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Historical GLO Notes Could Help Endangered Pondberry

Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission - Monday, January 29, 2018

by Brent Baker

Over the past few years, ANHC Botanist Brent Baker has been methodically reviewing the General Land Office (GLO) survey notes (see GLO Notes: An Invaluable Resource for Ecologists) from the West Gulf Coastal Plain and Mississippi Alluvial Plain in an effort to locate potential references to the rare shrub pondberry (Lindera melissifolia). Pondberry, listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, is a member of the laurel family and a relative of the common and widespread spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Like spicebush, pondberry has leaves that are spicy-fragrant when crushed; with pondberry leaves being generally described as having a “lemony-sassafras” aroma (sassafras is also in the laurel family). Also like spicebush, pondberry has bright red “berries” (technically called drupes: fleshy fruits with thin skins and central seed-containing stones) in the fall. Whereas spicebush is a compact, multi-stemmed shrub up to 10 to 15 feet tall, pondberry is a shorter shrub (up to 7 feet tall) that spreads underground via rhizomes to form colonies of genetically identical stems (See "Response to a Reader Question" for more information about the two plants). Both species have clusters of small yellow flowers that open in early spring before the leaves develop and both are dioecious, meaning that male (staminate) and female (pistillate) flowers occur on separate individual plants.

While spicebush grows in a variety of moist, rich, upland to lowland forests throughout the Eastern U.S., pondberry is restricted to forested wetlands in the Southeast, including Arkansas. Specifically, pondberry grows in bottomland hardwood forests along major rivers, and in forested depressions, sinkhole ponds (east of Arkansas), and “sand ponds” (swales between low, Pleistocene-aged, wind-deposited sand dunes) within the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal plains and Mississippi Alluvial Plain. These areas are seasonally flooded (in winter and spring), and pondberry seems to be adapted to a specific range of water levels and timing of flooding. It is very sensitive to changes in these natural hydrologic regimes, and populations often decline when they are altered. Additionally, much of the historic habitat for pondberry has been converted for agriculture, with the subsequent loss of many pondberry populations.

In Arkansas, pondberry is known from the upper Mississippi Alluvial Plain in the northeastern part of the state, specifically from sand ponds west of Crowley’s Ridge and from bottomland forests along the St. Francis and Mississippi rivers east of the Ridge. Pondberry was also known historically from the bottomlands of the lower Ouachita River in southeastern Arkansas and northern Louisiana in the West Gulf Coastal Plain. It had not been observed in that region in over a century and was thought extirpated (locally extinct) there until 1999 when it was rediscovered at Coffee Prairie Natural Area in Ashley County, Arkansas. The plants at Coffee Prairie, however, were small and stressed, appearing generally unhealthy. Upon review of GLO survey notes from the area, it was found that the surveyor had mentioned “spicewood” in the understory within the bottomland forests throughout the area, indicating that it was common and possibly abundant there. It is very likely that the surveyor was referring to pondberry, since spicewood is a name known to have been applied to this species. Although this name has also been applied to spicebush, much of the area is unsuitable for that species (too low and wet) and it is not currently known from the immediate area.

Extensive searches have since been conducted in this area of the West Gulf Coastal Plain of both Arkansas and Louisiana, but have failed to turn up any additional pondberry populations. Meanwhile the Coffee Prairie population continued to decline, presumably due to changes in the hydrologic regime of the area. Although the area has always flooded significantly, as noted by references to 10 to 15 or even 20 feet high water marks on trees in the GLO survey notes, it has been speculated that perhaps the duration and seasonality of flood periods have changed as we’ve altered the landscape and climate. After the Coffee Prairie pondberry population was observed a few more times in the early 2000s, it was actually again feared extirpated about a decade later when the plants could not be relocated during several successive seasons.

Finally, however, in 2014, Brent and Scott Wiggers (with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) located a single pondberry plant with two stems no more than 6 inches tall. The plant appeared unhealthy and it was feared that it would not survive much longer in the wild. So after consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency tasked with administering the Endangered Species Act, it was decided that the plant would be extracted after it went dormant in the fall of 2014 to be grown off-site for its protection. Fortunately, the plant has done remarkably well over the past few years in cultivation at a nursery, growing stems to over 4 feet tall and spreading via rhizomes such that it has been divided into three separate clones so far. It also flowered for the first time in the spring of 2017. It turns out it is a male (or staminate) plant. The hope is that one day clones of this plant can be returned to the wild, along with clones from other populations, in an attempt to re-establish a population of pondberry in the West Gulf Coastal Plain.

Meanwhile, searches continue in the hopes of finding additional plants in the wild. Discovery and protection of additional populations could be vital to the conservation and recovery of this species. Given the apparent references to pondberry in the Coffee Prairie area in the GLO survey notes, it is speculated that the notes could perhaps hold clues to locations of other populations. Thus the study Brent is undertaking in reviewing the GLO survey notes from the West Gulf Coastal Plain and Mississippi Alluvial Plain. So far he has found numerous additional references to spicewood, “spice,” “swamp spice,” or “swamp spicewood,” and other similar names that perhaps could have been used to describe pondberry. He’s mapping these references and will use them to guide future field search efforts for the species.

Photos, top to bottom:

Pondberry colony growing in the St. Francis Sunken Lands of northeastern Arkansas. Pondberry spreads vegetatively underground via rhizomes to form colonies of genetically identical stems. All stems in this photo are likely of a single genetic clone. Photo by Brent Baker.

Excerpt from the original GLO survey notes recorded by C. Langtree, deputy surveyor, in October 1842. This excerpt describes a 1 mile section line in southwestern Ashley County near Coffee Prairie Natural Area. It reads "Lands overflows to 15 ft." . . . "Timber pin oak [an old name for willow oak] Cypress Gum" . . . "Undergrowth greenbriers & spicewood." There are numerous mentions of "spicewood" in the notes from this portion of Ashley County, presumably in reference to pondberry.

ANHC Botanist Brent Baker pointing to the last known West Gulf Coastal Plain pondberry plant (with two stems under 6 inches tall) that he and Scott Wiggers (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) rediscovered at Coffee Prairie Natural Area in 2014. It was feared the plant would not survive in the wild much longer. It was extracted later that year for off-site cultivation. Photo by Scott Wiggers, USFWS.

Two of three clones of the Coffee Prairie Natural Area pondberry plant in cultivation at a nursery nearly three years after being rescued from the wild. The clones are healthy and have grown considerably. Photo by Brent Baker.


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