Rare grass sighted in NJ for first time in 100 years
Botanist finds stalked woolgrass along the Delaware

Stalked woolgrass, sighted July 2018; last sighted July 1918 Photo courtesy of the NJ DEP

Warren County — A new discovery by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection has revealed a plant species growing in New Jersey that hasn’t been identified since 1918. A botanist from the department found stalked woolgrass (Scirpus pedicellatus) along the shore of the Delaware River in Warren County last month.
“This discovery is just the latest example to highlight the importance of managing our natural lands, so flora and fauna can continue to thrive,” said DEP Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe. “The presence of this rare plant and others reminds us to appreciate and strengthen the ecological diversity in New Jersey so that future generations may enjoy these beautiful plants.”
Stalked woolgrass is listed as endangered in New Jersey. Although it had not been seen in a century, stalked woolgrass and many other rare and historic plant species are assumed to exist if the habitat that supports the plant also exists. There are 10 other species of woolgrass that grow in the state, but stalked woolgrass is the rarest, having been observed only once before, by Edwin B. Bartram, a member of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, in 1918.
“This is a very exciting discovery,” Assistant Commissioner for Natural and Historic Resources Ray Bukowski said. “It provides a conservation opportunity that didn’t exist before and it underscores the importance of never giving up hope of discovering new locations of our rarest species.”
Botanist David Snyder discovered the stalked woolgrass on July 25 when he noticed that several seed heads sticking out of the water looked different from other sedges. The seed heads were the color of manila paper, one of the distinguishing characteristics of stalked woolgrass. At the time of the discovery, floodwaters covered much of the Delaware River shoreline.
“I carefully waded out into the water to collect a sample of the sedge, but high water and heavy rain prevented a thorough survey,” Snyder said. “I was able to return on July 30 and after searching about a quarter-mile of the river shore, I was excited to discover a total of four clumps of stalked woolgrass.”
A botanist’s diligent search of areas with suitable habitat at or near a plant’s previously known location can often result in discoveries such as Snyder’s. During and prior to his career with the DEP, Snyder has rediscovered more than 100 plant species previously considered “lost” from the flora of New Jersey.
Habitats along the Delaware River are well documented for supporting many rare plant species and have attracted botanists for more than 200 years.
“Every time we find a rare or unique species like this stalked woolgrass in New Jersey, we are reminded of the important of preserving our state’s biodiversity." said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. "We must continue to conserve open space and protect forests, wetlands, and other natural habitats that are home to these species. We also need to do more to protect endangered species, whether plants or animals, because so many of our wonder drugs, and other things we take for granted, came originally from plants. This discovery is a reminder that we must protect our wild places from encroaching development, fossil fuel infrastructure, and so-called ‘stewardship’. Who knows what species we could find next?”
Earlier this year, in June, biologist Martin Rapp discovered a rare orchid — the small whorled pogonia — Stokes State Forest in Sandyston.