Partners join to recover Georgia aster
Georgia aster declined to the point that in 1999 the Fish and Wildlife Service decided it needed to be on the Federal endangered species list.
Placing the aster on the endangered species list has been precluded by higher priority species, but in the interim organizations have still worked to recover the plant. That effort took a great step forward on May 16, 2014 as several organizations came together to sign a Candidate Conservation Agreement, committing to a suite of conservation measures to recover the plant. This step comes after years of effort that may recover the Georgia aster to the point it no longer needs to be placed on the endangered species list.
Candidate Conservation Agreement
By signing the Candidate Conservation Agreement, a team of partners makes a voluntary commitment to a suite of conservation measures to help protect Georgia aster habitat and boost plant numbers. Commitments include:
- • Searching for new populations;
- • Monitoring known occurrences to estimate range-wide population trends;
- • Keeping forests with Georgia aster thinned to a level that provides ample sunlight, while minimizing threats from drought and competition;
- • Avoiding mowing utility and transportation rights-of way with Georgia aster from late spring to mid-fall, when Georgia aster is at its tallest, and reproducing. If possible, mowing in mid- to late-spring to maximize impacts to invasive plants before Georgia aster is high enough to be significantly damaged;
- • When mowing rights-of-way, cutting to no less than four inches, and avoid operating machinery on wet soils to reduce soil compaction;
- • Avoiding broadcast spraying of herbicides in or near Georgia aster populations;
- • Marking populations to avoid inadvertent damage during right-of-way maintenance.
Georgia aster conservation underway
Though the Candidate Conservation Agreement advances the conservation of this rare plant, several organizations have already worked years to conserve it.
- Georgia Department of Natural Resources
Georgia has used regular prescribed fires to resurrect Georgia aster populations and prairie habitat at Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area. A single patch with as few as 10 flowering stems found in 2006 has grown to more than 80 flowering stems, with new patches flourishing in other parts of the prairie. DNR has also searched out populations in the state to document the species’ distribution; geared land management to help restore habitats, including at state lands such as Pickett’s Mill Battlefield Historic Site; and, worked with fellow Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance members to establish new populations and improve existing populations and sites.
- National Park Service
The Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area annually monitors the populations that grow in the park. In coordination with the Georgia Department of Transportation, plants were rescued from a road-widening site within the park in 2012 and planted near a parking lot which is maintained via weed-trimming in winter months. This site now has 256 stems.
- Georgia Department of Transportation
Every autumn, the Georgia Department of Transportation conducts surveys to identify roadside populations of Georgia aster. The Department has identified numerous populations, helping to expand the known range of the species. Georgia DOT ecologists routinely work with biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to safeguard or relocate populations that would otherwise be impacted by roadway maintenance or construction projects.
- North Carolina, and South Carolina Departments of Transportation
In Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, populations have been relocated in advance of road improvement activities that would have destroyed or altered Georgia aster habitat.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Cooperators
In September 2010, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funded an assessment of seed viability and population genetics in Georgia aster - involving collaborators from the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the North Carolina Botanical Garden, the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, and The Citadel. This provided information on genetic diversity within populations, while examining correlations between population size, genetic diversity, and seed production.
- U.S. Forest Service
The U.S. Forest Service thinned woody vegetation, used prescribed burns, and treated non-native invasive species to manage for Georgia aster on National Forest land. As of 2013, about 5000 stems of Georgia aster from 9 populations grow on the Chattahoochee National Forest. The Chattahoochee National Forest is also working with partners on propagation and out-planting. The Talladega National Forest contains Alabama’s largest population, with approximately 4000 individuals. In 2008, the Talladega National Forest thinned longleaf pine stands to savannah conditions specifically to aid the Georgia aster population, and is partnering with Auburn University to grow and plant approximately 2000 Georgia aster seedlings. The Uwharrie National Forest in North Carolina thinned an oak-hickory forest adjacent to a Georgia aster population, and burned the area in 2003 with the fireline constructed next to the original Georgia aster population of 60 stems. Stem counts in 2010 and 2011 indicated a 25-fold increase from 1998 counts. Over 7000 individuals of Georgia aster from twelve populations grow on the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina, which is working with propagation, out-planting and using prescribed-fire and woody vegetation thinning to increase Georgia aster population size where it grows on the forest.
Georgia aster species facts
Video courtesy of Clemson Univeristy
Georgia aster has large flower heads, 5 cm across, marked by dark purple rays encircling white to lavender disk flowers.
Flowering occurs from early October to mid-November. The tiny disk flowers are white, fading to a light or dull lavender, tan, or white as they mature. The plants tiny fruit, which contain a single seed each, are up to 4 millimeters long, with evenly distributed, small, hair-like structures. Georgia aster can be distinguished by the combination of dark purple rays, and white to lavender disk flowers.
- Habitat and range
Georgia aster lives in woodlands or piedmont prairies dominated by native plant species, with acidic soils that vary from sand to heavy clay. The primary controlling factor appears to be the availability of light – the plant tends to compete well for resources until it begins to get shaded out by woody plants. Populations can persist in the shade, but these rarely flower, instead reproducing by sending out underground stems which send out new shoots.
Georgia aster is a relict species of post oak savanna/prairie communities that existed across much of the southeastern United States prior to widespread fire suppression and the disappearance of large native grazing animals (e.g., bison).
Georgia aster is currently found in five counties in Alabama, 15 in Georgia, nine in North Carolina, and 14 in South Carolina. It was once known from Florida, but is no longer found there. Across its range, 146 total populations have been known, of these, 28 have likely disappeared.
In most cases the exact cause of the disappearance was not documented, but herbicides, highway construction, fire suppression, and residential and industrial development have all altered the landscape where Georgia aster historically occurred.
Habitat loss due to development has been considered a threat to the plant throughout its range, and continues to be an issue in places.
Since the plant prefers open areas, disturbance (fire, native grazers, etc.) is a part of this plant’s habitat requirements. The historic sources of disturbance have been virtually eliminated from its range, except where road, railroad, and rights-of-way maintenance are mimicking the missing natural disturbances. This lack of disturbance allows woody plants to grow and shade-out the Georgia aster.
Due to the elimination of historic sources of disturbance, most of the known remaining populations of Georgia aster are adjacent to roads, railroads, utility rights of way and other openings where land management mimics natural disturbance regimes. At these locations, Georgia aster is vulnerable to accidental destruction from herbicide application, road shoulder grading, and other maintenance activities, though careful planning can prevent these impacts.
Deer browse and seed consumption by insect larvae have also been noted.
In 1999, the Service made Georgia aster a candidate for inclusion on the Federal endangered species list, meaning it warranted inclusion on the list, but other species were a higher priority.
Signatories to the Candidate Conservation Agreement
Conservation cooperators - though not signatories to the Candidate Conservation Agreement, these organizations are also helping conserve Georgia aster