Blog entries

New York plant pride

I'm Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You'll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York. USFWS photo with Bethany holding a bog turtle

I’m Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You’ll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York.

Are a plant enthusiast? (Or maybe you have a lot of New York pride). Either way, you’ll be happy to know that our state is home to the largest population of American hart’s-tongue fern in the entire country! 

This fern was placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act in 1993 after quarrying operations and collecting decimated its population. Quarries operated at the same sites as several American hart’s-tongue fern locations between 1924 and 1935, destroying habitat in those areas. The fern was also historically very popular as an ornamental plant because of its unique size and shape.

Now, it’s found in only 28 locations across the U.S., with about 70 percent of the population in New York. 

Our office is responsible for monitoring and protecting American hart’s-tongue fern populations across the country, and we teamed with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry to conduct exciting new research.  We’re trying to cultivate plants in the lab and plant them at suitable sites in New York, and eventually in other states.

Dr. Danilo Fernando and Dr. Donald Leopold started their project two years ago with funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative administered by our office.

Dr. Danilo Fernando checking his plants at the SUNY-ESF lab. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Dr. Danilo Fernando checking his plants at the SUNY-ESF lab. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Here’s the process.

  • Spores (like fern seeds) were taken from Clark Reservation, near Syracuse, N.Y., and were planted in petri dishes in a temperature and light-controlled lab.
  • The spores grow into gametophytes: small heart-shaped, leaf-like structures that contain sperm and egg cells; this allows the gametophyte to reproduce on its own.
  • The gametophyte will release sperm and expose the egg.
  • Once fertilized, the egg forms into a zygote that will develop a root, stem and leaf that extend through the gap at the top of the gametophyte.
  • It’s now a sporophyte (a mature plant that produces spores) and is what we recognize when we see a fern.
Petri dishes full of American hart's-tongue fern gametophytes. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Petri dishes full of American hart’s-tongue fern gametophytes. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

But that’s not where the work ends. Once a sporophyte emerges, it is removed from the petri dish, placed in an individual pot where Dr. Fernando can measure its growth, and returned to another temperature and light-controlled room with other sporophytes. The room temperature resembles seasons, and Dr. Fernando monitors how well the sporophytes respond to the changing temperatures.

Once the sporophytes mature, Dr. Fernando will transfer the pots to a greenhouse located on top of SUNY-ESF’s Illick Hall (the same building the lab is located in). There, the plants will be given the opportunity to respond to irregular temperature fluctuations, similar to what they will experience when transplanted. If they don’t respond well, he can simply transfer the sporophytes back to the lab until they are ready to try again.

“If I leave the sporophytes outside too soon when they are not ready, the entire two year experiment will be a waste, so I want to take as much care as possible,” Fernando explained.

He hopes the sporophytes will be ready for planting in Clark Reservation or another site by next summer.

Pots of young American hart's-tongue fern sporophytes. Once the plants grow larger and are able to withstand the changing temperatures, they will be planted at Clark Reservation, or another appropriate site. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Pots of young American hart’s-tongue fern sporophytes. Once the plants grow larger and are able to withstand the changing temperatures, they will be planted at Clark Reservation, or another appropriate site. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Meanwhile, Dr. Leopold is developing models of the fern’s habitat based on the different soil, forest, and climatic variables that influence its growth and reproduction across New York. Researchers can then use GIS to match the suitable site characteristics of Clark Reservation with additional areas that can support the plant.

If all goes well, the experiment will be repeated in other states that were historically home to the fern. With the work of researchers like Dr. Fernando and Dr. Leopold, and support from the public, the plant could once again grow wild across the U.S.

Let’s keep New York beautiful and wild by preserving American hart’s-tongue fern!

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