CPC National Collection Plant Profile

Polemonium van-bruntiae

Dorothy Long

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CPC National Collection Plant Profile

Polemonium van-bruntiae

Common Name: 
van Brunt's Jacob's ladder
Growth Habit: 
CPC Number: 


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Polemonium van-bruntiaeenlarge
Photographer: Dorothy Long
Image Owner: New England Wildflower Society

Polemonium van-bruntiae is Fully Sponsored
Primary custodian for this plant in the CPC National Collection of Endangered Plants is: 
Elizabeth J. Farnsworth contributed to this Plant Profile.

Polemonium van-bruntiae

Polemonium van-bruntiae is an herbaceous perennial plant. It has distinctive compound leaves that resemble ladder, which give the plant its common name of Jacob's ladder. Although this attractive plant is sometimes cultivated and sold to gardening enthusiasts, it is rare in the wild throughout its range. Polemonium van-bruntiae inhabits a diverse array of wetland types, including shrub swamps, marshes, lake shores, wooded floodplains, forested swamps, springs and moist roadsides. The reasons for its rarity are somewhat puzzling, because it is not a strict habitat specialist and is widely distributed in the eastern United States and Canada. The most prevalent threat to populations of this plant is habitat conversion, especially when dam construction floods wetlands where it occurs.

Research and Management Summary:
A handfull of research studies have been performed on this and a number of closely related species. Volunteer task forces of the New England Plant Conservation Program (New England Wild Flower Society, Framingham, Massachusetts) periodically monitor populations of this species that occur in New England.

Plant Description:
This plant grows to a height of 40-100 cm from a rhizome and produces several alternate, pinnately compound leaves with 15-21 pointed, oval leaflets on short petioles. The blue-purple, bell-like, 2-cm-long flowers make this species unique from other Polemonium species in the east because they have long stamens that are exserted beyond the petals.

Distribution & Occurrence

State Range
New Jersey
New York
West Virginia
State Range of  Polemonium van-bruntiae
  Polemonium van-bruntiae inhabits a diverse array of wetland types, including shrub swamps, marshes, lake shores, wooded floodplains, forested swamps, springs and moist roadsides. The plant often occurs at elevations above 1000 feet (330 meters), including the Catskill High Peaks, and the Appalachians of western Maryland and West Virginia (Maryland Department of Natural Resources 2002). Farther north in its range, however, it appears to inhabit lowlands; for example, in mountains of Vermont (Thompson 1991) and at its one known extant site in Maine, it occurs at approximately 100 meters in elevation (Johnson and Murray 1988). These sites are typically saturated with seepage water for some period of the year, but not flooded (Thompson 1991). Water at several populations was nearly circumneutral, with pH values ranging from 6.6-6.7 (unpublished data cited in Thompson 1991). The majority of populations in Maryland and West Virginia are associated with limestone bedrock. At least one West Virginia population is associated with a very rich flora indicative of circumneutral wetlands (Mueller 2001). However, it is problematic to identify Polemonium van-bruntiae as a specialist because it is found in a variety of wetlands with a number of generalist species (Thompson 1991).

  The species ranges from Quebec south to West Virginia and western Maryland along the Appalachian belt. Present in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York (where it becomes most common). A highly disjunct population was confirmed from near Cherryfield, close to the northeastern coast of Maine (Johnson and Murray 1988). Seven of the nine known populations in Canada, all in the Eastern Townships and Bois Francs region of Quebec, have been discovered since 1989 (COSEWIC 2001). The species is regarded as historic in New Brunswick, where it was last observed in 1885.

Number Left
  Conservatively, there may be as many as 80,000 plants present in approximately 60 native populations in North America.

According to Thompson (1991): West Virginia (19 populations, 20000 stems); Maryland (9 populations, 10000 stems); Pennsylvania (4 populations, numbers unknown; one population destroyed); New York (22 populations, 50000 stems); Vermont (5 populations, 1300 stems); Maine (1 population, 10 stems); Quebec (9 populations, 7000 stems estimated).


Global Rank:  
Guide to Global Ranks
Federal Status:  
Guide to Federal Status
Recovery Plan:  

State/Area Protection
  State/Area Rank Status Date  
  Canada (Quebec) N1 T 11/1/2001  
  Connecticut SRF 5/12/1987  
  Maine S1 E 7/1/1999  
  Maryland S2 E 4/30/2001  
  Massachusetts S2 T  
  New Brunswick S1 6/6/1991  
  New Jersey SX.1 9/1/2001  
  New York S3 R 4/1/2001  
  Pennsylvania S1 PE 2/9/2001  
  Quebec S1 2/28/1991  
  US N3 12/17/1994  
  Vermont S2 T 3/1/2000  
  West Virginia S2 6/1/2000  

Conservation, Ecology & Research

Ecological Relationships
  Polemonium van-bruntiae reproduces vegetatively and in some areas can form large clones, interconnected by underground rhizomes. In other areas, only individual plants or small clumps are present (Thompson 1991).

The conspicuous blue flowers of this species appear in June and July. Flowers are protandrous; that is, the large, exserted stamens release pollen before the stigma is receptive. This mechanism may encourage out-crossing in the species. Bees have been observed visiting flowers, and may pollinate the plant, although specific pollination studies have not been done (Thompson 1991, COSEWIC 2001).

Bees have been implicated as pre-dispersal seed predators in another alpine species, Polemonium foliosissimum in Colorado (Zimmerman 1980), but this phenomenon has not been explored in the eastern species. Beattie and Culver (1981) indicate that Polemonium van-bruntiae seed is not ant-dispersed, unlike other species common to rich montane forests of West Virginia.

Extensive long-term studies of reproduction and pollination in related congeners may inform hypotheses about fitness and reproduction in P. van-bruntiae (e.g., Zimmerman 1979, Galen 1983, Zimmerman 1984, Galen and Newport 1988, Zimmerman and Pyke 1988, Gilbert 1998). Seeds appear to require a period of winter dormancy in order to germinate successfully (Brumback 1989). Seeds are reportedly dispersed by winter winds and spring flood waters (COSEWIC 2001).

  Hydrological alteration -- Activities that change the hydrology or water quality of streams and wetlands that support the plant can eradicate Polemonium van-bruntiae. Because the plant does not tolerate flooding, dam construction (by beavers or humans) can destroy populations. One site in western Pennsylvania was eliminated by flooding, and a proposed dam project in West Virginia (current status unknown) would have endangered nine of 19 occurrences of the plant there (Thompson 1991).

Succession to coniferous forests is cited as a threat in Canada (COSEWIC 2001).

Habitat conversion -- Sabourin and Paquette (1994) describe the northern population of Polemonium van-bruntiae as threatened by habitat loss, agricultural expansion, and road-building.

Inappropriately timed mowing and herbiciding is another potential threat.

Current Research Summary
  Populations are monitored on a regular basis in New England through volunteer task forces coordinated by the New England Plant Conservation Program of the New England Wild Flower Society (Framingham, Massachusetts). However, data are currently insufficient to determine population trends.

Phylogenetic relationships of species within the Polemoniaceae have been researched using matK sequencing (Johnson 1996).

The New England Wild Flower Society (Framingham, Massachusetts) has successfully propagated Polemonium van-bruntiae from seed collected in Vermont in 1986 (Brumback 1989). Seed germination was enhanced when seeds were refrigerated over winter. Plants were noted to bloom in the second year of growth. Seedlings were transplanted to two Vermont sites in 1990 and survived during the first year, indicating that ex situ cultivation and reintroduction may be feasible (Popp 1990). Certain private horticultural outlets also distribute the seed of Polemonium van-bruntiae.

Current Management Summary
  A Recovery Plan for the taxon is being drafted in 2001 by Environment Canada (COSEWIC 2001).

Volunteer task forces of the New England Plant Conservation Program (New England Wild Flower Society, Framingham, Massachusetts) monitor populations periodically in New England.

Research Management Needs
  Standardized methods for quantifying population numbers

Refined studies of specific habitat requirements of the plant, particularly water and soil chemistry

Studies of factors influencing levels of vegetative versus sexual reproduction in populations

Increased monitoring of populations in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where populations may be directly threatened by flooding

Ex Situ Needs
  Ex situ cultivation techniques appear to be well-established for this taxon.


Electronic Sources

(2002). Endangered Plants in Maryland. [Web site] Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Service. http://www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/rtes.html. Accessed: 2002.

COSEWIC. (2001). Species at Risk. [Web site] Environment Canada; Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. http://www.speciesatrisk.gc.ca/species/English/Default.cfm. Accessed: 2002.

NatureServe. (2008). NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. [Internet].Version 7.0. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. http://www.natureserve.org/explorer. Accessed: (June 17, 2008).

PDCNR. (2002). Threatened and Endangered Species of Pennsylvania. [Web site] The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/wrcf/plants.htm. Accessed: 2002.

Journal Articles

1997. Portrait of a Rare Plant: Jacob's Ladder Polemonium van-bruntiae. New England Wild Flower Notes. 1, 1: 6.

Beattie, A.J.; Culver, D.C. 1981. The guild of myrmecochores in the herbaceous flora of West Virginia forests. Ecology. 62: 107-115.

Britton, N.L. 1892. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club. 19, 224: 131.

Brumback, W.E. 1989. Notes on propagation of rare New England species. Rhodora. 91: 154-162.

Darlington, H.C. 1943. Vegetation and substrate of Cranberry Glades, West Viriginia. Botanical Gazette. 104: 371-393.

Galen, C.; Newport, M.E.A. 1988. Pollinator quality, seed set, and flower traits in Polemonium viscosum: complementary effects of variation in flower scent and size. American Journal of Botany. 75: 900-905.

Johnson, D.M.; Murray, N.A. 1988. Polemonium vanbruntiae (Polemoniaceae) in Maine. Rhodora. 90, 864: 453-454.

Johnson, L.A. 1996. Monophyly and generic relationships of Polemoniaceae based on matK sequences. American Journal of Botany. 83: 1207-1224.

Rhoads, A.F. 1986. Appropriate Horticulrture. Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. 15, 5: 7.

Walker, E.C. 1987. Lost and Found. The Garden Club of America Bulletin. 75, 5: 1-2.

Zimmerman, M. 1980. Reproduction in Polemonium: pre-dispersal seed predation. Ecology. 60: 502-506.

Zimmerman, M. 1984. Reproduction in Polemonium: a five year study of seed production and implications for competition for pollinator service. Oikos. 42: 225-228.

Zimmerman, M.; Pyke, E.H. 1988. Experimental manipulations of Polemonium foliosissimum: effects on subsequent nectar production, seed production, and growth. Journal of Ecology. 76: 777-789.


Popp, R. 1990. Reintroduction of Eastern Jacob's Ladder. Vermont Natural Heritage Program. p.4.

Sabourin, A.; Paquette, D. 1994. Status report on the van Brunt's Jacob's Ladder, Polemonium van-bruntiae, in Canada. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: COSEWIC.

Thompson, E.H. 1991. Stewardship overview: Polemonium van-bruntiae. Arlington, Virginia, USA: The Nature Conservancy and the Association for Biodiversity Information.


Davidson, J.F. 1947. A revision of the genus Polemonium. [Ph.D. Thesis]: University of California. Berkeley, California.

Galen, C. 1983. The ecology of floral scent cariation in Polemonium viscosum Nutt. (Polemoniaceae) (Colorado). [Ph.D. Thesis]: University of Texas. Austin, Texas.

Gilbert, Cynthia. 1998. Aspects of community ecology, population growth and genetic structure applied to the conservation of Polemonium pectinatum (Polemoniaceae), a rare and threatened shrub-steppe perennial. [Ph.D. Thesis]: University of Washington. 145p.

Zimmerman, M. 1979. An analysis of the reproductive strategies of Polemonium in Colorado. [Ph.D. Thesis]: Washington University. St. Louis, Missouri.

  This profile was updated on 3/4/2010
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