Northeast Regional Floristic Quality Assessment Conference
By Ted Elliman
On February 10 and 11, 2011, botanists from the six New England states and New York met for a conference in Manchester, Vermont, to discuss numeric rankings related to habitat tolerances for all of the native and naturalized plant species occurring in the seven states. The project, organized and funded by the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC), is designed to develop a comprehensive northeast regional ranking system for all of the northeastern plant species.
The project, called the Floristic Quality Assessment Index, began in March 2010, when botanists representing each of the seven states and NEIWPCC held an introductory meeting in Rhode Island, and shortly afterwards, received state flora lists with all of the native and naturalized plant taxa for each state. Botanists in attendance included Don Schall representing Connecticut, Matt Arsenault and Sue Gawler representing Maine, Ted Elliman representing Massachusetts, Dan Sperduto representing New Hampshire, Dave Werier and Steve Young representing New York, Rick Enser representing Rhode Island, and Art Gilman representing Vermont.
The challenge to the botanists was to rank, on a scale of 1-10, each plant species according to its tolerance to human and natural disturbances, and the nature of the habitats in which it is found. Native plants that are frequently found in disturbed environments and/or in a variety of habitat conditions receive a low rank such as 2 (examples are rough-stemmed goldenrod or pasture rose) while those intolerant of disturbance and/or limited to very specific habitats receive a high rank such as 9 or 10 (Massachusetts examples include showy lady’s-slipper and mountain cranberry). All introduced plants receive a score of ’0’. The floristic ranks determined by the botanists will contribute to the assessment of a particular habitat or natural area for its ecological quality. In comparing two habitats, for example, the sum of the the ranks of their plant species would be one measure in determining their value as conservation land.
In two days of discussions moderated by Kerry Strout of NEIWPCC and Andy Cutko of the Maine Natural Areas Program, botanists presented their individual state rankings and collectively assessed numerous plants that each had scored for their own state. Easiest to rank were those species on the low and high ends of the habitat/disturbance spectrum. There was more disagreement and lively discussion for many species ranked in the middle ranges, where botanists’ own experience with the plant and the specifics of its distribution in particular states could vary considerably. At the end of two long days of botanical chatter in Manchester’s elegant Equinox Spa, we all parted friends, if not always in agreement!