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Pink flowers with petals in a conical shape and a deep red stigma.
Information icon Heather Alley near an experimental population she planted for her master thesis. Photo courtesy of Heather Alley.

With help from many partners, the endangered smooth coneflower fights to come back

Droopy and slender pink petals give it a daisy-like appearance. Delicate, yet fierce, with a tall and spiked-domed center, it thrives in places that aren’t exactly dainty. Along power line rights-of-way, roadsides, dry slopes, and other disturbed places, the smooth coneflower fights to defend its turf.

Left unchecked, trees and shrubs can opportunistically overpower the open prairie-like spaces that wildflowers call home.

The smooth coneflower is an endangered wild plant in the aster family. It was declared endangered in 1992, when only 21 populations remained and 39 of the original populations were gone. Flowers were lost to pine plantation conversion, as well as highway and gas pipeline construction. At the time of listing, the largest remaining populations occupied a site that was proposed for construction of a regional hazardous waste incinerator. Indiscriminate pesticide application and mowing compounded the problem.

The situation was dire, especially because smooth coneflower was thought to be exclusive to dry hardpan forests, relatively rare communities of grasses and unique soil combinations restricted to small and scattered sites in the piedmont region of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Today, we know the species can survive in other environments besides the dry hardpan forest, which speaks to the plant’s adaptability.

A man in a wet forest on his knees planting seedlings with volunteers in the background
Mike Brod, USFS Biologist, planting young smooth coneflower with volunteers from the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, Chattahoochee National Forest, GA. Photo by Heather Alley.

A few years after the plant was declared endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) published the Smooth Coneflower Recovery Plan, which described the plant’s status, threats and methods needed to increase populations. If there is a single principle that guided and informed the plan for smooth coneflower, it would have to be the sun-loving nature of the plant. Wild flowers and other plants in the same community depend on periodic disturbances to reduce the shade and competition of woody plants.

A consistent and disciplined approach has been key to improving conditions for the smooth coneflower. The U.S. Forest Service has played a pivotal role, because it manages close to 75% of the smooth coneflower populations found at the Chattahoochee National Forest, George Washington National Forest, Jefferson National Forest and Sumter National Forest.

“The Forest Service is a key ally, committed to the proper management with prescribed fire,” explained Service biologist Dale Suite. “The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Forest Service manage the healthiest populations of smooth coneflower using prescribed fire or mechanical thinning to control competing woody vegetation so the plants receive abundant sunlight and little competition from other plant species. It’s a very systematic and proactive approach,” he added.

A man wearing a yellow jacket starts a prescribed fire in tall grass using a drip torch
Chris Lilioa, NC working a prescribed fire at smooth coneflower habitat, Durham, NC. Photo by John L. Randall.

Other organizations have collaborated and made significant contributions, too. In the mid 2000’s, the Service encouraged botany professors at North Carolina State University to focus research projects on smooth coneflower genetics, pollination ecology and seed banks. The Service funded projects led to three master’s theses that have informed recovery efforts. Smooth coneflower seeds have been carefully collected from the wild and stored in a seed bank at the North Carolina Botanical Garden to ensure preservation of the genetic material.

Several augmentation, reintroduction and introduction projects have enhanced restored or created new smooth coneflower populations. Plants have been cultivated at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia and the North Carolina Botanical Garden, and have been transplanted to suitable habitat. In addition, seeds were sown directly on the ground and monitored annually. In general, introduced and augmented populations are doing very well.

Heather Alley, of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia and Carrie Radcliffe, of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, are both members of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance (GPCA). Both have a lot of experience with reintroductions and management of smooth coneflower populations in the Chattahoochee National Forest.

“Alley was one of the first to experiment with reintroduction methods for smooth coneflower in order to determine which method worked best to establish or reestablish populations in the wild,” said Suiter. She found that planting established plants (one year old or more) during the spring is the ideal method for smooth coneflower. Since 2001, the GPCA and the Chattahoochee Oconee National Forest have conducted 10 reintroduction and 13 augmentation events.

Tiny plants emerge from dark soil in plastic containers
Smooth coneflowers seedlings in planters. Photo by Heather Alley.

The North Carolina Plant Conservation Program’s Lesley Starke the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s (NCBG) Johnny Randall have led reintroduction projects and conducted prescribed fires at the smooth coneflower preserves in Durham and Granville counties.

In 2007, the NCBG conducted an experimental reintroduction at a smooth coneflower population owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The NCBG manages the population with prescribed fire every two to three years and with periodic invasive species control as needed.

Progress is encouraging. “We understand the species needs and threats much better. New populations have been found and the plant is distributed more widely than we thought,” said Suiter.

Several small plants with extensive roots in a plastic bag ready for transplant
Smooth coneflower plants grown at the NC Botanical Garden and ready for planting in the wild. Photo by John L. Randall.

New populations exist in the inner coastal plain / Sandhills region of South Carolina and at Fort Stewart Army Base in Georgia. “This finding is significant, because it shows that smooth coneflower occurs in areas where we didn’t previously expect to find it,” explained Suiter.

Good examples of smooth coneflower populations are still hard to come by. Only 44 populations exist, and only 16 are considered in good healthy standing. The hope is that one day, healthy populations of smooth coneflower can regenerate on their own without human intervention. Collaborators have positioned the smooth coneflower on a good trajectory and will continue to work with equal determination to make smooth coneflower flourish and thrive into the future.

Visit the Service’s smooth coneflower photo album.

Contact

Lilibeth Serrano, public affairs specialist
lilibeth_serrano@fws.gov, (252) 933-2255

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