Research

Researcher restores rare plants on North Carolina coast

Mike Kunz, conservation ecologist with the North Carolina Botanical Garden, hits the beaches to preserve endangered plants like the seabeach amaranth.

North Carolina Botanical Garden ecologist Mike Kunz and intern Jackie Fitzgerald plant seabeach amaranth seeds for restoration on Cape Lookout.
North Carolina Botanical Garden ecologist Mike Kunz and intern Jackie Fitzgerald plant seabeach amaranth seeds for restoration on Cape Lookout.
naturally growing seabeach amaranth

Seabeach amaranth growing in the wild on the North Carolina coast is a rare sight.

Seabeach amaranth is a fugitive and a pioneer.

Each year, the low-growing plant with its fleshy, spinach green leaves and red stems battles extinction by striking out for new territory. The territory Amaranthus pumilus, or seabeach amaranth, prefers is the narrow swath of beach between the high-tide line and the sand dunes on barrier islands.

This location presents challenges. One is that this sandy stretch is also the path most often used by beachgoers and their pets. The other is that — despite having “sea” in its name — seabeach amaranth is salt-intolerant. One good drenching from a high tide or storm surge can wipe it out.

But the threatened species has a champion who is improving its odds for survival in North Carolina. As part of a five-year project, Mike Kunz has spent long hours crawling across the sand to give the rare plant a fighting chance on the North Carolina coast. It’s part of his job as a conservation ecologist with the North Carolina Botanical Garden.

“We are trying to help prevent species from going extinct,” Kunz said. “What we’ve been doing at the garden is trying to find ways to restore populations of this plant.”

Mike Kunz

Mike Kunz

Worth saving

While botanists don’t want any plant species to become extinct, seabeach amaranth merits special attention because of its pioneering role on beaches. As one of the first plants to establish itself when storms or current changes build new beaches, seabeach amaranth blazes a trail for other plants to follow.

“They’re out there trying to do things where nothing else is growing yet,” Kunz said. “They’re one of the primary colonizers of unvegetated sand. They slow the wind speeds down and trap sand to begin building dunes. They add nutrients to the sand, which allows other plants to come in and get established as well.

Historically, seabeach amaranth performed this role on beaches from South Carolina to Massachusetts. But the plant hasn’t been seen in the wild north of New York in 150 years and is experiencing a 98.5% decline throughout its range.

“We’ve changed the beaches significantly, both through climate change and through development, and this plant also likes to grow in the places where people like to be on the beach. Its habitat, I think, is very pinched,” Kunz said.

Planting in the wild

The current five-year project to re-establish seabeach amaranth in North Carolina began with gathering tiny black seeds from wild plants to add to the botanical garden’s seed bank of endangered species. The plants grown from these seeds in the protected environment of the garden’s greenhouse produced more than 11,000 seeds, with 4,000 being preserved in the bank. The rest were set aside for planting in the wild, either directly into the sand or in biodegradable peat pots.

The botanical garden has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service to be able to plant the seeds on many beaches where they would have the best chance for survival.

This seabeach amaranth seedling is the result of a restoration project on the North Carolina coast.

This seabeach amaranth seedling is the result of a restoration project on the North Carolina coast.

“The North Carolina project is specifically with the National Park Service, which has a strong interest in restoring seabeach amaranth on Cape Lookout. They have been key to making this project happen: from ideas to funding to support,” Kunz said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service has supported it, too, and funded previous projects with the National Refuge System in South Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts.”

For each spring planting mission in these remote areas, Kunz and park service staff and volunteers loaded small boats with seeds, peat pots, 40 gallons of fresh water and other supplies before being ferried to places like the Core Banks and Shackleford Banks on Cape Lookout National Seashore.

“You’re often not dropped off right at the habitat that you want to use. So it’s lugging and carrying 40 gallons of water, which doesn’t sound like that much. But given that each gallon weighs 8 pounds, it becomes a lot of weight very fast,” Kunz said.

Once they found a suitable spot, they set up the plots in carefully measured grids to be able to follow the progress of the plants over time and keep accurate records — a time-consuming process.

“Then it really is putting one seed in the ground at a time, so it’s crawling around on your hands and knees in the sand,” Kunz said. Throughout the summer, Kunz and Park Service staff went back to check on the plants, recording information about their germination, survival and seed production.

In the spring, staff members from the North Carolina Botanical Garden and the National Park Service did the tedious work of planting seeds by hand.

In the spring, staff members from the North Carolina Botanical Garden and the National Park Service did the tedious work of planting seeds by hand.

A moving target

So far, the results have been mixed. “We’ve tried this several times. There are some places where we’ve had pretty good success, where we’ve had hundreds of individual plants that make it through the full season,” Kunz said.

In other places, the plants failed because of early-season storms or factors they haven’t identified yet.

“Growing a plant on a sand dune is rather difficult. It’s a harsh environment,” Kunz said.

Seabeach amaranth is called a “fugitive annual” because it completes its life cycle in a single growing season, dispersing its seeds in a habitat that is constantly shifting. “It’s never in the same place for a really long time. It kind of pops around and moves around as the inlets change and the beach changes. Since the plant is a moving target, the restoration is also a moving target,” Kunz said.

He doesn’t expect immediate success. “But if we can establish pockets of amaranth in suitable habitat, hopefully it will be putting a lot of seeds back into the environment. And then, as natural changes on the beach shift and move, there will be enough seeds to continue to have this plant not be extinct in the wild.”

mature seabeach amaranth plants growing on Cape Lookout.

One of the successful restoration project plots produced these mature seabeach amaranth plants on Cape Lookout. The camera lens cap in the foreground is there to provide scale.