It’s been a good year for the northern monkshood.
The federally endangered plant grew to nearly 300 in a remote section of the Gorge Metro Park between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls. A new drive is under way to boost the numbers by cloning additional plants after earlier cloning efforts failed.
The population of the naturally growing plant with striking purple flowers hit 297 in 2011, said biologist Rob Curtis of Metro Parks, Serving Summit County.
That’s up from 254 plants in 2010, 158 in 2007 and 84 in 2005, he said.
The plants grow in one area of the Gorge park that provides a specialized micro-habitat — with all of the plants within about 100 feet of each other near a wet but sheltered rocky overhang, he said.
The plant — once called wolfsbane because the poison it produces was used to kill wolves and scare off werewolves — is found only in Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and New York. It is found at only two or three sites in Ohio.
The area in the Gorge park is enclosed by a fence to keep hungry white-tailed deer away, but deer, woodchucks, slugs, caterpillars and human intruders, along with road salt and invasive plants, still take their toll, Curtis said.
It takes “aggressive monitoring and management,” he said.
The plant once was found in two other areas of the park but died out, he said.
The park district intends to continue the cloning by staffers at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Curtis said. It is a recharged effort, fueled by success earlier this year.
The zoo has cloned 145 plants in the laboratory over the years, but efforts to get them to grow in Summit County repeatedly have failed, he said.
The park district planted 15 cloned northern monkshood in 2006, 59 in 2007 and 69 in 2008, he said. They all went into the Gorge park because of its appropriate habitat.
No clones were planted in the park system in 2009 or 2010, he said.
One was planted this fall and another is expected to be transplanted after it goes dormant for the winter, Curtis said.
Most of the cloned plants died the winter after they were planted, although a handful reappeared in the spring and then died, he said.
None of the cloned plants from 2006-08 has survived, he said.
In 2009, the cloning effort was “put on the back burner for a while,” Curtis said. “We didn’t want to be spinning our wheels and not getting anywhere.”
Then came unexpected good news from Cincinnati earlier this year. The zoo had planted some cloned plants in gardens on zoo grounds in late 2010 and they reappeared this year and are doing well, Curtis said.
That surprising development has recharged the local monkshood program, he said. “It’s renewed our hope that we can do this,” Curtis said.
The new plan is to let the cloned plants get bigger and stronger for perhaps as long as two years before transplanting them into the Gorge park, he said.
With extra time to develop, it is hoped that the cloned northern monkshood will be better able to survive winter cold and reappear the following spring, he said.
It appears that the failed clones didn’t store enough energy in their roots to get going again in the spring, he said.
The park district has ordered an additional 60 cloned plants from the Cincinnati Zoo, he said. They could be planted in late 2012 and early 2013, depending on the success in cloning them in the laboratory, Curtis said.
The park is also investigating other sites in the Gorge park that might be suitable for the plant, he said.
The park district has invested about $12,000 over five years for the monkshood cloning and DNA work done by the Cincinnati Zoo, said Mike Johnson, chief of resource management for the park district.
Partners in the cloning project include the Akron Garden Club and the Holden Arboretum east of Cleveland in Kirtland.
Metro Parks, Serving Summit County, is expanding its search for suitable homes for monkshood in Northeast Ohio, working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The park district is eying Liberty Park in northern Summit County but the cliffs there are significantly different from the habitat available in the Gorge.
No suitable sites have been found in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Curtis said.
There have been preliminary discussions with Cleveland Metroparks about sites, he said.
The plant once grew at a site in Portage County, although officials are not sure it is still there, he said.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or firstname.lastname@example.org.