Rare Flower Bounces Back From Presumed Extinction

tennessee purple coneflower photo
Photo: John Delano

The delicately hued petals and striking brown florets of Tennessee's purple coneflower once seemed fated to live on only in description, or as a ghostly sketch yellowing on the page of some dusty botanical volume, yet today it's thriving. For over half a century after it was first discovered, the flower was believed to have died out entirely, never to be seen again dotting the cedar glades of central Tennessee. But now, after years on the endangered species list, the purple coneflower has made a remarkable recovery -- bouncing back from the brink of extinction like few other species have done before.In a rare, but hard-fought victory, officials announced plans to remove the Tennessee purple coneflower from the endangered species list. The flower had the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first plants placed on the list when it was added back in 1979 -- but that was just the first in series of conservation efforts that would take place over the following thirty years aimed at saving it from extinction.

Once the coneflower is officially delisted in September, it will be one of only five plants whose recovery has been so profound as to warrant a loosening of protections.

A report from the Knoxville News Sentinel describes how a partnership between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and The Nature Conservancy worked to help the species, once thought extinct, to make such a comeback.

Beginning in 1984, The Nature Conservancy purchased 950 acres of cedar glades in Middle Tennessee to protect the Tennessee coneflower as well as other rare flowering plants.

New colonies of coneflowers were discovered, and at the same time, researchers began establishing new colonies from seed or from Tennessee purple coneflowers grown in nurseries.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation in the early 1980s entered into a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that directed federal grant money to the state for on-the-ground coneflower recovery efforts.

"We threw everything we had at this plant," David Lincicome, biologist for the resource management division of Tennessee State Parks, tells the News Sentinel. "This has been all about partnerships and cooperation."

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