Skip to Content

The Facts About Endangered Plants

By Ray Allen, Founder of

Here are the facts about Protected Plants in the United States.

When it comes to wildflowers, there is probably more well-meant misinformation on this subject than any other. But the facts are quite simple. Since it’s such an important subject, it’s good to know the rules for your area. And this short article will help you learn the facts.

The basis for all the interest in this area is simply a sincere concern for our continent’s floral bio-diversity. That means protecting the rich system of species that were on our land before any settlement, in other words the plants that were put in place by nature, not humans.

Before European settlement, North American native peoples knew the native plants well, and used them extensively—not just as a food source, but to make everything from clothing to medicines. But since the native human population was not dense and quite scattered, most native plants were changed little by pre-European settlement farming and communities.

But of course, with European settlers, everything changed. As the Pilgrims and other early settlers arrived, they found our entire East Coast a wonderland of ancient primeval forest: Great tall trees with a wonderland of never-before seen wildflowers and ferns covering the shady ground. This pristine botanical paradise extended from Maine to Florida, and grew right down to the beach.

Surely this “New World” was stunning to the new arrivals, so used to the exhausted, almost-treeless fields of Europe. But wonderment quickly turned to determination. After all, early American colonists knew they had to farm to survive. Suddenly, these magnificent trees became the enemy.

So down came the forests, all up and down the Eastern seaboard. As colonies became more and more established, more and more of the original forests were taken down. The great trees became buildings and ships’ masts. The soils were plowed and quickly planted with European crops. As the colonists moved inland, it was always a race against time: Get the trees down in time to plant the seed in time to harvest the crops before starvation set in.

The same thing happened in later years when the next generations moved further west. When Easterners looking for farmland reached the open prairies, they considered it heaven. After all, deep rich soil and no trees to take down! It was a pioneer farmer’s dream. So one of the most ancient and largest prairie environments on earth, like the Great Eastern forest before it, quickly fell before the plow. Pioneers broke the fertile earth and planted the prairie so completely, that only small remnants of the original environment survive today. This has given rise to the Prairie Restoration Movement, a major ongoing effort of our time.

As population centers spread all the way to the Pacific, roughly the same thing happened. Major environmental changes appeared quickly across the landscape. So though it may be fashionable to worry about new condominiums and interstate highways destroying our natural environment today, that’s simply not the issue. There was only one thing that changed everything on most all of our continent: farming.

In the east, it led to the destruction of the great majority of our precious woodland wildflower habitats. This is why some woodland species that were once common in the east—the famous ones being lady slippers, trilliums, arbutus, and others—are rare in many regions today.

The road to the Endangered Species Act

Of course, as our nation developed, concerned citizens became more and more interested in protecting the species being reduced. Ever since settlement, parks have been created, preserves set aside, and in recent years, our government has become very active in protecting our remaining bio-diversity. This concern led the passage of the now-famous Endangered Species Act.

The drama inherent in the word “endangered” seems to have caught the fancy of the public. Awareness is fine, but mis-information is not. Anyone interested in plants needs to understand that a plant that is officially endangered in one area may be very common and unprotected in another. The terms are specific, but they are great fodder for “botanical gossip.” You may hear a certain wildflower is “protected.” Others are mentioned in hushed tones as “rare plants.” Usually, the person using the language has very little knowledge of the facts. Terms like “endangered” and “protected” are used very loosely and often incorrectly, when they have very definite meanings.

Incorrect Generalizations Abound

One of the most famous wildflowers for being protected and/or endangered is the beautiful wild orchid called Moccasin Flower or Pink Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium acaule. Listen at garden clubs and other plant gatherings, and you’ll always hear how it’s “rare”, or “endangered.” Actually it is native to 16 states and officially listed in only four. It’s officially endangered in only two: Illinois and Tennessee. Georgia lists it as “unusual.” New York lists it as “Exploitably Vulnerable”. But the other 12 states don’t list it at all! Even wildflowers like this one are often quite common in many places, so don’t believe everything you hear.

The facts: How the protected lists work

It’s simple. The Endangered Species Act required each state to create its own list of plants (and animals) that need protection within its (state) borders. The lists are updated regularly. Species are added when considered dangerously threatened, and some have actually been re-listed as their populations have increased due to protection. Each state is responsible to keeping its list current. Here are the definitions of terms:

  • Protected is an umbrella term that means the species is on the official state list. The degree of protection needed is indicated by the following sub-terms.
  • Endangered is the highest level term. It refers to a species that is in danger of extinction throughout all or part of its range.
  • Threatened describes a species which is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future throughout all or parts of the range.
  • Special Concern is one of several terms certain states have used to indicate a species that needs protection, but is not yet rare enough to be classified as “Threatened” or “Endangered.” Others used by certain states are terms like “Unusual” and “Rare.”

An Example of the Definitions:

Here is the official information from the listing by the State of Georgia. The following abbreviations are used to indicate the status of state-protected plants and animals or those proposed for state-protection in Georgia.

E Listed as endangered. A species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or part of its range.
T Listed as threatened. A species which is likely to become an endangered species in the foreseeable future throughout all or parts of its range.
R Listed as rare. A species which may not be endangered or threatened but which should be protected because of its scarcity.
U Listed as unusual (and thus deserving of special consideration). Plants subject to commercial exploitation would have this status.

What it all means

As always, government regulations tend to become complicated, as these have. The basic intended meanings of Endangered and Threatened are clear. But in government’s aim to always be encyclopedic, a strange thing has happened. In fact, there is one factor here that is almost always mis-interpreted.

In context, these terms may not mean what you think they mean. Take a look in Georgia’s definitions and you’ll see the phrase “throughout all or part of its range.” That’s a key phrase, and here’s why: Take the popular wildflower, Butterfly Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa. This much-loved, orange-flowered species has a huge native range that extends over every state east of the Mississippi except Florida and New York. Obviously, it is quite common. But at the edges of its range, as its populations thin out, it naturally becomes less common. Look at Vermont’s Endangered/Threatened List, and you’ll find it listed as “Threatened!” Why? Because this kind of listing means only that its presence in that state is threatened; the species, in fact, is far from being threatened at all. So when you see a species listed by your state, look a little closer to see if it’s a “local” threat just to that state, or a real threat that may be leading to extinction.

What’s on the lists? Most of the state lists are filled with quite rare sedges, grasses, obscure mosses, and other plants you’ve probably never heard of. In among them, though, are some you may recognize.

Check your state’s list. It’s easy. The USDA has a very simple way to look up each state list. Simply click on the link below, put in a check mark by your state, and hit “Display Results”, and there it is.

Click here to view the official Protected Plant List for your state