Sharing seeds of rare plants

Jane McGary
Tue, 11 Nov 2014 17:49:03 PST
Today I was talking with another plant enthusiast, not a PBS member, 
and he told me he had collected plenty of seeds from several species 
he grows but didn't know how to distribute them. The problem is that 
they are species that are listed as threatened or endangered by 
either the US federal government or the government of one or another 
US state. In at least some of these jurisdictions, it is illegal to 
ship any material from a listed species outside the state. My friend 
is a very ethical hobby gardener and grew these garden plants from 
seed (he grew one colony from seed I donated to an exchange, which 
distributed it even though it is a state listed endangered species in 
California; I got the seed from the Robinetts many years ago). He was 
afraid that if he showed up as donating it, some member of the 
distributing society (PBS or NARGS, say) would report him to the 
authorities, or at the least blacken his reputation privately. He 
tried to get clear guidelines about this from a federal agency but 
was told that the regulations vary too much for them to provide such.

I've noticed a few listed species in PBS BX offerings in the past. 
Has anyone who has donated such species to this or another exchange 
suffered unpleasant consequences, either public or private, as the 
result of notice by someone who believes that rare, threatened, or 
endangered plants should not be cultivated? I have heard this opinion 
expressed, notably by a representative of the Natural Resources 
Defense Fund in a public lecture. There are two arguments offered in 
support: (1) growing rare plants will bring them to the notice of 
other gardeners, who will plunder the wild populations in order to 
get them; and (2) the gene pool of the rare species may become 
altered by hybridization with closely related species in gardens. 
Both of these things certainly have happened, the former especially 
with regard to tropical orchids. The latter objection is a little 
silly, because many taxa that exist in only one population are in 
fact hybrids, either swarms or clones; indeed, that is one way 
speciation occurs.

I think that if only one or two populations of a plant taxon exist, 
an effort should be made to grow seedlings from it. Its rarity may be 
the result of change in its habitat: both my friend and I adduced 
examples of plants of very restricted range that turn out to be good 
performers in gardens. Sometimes the habitat has been destroyed by 
human activity, by the expansion of an urban area or the suppression 
of forest fires. Do we have a moral duty, then, to abandon 
Fritillaria liliacea or Erythronium elegans to extinction? Or are we 
free to grow them, listing notwithstanding?

First of all, efforts should be made to preserve the habitat of rare 
plants, and indeed their presence can be the trigger for the 
preservation of a whole local ecosystem. However, not every seed that 
falls, even in the best habitat, will produce a reproductively mature 
plant, and so some portion of wild seed should be collected, 
carefully and knowledgeably grown (not just stored in a freezer), 
with the location recorded for possible reintroduction, and also kept 
in cultivation in case the habitat continues to change beyond the 
tolerance of the plant species.

What has been your experience in dealing with this problem, and what 
do you think about it? How should my friend find growers for his seeds?

Jane McGary
Portland, Oregon, USA

More information about the pbs mailing list