Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A Wildflower Wonderland

Rafinesquia neomexicana (desert chicory)
In my earliest years documenting plants as a botanist, I was fortunate enough to experience several consecutive wet winters including the 2004-2005 El Niño winter and the spectacular display of wildflowers that followed. I thought I could look forward to California’s seasonal show every spring but, unfortunately, I soon learned that spring in California is not an automatic wildflower wonderland and that these displays are the exception rather than the rule. However this past winter our region was forecast to experience one of the strongest El Niño events on record following four years of severe drought. El Niño alone doesn’t necessarily make for a stormy winter, but above average rainfall is an exciting prospect for our state which has suffered from extreme drought. It is also exciting for the staff at RSABG because of the exceptional wildflower displays that follow and the important work that will be carried out as a consequence.

Mohavea breviflora (golden desert snapdragon)
Showy spring wildflower displays in California are composed mostly of annual plants. A large percentage of California native plant species are annuals, meaning that they complete their life cycle from seed to seedling to a reproductive flowering plant and back to seed in less than one year. Most annuals require sufficient rainfall to germinate and in years of drought they are sparse or can be totally absent. A wet winter provides an opportunity to document these drought evading plants and learn more about their natural history, abundance, and distribution. Importantly, large shows of flowers of many species also may mean abundant seed production, providing out staff with the opportunity to collect seed for conservation and research.

You may have learned about RSABG’s important seed conservation program and the ambitious collaborative project now under way. California Plant Rescue (CaPR), a collaborative effort to save seeds of all California wild plant species for future generations. The CaPR project is currently focused on securing seed of the rarest, most threatened and endangered plants in California and is therefore critical to long-term plant conservation. Seed banks ultimately store genetic diversity and serve as a back system for natural populations in the event of catastrophic loss. In addition these collections make important contributions to research to expand knowledge of our native flora. As you can imagine, securing seed in a time of drought can be challenging no matter how ambitious the project!
Chylismia brevipes (yellow cups)

You can be assured that RSABG botanists have been watching the weather reports to identify the best locations for collecting seeds. One of our target areas is the Death Valley region which has experienced a "super bloom" this past spring due to a large storm event in October. We hope the rain will also trigger germination of annual plant species that are rare and seldom seen; these are in special need of seed banking to further conservation. A floriferous spring is not only important to ongoing seed banking efforts, but would also be valuable for other Garden collections such as our herbarium. Following the last El Niño event in 2005, RSABG staff set out on several botanical forays to document the flora and add important collections to our herbarium. We conducted forays in some of the areas that showed the best and most diverse blooms, especially in the Mojave Desert. Research and conservation staff traveled to the northern Mojave Desert in Inyo County, on the outskirts of Death Valley National Park to places like the Ibex Hills, Amargosa River, Avawatz Mountains and Chicago Valley. We also took several trips to Riverside County in the Palen Mountains, and to San Bernardino County to investigate the Marble and Rodman Mountains. That year (2005) RSABG staff brought home more than 2000 botanical specimens to add to our herbarium and to further documentation of California’s flora. This spring we hope to do the same, or even more!
Diplacus fremontii (Fremont's monkeyflower)

 Many of the botanists at RSABG watch the weather as avidly as we examine plants under a dissecting scope. Climate and weather events are intimately tied to the time at which plants bloom and their abundance on the landscape. Knowing that these weather events can be few and far between, we need to make the most of our resources to do the important work that is needed to advance understanding and conservation of California’s native plants. The spring season is short and fleeting so we prepare well in advance to ensure that we are able to make the most of our time. Our work is carried out in a coordinated effort between multiple departments at the Garden and staff will travel far and wide to make collections for the herbarium, seed bank and living collection. Once back home these collections will continue to serve our mission to promote research, horticulture, education, and conservation of California’s native plants long into the future.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Field Work in the Mojave Sky Islands

As the holidays approach, some of us will be decorating our homes with a tree native to mountains of western North America, the White fir (Abies concolor). This species is fairly common throughout the Rockies, Cascades and Sierra Nevada Mountain Ranges. It can also be found in much more unusual locations, including the mountains of the eastern Mojave Desert.

If you’ve been to Hawaii and have seen the unique native plants that grow there, you probably know that isolated islands in the middle of the ocean often harbor unique species and ecosystems. A similar effect happens in the mainland southwestern US, with high mountains ‘islands’ surrounded by an ‘ocean’ of desert. These places have been dubbed sky islands, and harbor unique ecosystems. These ecosystems often contain endemic species, meaning that they can only be found in these isolated areas. Equally interesting, sky islands also often contain disjunct populations and relict species.  Disjunct population is a term used to describe populations of species that occur far outside of their normal range.  A relict species was more common on the landscape in the past, but due to a changing climate it is now restricted to a very small area. 

Three mountain ranges in the eastern Mojave Desert within California are considered sky islands; the Kingston Mountains, The Clark Mountains, and The New York Mountains. These ranges all rise above 7000 ft. and contain ecosystems that exist nowhere else in the surrounding lower elevation desert.  This fall we took a trip to visit these sky islands and assess the disjunct, relict populations of white fir which occur in the mountains.  

The Kingston Mountains, a Mojave Desert sky island

The populations of white fir in the high elevation mountains of Mojave Desert are part of relict ecosystems which supports patches of coastal vegetation, remaining from a wetter past in the west. A number of plants which are more commonly found in the areas of California west of the mountains also have disjunct populations here. These include coffee berry (Rhamnus californica) and Mexican manzanita (Arctostaphylos pungens). These plants and other’s such as narrow leaved yerba santa (Eriodicyton angustifolium) harken back to an era when much larger areas of the southwest looked more similar to the coastal charparral vegetation that we see in California today. 

The main focus of our trip was to scout the white fir populations in the hopes that we can collect seeds next season and to record detailed information on their health. Occurring in these extreme conditions, and living a relatively long life, these trees can provide a great study system to see how climate change is affecting the mountains. A major concern is that climate change will increase the temperature of these areas and literally push the white fir, and the many other unique species that are adapted to this cooler habitat off of the top of the mountain and into oblivion.  

During our trip, we visited all three of these ranges, but due to time constraints were only able to hike to the population in the New York Mountains. Part of the challenge of working in these areas is their remoteness. They occur at the tops of rugged mountains far from any trails or roads. On our day in the New York Mountains we were joined on in the field on that day by Andrew Kaiser of the Mojave National Preserve. After a challenging hike up the steep southern face, we made it to the main ridge. The views were incredible, but as we arrived and spent some time looking, but did not see any of the large and obvious trees. 

After about an hour of searching among the treacherously steep slopes, we finally saw a large white fir crown rising above the granite boulders. We spent the next several hours taking detailed notes, GPS data and photos. In total, we counted 31 trees, the exact number that was recorded by a team who visited the population in the late 70s, which included the late RSABG herbarium curator emeritus Robert Thorne.  This, plus the fact that found plants ranging from a foot tall to 60 feet was an encouraging sign that the population is not in obvious decline. In 2016, we hope to return to this population, along with the populations in the Kingston and Clark mountains, to do more monitoring, and hopefully make a collection of seeds for the RSABG seed bank. 
A young white fir specimen in the New York Mountains is an encouraging sign that the population will persist into the future

Looking up the steep northern face of the New York Mountains at a stand of white fir

 The sky islands of the Mojave are one of the hidden treasures that exist in the California desert. With nowhere to migrate to if conditions change, a warming climate is especially threatening to the plants and animals of these isolated areas. We hope that in the coming field season, we can gather more data on these special places to help to develop a better sense of how climate change will affect the Mojave Desert Mountains.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Cooking with California Native Sage

It is hard to believe that the California Native Sage Festival took place nearly a month ago. How time flies by! This was our second year celebrating the greatness of sage including having booths that featured sage related products, native food tastings and demonstrations, and sage advice for your garden. This year (same as last) I was helping to hand out samples of food that incorporates our native sages (Salvia). I always enjoy sharing information about the wonderful native plants of California but when I can share information about food made with native plants, I am doubly happy. Today I would like to share with you a recipe for the Lemon Sage Shortbread that I prepared for the California Native Sage Festival March 28, 2015. If you enjoy this recipes and want to learn more about preparing food with California Native Plants please register for the upcoming California Native Food Symposium (November 14 and 15, 2015). I am very excited to be a part of this event. Antonio Sanchez (Nursery Production Manager) my collaborator and fellow enthusiast in native food is playing a key role in the symposium and will be giving a presentation on California Chia, Beans and Berries: How Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and friends can help develop low-water foods for the future. Antonio frequently teaches a native food workshop at the RSABG and some of his recipes have been posted here.

Lemon Sage Short Bread

Author: Naomi Fraga adapted from Cookie and Kate
Serves: 32


  • 3 cups white whole wheat flour 
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt salt 
  • 2 tablespoona chopped fresh sage (I used Salvia clevelandii ‘Winifred Gilman’)
  • 2 lemons zested 
  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil 


  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. 
  2. In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flour, powdered sugar, salt, sage and lemon zest. Pour in the olive oil and stir until it is incorporated. 
  3. Transfer the dough to a 9 X 9 inch baking dish (I sprayed mine with vegetable oil). Use your fingers to squish the dough into an even layer. Prick the surface of the dough all over with a fork. Bake for about 45 min until the surface feels firm to the touch and is lightly golden around the edges. 
  4. Remove from the oven and let the pan cool for 20 minutes (no sooner and no later, 20 min is the right stage, or else it will be too soft or too hard). Then, using a very sharp knife, slice the shortbread into 8 even columns and 4 even rows. Let the cookies cool before removing them from the pan using a small spatula. 
  5. Enjoy!

Monday, March 9, 2015

For Love of Linanthus

Linanthus killipii
Botanists should really love all groups of plants, but sometimes, like many things in life, you cant help but love certain groups more than others. For me, Linanthus has always been a plant group that I have loved. The majority of Linanthus species are small annuals, sometimes referred to as “belly plants” because you have to lay down flat on your belly to observe them as they are so small. I’ve also always loved the genus Linanthus because many of them are very ephemeral, meaning they are only around and in flower for a very short time per year, sometime just a few weeks, and the conditions have to be just right or they may not appear at all, so when you do come across them in the wild the experience can be very special.
Linanthus killipii, the magenta colored variety.
The first Linanthus species I was introduced to was Linanthus killipii. I was a Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden intern at the time and I was out with Naomi Fraga doing plant surveys along the Pacific Crest Trail in the San Bernardino Mountains when we came across this species. It was so small that it took me a few moments to see what Naomi had found. Standing at only a few centimeters tall they can be quite easy to miss! Linanthus killipii is commonly known as the “Baldwin Lake linanthus” as the majority of populations are found around Baldwin Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains. While the flowers are almost always white, there have been a few populations found that are rose/magenta color, which we are still unsure of what is happening there. A common garden study will hopefully be done here at RSABG in the future to try and determine why they sometimes appear as a different color. This was the first Linanthus species I saw in the field and to date is still one of my favorites. In fact if I had to give a top five favorites list of all plant species Linanthus killipii would be on the list. It still brings a large smile to my face everytime I come across this species in the field.
Linanthus bernardinus

In the Spring of 2010 I was given permission by the Wildlands Conservancy to enter and document plants in the Sawtooth Mountains just outside of Pioneertown, a mountain range I had wanted to explore for some time because it looked so rugged and unique, but had been closed to the public for many years for restoration purposes due to a large fire that had occurred across the area. On my first trip into the Sawtooth Mountains I came across a curious little Linanthus species that I did not recognize. Later that day while wraching my brain on which one it could be I would remember that Naomi Fraga had mentioned that there was a potentially undescribed Linanthus species on the east side of the San Bernardino Mountains, but I had assumed she had meant somewhere higher up in elevation, but sure enough, after I sent Naomi a few photos, she confirmed that I had found the undescribed Linanthus that she had found in the herbarium under an incorrect identification. Over the next few years I explored the entire area and assisted in the description of this Linanthus species which we named Linanthus bernardinus, common name Pioneertown linanthus as it is only found around Pioneertown. Linanthus bernardinus is actually a very narrow endemic, meaning that it is only found geographically over a very small area, in this case only in the Sawtooth Mountains which are only around 10 square miles in area. I always make sure to do at least one hike in the Sawtooth Mountains every spring just to visit this little guy.
Linanthus bellus

In southeastern San Diego county there is a cute little Linanthus species appropriately named “desert beauty”, or Linanthus bellus that I got to work with one season while doing a CNPS project. Its stems are narrow and wiry so the flowers often look like brightly colored little floating cups. When found, it usually grows in small localized population in open flat areas among the desert chaparral in the greater McCain Valley area. Unfortunately the majority of habitat where it occurs in McCain Valley is being developed into a large scale wind farm so if you would like to see this showy little belly plant you should do so soon.

Linanthus maculatus subsp. "emaculatus"
One of the most recent Linanthus species I’ve had a chance to make an acquaintance with is an undescibed, or soon to be described, Linanthus that will be called Linanthus maculatus subsp. “emaculatus”, its common name will be the "immaculate linanthus" as it is spotless, and also may possibly be known as the Dos Cabezas linanthus as it is only found in a single wash beside a geographic location called Dos Cabezas. Doing field work on this plant was rather hard as it is so small and difficult to find. During most field surveys one can look around and take in the scenery, but this plant is very tiny and blends in with its environment so when I did field work on this one I had to walk around for days staring straight at the ground in front of me so I would not walk past them. Literally a pain in the neck, but well worth it to find such an amazing little plant. This is another narrow endemic, only found in a single wash on the east side of the Jacumba Mountains, its entire habitat occurrence area is just 1 or 2 square miles. That’s a narrow endemic! At first we were worried as the only known occurrence was from a section of this wash that was being developed into a large scale wind farm, but after I conducted field surveys I found that they occurred across the county line as well in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which conservation wise is a relief, as they will have at least some form of protection within the State Park. Being such a narrow endemic we will have to keep our eyes on this one in the coming years to make sure that its habitat is not heavily altered, because it would be sad to see such a tiny unique plant erased from the world.

At the beginning of every field season I look forward to my first encounters with species in the Genus Linanthus in the wild as I never know if it will be a species I have not seen before, an old friend, or potentially one that could be new to science. They are a unique and special group, and one most enjoyed by laying out flat on your belly while exploring their tiny little world.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Orcutt's spineflower: an update

Last year I wrote about Orcutt’s spineflower (Chorizanthe orcuttiana), a diminutive, highly endangered plant from the coastal bluffs of San Diego County. We collected 1500 seeds of this plant for our seed bank. This was part of a larger project with the Chaparral Lands Conservancy to enhance existing populations of Orcutt’s spineflower in their native range. RSABG was also involved with the second phase of this project, which was to regenerate seeds of this plant to reintroduce into the wild.

This type of work is called ex situ conservation. In a nutshell, biodiversity is taken off site where it can be regenerated or stored for long term genetic backup. This type of strategy differs from in situ conservation, in which native habitat and all of the biodiversity contained within is conserved. Establishment of wilderness areas, national parks and other wildlands are examples of in situ conservation methods. These strategies go hand in hand. As land is protected through in situ conservation, rare biodiversity can be recovered and reintroduced through ex situ conservation.

Regenerated seeds of Orcutt's spineflower
 A classic example of ex situ conservation, and one of the great successes of endangered species recovery in recent years comes from a large vulture of the west coast. In the 1980s, the population of California condor was so low that extinction seemed imminent. A seemingly audacious plan was launched, and all 22 remaining birds were taken from the wild and put into a captive breeding program. Chicks were carefully raised in an ex situ facility, and when the time was right, were introduced back into the wild. Since then, multiple reintroduction sites have been established, and the wild population is now over ten times larger than it was in the 1980s, with hundreds of additional birds still being reared in ex situ facilities.

Plants were grown at the RSABG nursery
It is always interesting to take something from the wild and observe its growth in a controlled setting. When we began our regeneration of Orcutt’s spineflower we weren’t exactly sure what the best method would be. After carefully reviewing all of the literature we could find on this species and others from the spineflower genus we came up with a propagation plan and began growing plants.  It was amazing to see the difference between these cultivated specimens and those that I saw in the field last summer in Del Mar. Our ex situ plants, which were receiving plenty of attention, water and nutrients were absolute monsters compared to their wild parents. This is the beauty of this process. You can take away all of natures variables and produce hundreds of seeds from a plant that may have only produced a few seeds in the wild. The seeds have been harvested and cleaned, and will be stored in our seed bank until they are ready for reintroduction in their coastal habitat. I am happy to say that we were successful in our first round of seed regeneration, and turned a sample of approximately 250 seeds into over 30,000 seeds of this very rare plant.