Fernald’s Braya is a plant that grows only on the Island of Newfoundland. It is remarkably well adapted to limestone soils and extreme winter cold. This species is threatened by the loss of its habitat.

What is Fernald’s Braya?

Close-up of Fernald’s Braya in flower
Fernald’s Braya.

Fernald’s Braya is named after Merritt Lyndon Fernald, who was a botany professor at Harvard University. In the 1920s, Fernald introduced the scientific community to the special vegetation of the limestone barrens of the Great Northern Peninsula. Fernald has had a major influence on Canadian botanists such as Quebec’s Frère Marie-Victorin. His writings are still widely referred to today, and many plants were named after him.

Fernald’s Braya is a perennial plant in the mustard family. It only grows a few centimetres high (1–7 cm).

The clusters of small white flowers are borne on the end of a scape (stem) growing directly from the ground. The fleshy spatula-shaped leaves grow in a ring, or rosette, at the base of the plant. The leaves are 1–4 cm long and 1–3 mm wide. Fernald’s Braya has long roots that can contract, pulling the plant down tightly into the soil. This is important because the loose gravely soil is churned by repeated freezing and thawing at the beginning and end of each winter. Without this adaptation, the small plants would be heaved out of the ground by frost.

This plant lives for many years and produces small round seeds that are dispersed over short distances by the wind.

Fernald’s Braya is unusual because:

  • it grows in shallow, limestone gravel soils churned by frequent freeze-thaw cycles;
  • it can grow in disturbed soil; and
  • it can withstand strong winds, temperature extremes, drought, and flooding.

In short, it is able to grow on the limestone barrens of Newfoundland where few other plants are able to survive!

Where is Fernald’s Braya found?

Typical vegetation of limestone barrens: stunted trees sculpted by the wind and small plants growing close to the ground.  Extensive areas of gravel are found. Typical vegetation of Newfoundland’s limestone barrens.

Fernald’s Braya is a species endemic to Newfoundland-in other words, it is not found anywhere else in the world. It grows on the northwestern edge of the island, at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula.

According to estimates, in the summer of 2000, the entire world population of Fernald’s Braya totalled 3,500 plants. The 14 small limestone barrens in which the plants are found lie along a 300-km-long strip of the west coast of Newfoundland, from Port au Choix National Historic Site of Canada in the south to Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve in the north.

Of the 9 populations originally identified by Fernald in 1925, only 3 were relocated in 2000. Port au Choix National Historic Site is one of the sites where Fernald’s Braya occurs. The population there consists of 300 to 400 plants. The next-closest population is about100 km to the north.

What is the status of Fernald’s Braya?

Fernald’s Braya shares its habitat with another very similar species, Long’s Braya. Long’s Braya is an endangered species, in other words, it faces imminent extinction if its habitat continues to be disturbed by human use.

In 1997, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), designated Fernald’s Braya as a threatened species in Canada.

Federally, Fernald’s Braya is protected under the Species at Risk Act.

In 2002, this plant was placed under the protection of Newfoundland’s Endangered Species Act.

This means that it is illegal to damage this plant and it must not be picked, trampled, or harmed in any way.

Why is Fernald’s Braya in danger?

Habitat loss, resulting from various human activities, is the main threat to Fernald’s Braya:

  • Quarrying has destroyed large areas of the limestone barrens and remains the main threat to the species’ survival.
  • Road construction has also destroyed a sizeable percentage of the barrens during the last 20 years.
  • Off-road vehicle traffic damages plants and compresses the limestone gravel, making it un-useable by many plants.

These activities affect not only Fernald’s Braya but many other elements of its ecosystem.

Limestone barrens in Newfoundland.
Limestone barrens make up 1% of the island of Newfoundland. They occur along the west coast of the Great Northern Peninsula in the northwestern part of the island. Fernald’s Braya is only found in 14 locations along the coast.

Certain herbivorous insects and snails also pose a threat to Fernald’s Braya. For example, every summer, an exotic moth is carried by the wind from the United States to Newfoundland and the caterpillars can cause serious damage to the tiny braya populations.

Why protect Fernald’s Braya?

Quarrying and road construction are serious threats to this species. However, since Braya grows well in disturbed areas, it may colonize the abandoned portions of quarries or the gravel shoulders of highways and airfields! In turn, these new sites can be damaged by quarry operation, grading, or excessive road traffic.

There are many reasons why a plant such as Fernald’s Braya should be saved:

  • It contributes to the Earth’s biodiversity. It has a unique genetic make-up and is found nowhere else.
  • It is part of a group of rare plants adapted to extreme environments
  • It is one of the few plants that can colonize bare limestone soil.
  • It beautifies limestone barrens.
  • It fascinates nature lovers.

Before Fernald’s Braya was listed as a threatened species, few people realized how fragile its habitat was and how much damage it had suffered in the past 25 years.

The plant’s designation as a threatened species prompted Newfoundlanders to set up the Limestone Barrens Habitat Stewardship Program. Today, all elements of this ecosystem benefit from recovery efforts targeting Fernald’s Braya.

What is Parks Canada doing to save Fernald’s Braya?

Parks Canada is a member of the Limestone Barrens Species at Risk Recovery Team, which consists of representatives of the federal and provincial governments, universities and concerned members of the general public. This team works to protect limestone barrens plants, like Fernald’s Braya, and their habitat.

Parks Canada and its partners on the Recovery Team:

Close-up of a tagged Fernald’s Braya plant showing the researcher’s finger for comparison purposes. The plant is very small, roughly five times the size of your index finger fingernail. For monitoring purposes, the plants are tagged so they can be found during later visits.
  • monitor Braya population and their health;
  • study the braya’s ecological requirements;
  • assess the impact of herbivores and diseases on braya populations and test methods of protecting the plants;
  • support the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden in developing cultivation and propagation techniques for the plant and maintaining a seed bank and braya nursery to provide a backup source of specimens;
  • compare brayas from different populations to determine whether there are any physical differences among them; and
  • supply braya seeds to the Canadian National Seed Bank.

With its habitat stewardship partners, Parks Canada:

    Two scientists using a frame on the ground to facilitate an inventory of Fernald’s Braya plants. The land is almost completely bare and it basically looks like a field of gravel.
    Scientists carry out an inventory of Fernald’s Braya populations.
  • carries out interpretation and public education activities at the Port au Choix National Historic Site;
  • supports public awareness and education activities carried out by young people on the Port au Choix Green Team;
  • cooperates with a fishermen’s committee to manage access to limestone barrens at Port au Choix;
  • supports efforts to sign a stewardship agreement with the municipality of Port au Choix;
  • helps to develop educational material about limestone barrens (posters, brochures, Web site, meetings and art project); and
  • produced interpretation panels about the limestone barrens for Port au Choix National Historic Site (geology, climate, vegetation, and where to see other limestone barrens).

How can I help?

Newfoundland’s limestone barrens, located on the Great Northern Peninsula, are so unusual that this ecosystem fascinates botanists from all over the world. The geographic location, geology, and climate make the barrens a very special place. Among the 271 rare plants found on the Island of Newfoundland, 114 grow on the limestone barrens. Three of these plants, such as Fernald’s Braya, are not found anywhere else in the world.

Whether you are a Newfoundlander or just a visitor to the Island, you can help to preserve Fernald’s Braya!

  • Learn more about limestone barrens and their plants.
  • Protect habitats by not piling materials such as wood, fishing nets and garbage on the limestone barrens.
  • Stay on designated trails when driving all-terrain or other off-road vehicles, and avoid places where rare plant signs have been posted.
  • Take heed of plants when you are walking on the barrens (at Port au Choix and other sites, stay on the marked paths, do not pick plants, and take your garbage out with you).
  • Leave plants to grow in their natural habitat: many species have deep roots and grow very slowly, and most will not survive transplanting.
  • Tell others about how special limestone barrens are.

You can also lend your support to organizations working to save and restore Fernald’s Braya and limestone barrens, such as:

  • Limestone Barrens Habitat Stewardship Program;
  • local Green Teams (since 2001, these groups, made up of four young people in each locality, have acquired valuable work experience by carrying out environmental projects); and
  • other conservation organizations.