cravPhoto by: Cheryl Peterson

The scramble to save the Avon Park Harebells

Author: Jeffrey Dosdall

“I knew it was bad, but I didn’t realize it was this bad,” said Jeffrey Dosdall, a Research Assistant in the Plant Ecology Program at Archbold Biological Station. He was looking over the last, struggling survivors of a once numerous population of an endangered plant known as Avon Park harebells, Crotalaria avonensis. The harebells, a short legume with yellow flowers, are known from only three sites in the entire world, all within the Sebring/Avon Park area. This particular site where Dosdall was visiting is within a residential neighborhood with no conservation protection.

“I saw the data, of course,” Jeffrey continued. “Clusters of over a hundred plants had been reduced to fifty or less in a decade, and many clusters of fifty or less had disappeared completely. This unprotected population is dying out quickly. But coming here and seeing the state of things is different from just hearing about it.” The last survivors were scrawny and sparsely scattered in the fragmented remnants of their unique habitat, the Florida scrub. The area was mostly occupied by houses and their lawns, crisscrossed with roads and littered with trash. “This is not a good place for any scrub plant to be, especially one as rare as the Avon Park Harebells.”

But why are they so rare? “The harebells had a narrow range to start with, like a lot of plants in Highlands County,” said Dr. Aaron David, the Plant Ecology Program Director at Archbold. “Then most of their habitat was destroyed by development. To make matters worse, they have very few seedlings. In the twenty-six years that we’ve monitored the protected sites, we’ve typically found about one seedling a year.”

Though things aren’t all doom and gloom for the harebells. “We’ve been finding more seedlings in the last few years,” Jeffrey explained. “Last year we found six seedlings in the protected sites, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s much better than finding one or zero. Something has changed for the better.” Yet what about the unprotected site? Researchers have been working to save the plants there.

sterlingPhoto by: Hannah Bowen

Dr. Sterling Herron, Archbold Plant Ecology Program Research Assistant, collects cuttings from Avon Park Harebell plants for cultivation.

“We came here to take cuttings of stems to propagate as new plants, which will be transplanted to a protected area,” Dosdall said. “We may not be able to save this physical site, but we can ensure that the plants pass down their genes.” Avon Park Harebells have been transplanted before. In 2012, researchers from Archbold introduced the harebells to a fourth site on the state-owned Lake Wales Ridge Wildlife and Environmental Area, using seeds and transplanted stems collected from the unprotected site. “That introduction is going quite well,” Jeffrey said. “The plants are big and healthy, and we even find seedlings in there.”

However, there is still much to do before the introduction is as numerous and robust as a wild population. “We need to get more plants into different parts of the scrub,” Dosdall said. The stems from the unprotected population are currently being cared for by collaborators at Bok Tower Gardens. When they’re ready, they’ll be transplanted to the introduction site to ensure the future of this imperiled and unique plant from Avon Park.

“Time is running out to save the Avon Park Harebells,” says Dosdall, “and I’ll be darned if it goes extinct on my watch.”