Wild Ideas: Native plants: Do not disturb  

As beautiful native wildflowers continue to pop up and bloom, it’s tempting to pick them, or move them into our gardens for our viewing pleasure. But if you care about these natural treasures, don’t!

Native plants tend to be more sensitive to being moved than cultivars, and moving them will usually spell their doom. Bruce Jones, who has been naturalizing his property for more than 20 years and grows wild native orchids, among other sensitive native plants, says he and his wife, Susan, found that out the hard way:

“I am afraid to say that we here have killed too many plants on our property, attempting to move them from one place to another. . . . And, I have seen too many plants being killed that the average person thinks they can move. And they can’t.”

A tiny native sweat bee looks for pollen in a large-flowered trillium at Thompson WMA.
A tiny native sweat bee looks for pollen in a large-flowered trillium at Thompson WMA. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

It is illegal to remove plants or animals from federal and Virginia public land, but, while many native animals are protected from disturbance, even on private property, that’s not the case with plants. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and according to its website, “endangered plants on private lands can be taken without penalty (unless a State law prohibits such taking), but this is not the case for endangered animals that are protected from taking on both public and private lands.”

Why the difference between plants and animals? According to USFWS:

“Federal and State wildlife laws in the United States have their origins in old English common law where the King and Parliament owned the wild animals and prescribed the ways that ordinary citizens could harvest them on all lands, public or private. Conversely, plants were considered to be a part of the land on which they grew, and thus plants on private lands were treated as the owner’s private property. This ownership difference has been carried forward in the different ways that plants and animals are protected in the Endangered Species Act.”

Rue anemone, now blooming at Thompson WMA, can have white or pink blooms.
Rue anemone, now blooming at Thompson WMA, can have white or pink blooms. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Wild white anemone; photo by Pam Owen
Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

In Virginia, the Plant Protection Bureau of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services administers the commonwealth’s Endangered Plant and Insect Species Act. According to the Code of Virginia (section 1030-30), a copy of which is on the Virginia Legislation Information System website, “This act makes it illegal for any person to dig, take, cut, possess, or otherwise collect, remove, transport, process, sell, offer for sale or give away any species native to or occurring in the wild in Virginia that are listed as threatened or endangered species except as specifically permitted, or when the plants or insects occur on the ‘taker’s’ own land.”

Dutchman’s breeches at Thompson WMA.
Dutchman’s breeches at Thompson WMA.
Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Native plants have evolved to require a complex set of inputs — from soil to water, to a particular amount of exposure to sunlight, to even specific pollinators that help them reproduce. Moving them cannot only destroy the plant, through merely uprooting it or putting it in a place it has not evolved to be in, it also robs wildlife that feed and take shelter on them. Damaging native plants or taking their seed can also interfere with the plants’ own reproduction. Even cutting down trees can doom shade-loving plants by exposing them to too much sunlight.

Whether or not laws protect plants on public lands, there is an issue of ethics and the impact on the environment. For one thing, taking plants from public lands robs other people of the pleasure of seeing them. USFWS’s website offers some advice on wildflower ethics.

In the course of developing land, including for agriculture, it’s inevitable that native plants will be disturbed or destroyed. According to the Virginia Native Plant Society website, there is a program for trying to rescue some plants, particularly endangered or threatened ones, from these sites (click on “Plant Rescues” under the “Conservation” tab at vnps.org). VNPS says it considers such rescues on a “case by case” basis, guided by the organization’s framework of policies regarding this issue:

“We are committed to conserving Virginia’s native plants in the habitats where they naturally occur. Plant rescues become an option only when those habitats face certain destruction. . . . We neither encourage nor oppose plant rescues across the board, recognizing that each perspective emphasizes valid concerns.”

If you do feel some plants on your property are in jeopardy and are contemplating moving them, it’s best to get advice from an expert. Determining which plants are native and which are nonnative and may actually be a threat to our ecosystems is complicated. And the status of the plant should be factored in. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) has a recently updated list, “Natural Heritage Resources of Virginia: Rare Plants,” that includes the status (federal and state) of each species on it.

When I need help with plant identification, I take a lot of photos — of leaves, stems, and blooms (if present) — and send those to friends and colleagues with a lot more expertise. DCR, VDACS, your local Virginia Cooperative Extension Office and VNPS should also be able to help. For wildflower identification help, also see the reference list with my April 23 column.

Sometimes protecting native plants just means scheduling mowing or other property maintenance around their bloom times, which also gives you a chance to enjoy some of our loveliest and most remarkable native plant species — and wildlife (see sidebar).

© 2015 Pam Owen

The white petals of the large-flowered trillium, now blooming at Thompson WMA, can turn pink with age.
The white petals of the large-flowered trillium, now blooming at Thompson WMA, can turn pink with age.
Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

More nature notes

Protecting wildlife during the breeding season: Just like plants, avoid disturbing reproduction of our native animals this time of year by planning mowing and other potential disturbances around their breeding schedule. This is especially important for some of our native birds. As Rappahannock County resident and Virginia licensed wildlife rehabilitator Amo Merritt noted recently, “If you can avoid major land clearing in your state’s primary nesting season, it would be a big help to ground- and shrub-nesting birds, like meadowlarks, bobolinks, quails, dickcissels, and many others.” She also suggested checking the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service map for primary nesting season dates and durations.

If you find a native wild animal, it’s best — and, in most cases, the law — to just leave it where you find it. This is especially true of the fawns, which are now being born. When the moms need to forage, they leave young fawns in a safe place but will return. For more information on fawns, go to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ website. If you find injured wildlife, call the Wildlife Rescue Hotline (703-440-0800) or DGIF’s Virginia Wildlife Conflict Help Line (855-571-9003).

Wildflowers now in bloom: In taking a walk along along its Trillium Trail and the section of the Appalachian Trail it connects to in Thompson Wildlife Management Area last Tuesday (April 25), I found a spectacular carpet of blooming wildflowers. Among these spring ephemerals were large-flowered trillium (well underway), rue anemone, dogtooth violet, roundleaf yellow violet and common blue violet, dutchman’s breeches, star chickweed, and the last of the cutleaf toothwort and bloodroot. Mayapple, which covers most of the forest floor, was not yet blooming up there but was blooming at lower elevations. With high temperatures this week, blooming should speed up, so if you don’t want to miss the trillium, better truck on over there soon, (See my April 23 column for more about spring ephemerals at Thompson WMA.)

Short-term cabin rental now offered in some state parks: DCR, which manages Virginia’s state parks, has started a pilot program to allow the public to rent cabins in some parks for as few as two nights, rather a week, which was the minimum stay before. Some state park cabins are far from rustic, offering many modern amenities. For more information, call 800-933-7275 or visit virginiastateparks.gov.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”