Rare Plant Conservation

Though Alabama boasts one of the highest numbers of rare native plants in the US, it also ranks 11th in the percentage of native plant species considered “at risk” of extinction and/or extirpation. Few organizations and commercial nurseries are actively involved in growing these exceptional plants, so most are completely absent from the commercial trade, despite, in some notable cases, attractive horticultural qualities and relative ease of propagation and cultivation.

In a broader sense, Alabama boasts over 4,000 native plant species. Although the rarest might have extremely narrow habitat requirements, many others are generalists and a significant number of these are useful, durable and beautiful plants in garden and landscape settings, whether designed in naturalistic, cultural or more interpretive styles. Many can be found in the horticultural trade: e.g., oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) are among the most commonly-sold shrubs in the southeast; native trees like loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) and willow oak (Quercus phellos) populate much of our urban forest; our state’s rich supply of native herbaceous perennials, collectively termed wildflowers by many, includes favorites like blue phlox (Phlox divaricatus) and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Still, hundreds of lesser-known species are highly attractive and easy to grow even in the hands of beginning gardeners.

Visually, native plants help to define an area’s “sense of place;” ecologically, they are in harmony with regional processes and other native organisms. As primary producers, organisms which harvest energy directly fromthe sun and convert it to a form usable by other organisms, native plants drive the terrestrial ecosystems in which humans live. All the life that surrounds us begins with plants and that simple premise means that planting native plants is good for every living thing. If we want the richness of the birds and the bees and the butterflies, we need to be mindful of what they eat, and what feeds those organisms, and so on. It starts with plants and native plants fit into this scheme better than non-natives.

The Gardens has an established history in propagating, growing and displaying southeastern US native plant species, including several that are narrowly endemic (in Alabama and nearby states) or otherwise rare or endangered at global or state levels. The Gardens also has extensive experience producing educational programs focused on native plants, in both ecological and cultivated contexts. Two of our most important gardens contain exclusivelycollections of native plants: the Kaul Wildflower Garden contains one of the most extensive such collections in the southeast, and is nationally recognized for its plants and its naturalistic garden style; the Barber Alabama Woodlands contains our oldest and largest native trees and is a primary site for our award-winning Discovery Field Trips for schoolchildren.

The Gardens’ Rare and Native Plant Propagation program embraces our thirty years’ of experience in making more native plants. While the larger focus is on rare plants, a number of additional species are also propagated (many on a one-time basis) for more general uses. More recent initiatives, with independently-defined goals, include the Tutwiler’s spleenwort and Alabama leather-flower projects noted above.

Within the scope of this program, a volunteer propagation group has been active at The Gardens for three years, typically meeting for three hours a week, over approximately half the year. Participants work alongside staff in all phases of the work, in educational contexts. For twelve weeks in the summer, an intern (the Louise Agee Wrinkle Native Plant Intern, independently funded by the Little Garden Club of Birmingham) augments their efforts. Further work is done by volunteers who assist in planting out, monitoring and maintaining the out-planted propagules in their garden contexts at The Gardens.