NPSNJ Native Plant of the Year 2019:
Hirst's panic grass  - - Dichanthelium hirstii

hirst's panicgrass Photo Credit: Kathleen Strakosch Walz

hirsts panicgrass

A grass was chosen this year because grasses don't get enough love and they are vitally important to our ecosystems and our environment.

Dichanthelium hirstii is a species of grass that is known from three sites in New Jersey, one site in Delaware, two sites in North Carolina, and one site in Georgia. This species was first petitioned to be listed as a rare species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in May 2004. The USFWS identified threats to this species as changes to hydrology, encroachment of woody vegetation, competition with rhizomatous plants, small population sizes, and specifically in New Jersey, off-road vehicle use.

As part of a litigation settlement between the USFWS and the Center for Biological Diversity, the USFWS was required to make a decision on the status of this species (as well as 225 others) by September 30th 2016. On October 6th 2016, the USFWS removed Dichanthelium hirstii from consideration of federal protection citing taxonomy as the reason.

The USFWS considers the Flora of North America Project as the authority on plant taxonomy and adopted their designation of D. hirstii as a synonym of D. dichotomum ssp. roanokense. Adopting the Flora of North America project is problematic in that it reflects the opinion of one author and has a continental focus which is not as detailed as more regional flora that identify D. hirstii as an independent species.

At the time the USFWS made their determination, there had not been a peer review study published suggesting that D. hirstii is more appropriately treated as a sub species, but there existed three studies identifying D. hirstii as an independent species and specifically explain how it differs from D. dichotomum ssp. roanokense.

One of the aforementioned studies was funded by the USFWS and carried out by PPA member and Academy of Natural Sciences Botany Curator Emeritus Ernie Schuyler in 1992. Since the determination was made a peer reviewed publication was published that explicitly reviewed range wide specimens and taxonomic literature of D. hirstii and determined it deserves species status. One of the authors on the paper was an editor on the Panicum genus for the Flora of North America.

I chose D. hirstii because of how rare it is in the state. The seed is not commercially available and that is actually a good thing. There are many reasons why a plant can be rare. This is one plant that is rare just because it is. It is not rare because of habitat loss or due to over competition from non-native invasive plants. It is just able to grow in just one small area in our state. The reason why I am glad that it is not commercially available is because if it were, and that seed was from somewhere else, there would be a chance that the genetic makeup of our plant could be changed in a way that it would no longer be able to grow where it does. With plants are are rare "just because" there is something about the plant and the one habitat that it inhabits. If we were to introduce just a slight genetic deviation, that "something" could be altered in a negative way. Some people think that it would be okay if we did introduce the genetic change so that the plant would grow everywhere. The sad thing about that is that the uniqueness of that plant would be lost. Imagine if anyone could paint a Mona Lisa.

The best way to help the plant's survival is to protect the environment that it calls home. If we do that with all the places that rare plants grow then our ecosystems would be much better off.  

John Black
President, The Native Plant Society of New Jersey

- - - - - - - - 

Further information:

The above left photo is from the US Fish & Wildlife Service article: The Legacy of Hirst Brothers' Panic Grass by Kathleen Strakosch Walz:

The Flora of NJ project also discusses Hirst's panicgrasss:

M. Ling