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Garden Augments Botanical Research

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Friday, September 28, 2018

Following our move to the new Department of Arkansas Heritage (DAH) headquarters in 2016, the ANHC was given a raised bed between the building and the employee parking lot for a research garden. This garden is used by ANHC botanists to maintain living specimens of plants relevant to specific research and to the ANHC’s ecological restoration work.

One way we use the garden is to “grow out” young, unidentifiable specimens found early in the season so that they can flower and/or fruit and be positively identified. For example, we might find immature plants of a grass dominating a monitoring plot on a natural area. It will need to be positively identified in order to assess the progress of our land management work. We can take a start of this grass (usually from just outside the plot) and grow it in the garden until it flowers and can be identified. This is much more efficient and cost effective than returning to a remote site to get a fertile specimen. Photo at left: ANHC's Research Garden at the Department of Arkansas Heritage headquarters, photo by Theo Witsell.

We also keep living specimens of certain rare species that we want our staff to be able to recognize in the field. According to ANHC Ecologist and Botanist Theo Witsell, “seeing a photo or herbarium specimen can be very helpful in developing a search image for a species, but there’s no substitution for having a real live plant growing right outside the office door.” Other specimens are part of systematic or genetic studies being conducted to sort out poorly understood groups of plants or to describe and name “new” species.

Lastly, we have a few rare plants that were saved from impending destruction and are being propagated for future release back into the wild. Our small patch of inland muhly grass (Muhlenbergia glabrifloris), a species of state conservation concern found only in native grasslands, is one example. It is rare in Arkansas to begin with, but until recently, the only record of this species in northwestern Arkansas was a herbarium specimen collected in 1934 from an area of former prairie near Fayetteville. Then, in 2015, Witsell discovered a small population in a degraded prairie in Bentonville. When it was learned that this site was going to be lost to development, the ANHC worked with the landowner and the Northwest Arkansas Master Naturalists to salvage the plants. They are now growing under care in the ANHC Research Garden and on the campus of Northwest Arkansas Community College. As the clumps expand over time they will be divided and planted out in protected areas in Benton and Washington counties. Photo at left: Inland muhly grass (Muhlenbergia glabrifloris) growing in the ANHC Research Garden, photo by Theo Witsell.

Here are a few examples of other specimens in the garden:

Bigleaf Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) – This species is known in Arkansas from a single collection, made in 1926 from “woods – Benton County.” It was originally dismissed by later botanists as some kind of specimen mix-up, since the closest known site was near Chicago, Illinois. However, since that time, several populations have been found in the Missouri Ozarks, where it is a rare species of high quality wooded bluff habitats. It has never been found again in Arkansas. Our specimen came from West Virginia and will help ANHC staff, volunteers, and partners get a search image (knowledge of what the plant looks like during all seasons) for this species in hopes that someone will rediscover this missing element of our natural heritage. Photos at left: Bigleaf aster (Eurybia macrophylla) leaves (far left) and bigleaf aster flowers (near left) in the ANHC Research Garden, photos by Theo Witsell.

Mountain Mints
(genus Pycnanthemum) – A number of odd mountain mints live in the research garden. Several of these appear to be either the rare whorled mountain mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum), a species found mostly to the east of Arkansas, or hybrids between other species. These plants in the garden were the source of leaf tissue sent to Dr. Ed Schilling at the University of Tennessee Knoxville for DNA analysis as part of an ongoing genetic study. Photo at left: Theo Witsell showing mint plants to ANHC Commission Vice-Chairman Mark Karnes during a tour of the ANHC Research Garden at the August 2018 Commission meeting, photo by Leslie Patrick.

Shining Coneflowers (Rudbeckia fulgida complex) – This group of coneflowers, or black-eyed Susans, is poorly understood and likely includes a number of undescribed species or varieties with small ranges, many of which may be restricted to uncommon or unusual habitats. Traditionally, two varieties have been recognized for Arkansas, but botanists are seeing something different in the field. Many of the characters believed to be important in sorting out this group are not always captured in pressed specimens. ANHC staff is collecting live material to study in a common garden, in hopes of better understanding this group and sorting out what kinds grow where. Photo at left: Shining coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida complex) growing in the ANHC Research Garden, photo by Theo Witsell.

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