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Goal: Sustain Our Nation’s Forests and Grasslands New Research Sheds Light on Fate of the Imperiled Pondberry Plant

Pondberry plant foliage with red and green berries

Pondberry foliage and maturing fruit (mature fruit is red) growing in partial sunlight at the Flooding Research Facility, Sharkey County, Mississippi. Photo by Brian Roy Lockhart, USDA Forest Service.

Introduction

Some consider pondberry to be the rarest shrub in the southeastern United States as it is found in only 36 populations distributed in six states. Forest Service researchers have discovered that pondberry prefers to grow in partial sunlight rather than the heavy shade characteristic of dense forests. Active forest management practices that provide suitable light availability could help pondberry thrive and perhaps even resist other environmental stresses such as soil flooding.

Summary

Pondberry is a federally endangered shrub that forms clonal colonies in the understory of seasonally flooded forests of six states in the southeastern US. Deforestation and land drainage have been attributed with reducing the amount of forested habitat suitable for this rare shrub, so existing colonies are buffered from human disturbance on federal lands. Because of this plant’s rarity in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, the Forest Service initiated research to learn more about the environmental factors that govern pondberry’s growth and vigor. Forest Service scientists used plant tissue culture techniques to generate thousands of experimental plants that were established in artificial plantings and subject to sunlight and soil flooding treatments. By measuring leaf morphology and photosynthesis, they discovered that pondberry can acclimate to different levels of sunlight—but, the leaves function best in partial sunlight rather than the heavy shade characteristic of dense forests. This new research indicates that pondberry plants could respond vigorously to active management where heavy shade dominates its habitat. Additionally, a favorable light environment appears to support pondberry’s ability to grow on seasonally-flooded sites. Active management designed to improve the light environment could enhance habitat quality needed to advance recovery of this imperiled plant.