January 17, 2003
The University of Maine at Fort Kent has joined with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to increase awareness and to protect a little known endangered plant native to the St. John Valley called the Furbish's Lousewort.
Connie Bondeson, an environmental studies student at UMFK, gathered existing scientific and educational materials, and spoke with local educators about the project. Along with her study, she conducted research on the late Kate Furbish, the botanist from Brunswick, Maine who the rare plant was named for, and uncovered an interesting history regarding this important woman.
"Kate had the true Maine perseverance about her. She was driven, determined, and didn't take no for an answer. She loved nothing more than being deep in the Maine woods. She has contributed greatly to the State, and I think it is wonderful that people will finally get to hear her story," said Bondeson.
The plant's discovery by Furbish in 1880 created an initial flurry of excitement. Interest gradually died down and Miss Furbish's wood betony, as it was originally called, was forgotten and assumed extinct until 1976 when the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers searched for rare plants that would be affected by the proposed Dickey-Lincoln Dam.
The banks of the St. John River, in northern Maine and adjacent New Brunswick, are the only places in the world the rare plant grows. Aside from the slopes of Mt. Katahdin, the habitat on the St. John River banks where the lousewort grows is home to the highest variety of rare plants in Maine.
Only a narrow band of steep, damp, well shaded riverbank offers the ideal habitat needed for the Furbish's Lousewort to survive. The lousewort grows mostly on north-facing riverbanks because the vegetation is less dense there. They never grow in the spruce-fir forest, on lower cobble beaches or in areas where there is standing water. The forest canopy above is crucial to their survival.
The lousewort, choosing such a dangerous place to grow, has had entire populations wiped out when massive ice-flows in the spring scour the banks. However, the river's ice scouring and spring flooding help ensure space for them to grow by keeping the banks free of trees and tall shrubs with which the lousewort can't compete.
In 1989 there were 6,876 flowering stems counted and in 1997 the count was 4,617 due to the severe ice-scouring in 1991 that wiped out entire groups of the lousewort. The population slowly continues to recover from that occurrence.
Eight people took part in a survey in 1999, climbing up and down the steep banks and pushing aside brushy growth to count the flowering stems of the lousewort. The counters managed to find 4,627 flowering stems and young plants without flowers that were not counted, however the count had decreased on the upper river banks and increased down river.
Bondeson's work lead to the idea of designing educational posters and a short video, for use in the classroom and on local cable access television, as well as at meetings of conservation groups and municipalities.
Through funding support from the USFWS Ecological Service's Maine Field Office, and with assistance from Bondeson, the partnership produced the short educational video and an informational poster.
"We worked with local experts and scientists who have studied the plants and the river ecosystem," said Donald Eno, academic outreach coordinator at UMFK, who helped develop the video. Over several filming sessions a fifteen minute video was produced, appropriate for schools, libraries and conservation groups.
"What is interesting about the video is that it covers some history of Furbish herself, as well as the plant's ecology and ways local citizens can enjoy and protect it," said Eno.
The video and poster utilize reproductions of botanical paintings by Kate Furbish who was a talented artist as well as a botanist. Her collected works are housed at Bowdoin College.
Both the poster and video are being mailed to local and regional schools, libraries, historical societies and town offices. The plan will also include short public service ads on local and regional cable television.
Visitors to the UMFK's web site at http:www.umfk.maine.edu/furbish can learn more about the plant and view the video in its entirety.
The lousewort plant has been listed as endangered in both the United States and Canada. For more information about Furbish's Lousewort or other rare Maine plants, you can contact the Maine Natural Areas Program at 287-8044.
Copies of the poster and video are available by contacting Donald Eno at the University of Maine at Fort Kent at 207-834-7835.