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Published on: Oct. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

the Missouri Ozarks. Those questions remained unanswered until recently.

Comparing the DNA of the Pomona sneezeweed to that of the rare Virginia sneezeweed, Dr. John Knox recently determined they were the same species. How it came to the Missouri Ozarks is still a puzzle.

Scientists and conservationists in Missouri began to propagate the species in Missouri. A team of biologists including Kim McCue (Center for Plant Conservation), George Yatskievych (Missouri Botanical Garden), Paul McKenzie (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and me (Missouri Department of Conservation) collected seeds from the Pomona population and transported them to the Center for Plant Conservation in St. Louis.

Remarkably, although isolated populations of plants often don't produce viable seed, the seeds we collected were healthy. We were able to successfully grow the plants in a greenhouse.

We then began looking for appropriate sites within a 20-mile radius of where the plants were found to establish Virginia sneezeweed populations. We were looking for sinkhole ponds with seasonally variable water depth and open areas. Virginia sneezeweed loves sunlight, and it also competes well against other species in areas where the water level fluctuates.

We found two suitable sites on conservation areas. After an untimely cold snap that kept 192 baby Virginia sneezeweeds living in my kitchen for several days, I headed out with other sneezeweed lovers to introduce the young plants to their new homes in Howell County.

Over the next year, we monitored the young sneezeweeds to see how well each individual plant was faring. We also monitored the habitat conditions, especially water depth and periods of inundation.

This may seem like a lot of effort for a little plant but, to quote Aldo Leopold, "The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: 'What good is it?' If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering."

Sneezeweed has a long and fascinating cultural and medicinal history. Every time I visit the reintroduction sites to monitor the plants, I am amazed by how we are adding to this history with our reintroduction efforts for the Virginia sneezeweed. No project of this type has ever been attempted with this species anywhere in the world. What has been accomplished with Virginia sneezeweed can be likened to the birth of a rare animal in a zoo with intent of releasing the animal back into the wild so that it can reclaim its role in the natural ecosystem.

It's possible that, in a few years, Virginia sneezeweed won't be a little known curiosity but will be a success story about plant propagation and the maintenance of biodiversity.

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