Conservancy Botanist, Melinda Lyman, is monitoring a Louisiana quillwort plot at the Camp Shelby Training Site in Mississippi.
Walking upstream along a small tributary on the Camp Shelby Training Site, one hears the trickling of water coming from the underground spring that feeds the channel and is carried downstream. A pileated woodpecker is heard calling in the distance. Light wind rustles the leaves of sweetbay magnolia, laurel oak and mixed pines, while the rich organic smell of decaying leaf litter fills the air.
Among the lush foliage of sedges and grasses within the shallow waters, one may encounter Louisiana quillwort growing from the light, gray fine silky soil covered by pale, tea-colored water and along the saturated soils of the floodplain.
Ecological significance, History and Range
Louisiana quillwort (Isoetes louisianensis)was first discovered in two Louisiana parishes during the late 1970s. It has always been rare and is considered endangered. Surveys have been conducted in Mississippi and Alabama—and just before the 1996 Recovery Plan was published, this species was located in two south Mississippi counties. Four years later, Louisiana quillwort was located in 6 additional south Mississippi counties and 2 Alabama counties. To date, there are 8 populations in Louisiana, 3 populations in Alabama and 30 populations in Mississippi.
Louisiana quillwort is browsed by marsh rabbits and white-tailed deer. Although Louisiana quillwort lacks showy flowers and foliage, these little plants are worthy of protection because they are valuable indicators of stream health. Quillwort responds quicker than other plant species to unhealthy changes in the environment making them an early warning system for conservationists. If the streams where quillwort is found is unhealthy the rivers and lakes nearby where people enjoy swimming and fishing is unhealthy.
Threats to Louisiana quillwort populations include construction and related activities on or near colonies, vehicle crossings through streams, debris and erosion from upstream, changes in water direction and flow rates, and pollution such as chemicals and herbicides.
Louisiana quillwort is often mistaken for a grass or sedge, but looking closely you will find hollow leaves with four air chambers that give the leaves buoyancy in aquatic conditions. At the base of these leaves are reproductive structures that bear spores similar to that of a fern (which makes scientists think they’re related). Encountering these small, grass-like plants is exciting, since they haven’t changed much since the time of their fossilized ancestors which was millions of years before the dinosaurs.
What The Nature Conservancy is Doing
Scientists at Camp Shelby have been monitoring subpopulations of Louisiana quillwort for the past 12 years to determine both natural and human impacts to colonies.
A new monitoring project is currently underway that will closely examine habitat conditions in five different streams.