The Cascadilla Gorge provides a safe haven for rare species

The Cascadilla Gorge provides a safe haven for rare species

Thanks to new conservation efforts by the Cornell Botanic Gardens, one of the rarest plants in the United States is now protected in the walls of the Cascadilla Gorge.

Cornell Botanic Gardens staff have successfully established a population of the federally threatened pink lady’s rhizome and plan to foster long-term populations in the Cascadilla Gorge Natural Area.

Field botanist Robert Wesley inspects specimens of Leedy’s Roseroot being propagated by the Cornell Botanical Gardens for planting in the Cascadilla Gorge.

Lady rose root, or Rhodiola integrifolia ssp. leedyi, is found in only five native sites throughout the United States, including a site along the western side of Seneca Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes region. It features a lush orange-red flower and an elongated stem, with waxy leaves running the length of the plant. It derives its name from the rose-like scent of its roots.

“With only one native population in New York, there is always a risk that something will happen and the plant will go extinct locally,” Natural Areas Director Todd Bittner said. “Establishing a second population capable of reproducing is a key conservation strategy to help protect this species.”

To help preserve the Lady Rose rootstock, Cornell Botanic Gardens staff and a group of interns traveled to Seneca Lake to carefully hand-collect Lady Rose seeds. The team propagated the seeds at the Botanical Gardens’ Plant Production Facility and in 2022 planted them in the Cascadilla Gorge. Plants were established on a north-facing cool drip wall in the gorge that mimics cool habitat preferences. The site is similar to the Seneca Lake habitat and is protected from cliff erosion.

Of the 12 stations relocated, 11 survived, providing hope for the station’s future. Lady rose roots are especially valuable to scientists studying ecosystems in past eras. The Lady Rose root is described as a “living fossil” and dates back to the Pleistocene era, more than two million years ago. By studying plants, scientists can discover past natural histories, such as identifying other organisms that lived at that time.

One reason for its federally threatened status is its perennially picky taste in habitat. The plant arose during the period when glaciers inhabited most of the continent, meaning it was adapted to cold climates. Roseroot Leedy prefers cool slopes that mimic icy conditions and provide the plant with the consistent moisture and cool temperatures it needs to thrive.

While the plant’s unique habitat is partly what makes it special, its preference for cold conditions poses major risks to its future. As global temperatures continue to rise, the plant’s habitat is under threat, says Robert Wesley, a botanist specializing in rare species at Cornell Botanic Gardens.

“Climate change certainly threatens the plant, which requires a cooler microclimate and is a more northerly plant,” Wesley said.

The team plans to deploy another round of Pink Lady Roots in the summer of 2024. The ultimate goal is to foster what Bittner calls a viable population.

“We intend to sustainably collect seeds annually from Seneca Lake and propagate individuals at our plant production facility in order to establish at least one viable, self-sustaining population in our campus gorge,” Bittner said.

In addition, employees collected seeds and kept them in cold storage to preserve the genetic material for long-term use.

“This is an insurance policy against losing an entire population and its valuable genetic diversity,” Bittner says. “It also preserves the opportunity to use these seeds in the future for other reintroduction efforts.”

Throughout this process, Botanical Garden staff collected valuable information about the plant’s preferred habitats and growth habits. The team discovered that the expanded rock substrate worked well for plant propagation and growth. They also learned that the timing of the transplant must be precise. If the plant is too small, it will not survive. However, if the plant is very large, it will be difficult to establish since the strait conditions provide shallow soil that is not suitable for growing larger roots.

“Reintroduction is always a bit of trial and error,” Bittner said. “We hope to learn more about this species through the project that can help conservationists working on the species elsewhere.”

Anna Huber ’25 is a communications intern at Cornell Botanic Gardens.

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