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Ken Wilson's native prairie garden in his backyard.

Have you ever heard of a smooth goosefoot? What about a western spiderwort?

Sarah Vinge-Mazer, botanist for Saskatchewan Conservation Data Centre, says you probably haven’t. That's because most people don’t know that rare or endangered plant species exist in Saskatchewan and need help.

“Plants are less charismatic in some ways than animals,” says Vinge-Mazer. “People are used to hearing about endangered or threatened animals, whether it’s the burrowing owl in Canada or some of the more high-profile species across the world like the panda, but the notion of an endangered plant doesn’t seem to be something that occurs to folks often.”

Nature Saskatchewan is trying to change that through its Rare Plant Rescue program. Landowners who have rare plants or rare plant habitat on their property have the opportunity to sign a voluntary stewardship agreement to conserve those species.

Rare Plant Rescue is different from other Nature Saskatchewan programs that focus on animals because very few people call in to say when they have spotted a rare plant. Emily Putz, the habitat stewardship coordinator for Rare Plant Rescue, says the target species for the program are rare and often live in specialized habitats that are almost all privately-owned. “It’s rare that people are out on that kind of land,” says Putz. “Nobody is usually out there looking for them.”

Rare Plant Rescue focuses on 16 target species: seven provincially-listed endangered plants and nine provincially and federally-listed endangered plants. Each year, they pick around six to focus on.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between rare plants and common plants. “All our species do have very tricky look-a-likes,” says Putz.

“For example, hairy prairie clover is one of our target species but it has two look-a-likes that are very similar: purple prairie clover and white prairie clover,” says Putz. “Purple prairie clover is very common, so that’s likely the one we get called in most [but] most times it’s purple prairie clover, not hairy prairie clover.”

Vinge-Mazer says the most important part of plant conservation is getting people out into nature. “It’s the prairies where most of our most vulnerable species are,” says Vinge-Mazer. “Lots of people don’t have a good handle on what native prairie really is and haven’t had the opportunity to get out there and fully appreciate [it].”

Even if you don’t have a farm, you can still help save these plants in your backyard.

Ken Wilson began a native prairie garden in his Regina yard in 2000. “I’d never gardened before, so I needed to limit the range of things I could work with somehow,” says Wilson. “Otherwise you go to a garden centre and there’s a million different things you could buy.”

“And curiosity. I came from Ontario, and I knew that Saskatchewan hadn’t originally looked like fields of canola and wheat, but I didn’t know what a prairie was going to look like,” says Wilson.

“It reminds me of what has been lost here through the process of colonization and settlement,” says Wilson. “The breaking of the prairie for agriculture.”

Wilson says his garden is a gesture to try and bring back native plants that have been destroyed, but trying to cultivate native prairie plants is a difficult process.

This is because native prairie takes a long time to develop, says Vinge-Mazer.

“In Saskatchewan we don’t have very strong legal measures for protecting our plant species, so that’s a bit of a concern,” says Vinge-Mazer. “We would need some changes to certain legislation in order to actually have legal protections.”

Conserving the prairie habitats we have left needs to be a priority, says Vinge-Mazer.

“People tend to forget the plants, but they are a vital part of the ecosystem and the habitat that the other [endangered] species rely on,” adds Emily Putz. “They definitely need some help too.”