grassy success story?

June 20, 2022

Post by Connor McInerney, Force of Nature® volunteer

At the end of May, 2022, Willisbrook Preserve received a new plant resident, and an endangered species in Pennsylvania got a little bit of hope.  

A man's hand reaches down into the a bed of grassy plants to point out a bloom of Bicknell's sedge.

Bicknell’s sedge, pictured here, is not a particularly stunning specimen of a plant.
Photo: Connor McInerny

Bicknell’s sedge, aka Carex bicknellii, is a small, grasslike species (not being a true grass, i.e. part of the Poaceae) that lives in thinsoiled, prairie landscapes. According to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, this species is endangered, its most imperiled status designation. For the last 100+ years, it has been disappearing from habitats throughout the state. There are 37 historical occurrences of the plant in PA according to the Resource Recovery Plan for Bicknell’s Sedge in Pennsylvania from 2012. Only six sites have been reconfirmed. For the first time in that history, the plant is being introduced into a new site: Natural Lands’ Willisbrook Preserve. 

A graphic of a map showing current and historical occurrences of Bicknell's sedge

Map of current and historical occurrences of Carex bicknellii (Block and Rhoads, 2012).

The planting at Willisbrook is the culmination of more than a year’s worth of planning, expert input, and the cooperation of three local nonprofits. In May of last year, botanical experts were surveying a small privately owned serpentine barren in Westtown Township called Brinton’s Quarry as part of the Quarry Swimming Association’s formation of a conservation plan. Bicknell’s sedge was among the species found at the site. 

Seeds were collected from the site last June and passed to Mt. Cuba Center for propagation. This May, 150 grass seedlings were planted by Natural Lands staff in three plots throughout the preserve.  

Plastic trays of grassy plugs of Bicknell's sedge.

Propagules in the greenhouse.
Photo: Connor McInerny

A fenced area at Willisbrook Preserve that's been planted with sedge plugs.

Propagules in the ground at Willisbrook Preserve.
Photo: Connor McInerny

There is much more to say about species level conservation, how this “counting of species” approach can be limited in its impacts and have perverse incentives, and ultimately is insufficient to meet the needs of our biodiversity crisis and the sixth extinction. Also, there are questions of survival and longevity at the site. But, for today, we’re celebrating this as a grassy success story.