Catching Up With Conservation: Cooley’s Water-willow

On July 12th, 2023, through a partnership with the Rare Plant Conservation Program (RPCP), the Florida Forest Service (FFS), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a population augmentation of 95 Cooley’s water willows (Justicia cooleyi) successfully took place in the Lake McKethan Recreational Area of the Withlacoochee State Forest in Brooksville, Florida. First documented in 1925, Cooley’s water-willow is an endangered and endemic plant found only in three Florida counties: Citrus, Hernando, and Sumter.

Data collected on this species in 2021 through this partnership suggested microhabitat elements that might best enhance viability of plants in the wild, including partial canopy, soil disturbances, soil moisture, and sand gaps. These considerations were taken into accounting when selecting the location for the July population augmentation. During the July planting event, 85 of the plants were planted near the entrance of the recreational area neighboring a residence with immediate access to watering. Ten plants were introduced to a site along the main trail nearby an existing J. cooleyi population that had been re-introduced in 2022 by the RPCP and FFS.

All of the introduced plants continue to thrive, and some have already begun flowering and developing new growth. It is hoped that this work to introduce plants at these locations will help establish a greater number of plants in the wild on protected lands and conserve this rare species.

Article by Cheryl Peterson, Conservation Program Manager at Bok Tower Gardens.

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