Monday, July 21, 2014

Internships at RSABG

Once upon a time I was an intern here at RSABG. I look back on my internship with great fondness. It was not only a time for new experiences, learning, and growth, but it was also a summer full of camaraderie with the other summer interns. For as long as I can remember (which is when I was an intern about 13 years ago!) the Garden has had a fruitful summer internship program. Each year we work with three to ten interns usually during the summer months. We provide them with training in various garden programs and they gain skills in several areas including herbarium curation, field botany, seed collecting, plant propagation, and horticulture. It has been a highly successful program with many interns going on to become professionals in related fields. In fact several staff at RSABG got their start as RSABG interns!

Interns in the field monitoring Berberis nevinii. 
Our summer internship program is growing, and this year we have more than ten interns! I am excited to see the internship program flourish; it is a program that is near and dear to my heart since I benefited from it greatly. When I started my internship I didn’t know that I wanted to be a botanist. I wasn’t even sure what kind of career I was wanted, but my mentors at the Garden had such an infectious enthusiasm that I figured this had to be the way to go. So here I am working as a botanist in the institution where I grew up as a botanist and I’ve never looked back.

My mentors inspired me, not only to become a botanist but also to seek my passion and find what drives me. It is now my duty to serve as a mentor and it’s a great challenge but I find it endlessly satisfying and rewarding. I am thrilled to work with eager and talented students and this year is no exception. Internship training is unique because its all hands on. We’ve trekked in the field together to document the flora of understudied mountains, we’ve recovered old monitoring plots to track endangered plants, we’ve collected seeds for preservation, and the interns have propagated plants that I wish I knew how to propagate (I secretly want a second internship in the nursery!). This is all in a day’s work at RSABG but its meaning is further compounded when we are able to share the importance of our work with these young colleagues.


In the next few weeks, I hope to have our interns share stories of their summer with you. Stay tuned for their posts

Friday, April 18, 2014

Listen to the Desert Tortoise

Photo by: B. Eisenstein (4/17/2104)
The truck was parked on the side of a dirt road at the base of a slope in the middle of nowhere. Four of us - two botanists and two horticulturists - were walking back to the truck, eyes fixed on ground looking for some new flower we had missed on our way out. Just then I saw her. She looked like another dark gray rock, but right away I knew what it was. The desert tortoise was thoroughly unimpressed as the four of us gathered nearby - not too close - to admire her. A piece of vegetation dangled from her mouth as she took us in. Cameras snapped at the nonchalant, seemingly ageless sage (in the zoological sense). 

This was but one high point to a full day of desert exploration. Yesterday I was fortunate to be included in one of several teams of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden scientists, educators, and horticulturists who scour the surrounding wildlands in search of wildflowers for the annual Spring Wildflower Show. The Wildflower Show brings some of the discoveries made by researchers to the public. As noted on the Rancho website:
Loeseliastrum matthewsii
(Desert Calico)
Photo by: B. Eisenstein
A tradition since the early 1930s, the Wildflower Festival is Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden's longest-running seasonal event and coincides with our state-recognized California Native Plant Week, (the third week of April each year). 
Over the years, the show has offered an opportunity for visitors to view flowers of species that they may not have otherwise been able to see. Flowers are gently prepared, carefully identified and exhibited indoors.
The week proceeding the show, teams of RSABG staff, volunteers and research associates undertake spring collecting trips to sites where studies to document the flora are underway, adding to scientific knowledge of these poorly known places and sharing the beauty of California wildflowers with Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden visitors. The geographically-diverse approach offers a diverse variety of species gathered and creates a beautiful and educational display.
In true Rancho style, this event brings together scientists, environmentalists, and all of those who appreciate the beauty and significance of Nature, so we can share our knowledge and wisdom, most of which we gain from stopping to watch the tortoise.

Desert tortoise in collection site. Photo by: B. Eisenstein

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

In the rainshadow: A flora in the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains



A desert wash in my study site.
March 2014. Photo by Erika Gardner
I've known since the second grade that I was to be a botanist. Actually, the first time I visited Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) was in the second grade for a class field trip. Ever since, I have been obsessed with the garden. It's where I wanted to go on weekends, summer breaks, and any opportunity I could get. It was the closest place to my home that resembled a wilderness and it was where I wanted to be. 
Now that I think about it, I had no clue what a botanist was in the second grade.
I have always enjoyed learning about living organisms, learning about how they function, and observing them in nature. 

Cal Poly Pomona afforded me my long awaited opportunity to study plants. During my sophomore year I landed an internship at RSABG - a 10-week Herbarium Curatorial Assistant position supported by the Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Internship program. I couldn’t believe my luck. At the time, I had no idea as to what a herbarium was but I knew it had something to do with botany and it was at the botanic garden!

One thing led to another as the stars lined up perfectly. I was hired to work part-time in the herbarium while I finished my biology degree at Cal Poly and then moved to full-time work, gaining greater and greater responsibility in the herbarium. Then in 2012, I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Botany at RSABG. Working in the herbarium had made me realize that there is so much to learn about the floristic diversity of California and I wanted to learn as much as I could by conducting a floristic project.

On the hunt for plants. Documenting diversity.
April 2013. Photo by Phillip Alba
The RSABG Master’s Program allows students to work on and publish a flora of an area in California. Students get to choose the area, collect and identify the plants in that area and synthesize the data. A published flora is then a useful tool to further scientific and public knowledge about plant geography in California via GIS analysis and collections data. 

Now in my second year, I'm working on my Master's thesis project: a botanical survey and inventory of the Kiavah Wilderness in the Scodie Mountains of the Southern Sierra Nevada, Kern County, California. I chose the Scodie Mountains because of my deep admiration and affection for the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Mojave Desert.

The Kiavah Wilderness is a total of 139 sq. miles and lies in a transition zone between the Mojave Desert and the Sierra Nevada floristic regions. Its plant communities include Joshua Tree Woodland, Riparian Scrub and Mixed Coniferous Forest (juniper, pinyon, oak and pine). Interestingly, the last botanists to make significant collections in this area were Jim Shevock and Barbara Ertter in the 1980s. Many portions of the wilderness have not yet been explored. I'll reach these high-priority "botanical black-holes" via cross-country hiking, exploring and documenting as much of the flora as possible. Using GIS software, my collection localities will be mapped and the data will be served to the Consortium of California Herbaria website.

Driving into the Kiavah Wilderness. Sage Canyon. April 2013
Photo by Erika Gardner
Last year was a challenging time to begin a floristic project. It was an extremely dry year - bone dry. It was frightening to see how the drought could wreak so much havoc on the vegetation and wildlife. While the Scodie Mountains are prime hunting grounds for nesting eagles, I didn't see a single golden eagle. Not a single jackrabbit bolted from under the shrubs. I took as much data as I could - about 367 specimens.

Sage Canyon carpeted with Phacelia fremontii.
March 2014. Photo by Erika Gardner
This year things are looking a lot better in the Kiavah Wilderness for both the plants and animals. After a winter without any significant precipitation, California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency - something a floristic student does not want to hear. However, things took a slight turn for the better by the end of February when a large storm system swept through the state. The Scodie Mountains received over 2 inches of rain in less than two days! This was a remarkable amount of moisture. On average the Scodies receive about 8 inches annually. I returned to the Wilderness in March and to my surprise many annuals had germinated and were in full flower. It was such an amazing experience to see my project area in all of its glory. It was a breathtaking sight. It was hard to return home - I just wanted to explore every canyon and rock outcrop in the Wilderness. In March I spent 8 full days in the field and collected over 250 specimens. The wildflowers were growing in large swaths of color - blue Gilia, yellow Leptosyne and orange poppies. Even the wildlife appeared to be doing well. I saw many pollinators swarming the Gilia fields, flocks of sage sparrows and pinyon jays, a fair number of jackrabbits and cotton tails and even soaring golden eagles.

Joy England, a fellow Master's student, basking in the poppies
March 2014. Photo by Erika Gardner
Every time I venture into the wilderness I discover plants that I did not see last year or on the previous visit.  It is a very exciting feeling. I'm looking forward to compiling and analyzing my data, but first I have a full field season of collecting ahead of me. In fact I will be featuring specimens that I collect from the Kiavah Wilderness in the upcoming Wildflower Show, April 19th. If you would like to see the plant diversity from my study site please come to the Wildflower Show! I would be delighted to talk with you about the Kiavah Wilderness.


Want to see more of the Kiavah Wilderness? Follow my blog at http://scodies.blogspot.com