THE DISCOVERY of a rare unicorn root was made by the Maine Department of Agriculture and Forestry. Also known as a colicroot, the flowering plant that extends with a single stalk to look like a unicorn’s horn was thought to no longer exist in Maine. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE AND FORESTRY PHOTO

THE DISCOVERY of a rare unicorn root was made by the Maine Department of Agriculture and Forestry. Also known as a colicroot, the flowering plant that extends with a single stalk to look like a unicorn’s horn was thought to no longer exist in Maine. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE AND FORESTRY PHOTO

BOWDOIN

A recent discovery in Bowdoin highlights the value in knowing what’s in your backyard.

The Maine Department of Agriculture and Forestry has uncovered colicroot — better known for its more mystical identifier, unicorn root — in Bowdoin. Up until a few days ago, the plant was thought to no longer exist in Maine.

The plant was last seen in Maine in 1897. It is known by only three herbarium specimens, all found in Maine.

Finding rare or new plants in Maine is not as uncommon as some may think. Don Cameron is an ecologist and botanist with the state’s Maine Natural Areas Program. As someone who studies the state’s plants, he was a little surprised, but pleased by the attention the discovery garnered.

“I do research work so it’s kind of routine for me,” said Cameron. “From time to time we’ll even find new species in the state.”

He estimated that researchers find a new plant species in Maine once every five years or so.

“This is a big state with a lot of remote areas,” said Cameron. “Our job is to help preserve the state’s natural diversity.”

Cameron said a family in Bowdoin tipped the state program off. Officials are trying to remain low key on the details, as the plant was found on private land, but the landowner has said they’re willing to work to protect the plant.

The colicroot extends upward from the ground on a single stalk with pointed white flowers that grow in a vertical cluster, resembling — at least to the person who named it — a unicorn’s horn.

When a potential new or rare plant is reported, the Maine Natural Areas Program works, with landowner permission, to study the plant and provides information on the habitat that created the plant. Cameron said most landowners in Maine are willing to help preserve a plant once it’s identified.

Maine’s vast area contributes to the fact some plants have not yet been identified. Residents reporting a plant they may not be familiar with helps ecologists further understand the state’s plant life.

“For practical purposes, we are looking at larger habitats,” said Cameron. “In doing so, we can’t turn over every rock. It’s possible we may be able to down the line as we keep doing our work.”

The attention drawn by the unicorn plant is a chance to highlight the work done by Cameron and other ecologists.

Maine Natural Areas Program identifies land that supports endangered plants, natural communities and ecosystems. The goal is to share research to objectively inform decision makers. The program keeps a database of its research to share with state agencies, town planners, land trusts and other conservation groups.

Preserving endangered or rare plants and wildlife has benefits to humans. U.S. Fish and Wildlife data show 99 percent of species listed as endangered or threatened have been preserved since the Endangered Species Act of 1973, but that human activity continues to affect the environment on a global scale. The organization says biodiversity benefits agriculture, contributes to medical discoveries, and adds to the economy.

In Maine, development can threaten breaking up a natural habitat, according to Cameron. The unicorn root discovery is bringing attention to the unique plants that can grow in the vastness of the state.

“It’s good that people know about it,” said Cameron. “The unicorn root is drawing some publicity.”

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Program

MAINE NATURAL Areas Program identifies land that supports endangered plants, natural communities and ecosystems. The goal is to share research to objectively inform decision makers.

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