Saving a Misunderstood Plant

Recovering the endangered shale barren rock cress

Biologist Chris Ludwig had a hunch.

Chris and his team at the Virginia Natural Heritage Program - NatureServe’s member program in Virginia - were helping the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recover an endangered plant, the shale barren rock cress. This plant, which grows out of rocky steep slopes of bare shale in parts of Virginia and West Virginia, reaches to a meter tall, bears tiny white flowers, and has elongated fruits known as siliques.  When it was listed as an endangered species in 1988, only 31 populations with a total of fewer than 1,000 plants were known in the world.

The Virginia Natural Heritage Program staff looked at aerial photographs, and suspected that more of these plants could be found. They cobbled together funding to look for new sites within the 1.05-million acre George Washington National Forest.

Chris Ludwig, Chief Biologist for the Virginia Natural Heritage Program, walks along a protected site in VirginiaThe results were astonishing: their surveys doubled the number of known populations of the species and determined that the shale barren rock cress likely occurred at many more sites.

Their discovery dramatically changed the way conservationists had been thinking about this plant. As they continued to monitor and revisit the plant sites, Chris and his team determined that small populations were probably just the norm for this species. They found that, although often consisting of just a few flowering plants, the plant populations maintained themselves.

Since then, armed with this new and more accurate information, Chris and other biologists have taken concrete steps to ensure the full protection of this species:

  • Shale barren rock cress (Boechera serotina) They worked with the George Washington National Forest to set aside tens of thousands of acres of the Forest as “Special Biological Areas” and “Special Interest Areas,” meaning that these places are off-limits for resource extraction and will be managed to protect rare plants and animals. While this is not a permanent protection, it is a step in the right direction. Working with Federal partners, Chris and his team are now preparing to set plans in motion with the Forest Service in hopes of securing permanent protection of the rock cress at these sites.
  • The Virginia Natural Heritage Program partnered with staff of the North Carolina Botanic Garden to collect seeds for long-term storage of the shale barren rock cress. This will help ensure the long-term survival of this species.

Our Network’s discovery of new plant sites has resulted in a revelation: the plant’s listing as an endangered species is no longer needed. Thanks to NatureServe Network biologists, the table is set to de- or down-list this species once feared as likely to go extinct. The future for this plant is looking good.

Learn more about how NatureServe and our network members are protecting our precious animals, plants, and ecosystems:

NatureServe in Action