How a rare plant provided clues to restoring a degraded ecosystem

Dr. Matthew Albrecht is an associate scientist in conservation biology in the Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development at Missouri Botanical Garden. He describes the ecology of the endangered Pyne’s ground-plum (Astragalus bibullatus).

Formed from the fossilized remains of an ancient tropical sea, the Nashville Basin encompasses the geographic center of Tennessee, stretching north to southern Kentucky and south to northern Alabama. Celebrated by some as the “home of country music,” many of us prefer to revel in the region’s unique flora and fauna associated with the globally rare limestone glades, or limestone cedar glades. Here, thin, rocky soils interspersed with flat, exposed limestone bedrock support sun-loving herbaceous plants adapted to the scorching temperatures and parched soils of summer followed by near-permanently saturated soils in winter. Trees and other woody vegetation struggle to take hold here, creating an open, desert-like ambience.

Limestone Glade in the Nashville Basin with Oenothera macrocarpa (Missouri evening primrose), a rare disjunct species, in bloom. Photo by Matthew Albrecht

Treasured for their unique flora, limestone glades feature over two dozen endemic or near-endemic species along with several unusual disjuncts – known mainly from grasslands far west of Mississippi River. Glade endemics such as Nashville Breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule) and Gattinger’s prairie clover (Dalea gattingeri), occur in open, shallow-soil communities dominated by C4 annual grasses and C3 winter annuals, including several members of Leavenworthia spp. Most of these glade-restricted species are widespread throughout the Nashville Basin. However, several of the disjuncts and endemics are extremely rare, such as the federally endangered Pyne’s ground-plum (Astragalus bibullatus). Known from just a few sites in a single-county, Pyne’s ground-plum teeters perilously close to the brink of extinction.

Gattingers prairie clover (Dalea gattingeri; top) and Nashville breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule, bottom), characteristic glade species in the Nashville Basin.
Pyne’s ground-plum in flower (top) and fruit (bottom). Photos by Matthew Albrecht

Why are Pyne’s ground-plum and a few other endemics and disjuncts so rare? At first glance, the obvious culprit appears to be habitat loss from the unrelenting sprawl of Nashville. Just take a drive from Nashville to Murfreesboro on I-24 and you will encounter an uninterrupted sea of strip malls and tract housing. In the late 1800’s, famed botanist Augustine Gattinger collected a specimen of Pyne’s ground-plum much farther north than where present-day populations are found, in a spot now inundated by the J. Piercy Priest Dam and Reservoir near Nashville. Constructed on the Stones River in the 1960s, the dam flooded thousands of acres for “recreational enjoyment” and hydroelectric power generation. Undoubtedly, other rare plant populations, unknown at the time, faced a similar fate. Over time, humans have abused many glades, using them as trash dumps or for off-road vehicle recreation, which could have also led to their demise.

Trash dump at a limestone glade with a Pyne’s ground-plum population. Photo by Matthew Albrecht.

Our long-term research with Pyne’s ground-plum also points to additional factors. In 2010, we began a demographic monitoring study on Pyne’s ground-plum populations to understand how we could reverse this species’ decline. Most remaining populations occupy slightly deeper soil pockets on glade edges where perennial C4 grasses and forbs form narrow, linear bands that abruptly transition into impenetrable thickets of woody vegetation – mostly of eastern red cedar (hereafter “cedar”). In a few cases, Pyne’s ground-plum grows in small, rocky openings surrounded by dense, dark cedar-hardwood forest.

Monitoring Pyne’s ground-plum populations located in a glade edge (top) and small opening of a cedar-hardwood forest (bottom).

At the time, the long-standing paradigm was that Pyne’s ground-plum – and some other extremely rare plants like Trifolium calcaricum – thrive in the partial shade cast by these adjacent cedar trees and woody vegetation at the glade edge. As the story goes, some endemics were less hardy and required some shade as a buffer from the extreme microclimate on the thin-soil outcrops. Much of the early, pioneering work on glade ecology by Elise Quarterman and her students – described stable plant communities under edaphic control of the thin, rocky soil. As was typical of that era, they described plant communities on deeper soils according to classical climax theories of eastern deciduous forest succession.

However, several years of careful monitoring and experimentation in my lab began to reveal other factors at play. Initially considered an outlier, one of our monitored populations occurs beneath a utility right-of-way, which rapidly succeeds to woody vegetation in the absence of periodic mowing. Our data showed that plants here grew larger and usually produced far more flowers and fruits compared to shaded sites. After measuring soil properties, light availability, and other vegetation properties in permanent plots, our analyses indicated that the amount of woody vegetation cover rather than edaphic conditions drove growth and reproduction in Pyne’s ground-plum. Follow-up experiments conducted by then REU student, Rachel Becknell, confirmed light-conditions that mimic cedar resulted in reduced growth of Pyne’s ground plum.

Top: Pyne’s ground population growing under a utility line kept open by periodic mowing. Bottom: Permanent monitoring plot with Pyne’s ground-plum and associated species.  Photo by Matthew Albrecht.

With fresh eyes, we began to scrutinize the dense thickets of cedar at our study sites. Upon closer inspection, we noticed the occasional, gnarled, and open-grown (i.e., wolf tree) chinkapin or post oak jutting above the younger, even-aged thickets of redcedar. Chinkapin and post oaks grow slowly in these thin, rocky soils, but their low-lying branches in multiple directions suggest these wolf trees once grew in conditions more open in the distant past. Historical aerial imagery dating back to the 1950’s confirmed that some of these forested sites were once more open, with far fewer cedars.

We speculate that disturbances from prior land-use activities probably kept these deeper soil areas around glade openings in a more savanna-like or open woodland state. In their absence, opportunistic woody vegetation – especially fast-growing cedar – colonized all but the thinnest soils in the limestone glades. Over time, this led to the development of multilayered forests and dense shrub layers that now surround the thin-soil glade openings at many of our study sites.

Dense cedar thicket behind a small remnant population of Pyne’s ground-plum. Photo by Matthew Albrecht.

To dig a bit deeper in time, my colleague, Dr. Quinn Long, and I also examined early land survey records dating back to the late 1700’s. Surveyors would delineate property boundaries based on the tree species (i.e., witness trees). If no tree species were present, surveyors used stakes (or sometimes stacks of rocks) to mark off the property boundary. In the records we examined, eastern redcedar represented just 2% of all witness tree species while oaks and stakes represented a majority of the records. Now, cedars are probably the most abundant tree in the Nashville Basin.

Although we interpret historical data with caution, these multiple lines of evidence imply a historically more open landscape in the Nashville Basin with far fewer cedars. Cedars are fire intolerant, and we hypothesize that periodic fire – naturally set by lightning and Native Americans – maintained historically lower densities of woody vegetation and promoted grassland species surrounding the glade pavement openings. Genetic analyses by our collaborators Dr. Ashley Morris (Furman University) and colleagues show widespread admixture among populations of Pyne’s ground-plum, which also supports a historically open landscape mosaic that facilitated gene flow among remnant populations via pollinator or animal movement.

Prescribed fire at Couchville Cedar Glades and Barrens Natural Area. Photo by Todd Crabtree.

Admittedly, we were not the first to propose a paradigm shift in the ecology of the Nashville Basin. We soon realized a few other astute botanists long before us advocated for the use of fire management to create more open habitat around glades, but with limited data these recommendations never gained widespread traction among land managers or found their way into the scientific literature. Another issue was that ecologists and botanists tended to focus almost exclusively on the plant communities of open, thin-soil glades – which are clearly not fire-dependent – rather than on the matrix plant communities of slightly deeper soil surrounding them.

Not surprisingly, our ideas faced much skepticism and many questions: Hasn’t cedar always been the dominant tree of the Nashville Basin? After all, the Cedars of Lebanon State Park and State Forest – the largest remaining tract of Nashville Basin Glades and Woodlands under public protection – was named after the towering eastern red cedars that reminded early settlers of the Biblical cedar forests around Mount Lebanon.

At about the same time of our research discoveries, Dr. Dwayne Estes, botanist and Director of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative, also began developing transformative ideas about the Nashville Basin. Like us, he hypothesized that the glades were historically embedded in a savanna and open woodland landscape rather than dense forests as they are now. Unfortunately, there are few historical descriptions of the Nashville Basin before early settlers radically altered the landscape via farming, pasturing, and logging. Estes speculates that lack of detailed naturalist descriptions of the Nashville Basin prior to the Civil War resulted in a misunderstanding of its historical condition. The earliest reports after the Civil War describe a largely forested region with large cedars, which could have easily developed over the 80-year period between the time of settlement and the mid-1800’s.

Long before settlement, we know that American bison and other large mammalian grazers also crisscrossed this landscape along ancient traces or megafauna highways that connected mineral licks and water sources. Formerly known as French lick, what is now present day downtown Nashville contained a large salt lick, once visited by herds of bison and elk according to early accounts. Disturbance associated with grazing and large-animal activity combined with periodic fire and drought probably kept the Nashville Basin in a more open state. Interestingly, Pyne’s ground-plum’s presumed closest relative, Astragalus crassicarpus, is widespread throughout grasslands in the Great Plains. Commonly known as buffalo pea, it also produces large plum-colored fruits eaten by Native Americans and presumably bison. In many years of monitoring, we rarely find that animals eat Pyne’s ground-plum fruits, which slowly dehisce releasing their hard seeds next to mother plants. Seeds contain a double seed coat making them challenging to germinate. After years of experimentation, we have found that exposing seeds to high concentrations of sulfuric acid followed by a short period of cold stratification results in consistently high germination compared to other treatments. We now wonder whether this germination strategy might be linked to ancient relationships with mammalian grazers who possibly dispersed the fruits and scarified the seeds.

How does Pyne’s ground-plum inform restoration of degraded woodland and savanna-like systems in the Nashville Basin? Thanks to the prodigious efforts of conservation agencies, several remnant limestone glades have been protected. However, until recently, the dense, cedar-hardwood forest surrounding open glades received little attention from land managers. In 2012, we along with collaborators at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) and United States Fish and Wildlife Service began thinning woody vegetation in the most shaded Pyne’s ground-plum populations. After a few years, we noticed increased flowering at the most shaded sites. To reestablish a more open woodland and savanna-like structure in protected areas throughout the Nashville Basin, TDEC began widespread thinning of woody vegetation around glade openings and reinitiating the key ecological process of fire.

A recently restored area at Flat Rock Cedar Glade and Barrens Natural Area.  Pyne’s ground-plum (inside cages) was reestablished at this site in 2016 after mechanical thinning and fire removed woody vegetation at the glade edge.

On a warm, sunny afternoon this past October, my colleague, Noah Dell, and I set out to survey restored areas that might be suitable for establishing Pyne’s ground-plum populations. Hiking through recently restored areas we noticed grassland- and savanna-associated species slowly beginning to rebound and increase in abundance. Compared to previous years, it was much easier to find open, deeper soils on well-drained sites that are needed to reestablish Pyne’s ground-plum. With time and continued restoration of ecological processes, we are optimistic that this and many other rare species will continue towards path of recovery in the Nashville Basin.

3 thoughts on “How a rare plant provided clues to restoring a degraded ecosystem

  1. Pingback: Torrey’s mountain mint – an oddball species? | Natural History of Ecological Restoration

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