by Aja Hannah
Summit Metro Parks and partners are attempting to clone a federally threatened species, a plant with tiny blue flowers called the northern blue monkshood.
As of the last count in fall 2018, 192 plants are growing wild in Summit Metro Parks. At the Holden Arboretum, 16 clones are growing inside their facility. Another 42 clones are taking root in a garden bed, waiting to be strong enough to go to the parks, strong enough to meet their mother plants for the first time.
The story of the monkshood in Ohio is like that of many other federally listed species. They’ve suffered from habitat loss, human use of land for roadways, grazing by domestic animals, and pesticides or run-off. Northern blue monkshood — or Aconitum noveboracense as it is known to science buffs — is a pretty little flowering plant belonging to the buttercup family. In the spring, blue-purple flowers bloom and the plants reproduce.
In 2000, only 13 plants were left in the Summit Metro Parks, down from more than 600 in the 1980s. This was truly distressing because the park system had the largest number of the plants in Ohio. After that dismal measurement, a collaboration between Ohio conservation organizations went on a mission to clone the species.
Summit Metro Parks sent clippings, or tissue samples, to the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden in 2004.
Once at CREW, the clippings undergo a process called plant tissue culture. The samples are sterilized with a diluted bleach solution so no bacteria or fungi can contaminate them. Then they are put in separate test tubes. CREW gives the plants nutrients which contain hormones to stimulate new shoots and buds. These can either grow roots or be used to create more shoots. The ones that grow roots are put into the soil. This is where some of the plants have problems.
In the past, CREW would then give a variety clones back to Summit Metro Parks to be planted with the rest of the wild ones. Summit Metro Parks outplanted 15 clones in 2006, 59 clones in 2007 and 69 clones in 2008.
Except for a remarkable year in 2010, when a few plants took root in a raised bed in the middle of Cincinnati, no clones survived the outplanting. A few of the clones from the raised box were brought to Summit Metro Parks, but only one survived for a little over a year.
The monkshood are tricky, and scientists can’t quite figure out why the clones won’t thrive.
“We’re not sure what it requires and what it doesn’t,” says Summit Metro Parks biologist Rob Curtis. “They appear to live for about 13 years. They’re a perennial, but a short-lived one.”
Over the last two decades, the wild plants in the Metro Parks have started to bounce back. Despite some hungry woodchucks and a mysterious wilting illness, the monkshood are robust and the population stable.
“Our mission is to conserve and manage natural resources. We are working hard to make sure the public has this species available in the future. If we lose it, it’s not going to be available for anybody. Hopefully it will be along some of our trails in the future,” says Rob.
In the last year, the organizations have adjusted their cloning strategy. CREW now sends the little clones to Holden Arboretum, located in Kirtland, and the arboretum works to strengthen the plants so they might survive the next outplanting.
The latest batch of clones were planted in the wildflower garden beds in May 2018 and they are still dormant from the winter.
Ann Rzepka Budziak, a horticulturist at Holden Forests and Gardens, says, “They are tiny when they are sent to us. It’s like taking a couple-days-old baby and saying, ‘Go ahead, get yourself established.’”
In late May, Ann will be looking for the green little leaves to unfurl on the clones in the flowerbed. If they do, the roots will be checked and — if they are sturdy — they will be dug up and sent to Summit Metro Parks.
“As long as they have healthy roots and are good, strong plants, we will give them back to Summit,” she says.
To assist with the cloning, samples have also been sent to Kent State University so that genetic markers can be identified. They are very similar to commonly planted garden monkshood (Aconitum napellus) and western monkshood (Aconitum columbianum). Oscar Rocha, an associate professor of biological sciences at Kent State University will compare the species through testing and make sure the wild plants are not too genetically similar. This testing will also show the relatedness of the species to see if the federally threatened species could be “contaminated” by pollination from nearby garden plants.
“Working with a small population is always very difficult. Sample sizes can be very small and that limits the kind of analysis you can do. [The monkshood are] declining, so trying to see if we can identify certain genotypes that perform better in one location than the other would be important for reintroduction,” Oscar says.
The work at Kent is still in the beginning stages. “By the end of March, we should have a list of good genes that provide the information we are looking for,” Oscar says. He and his lab will be comparing the DNA of about 100 samples of the species.
In case something happens to the wild monkshood, the organizations have several plans in place. CREW has begun cryogenic storage of the tissue samples. Holden Arboretum is the primary custodian of northern monkshood for the Center for Plant Conservation. The crew there gathers seeds from the plants here and sends them to CPC in Colorado for preservation.
The cloned plants may flower, but ultimately, they also need to create seed pods. And those seed pods must be viable to create the next generation of northern monkshood.
“I won’t consider it a complete success until we have seed germination,” says Rob.
Aja Hannah is a writer, traveler, and mama. She believes in the Oxford comma, cheap flights, and a daily dose of chocolate.
Photos: At top, the Aconitum in flower. In text, the Aconitum the Holden Arboretum received in December. Only one plant has a robust complex of roots. Both used with permission from Ann Rzepka Budziak.