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Exploradio - Monkshood patrol
One of America's rarest wild-flowers is clinging to life in Cuyahoga Falls and it takes constant vigilance to keep it safe
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
Northern Monkshood grows only in sheltered overhangs with plenty of moisture. The 300 plants growing in the Gorge Metro Park represent the largest patch in the state, and perhaps the country.
Courtesy of Karl Simonson
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A sheltered cliff along the Cuyahoga River is home to one of the last patches of a critically threatened wild-flower.  In this week’s Exploradio we meet the man whose job is to keep critters and people away from the endangered northern monkshood.

Exploradio - Monkshood patrol

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The plant is also called wolfsbane because it contains a powerful poison that was once used to kill wolves, and deter werewolves.  The more common name, monkshood, refers to the shape of the delicate blue flower, reminiscent of a medieval monk’s cowl.  Summit Metro Parks biologist Rob Curtis says the beautiful plant lives up to its killer reputation.

“It’s lethal if you eat it, it will stop your heart.  But it has potential there medicinally… related to the heart.”

Curtis says some animals eat the plant, and don’t always survive –

“A family of woodchucks was in there and we were wondering if it wasn’t the pups doing the initial browsing and maybe mom was losing some pups.”

But a big part of Curtis’ job is to protect the rare plant not just from animals, but also from careless humans.

“There used to be three separate sites down there about 15 years ago, and we lost two of those.”

Northern monkshood is found in only four states, and only known to be in three places in Ohio.  The largest is a patch of 300 plants in the Gorge Metropark in Cuyahoga Falls.  A fence around the flowers keeps critters and campers out. But it does not stop the other factor that’s killing off Monkshood: salt runoff from a nearby highway.

“We have linked a lot of the disappearance to the high saline waters and ODOT has built two diversions along Route 8 to try and capture the salt water before it overflows along the ledges.”

Park biologists have tried planting greenhouse-grown Monkshood in the ledges, but none of those plants survived.

Now Curtis says biologist are taking steps to preserve the plants in the lab in case the fragile wild population is wiped out.

“We want to have some backup, and the plant is notoriously difficult to transplant.  There have only been a couple successful transplants of Northern Monkshood.”     

This month the Seiberling Nature Realm in Akron is displaying monkshood clones --  tiny specimens snipped from a few wild plants -  what they’re calling test tube babies.  Curtis says the clones are on loan from the Cincinnati Botanical Garden, where biologists are testing ways to transplant the finicky Monkshood.  

 “It’s kind of a time game, and we are hoping that we can figure out some of these mysteries so that we’re ready in case something devastating does happen to this population.”

In the meantime, Curtis and the Gorge Metro Park monkshood patrol are keeping a close eye on what may be the last stronghold of one the rarest plants in North America.


I’m JSTC with this week’s Exploradio.

Related Links & Resources
Summit Metro Parks website

Related WKSU Stories

Re-establishing Rare Monkshood in Akron's Gorge Park
Friday, August 25, 2006

Exploradio: The natural origins of music
Monday, August 22, 2011

Exploradio - Dragons and Damsels
Monday, July 1, 2013

Exploradio: Inside the Cloud
Monday, July 18, 2011

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