Volunteers conserving Minnesota’s rare plants through community science
Established in 2023, MN PlantWatch is a community science-driven initiative that supports and informs the conservation of Minnesota’s rare native plant species. MN PlantWatch volunteers search and survey for rare plants in their natural habitats, documenting their location, and providing information about population health and habitat threats.
This program is a partnership between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (UMLA), in collaboration with the Bell Museum Herbarium, Minnesota Master Naturalist Program and the Minnesota Native Plant Society.
- Why is this work important?
Minnesota is home to more than 1700 vascular plant species, of which over 300 are listed as Endangered, Threatened or of Special Concern. For many of these rare plants, data on their distribution, population status, threats and potential management needs are incomplete. Current information is needed to inform the best methods for protecting and managing these unique species.
Rare plants are a strong indicator of overall ecological health. Areas with a higher diversity of native plants can support more birds, insects, and other wildlife species. Healthy ecological communities are more resilient to threats such as climate change, invasive species, and disease. The health of rare species populations generally mirrors the overall health of the ecosystem. Understanding the current status of Minnesota’s rare plant populations helps us to prioritize conservation efforts, strengthening Minnesota’s natural environments now and into the future.
To learn more about rare species in Minnesota, visit the DNR's Rare Species Guide.
- Why community science?
Minnesota is a large state with varied landscapes supporting a vast diversity of native plant communities and wildlife. The need for current information on the status of our rare plants outpaces the capacity of professional botanists and ecologists. MN PlantWatch helps fill this gap by harnessing people’s enthusiasm for plants and nature and training them to conduct rare plant surveys throughout the state.
- Program goals and outcomes
The goals of MN PlantWatch are:
- To recruit and train volunteers to survey for rare plants across Minnesota.
- To survey at least 40 rare plant records per year, prioritizing populations that have not been updated in more than 20 years.
- To collect seed from various rare plant populations and contribute to a long-term native seed bank for the state.
Data collected by MN PlantWatch volunteers are integrated into the DNR’s Natural Heritage Information System where they can be accessed by land managers, researchers, and staff or agencies conducting environmental reviews. In this way, MN PlantWatch data directly inform conservation decisions and management actions at the local and statewide levels.
Seed collected through MN PlantWatch efforts is stored in the UMLA’s Plant Conservation Program rare plant seed bank. This seed bank provides an archive of the genetic diversity of each species and supports ongoing research into the propagation and conservation of Minnesota’s rare plants.
- What does a MN PlantWatch volunteer do?
MN PlantWatch volunteers work alongside MN PlantWatch staff to search areas previously documented for rare plants. They mark locations, count individual plants, and collect information about the population heath and phenology. They may also monitor populations for seed production and collect ripe seed when appropriate.
Once volunteers demonstrate proficiency, they can request assignments to complete on their own or in small groups without MN PlantWatch staff present.
A typical assignment requires 4-8 hours of field survey work, and volunteers may complete one or multiple assignments in a season. Locations are available throughout the state; thus volunteers may choose to travel afar or survey close to home. Surveys may occur on public or private lands (with landowner permission). Volunteers enjoy the opportunity to get outdoors, improve their botanical knowledge, and explore new places.
- Interested in volunteering?
To learn more about potential opportunities and what it takes to become a MN PlantWatch volunteer, please visit our program website.
To learn more about volunteering with the DNR, including additional opportunities, please visit the DNR volunteer webpage.
Deanna Leigh, Program Coordinator
Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). The Trust Fund is a permanent fund constitutionally established by the citizens of Minnesota to assist in the protection, conservation, preservation, and enhancement of the state’s air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources.