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Swamp Pink Surprise

Back To YBO Home PageIntroduced at a mountain bog, this rare plant produces seedlings

By Carrie Radcliffe, Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Swamp pink had a red-letter day last October.

Photo Courtesy Alan Cressler
Photo Courtesy Alan Cressler

That’s when scientists and students working at a Chattahoochee National Forest mountain bog uncovered the first known instance in Georgia of a swamp pink that had been planted to help restore this imperiled species actually producing seedlings.

Students from Southeastern Technical College in Swainsboro, Ga., had teamed with U.S. Forest Service and the DNR to help restore a mountain bog, one of the rarest natural communities in the Southern Appalachians. As workers cut and moved brush away from patches of sphagnum moss containing sensitive plants, botanists documented a surprise years in the making.

Since 1995, member organizations of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance have maintained collections of rare plants for conservation. The Alliance has also safeguarded rare species in native habitats, adding to existing wild populations from plants in cultivation and introducing plants in other suitable places. Mountain bogs are the most important of these safeguarded habitats.

One of the first safeguarding efforts involving mountain bog species revolved around swamp pink (Helonias bullata), a unique member of the lily family. In 1942, botanist Wilbur Duncan made the first recorded occurrence of swamp pink in Georgia, describing the plant’s beautiful flower as rose-pink with blue anthers.

Photo Courtesy Georgia Department of Natural Resources
Photo Courtesy Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Swamp pink is now federally listed as threatened. Georgia represents the southern extent of its range. Here, the plant was once restricted to a single bog on private land where ditching and agriculture had permanently altered the site’s hydrology.

Despite efforts to moderate the ecological damage, the bog has become overgrown and shaded, diminishing its ability to support rare bog species. Swamp pink is the only rare plant left. It persists by its thick rhizomes. Seedlings have never been seen here, and the last time the plants were observed blooming was in 2008.

Yet, Atlanta Botanical Garden propagated hundreds of plants using seed collected  from this lonely colony of swamp pink. Many of those plants have been used to create safeguarding populations in the Chattahoochee National Forest, where volunteers with The Botanical Guardians keep close watch over them, reporting updates to the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance.

In 2010, guardians saw that one introduced swamp pink outplanted nearly two decades ago had finally produced a flower and dispersed seed. This followed clearing around bogs earlier that year that increased sunlight on the areas, work funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Photo Courtesy Georgia Department of Natural Resources
Photo Courtesy Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Then, last fall, the work group involving the Southeastern Tech students discovered many swamp pink seedlings next to the plant that had flowered and set fruit the year before!

Beyond this being the first documented swamp pink seedling recruitment in Georgia, researchers are excited because reproduction and recruitment are the first steps toward establishing a healthy population of rare plants.

Jennifer Ceska, conservation coordinator for the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, said swamp pink has been “a puzzle for safeguarding, and after 20 years of intelligent tinkering to finally hit on the combination of needs for this species to reproduce in the wild feels like a huge success.”

Swamp pink is being safeguarded in three protected Georgia mountain bogs. Other rare bog plants and animals, such as mountain purple pitcher plant, Carolina laurel, Cuthbert’s turtle-head, Canada burnet and bog turtles, are also being safeguarded.

Thanks to collaborative restoration efforts, these species restricted to one or only a few naturally occurring sites in Georgia are being conserved in managed areas – efforts their survival may depend on.

-- Carrie Radcliffe, Georgia Department of Natural Resources
Carrie Radcliffe is a botany intern with the Nongame Conservation Section, a Botanical Guardian and mountain bog project coordinator for the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance. The swamp pink discovery was also featured as a U.S. Forest Service success story.

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