There are no plants as rare in Indiana as heart-leaved plantain (Plantago cordata). Formerly widespread in the state, today only a single known wild plant remains, reports the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Botanist, Mike Homoya. “The site [where the remaining Plantago cordata survives] is one Charles Deam found in 1932” he explains. “We rediscovered the population in 1989 and there were 12 plants observed. When we [the DNR] went back to the site in 2000 there were 57 plants. A few trees had died creating an opening for sunlight, so we thought perhaps that was the reason for the population increase. We noted the population was thriving. We did not get back to the site until 2013 when we found only one plant remaining.” His next visit, in 2016, saw the population still only one plant.
Homoya decided something had to be done to protect the species from extirpation. He gathered the seed stalks but was concerned because most of the seeds had shed and he could only collect a few intact capsules. Fortunately, there were a few seeds in those capsules, and the precious cargo was turned over to Alyssa Nyberg, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Nursery Manager and Outreach Coordinator for Kankakee Sands, who ably planted the seeds and tended the sprouts.
Homoya next needed to find the plants a new home, and spoke with land managers across the region of the state where Plantago cordata was previously recorded and is a known native. NICHES Stewardship Managers, Brad Weigel responded with a, “yes we have some potential locations.” The site chosen was the Hoffman Easement, which straddles Sugar Creek in Tippecanoe County, but is not open to the public.
On the appointed day in September, NICHES transported the plants from the nursery in Newton County to the planting site. Homoya and Weigel, along with NICHES volunteer site steward, Peter Waser, met and hiked the property in search of the prime planting location.
“We are looking for a niche with the right combination of features,” Mike explained while trekking the dozens of acres. The group searched for a narrow, shallow stream bed, with dappled sunlight, and sandy soil with adequate loam mixed in. Ideally the streambed would be an ephemeral stream – wet in spring, but not prone to strong, fast moving floodwaters and likely to be dry in late summer. As the group scouted they noted details such as topography, hydrology, including velocity and flow. While a few potential spots were noted, Mike made the final call, choosing the streambed most like the habitat where the original (and last remaining naturally occurring) plant resides.
“The soil composition is the most like where the other plant lives.” Mike took careful notes to document the planting, including GPS points, so the population can be monitored into future. Waser will monitor the rare plant population, visiting it various times throughout the year and noting environmental details, like how the stream water varies, how much light is reaching the floor through the canopy, and how the plants are faring.
If possible, Homoya wanted two locations to transplant the heart-leaved plantain into to increase chances of success. The group went in search of another location. After trekking across a few wet areas without streambeds, and streambeds that were too wide or deep, Weigel scouted out a second spot, “I think the conditions are favorable. The streambed is dry now, but shows evidence of regular flowing because no vegetation is growing here. The soil is sandy, though muckier than the other site.” Homoya agreed that the conditions met requirements, and noted features of the spot and took a GPS recording.
The plants had well established root systems in their 2-inch plastic pots, often with roots extruding the pot. The leaves were abundant and vibrantly green, varying in width from 2 to 4 inches. Robust growth was evident, and such healthy transplants ensure a strong chance at survival. After planting the plugs, Weigel watered each with water drawn from a nearby stream. 15 plugs were planted at the first location, and an additional seven plants at the second location. As the plants blended so naturally into the environment, and looked so natural, the group hung bio-degradable flagging to help find the locations on the next site visit.
“This is an experiment,” Homoya states. “The seeds don’t remain viable very long and tend to sprout immediately, so saving seeds for later use can be problematic.” Nyberg is continuing to tend some plants at the nursery in order to harvest and sprout more seeds. Homoya intends to eventually plant some at the original site and protect the population there.
NICHES will monitor the plants closely, especially over the first year to see if they become established. Homoya notes, “I don’t usually like to introduce a plant into a site where it was not known to occur historically, but this is a special case, you know, we’re down to one plant.” The plant is recorded to have historically been present in the county, and the site was chosen because it fit the criteria for conditions likely to have had naturally occurring Plantago cordata. The original Tippecanoe County record of Plantago cordata is dated 1879, collected by A.H. Young. The location given is vague, listed only as “Lafayette”.
The 2016 project to maintain the Indiana genotype of Plantago cordata could not happen without the collaboration of all involved parties. Together Indiana DNR, TNC and NICHES are protecting a rare Indiana plant from extirpation.