Broom corwberry

The purplish blooms and needle-like leaves of the broom crowberry plant once grew abundantly in open, sandy areas of New Jersey’s Pinelands.

The purplish blooms and needle-like leaves of the broom crowberry plant once grew abundantly in open, sandy areas of New Jersey’s Pinelands.

But high-intensity, controlled burns have destroyed the crowberry’s ideal habitat, and the only spots where it exists in the state.

Now, the Department of Environmental Protection is trying to restore the plant in Ocean County’s Stafford Forge Wildlife Management Area and boost its numbers.

Last year, the state said officials began bulldozing “scrapes” on the surface of soil adjacent to broom crowberry populations in the East Plains Natural Area, the central-east portion of the Pine Barrens. The scrapes form acre-sized openings for the seeds to disperse and colonize.

“Protecting biological diversity is an important part of the work we do at the DEP,” Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe said in a news release. “By restoring habitat for plants that are struggling to survive, we are helping to preserve unique pieces of our natural heritage to be enjoyed by future generations.”

The globally rare, ground-hugging shrub is also found in parts of Quebec and maritime Canada, Maine, Massachusetts and the Shawangunk Mountains of southern New York, the DEP said.

While fire helps create the sandy areas the plant needs, controlled burns taken on by the state can be too intense and kill the plant. The New Jersey Forest Fire Service burned about 35,000 acres in the Pine Barrens throughout February and March this year.

The plant faces another challenge. Broom crowberry seeds have a short dispersal range, possibly because they are spread by ants in a process called myrmecochory, said Bob Cartica, administrator of the DEP’s Office of Natural Lands Management.

For that reason, he said, scrapes must be placed close to existing populations. About 15 acres of scrape have been established so far, along with fire lines meant to protect the habitat from prescribed burns.

Officials are having to strike a balance between the need to preserve the ecosystem and the need to protect homes and people from destructive wildlfires, State Forester John Sacco said in a statement. Seventeen percent of New Jersey’s native flora are classified as endangered, according to the DEP.

“The delicate interrelationship between wildfires and the specialized needs of plant species drives home the critical importance of careful, science-based ecosystem management,” Sacco said.

The New Jersey Forest Service, Office of Natural Lands Management, New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife and New Jersey Forest Fire Service are taking part in the management effort.

Contact: 609-272-7258 Twitter @AvalonZoppo

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