Restoring a sensitive ecosystem, one wildflower at a time


This article is part of The state of science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Barbara Moran, was originally published by WBUR.

Tim Boland stood beside his black van on a dirt road in Edgartown and waited a moment. Then he started distributing wildflowers.

“Who would like an apartment? he called to the dozen volunteers standing nearby. As they eagerly made their way to the truck, Boland handed out black plastic trays, each containing fifty New England blazing star seedlings.

“He specializes in New England,” said Boland, executive director of Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury. He brandished a grassy-looking seedling, which didn’t look like a blazing star – at least not yet. “It will form these button-like flowers that are a deep indigo blue, which are just beautiful. It’s a spectacular plant to see in bloom.

Someone in the field holding a box of seedlings, with tall grass sprouting from the soil pods.
Blazing star seedling, grown and donated by Polly Hill Arboretum, about to be planted on the grasslands of the Sand Plain at Katama, on Martha’s Vineyard. Credit: Robin Lubbock, WBUR
In the scorching sun, someone in a wide-brimmed hat hands a plant seedling to another person facing down, planting other seedlings in the grass.  The sand plain rises to the edge of the horizon.
Linnea Laux holds a Blazing Star seedling from the Polly Hill Arboretum, while Polly Hill Manager Tim Boland prepares the ground where they will add the seedling to the Sand Plains meadows near Edgartown. Credit: Robin Lubbock, WBUR

The New England Blazing Star is more than just a flower: it’s an integral part of a globally rare ecosystem called “sand plain grassland”. As indicated by his name, sandy meadows have sandy soil with tall grass, no trees, and an exceptionally high number of rare plant and animal species.

This includes plants like the New England Blazing Star, an important food source for various grassland insects. Today, volunteers are reportedly planting 1,000 to help restore the Bamford Preserve, a 60-acre patch of sand-plain grassland on Martha’s Vineyard.

As climate change threatens both human health and the natural world, experts say protect biodiversity hotspots like this will provide the best value for money – protecting endangered species while providing other ecosystem benefits, like open space and flood protection.

But restoration work is expensive: The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts has been restoring the Bamford Preserve for 15 years, from farm field to sandy meadow, at a cost of $15,000 to $20,000 a year. As the climate crisis deepens and money tightens, there will be tough choices about what to save and what to leave behind.

“In conservation, resources are limited and you want them to have the greatest impact on biodiversity and on the functioning of ecological systems,” said
Michael Piantedosi, Director of Conservation at the Native Plant Trust. Piantedosi is not involved in the restoration of the Bamford reserve, but says the grasslands of the Sand Plains are an ecosystem worth preserving.

“The reason to invest in this habitat now is that it has the right composition and conditions to be able to adapt to climate change in the future,” he said. “All this ecology is linked and we don’t necessarily know which piece will tip the scales in which direction.”

A woman in a wide-brimmed hat looks to the left of the frame, holding a healthy seedling in the center of the frame.  Its roots wrap around the soil pod that contains it.
Linnea Laux holds a Blazing Star seedling ready for planting in the grasslands of the Sand Plain near Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. Credit: Robin Lubbock, WBUR

Sandy plain grasslands are only found along the Atlantic coast from New York to Maine, with most patches in Massachusetts. Seven rare species of birds use this habitat, including grasshopper sparrows and short-eared owls, as well as beetles, butterflies and wildflowers, such as the New England blazing star, which is almost never found. nowhere else.

“These little systems here contain a high concentration of species that are rare and uncommon to the region,” said Mike Whittemore, stewardship manager for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. “It’s not just the plants, but it’s the wildlife, the pollinators, the things you don’t always see.”

A man kneels in tall grass of various shapes and pods, smiling towards the camera.
Mike Whittemore, stewardship manager for The Nature Conservancy on Martha’s Vineyard, kneels in a field near Edgartown where volunteers have restored grasslands to the Sand Plains. Credit: Robin Lubbock, WBUR

At this stage of restoration, Bamford Preserve doesn’t really look like a biodiversity hotspot – just a huge field of tall grass and the occasional wildflower, waving in the wind. But even getting to this point took years of painstaking work.

For example, Tim Boland had to get a special permit to grow the New England Blazing Star because it’s a “species of concern” in Massachusetts. He collected seeds from native wildflowers on the island and carefully cultivated them for two years.

And even after intensive restoration ends in a few years, Mike Whittemore says the prairie will require maintenance — like controlled burns and occasional mowing — indefinitely.

“There was such a harsh history of land use for so many years – there was planting of non-native plants, haymaking and plowing,” he said. “When you pass through here and plow, it does something to the soil. You have to stay on it to keep it open.

One of the volunteers, Janet Woodcock from Vineyard Haven, said it was worth working hard to preserve or restore the island’s remaining wilderness, especially in the face of climate change.

A pair of hands pass a fork with tines bent at a 90 degree angle over the side of a soil pod containing a seedling.
Volunteer Niamh Keane loosens the roots of a Blazing Star seedling, as she prepares to plant it in the grasslands of the Sand Plain at Katama, on Martha’s Vineyard. Credit: Robin Lubbock, WBUR
Three people wearing sun hats sit in a field of tall grass, holding seedling sprouts.
Volunteers Fanny Riand, Jarod Portillo and Niamh Keane plant seedlings of a Flaming Star Plant Tray on the grasslands of the Sand Plain at Katama, on Martha’s Vineyard. Credit: Robin Lubbock, WBUR

“I mean, the climate has changed since Earth began, every time it has. But it’s happening so quickly that living things don’t have time to adapt to the changes. And so we’re losing species because of that,” Woodcock said. “Everything struggles to adapt if it happens too fast.”

Mike Boland of Polly Hill Arboretum says populating the prairie with native plants like the New England blazing star will give all plants and animals living here the best chance of survival.

“These plants – more than most – have a 14,000-year evolutionary advantage to grow in these ecosystems,” he said. “So there will be plants that will persist even with these harsh conditions.”

Boland says preserving diverse ecosystems like this is one of our best defenses against climate change. For him, he says, it is an act of hope.

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