The forests of today's woodlands look very much different than they did 500 years ago before European colonization. As a result of environmental changes, many plant species are threatened and in immediate danger of extinction. Some plants are rare or endangered because of natural events, and others are threatened by the activities of people. The climate of New England fluctuates dramatically with glacial cycles throughout geologic time. The climate has become consistently warmer since the last glacial advance. Some plant relicts have survived changing environments but have become naturally restricted to small, isolated pockets with favorable conditions.
By far the greatest threat to indigenous plants has been the destructive activities of people within the last 500 years. With the wave of European people came a secondary invasion of European flora and fauna. The contact of foreign and indigenous plants and animals often had adverse effects like those between the contact of cultures. Similar to the effects of European-introduced epidemics and disease on Native Peoples, many European introduced plants took over the habitats and decimated native plant populations. Some foreign plants and shrubs were intentionally introduced to supplement colonial herb and flower gardens, while plant seeds were inadvertently brought over with the fodder and by-products of livestock.
Before long the ornamentals and herbs escaped the confines of the garden and became naturalized to the environment with the aid of animals, birds and the occasional abandoned homestead. Gone are the vast stands of bulrush used by Native Americans to weave decorative mats, replaced by the ever-waving flags of phragmities reed and floral oceans of purple loosestrife. Now many indigenous plant colonies are being choked out of their natural habitats by more resilient garden 'escapees'; today about one quarter of the plants in Connecticut are alien.
Starting with the European colonization, an incredible number of forested acres of New England were clear-cut for agricultural fields or pastures. The charcoal and timber industries that followed consumed a huge quantity of virgin forest, and industrial, commercial and residential development has since nearly consumed the rest. The last acre of old-growth forest in Connecticut was reportedly cut down in Colebrook in 1912. Gone are the vast open, canopy old-growth forests of New England, replaced by scrubby second-growth forests that are being overrun with the undergrowth of thorny ornamental shrubs such as Asian bittersweet and Japanese barberry.
Urban development has buried acres in asphalt and concrete, wetlands and coastal marshes are filled or dredged to make them suitable for human development. Pesticides, chemical fertilizers and industrial pollution have poisoned the landscape. Highways create barriers across natural corridors and disrupt the communication networks of the plant and animal world.
Direct exploitation through private and commercial over-collecting
has brought about the rarity and even extinction of some plants.
Wild ginseng and golden seal were once common woodland herbs
in Connecticut, until their roots were commercially gathered during
the 1800's; these herbs are now quite rare. Some plants have
been placed on state or U.S. lists of endangered or threatened
species. Laws and regulations about disturbing plants (from the
local to the national level) exist to protect certain species,
you should check your state's department of environmental protection
for details about your area. Although probably in need of updating,
the State Geological and Natural History Survey of Connecticut
and the Natural Resources Center Department of Environmental Protection
published Report of Investigations No.6 Rare and Endangered
Species of Connecticut and their Habitats , by Dowhan
and Craig (1976).
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© 1994 - Tara Prindle
unless otherwise cited.