Photographs by Chris Frye
Some plants are placed on the “State List of Rare, Threatened and Endangered Species” because we’ve known about them for a long time and realize their numbers are declining. But some plants are added to the list because we’ve just discovered them. The Nantucket shadbush is one such plant.
This flowering shrub was discovered in Maryland in 2002 by our own State Botanist. Hiding in the C & O Canal National Historical Park, the Nantucket shadbush was a true surprise. As you might guess from its name, this is not a plant thought to live around here. It has a very limited range, found primarily in New England. The Island of Nantucket, from which it gets its name, has a widespread and healthy population. The individuals in Maryland are known as a disjunct population; the next nearest plants are in New York State.
Nantucket shadbush, like many other shadbushes (also known as serviceberries), reproduce in an unusual way. A large part of their energy is spent cloning themselves. Although many plants have this capability, shadbushes seem to have raised it to an art form. Some species use structures called stolons: aerial offshoots or stems of the plant that run along the surface of the ground, putting down roots and growing new plants. It’s similar to how strawberries grow runners. The Nantucket shadbush utilizes a similar structure, called a rhizome. It is stem tissue that runs underground, growing into crevices and sending up shoots of new growth. All the plants off a stolon or a rhizome are genetically identical - clones. Shadbushes also have flowers and produce seeds which preserve their genetic diversity, but their primary form of reproduction seems to be clonal.
Shadbushes in general are excellent food sources for wildlife. The berries produced from the flowers are very popular with songbirds. In fact, this is how many plants spread. The bird eats the berries and the seeds pass through the bird’s digestive tract and are disposed of elsewhere. If they land in suitable habitat, they may establish themselves there.
So far, this is the only occurrence of Nantucket Shadbush we know about in Maryland. When you are out enjoying all the natural wonders of Maryland, keep an eye out. Not everything has been discovered yet. You could be the next to find a new or rare species.
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