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We need to protect our plant and animal species

Eye on the


By Frances Lamberts


During the summer months, as he wrote in Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold would often visit a graveyard where, because of a sharp-angled fence which scythe or the road crews’ mower could not reach, he would find a Compass plant.

This aster family plant, Silphium laciniatum, he described as “spangled with saucer-size yellow blooms resembling sunflowers.” In earlier days, having “tickled the bellies of the buffalo” its blossoms had graced thousand acres of the prairie, but now the graveyard specimen might be their sole remnant, he feared, in his county.

Returning in August one year, he found the fence removed and the Silphium cut. He knew that “for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine, then it will die [and] with it will die the prairie epoch.”

For pastime, Leopold had kept a decade- long “birthday” record of wild plants’ first-blooming day. He compared the “backward farms” with unshaven fences with what he found in suburban yards, the university campus where he taught, and the “clean farms” practicing mechanized, modern agriculture.

In the first alternative, the “birthday” flower species numbered 226, those in the second 120. Thus, he stated, “it is apparent that the backward farmer’s eye is nearly twice as well fed” as the mechanized farmer’s or the suburbanite’s.

The loss of wild plant and animal species has accelerated starkly since the late 1940s, when Leopold was writing his Almanac.

In our country, per the US Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 900 plants are listed as requiring protection under the Endangered Species Act. Worldwide, endangerment may affect hundreds of thousands.

A 2019 global biodiversity assessment found a million plant and animal species, together, now to be at serious risk of extinction unless the drivers of this global trend are halted soon.

In Tennessee, the Compass plant is still alive but threatened, as are two additional Silphium species. The state’s Natural Heritage Program 2016 report shows 470 of our plants to be so rare as to risk endangerment or threat of obliteration, in the foreseeable future.

We must learn from Leopold and the scientists not to sanction the erasure of species from our communities. On idle spots on every farm, he stated, “the full native flora … could be part” of the enjoyment and normal environment of every citizen.

The Compass plant provides habitat for dozens of wasps, butterflies and other insect species. So do two still-thriving Silphium species, in “idle spots” along fences, in my Monarch-Waystation garden.