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Preserving New England's Rare Native Plants by Bob McMaster
    It is a cool, sunny afternoon in late May. I am standing in a freshwater marsh in Conway, Massachusetts, about 15 miles north of Northampton, my boots sinking slowly into the murky brown water. As the water level approaches my boot tops, I move a step or two to where the mat of mosses and cattail roots is slightly above water level. Soon I am sinking again.
    Such an environment may seem hostile to me or to most living things, but it is home to the tiny, green shoots that are just emerging from the saturated soil around me. They are the first of this season's northern adder's-tongue ferns (Ophioglossum pusillum, formerly Ophioglossum vulgatum var. pseudopodum), and this former beaver pond, now a soggy cattail marsh of about 1.5 acres, supports nearly 900 of these unusual plants.
    By most measures this population of the northern adder's-tongue fern is thriving. Nonetheless, it is the largest of only seven populations known in Massachusetts today, reason enough for this species to be included on the state's official list of threatened species. The apparent decline of the northern adder's-tongue fern in Massachusetts whetted my curiosity about this odd little plant in 1991 and led me as a Smith graduate student to investigate its reproductive biology and ecology. My work on the northern adder's-tongue fern is one of a number of studies of native plant populations in situ (that is, in their native habitat) that have been carried out in recent years by Smith faculty, graduate sudents, and undergraduates using the resources of the Department of Biological Sciences and the Botanic Garden to better understand and promote preservation of New England's native plants.
    Botanists have long collected plants in the field and raised them in greenhouses to understand and better protect native species. But in the latter half of the twentieth century, there has been increasing interest in the study of wild plants in situ. Many wild plants have special requirements of temperature, sunlight, moisture, and nutrients that can never be replicated precisely in the lab. A population of wild orchids, for example, can seldom be isolated from the soil in which it grows due to the intimate relationship between these plants and soil fungi.
    Another reason to study plants in the wild is the decline of many of our native plant species. In fact 668 plant species are currently listed as threatened or endangered nationally according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; the Massachusetts Natural Heritage Program lists 197 threatened or endangered plant species in Massachusetts alone. For these rarest of species, collecting is often prohibited, and research can only be carried out in the field.
    The decline of many plant and animal species is often attributed to human activities such as habitat destruction, collecting, or introduction of competing exotic species. One of the factors in the decline of the northern adder's-tongue fern, for example, is undoubtedly the filling, draining, or altering of freshwater wetlands for development purposes.
    Another native species threatened by human activity is the unusual green dragon (Arisaema dracontium), a relative of the more common jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum). While nine populations of green dragon were once known in Hampshire County, by 1988 only one was still in existence, the others probably destroyed by cultivation of the rich floodplain soils they prefer. Following her senior year at Smith, Laurie L. Sanders '88 undertook a search for this threatened species in Hampshire County. After carefully observing the

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Bob McMaster, Ph.D. (M.A. Smith College '93), is currently a Research Associate in the department of Biological Sciences at Smith College, working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services on the development of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.
Northern Adder's-Tongue Fern
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spacer   The northern adder's-tongue fern (Ophioglossum pusillum), one of 197 plant species listed as endangered or threatened in Massachusetts. Illustration by Susan Alix Williams, originally published in Wildflowers of Rowe by S. A. Williams, Rowe (MA) Historical Society, 1991.   spacer
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