Prospects for a rare plant with a peculiar name that only grows on the banks of the St. John River in Maine and Canada have improved, federal regulators announced Tuesday, and its status has been upgraded from endangered to threatened.

Though the Furbish lousewort is not completely out of danger, scientists say the reclassification is an encouraging sign that the rare plant is on the road to recovery.

Furbish’s lousewort, Pedicularis furbishiae. The flower only grows on the St. John River in northern Maine and cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. Image courtesy of the Maine Natural Areas Program

Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona, said it’s important to highlight the importance of the federal Endangered Species Act during its 50th anniversary.

“As we fight the escalating extinction crisis, it’s important to celebrate conservation successes for all the little species that make up life on Earth,” Curry said in a statement, adding that the Endangered Species Act has saved numerous plants and animals from extinction, from grizzly bears and whales to “obscure plants with unfortunate names like Furbish’s lousewort.”

The plant, which can grow to a height of about 3 feet, was discovered in northern Maine in the summer of 1880 by an adventurous botanist named Kate Furbish, according to records kept by the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. Harvard University verified it was a new species and named it after Furbish. Curry said the lousewort part of its name originated decades ago when people who lived in that region mistakenly thought the flower carried lice.

Furbish was a prolific botanist who died in 1931 at the age of 97, having spent nearly all of her life living in Brunswick. A local elementary school and a nature preserve are named after her.


Her watercolor drawings are in the Bowdoin College library and Harvard University’s Gray Herbarium contains about 4000 of her plant collections.

Furbish lousewort remained largely forgotten until 1976, when a researcher from the University of Maine doing field work for a proposed hydropower dam, rediscovered it.

The Dickey-Lincoln Dam – planned to be 30 stories high with an 830-megawatt generating station in the town of Dickey near the confluence of the Allagash and St. John Rivers, would have been New England’s largest public works project. Funding was authorized by Congress in 1965, but the project was opposed for years by environmentalists, including the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

The dam would have flooded 88,000 acres of forest and streams, including habitat for the Furbish lousewort and other species had it been built, but support from Maine’s congressional delegation waned, and Congress pulled funding for the project in 1981.

“The rejection of the Dickey-Lincoln Dam project was a major environmental success for Maine,” the NRCM said. “Not only would it have been marginally effective in generating power for New England, but it would have ravaged the St. John River, turning the popular fishing and canoeing spot into a flooded frenzy.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday that the status change for the Furbish lousewort was based on a thorough review of scientific information that indicates threats have been reduced to the point where it no longer meets endangered criteria. It was listed as a federal endangered species on April 26, 1978.

Furbish lousewort grows along portions of a 140-mile section of the St. John River, along the riverbank in damp, shaded areas. Curry said the plant has a symbiotic relationship with the half-black bumblebee, its only pollinator.

Though the plant seems to be recovering, it still needs protection, Curry said. The greatest threat to its habitat comes from housing and agriculture development, pollution and climate change impacts, especially warming winters and more severe flooding.

“We share the planet with more than 8 million fascinating species, and their survival is now in our hands,” said Curry. “This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, so it’s the perfect time to commit to halting extinction. We have to take bold action to keep the climate livable and protect wildlife and wild places.”

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