," he says. Indeed, the effort was featured in the June edition of the national children's newspaper My Weekly Reader. "It helps provide an awareness of the importance of biodiversity in a community that is having much of its remaining undeveloped real estate built on."

Primack explains that researchers typically monitor the plant survival rate in such experiments for several years, but not in the long run. "Generally, scientists operate under three-year funding cycles, but then the project ends," he says. "But in a lot of areas of science, there is increasing thought given to following plant populations over a longer period of time." That is the purpose of his visit to Allandale Woods, where Primack planted wildflowers, including partridgeberry, Indian cucumber root, and foam flower, in 1989. The transplants were checked in 1990 and 1991, and with the exception of the Indian cucumber root, all had survived and flowered. Primack hadn't been back to this conservation area in 10 years, however, and he wanted to see which of his plants had survived. "As a middle-aged man, lately I've been interested in visiting sites of experiments I conducted as a young man," he laughs.

Allandale Woods, across from the Arnold Arboretum on Centre Street in Jamaica Plain, is a 31-acre forest owned by the city of Boston that abuts woodland belonging to nearby Faulkner Hospital. "This area was once an estate and a farm, and the plant life here is typical of the secondary growth that invades old fields," says Primack. A cursory check reveals none of his original plantings, but the woods have changed a great deal in 10 years. We find a six-sided springhouse, built in the 1870s, sitting on a meandering stream. The structure, with a conical roof, was a famous source of water in the neighborhood in the late 19th century. It was falling into ruin in 1989, but it has since been renovated. And while Allandale Woods is protected by conservation restrictions, the neighboring woods that were the site of the historic Souther Estate are now dominated by a giant Faulkner Hospital elder care facility, built in 1992. In addition, woodland owned by the nearby Church of the Annunciation is being cleared to construct a school. Encroaching development is a sign of the times: many of Boston's privately owned open spaces, like Newton's, are being built on, and native plant species are dying out.

The development trend bothers Primack, but he is hoping that his wildflower restoration projects will increase public awareness of the need to resist development pressures when building projects threaten sensitive wilderness areas.

"In 1989, we were doing experiments in Allandale Woods to see how effectively we could reintroduce wildflower species using different techniques," he says as he avoids stepping on poison ivy -- a plant that is definitely not endangered here. "Building on our work in these woods, Brian Drayton [GRS'03], one of my graduate students, started doing the much more detailed studies of wildflower reintroductions in the Middlesex Fells and in U.S. Forest Service land in South Carolina."

Using an outcrop of Roxbury pudding stone capped with a glacial erratic -- known locally as Table Rock -- as a landmark, we walk down a steep hill into a wooded dell where Primack is positive he planted some wildflowers. Sure enough, we come upon one of the plantings, a solitary three-inch-tall jack-in-the pulpit. "It looks like a seedling, but it's a 12-year-old plant," he says. "It should be two feet tall." Will it survive for another season? Primack says that's difficult to tell. "I remember that in the Hammond Woods we planted Canadian lousewort plants, and every year their numbers were down," he says. "Last year there were none. Because it was dry, they might have gone underground. Orchids can remain dormant for years."

Such is the work of a conservation biologist reintroducing wildflowers near urban areas. Every planting is a gamble. But the battle is worth it, because every year the natural environment is becoming less diverse and more homogeneous. Primack likens the trend to locally owned businesses being replaced by chain stores.

The jack-in-the-pulpit that Primack planted is rare in cities, and while hardly thriving in Allandale Woods, it is still there after 12 years. "It's hanging on," he muses, "but for how long?"


31 August 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations