Wildflower Demise


(This 949th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on May 31, 2009.)



Lesser Celandine takes over Amherst State Park


The other day I received a request from my long-time friend and birding colleague, Joe DiDomenico. Although we still occasionally go on bird outings together, Joe's main attention has turned to the study of orchids, both in the field and in his own greenhouse collection. As two results of his new focus, he is now president of the Buffalo Orchid Society and a board member of the Erie County Botanical Gardens.


Recently a hunter friend of his told Joe about finding a patch of orchids that are rare in this region - pink lady's slippers. He followed the hunter's directions, located the lovely wildflowers and, with his GPS device, recorded the exact latitude and longitude of this find.


That set DiDomenico on a quest. He is now establishing a location database of wild orchids in this region and he asked me to let people know about his project. He invites anyone who knows of locations of such orchids on public lands or on accessible private property to contact him. His phone numbers are 683-7343 and 523-8569, and his email address is jdidomenico@roadrunner.com.


I had better make clear what is going on here. Wild orchids are protected wildflowers and it is illegal to remove them. Joe has no intent to disturb these rare and lovely flowers. Instead he wants to record their location to be able to show over time how well - or unfortunately more often how poorly - they are doing. His database will not be made public and thus will not attract the attention of vandals to these locations.


I consider this an excellent undertaking and I urge any reader who knows of such plants to contact DiDomenico. Our wildflowers in general are fighting a losing battle and even keeping track of their predicted extirpation will provide an historical record of importance.


Some of the orchid species you might report are: arethusa, grass-pink, rattlesnake-plantain, rose pogonia, and any of the coralroots or lady's slippers or lady's tresses.


Why are these orchids and in fact wildflowers in general in such trouble?


There are, it seems to me, two straightforward answers to that question. The first is deer. In the early 1900s there were about 500,000 white-tailed deer in this country; today we have about 20 million. In New York State we have gone from 20,000 to a million, an even steeper rate of increase. You need only visit our natural areas to see the result of this tremendous overpopulation of Bambis: there is very little botany to be studied from the ground to head height.


A recent experience brought this home to me. Jerry Lazarczyk and I were looking for spring wildflowers in Wilson-Tuscarora State Park. In one area where we used to find a vast patch of white trilliums, we could at first find none. Then I spotted the nodding petals of a single plant hidden on the almost vertical cliff that leads down to the lakeshore. The deer had missed just that one specimen.


Botanists believe that 10 to 15 deer per forested square mile would be a reasonable carrying capacity. Instead, especially in some of our urban and suburban areas we have almost that many per acre. I had hoped that coyotes would reduce these numbers by taking fawns, but that appears not to be enough control.


The other problem for our wildflowers is the take-over of our forest floors by alien weeds. Some of those weeds are quite attractive. Through much of April the ground of many of our parks and woodlands was covered with beautiful yellow flowers. It looked almost as though you were walking on a yellow rug. Those were the flowers of the invasive alien, lesser calandine or fig buttercup. It may be beautiful, but that rug is displacing our native spring ephemerals, those lovely wildflowers that bloom early before the trees leaf out and shade the forest floor. They include bloodroot, the toothworts, Dutchman's breeches, harbinger-of-spring, squirrel-corn, trout lily and Virginia bluebells.


Now those yellow celandine flowers are gone but garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, swallow-wort and other invasives are coming on fast. We are rapidly becoming what David Quammen has called a Planet of Weeds.


So DiDomenico's project should prove useful as another canary in the coal mine.-- Gerry Rising