Monday, December 16, 2013

Seed Collecting in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts

Deidre collecting Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) seeds north of Barstow, August 2013
Hello, my name is Deidre and I started working at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) as a Seeds of Success Intern in August, 2013. I am originally from the Twin Cities, Minnesota, and did my undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin- Madison.  While I have some field experience out west in Montana and New Mexico, working on Seeds of Success in California has been a bounty of new plants, habitats and culture to experience. It is amazing how much public land remains in Southern California, especially in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. Though I have moved to one of the most populated areas of the country, I find myself in areas where I don’t see another soul for most of the day. I will give an overview of the Seeds of Success project, a typical work day, and some of this year’s highlights.
Seeds of Success is a national program set forth by the Bureau of Management (BLM) that aims to collect, conserve, and develop native plant materials for stabilizing, rehabilitating, and restoring lands in the United StatesRSABG receives funding from the BLM as a partner to combine seed collecting efforts in Southern California. For 2013, our team made a total of 67 collections from 31 different species native to California.  A typical collection includes a minimum of 10,000 seeds, a voucher of the plant, photos of the plant, seed, and site, and data describing the location, habitat, soil, and associated species. 

Manybristle chinchweed (Pectis papposa) near Algodones Sand Dunes, October 2013
So how do we find these native plant populations? First, we do some research at the garden taking precipitation, herbarium records, and bloom periods into account. We may plan a trip based on one or all of these three factors; rain is often the key to finding blooming plants in the desert, even outside of normal bloom periods. Since our collecting regime is so large, we rarely run out of places to check for populations and many stops are added on the fly if we spot the telltale sign of water in the desert: green creosote bush (Larrea tridentata).  Once we find a population that has at least 50 plants that are flowering and appear they will likely make at least 10,000 viable seeds, we take photos and voucher a few plants for herbarium records. About a month after full flowering, we will return to collect seeds. We test for ripeness with a cut test to split the seed and make sure the inside is filled, firm, healthy.

Some 2013 collecting highlights:
Acton’s brittlebrush (Encelia actoni)
The first collection I made upon arriving to California was of the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) north of Barstow. It was like walking from one spiky desert piƱata to another as we used sticks and rocks to knock the fruits off the inflorescence and catch them or quickly gather them off the floor.

Manybristle chinchweed (Pectis papposa) was the “yellow carpet” of Mojave and Sonoran desert this fall. The late summer rains allowed for the hot water needed to germinate generally thousands of chinchweed seeds in an area. It has a very distinct smell that was very useful for identification even before the bright yellow flowers were open.

  Parish’s goldeneye (Bahiopsis parishii)
Final collection of the season, (this December!), was in Ruby Canyon of the Bighorn Mountain Wilderness area. Acton’s brittlebrush (Encelia actoni) and Parish’s goldeneye (Bahiopsis parishii) were that last two species for 2013 in a part of the high Mojave that is still surprisingly colorful for this time in the year.

This year, I have especially enjoyed working outside, making seed collections at seemingly desolate sites upon first glance, and appreciating parts of the desert that no one may have ever appreciated. I am thankful for such a lovely field season and opportunity to conserve the precious native plants of Southern California. Check back for more collecting news in the spring!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Why plant names change

This article written by Lucinda McDade was originally posted in Oak Notes, the newsletter of the Volunteers of RSABG. Because it answers questions that come up frequently, we thought we'd share it here too.

Why do those annoying scientists keep changing the names of plants? In this month’s column, I 
am going to attempt to convince you that name changes reflect progress and should be embraced with enthusiasm owing to the information that they convey. First, though, let me agree: names changes are annoying. I rather like Senegalia greggii (formerly Acacia greggii), and I am warming up to Erythranthe (for the sweet little monkeyflowers that grad student/conservation botanist Naomi Fraga studies), but Acmispon and Hosackia (both formerly Lotus) just don’t roll off the tongue smoothly and still leave me a little cold. Nonetheless, I too must  learn to say Acmispon and Hosackia with grace. 

So why do scientists keep changing plants’ names? The answer is actually pretty simple: because we have learned more about the “ family tree” (i.e., evolutionary relationships) of the plants in question and seek to reflect that knowledge in our scientific naming of the plants. We could of course keep knowledge about relationships and names separate, but biologists have almost unanimously agreed that we should use the scientific names of organisms to convey information about relationships. Interestingly, by following a few simple rules in assigning scientific names to organisms, we can do this quite readily. Here we have the culprit: because we are directed to depict patterns of evolutionary relationship when naming organisms, names sometimes must change as our knowledge of relationships grows. Thus the fact that the names of our monkeyflowers have changed to Erythranthe and Diplacus alerts us  that modern work to understand the evolutionary  history of the genus Mimulus has revealed that all plants with monkeyflower-like flowers are not each other’s closest relatives. The evolutionary tree for Phrymaceae indicates that the plants that have been referred to as Mimulus occur in three different branches of the tree. More closely related to each of these evolutionarily independent monkeyflowers are plants that have never been referred to as Mimulus and that have flowers that are quite different from what we expect monkeyflowers to look like.

When advancing knowledge demands name changes, in order to avoid total chaos, we follow the rule that the scientific name stays with the type species. Think of the type species as providing a sign post for where the genus name belongs. In this case, the type species, M. ringens, occurs in eastern North America and species on that branch of the evolutionary tree retain the name Mimulus. The two branches where the western monkeyflowers are placed are now referred to as Diplacus (the woody perennial subshrubs like D. aurantiacus) and Erythranthe, which are the diminutive annuals that Naomi studies. It is notable that both of these genus names far pre-date the phylogenetic results that are now our basis for using them again: our predecessors had an inkling that these groups existed! Knowledge of the patterns of relationship among these plants tells us that the suite of floral traits that makes a monkeyflower look like a monkeyflower may well have evolved multiple times rather than just once. 

The story of California fuschia, formerly referred to as Zauschneria, is the converse of the monkeyflower story. Here, the results of modern evolutionary studies show us that the handful of species that had been called Zauschneria are just a small twig on the large phylogenetic tree that is the genus EpilobiumFixing this problem of mismatch between names and evolutionary patterns could involve breaking Epilobium (with as many as 200 species) into a large number of genera, but it would be challenging to point to traits that would let us tell one from the 3 other, which is almost as annoying for users of taxonomic names as is changing names! Also note that this path would create a lot of new genus names. The alternative path has been chosen: Zauschneria has been moved into Epilobium. This change should  lead you to understand that the remarkable large red, hummingbird-pollinated flowers of Epilobium canum likely evolved from less charismatic flowers that mark most species of Epilobium. This is interesting and makes us want to know more 
about the evolutionary history of these plants.

The take home message is that change 
is annoying, but learning is good (as I know that the many of you who are teachers will agree!), and the fact that knowledge is advancing rapidly is great. I am convinced that it is well worth our while to learn these new names because they instruct us about evolutionary relationships of the plants we love. The other simple fact is that for people just starting to learn plant names now and for all those who come after them, new names are not in fact “new” but are just names!

 I am going to change gears now and fill in a bit of the background on the science that is behind the discoveries that are behind these name changes. If this is too much information for you, feel free to skim/skip. Also, let me know whether you like or do not like this sort of information. That will help me make these columns useful and interesting to you. These are very exciting times in the branch of  biology—systematics—that has responsibility for documenting and understanding biodiversity—the living organisms that share planet Earth with us. Since the time of Darwin, it has been understood that our goal is to unravel evolutionary relationships. Organisms are related to each other to different degrees, owing to evolutionary patterns—to recency of shared ancestry. Thus, just as you and your siblings are more closely related to each other than to any other human beings owing to sharing the same parents (i.e., very recent common ancestors!), so oaks are more closely related to other oaks than to ashes or alders because they stem from a common ancestor that lived much more recently than did the ancestor shared by oaks, ashes and alders. 

Despite this widespread agreement that we seek to unravel evolutionary relationships, until about 50 years ago, it was not clear how to discover these patterns of relatedness—how to organize our observations of similarities and differences between organisms to reveal degrees of common ancestry. A very clever German entomologist, Willi Hennig, figured it out in the 1960s and this sparked a burst of energy in systematics. Next, during the late 1980s and into the 1990s saw the development of methods to gather DNA sequences (yes, the exact order of the Cs, Gs, Ts, and As in genes—happy to show you in our molecular lab how this works!). This provided incredibly powerful information for deducing relationships. By the way, both the principle contributed by Hennig and the DNA methods are elegant to the point of simplicity—the sort of thing that, once you understand, you  feel that you could and should have figured out on your own! A final ingredient “stirred in” over the last couple of decades has been advances in analytical methods. The field has recruited many extremely talented mathematicians who are devising analytical methods that follow Hennig’s principle while taking advantage of the huge amounts of data that can now be amassed in the molecular lab. That fertile mix has yielded a revolution in our understanding of how organisms are related to each other. 

Those of us contributing to the revolution undertake research that yields tree-like, branching diagrams that depict patterns of relationships among the organisms that we study. As noted above, by following some simple rules when we assign scientific names to organisms based on relatedness, we can convey information about relatedness in our biological classifications. The most important of these rules is that any taxon (e.g., family, genus) must include all of the descendants of a common ancestor. These are very exciting times in the branch of biology—systematics—that has responsibility for documenting and understanding biodiversity—the living organisms that share planet Earth with us. only the descendants of that common ancestor. The knowledge that Zauschneria is a twig on the tree that is Epilobium can be restated more “formally” as: Zauschneria shares a common ancestor with some species of Epilobium (those on the same branch of the Epilobium tree) more recently than any common ancestor that ALL Epilobium share. This  means that we cannot recognize both Epilobium and Zauschneria because this would break the “all  descendants” rule, and we will not be able to  understand the relatedness of these plants from the classification. I hope that makes sense – it is actually easier to “get” from a diagram and I’d be happy to go over that with any of you who might be interested. 

 One more point before I leave this topic: because the name changes that we are now experiencing are based on the above described three major advances in our field, there is every reason to believe that they will achieve a level of stability that we have not had in the past. Although we can’t promise that this round of name changes will be the last, there is every reason to believe that they are a major step toward achieving stability

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Summer showers bring fall flowers

Bighorn Mountain Wilderness near Ruby Canyon
Spring time is the season when I usually get reacquainted with all my old flowering friends, go on wildflower walks, and spend lots of time doing what I love best; looking for plants! Who would have thought that late summer and fall could be just as amazing and floriferous as the spring season? There are currently billowing fields of flowers in California’s desert that resulted from several significant storms this past summer in August and September. This year I have been able to take several field trips to view the spectacle of desert flowers at a site called the Bighorn Mountain Wilderness.

The Bighorn Mountain Wilderness is the subject of an ongoing RSABG research project to inventory and create a checklist of all the plants that occur in the area with special attention to documenting rare and invasive plants. The Wilderness is 38,502 acres and set back against the north side the San Bernardino Mountains in San Bernardino County, California. Our partners on this project are the Bureau of Land Management and the San Bernardino National Forest who both manage portions of the wilderness.

Fields of brightly covered chinchweed blanket the floor
Last week on 26 September 2013, 12 staff and students from RSABG set out to document the spectacular fall bloom.The area is difficult to access without a four-wheel drive vehicle; therefore few botanists have documented plants in the Wilderness prior to our study. After traveling one hour via dirt road and one flat tire, we got to our survey sites and found an abundance of summer annuals. We also found perennials that normally bloom in the spring, but have perked up in response to the summer rain.  

The summer annuals that predominate and form carpets in the Bighorn Mountain Wilderness are: fringed amaranth (Amaranthus fimbriatus), needle grama (Bouteloua aristidoides), six weeks grama (Bouteloua barbata), Sonoran sandmat (Euphorbia micromeria), Yuma sandmat (Euphorbia setiloba), and chinchweed (Pectis papposa).

Other less common annuals include windmills (Allionia incarnata) and spinderling (Boerhavia triquetra var. intermedia).  Shrubs in the sunflower family such as wedgelead goldenbush (Ericamerica cuneata), rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), round-leaf rabbitbrush (Ericameria teritifolia), and scale broom (Lepidospartum squamatum) are approaching full flower and create a haze of yellow across the landscape.

Mirabilis (four o'clock) in bloom in September 2013
If you have a chance to get out and see this spectacular bloom I would hightly recommend it.  Swaths of blooming plants can be seen just outside of the Bighorn Mountain Wilderness, north of Yucca Valley near the town of Landers. There in Johnson Valley you will find fields of chinchweed and spiny senna (Senna armata). There are also several other locations to see the unusual green cast in desert.  If you head out along I-10 towards Desert Center you will find octotillo (Fouquieria splendens), pallo verde (Parkinsonia florida), and ironwood (Olneya tesota) lush and green with some plants in flower and fields of gramma grass (Bouteloua sp.). 

Stay tuned to our website for updates on our progress and findings in the Bighorn Mountain Wilderness and visit our photo album to see more.  The area is an interesting transition zone between the Mojave and Sonoran deserts and the interior mountains of southern California. Over the course of our study we are sure to have many interesting discoveries that will enhance our knowledge of California’s diverse flora.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Five new species of monkeyflowers added to the ranks of the CNPS Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants

Carson Valley monkeyflower (Erythranthe carsonensis)
Last year I had the privilege of naming and describing five new species of monkeyflowers in the Garden’s scientific journal Aliso (30: 49-68, 2012). Four of these monkeyflowers have now been added to the California Native Plant Society’s (CNPS) Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants and one will soon be reviewed for its possible inclusion in the Inventory. Plants in the CNPS Inventory are assigned ranks in an effort to categorize their degree of rarity and concern of threat or endangerment. For example, a CNPS Rare Plant Rank of 2B.3 means that the plant is rare in California, but more common elsewhere (2B), and is not very threatened in California (0.3). The four monkeyflowers that have been added to the CNPS Inventory were assigned a rare plant rank of 1B which means they are not only rare in California but throughout their range. In addition three of the monkeyflowers have a threat rank 0.1 which means they are seriously threatened and one has a threat rank of 0.3 which means it is not very threatened in California. In doing field work for my research I wanted to asses the conservation status of these monkeyflowers because many of them are known to be naturally rare and are therefore of conservation concern. In my field work I surveyed and searched for new populations and provided more detailed information on their geographic range. To learn more about the conservation status of these elusive little plants I recorded information on the quality of their habitat (e.g. abundant non-native plant species would indicate poor habitat quality), signs of disturbance (e.g. trash, road cuts, vehicle trespass, trampling by humans or grazing animals), current use of the area, and current status of the population. This is important because if a species is known to be restricted to a small geographic area then chances are that some degree of disturbance (e.g. development, cattle grazing, and impacts from recreation) could have a significant impact on the long term viability of the species. The information I recorded was published and used in their assessment for ranking in the CNPS Inventory.
Santa Lucia monekflower (Erythranthe hardhamiae)

The CNPS Inventory serves as a State-wide source of information on California’s rare and endangered plants and is an important resource for scientific research, conservation planning, and effective enforcement of environmental laws that deal with plant conservation. It is essential to much of the work I do in evaluating the status of rare plants in California and identifying geographical areas and species to survey. This past year (2012) Garden Scientists described seven new plant species native to California and all seven of these have been added or are being considered for addition to the CNPS Inventory. This brings to light a couple of very important things: one is that we still have much to learn about the flora of California. Since the second edition of The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California was published in 2012 at least 14 new taxa native to California have been newly described! Even though my research has focused on describing and exploring plant diversity in California, the rate at which we continue to learn about and add new species to our native flora still astounds me. Second is that many of these newly described species in California have been found to be rare, and endangered throughout their range.

This shows us that it is critical to gather as much information as possible prior to developing land or changing land use. Balancing our use of the land with protection of natural resources is a difficult task, but in order to do this effectively we need information on what occurs there and its significance. The work we do here at the Garden in conservation and research aims to provide this information in the interest of education on the value and significance of California’s native flora.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Windows to the Natural World

Think back on your experiences at museums, cultural institutions, or really any ‘attraction’ that you’ve ever visited… Which were your favorites? Which stimulated your senses and drew upon your powers of observation, curiosity, and excitement?

mourning cloak eggs
As we grow our Garden and cultivate the messages we hold so dear from our mission, we’ll endeavor to up the ante in providing an engaging, meaningful and memorable visitor experience. After all, it’s likely those very same traits that caused you to recall your most enjoyable experiences during my opening line of questioning. Those traits are the keys to any good occasion, from educational workshops to tours or family-friendly special events. And what’s the real trick to creating those types of experiences that appeal to a broad audience at our Garden? Open windows to the natural world.
One of our most successful windows has been our California native butterfly pavilion, now finishing up its fourth season with our grand finale on Sunday, July 28 – the chance for guests to help release our butterflies from the pavilion into the wonderful habitat that our Garden provides. When all is said and done, nearly 8000 guests will have experienced our butterfly pavilion during its two and half month run this late spring and summer. The time of sleepy summer days in our Garden has passed; gone are the days of 1500 total guests strolling our trails during summer months – this year we’ve welcomed nearly 15,000!

Papilio eurymedon (Pale Swallowtail) Photo by Clark Thompson
The butterfly pavilion has created a draw for all ages, from grandparents with grandkids to young families with their toddling children, the appeal and magic of butterflies is universal. But what makes it an engaging, meaningful and memorable experience that furthers our mission? Simply put, it’s the chance to witness nature and the relationships that we often take for granted on display in a scale that we as humans can identify with and appreciate. Curiosity takes over and routine observations evoke thoughtful questions that include “how” or “why” (or are prompted by trained volunteers or butterfly experts on hand), which lead to “ah-ha” moments (one of the most rewarding expressions an educator can hear) and changes in perspective and attitude which, if fostered, can lead to changes in behavior, (drumroll…) ultimately improving the quality of our very existence.

Monarch caterpillar on a milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis)
Too grandiose an expectation? Not really. Butterflies are an elegant tool to engage and educate a diverse audience. Butterflies beckon young and young at heart to ponder the relationships between plants, animals, and the intricacies that strengthen (or destroy) natural systems. The ties that bind butterflies to their immediate habitat, for instance larval host plants on which to lay eggs necessary for continuation of the species are undeniable. Those relationships describe an absolute necessity – without particular plants, particular butterflies (and ultimately other animal or plant species that depend upon butterflies) cannot exist. When guests are able to put a name to a plant, for instance milkweed, and come to understand that without milkweed, monarch butterflies cannot lay their eggs [though of course it’s not likely to observe monarchs naturally without relatively close proximity to milkweed species], “ah-ha” moments related to habitat and “what can I do to help?” are soon to follow. The list is lengthy - - mourning cloak butterflies and true willows (genus Salix), western tiger swallowtails and sycamores or cottonwood trees, or even our state insect, the California dogface and its larval host plant false indigo (genus Amorpha). Guest questions soon broaden: “Where can I get those plants?” “Can I grow that plant species in my backyard?” “What if I’m the only one in my neighborhood with butterfly habitat.. Does it still work?” A sense of wonder, a sense of purpose, a sense of possibly being able to change the opinions and attitudes (dare I say behaviors) of others? It is possible. Who wouldn’t want more butterflies in their backyard?

Don’t miss this season’s final weekend of the butterfly pavilion July 27 and 28, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Thanks to the generosity of Northern Trust, admission to the butterfly pavilion is FREE this weekend (general admission rates apply).

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Seed banking Orcutt's spineflower

Orcutt's spineflower (Chorizanthe orcuttiana)
At first glance it may not be the most breathtaking example of California’s botanical diversity, but Orcutt’s spine flower (Chorizanthe orcuttiana) finds itself amongst the states rarest plant species. This small prostate annual in the Buckwheat family (Polygonaceae) is endemic to coastal San Diego County, where it occurs in sandy soils, primarily in association with sandstone bluffs and southern maritime chaparral. With a listing of ‘Endangered” by both the federal Fish and Wildlife service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), Orcutt’s spineflower receives the highest level of legal protection. Plants of this rarity are continuously monitored for, and the results are tracked by the CDFW. As of July 2013, 14 occurrences of this species are recorded, with only seven of these having been observed since 1980.

A major goal for the Rancho Santa Ana (RSA) seed bank is to maintain viable seed collections of the states rarest plants. Prior to this season, only one population of Orcutt’s spineflower had been collected and put into long term storage at RSA. In 2013, we are targeting this species for ex situ preservation and have accessioned two new seed collections representing previously uncollected populations into the RSA seedbank. The first collection came from Naval Base Point Loma, under a program administered by the Center for Plant Conservation which seeks to store seeds of endangered plants found on Department of Defense lands. The seeds arrived as most collections do, mixed with bits of stems, twigs, and other chaff. Seed program staff, volunteers and interns quickly set to meticulously removing anything that was not a viable seed. Twenty seeds were set aside to be germinated to assess the overall viability, and the rest were placed in our dryer tanks, to be prepared to freeze for long term storage.

Orcutt's spineflower habitat
The second collection was made at Torrey Pines Reserve in Del Mar. RSA staff members Evan Meyer and Duncan Bell met up with David Hogan of The Chaparral Lands Conservancy and Margaret Fillius of Torrey Pines Reserve to collect the seeds. This collection was made on maternal lines, which means that each individual plant was collected and will be stored separately, allowing the maximum research and restoration use. As we collected, we had to be on the look out for the Prostrate spineflower (Chorizanthe procumbens), a more common cousin of Orcutt’s spineflower. The pale green foliage and higher number of involucre spines of the Prostrate spineflower made distinguishing these tiny annuals relatively easy, although we had to work slow and make sure we didn’t collect the wrong plant. After we finished the seed collection, we took a few minutes to admire the beautiful coastal landscape and interesting plants such as Short leaved dudleya (Dudleya brevifolia) and White coast ceanothus (Ceanothus verrucosus).

With the seeds back in the lab, and a little more experience cleaning this species, we were able to quickly get the seeds cleaned and processed for storage. The next step was to germinate a small sample of seeds to test viability. Seeds of spineflowers are found within a fibrous involucre (with attached teeth or spines, hence the common name). We felt that the involucres would impede germination and increase the likelihood of mold contamination as we germinated the seeds. Under the dissecting scope, with fine tweezers and surgical scalpel in hand, intern Monica Rodriquez skillfully removed the fragile seeds from the involucres. The seeds were then sewn on clear agar plates. Within a week, every seed germinated, indicating that there is no dormancy in fresh seed and that the viability is 100%.

Creating a seed bank is one of many actions that will help protect Orcutt’s spineflower from the very real threat of extinction. This tiny plant is getting big help from Rancho Santa Ana and other plant conservation organizations.

Monday, July 1, 2013

A glorious week with the GLORIA project

Telescope Peak rises to 11,042 ft
This past weekend I had the opportunity to participate in a global monitoring project in Death Valley National Park. The project is called GLORIA (global observation research initiative in alpine environments) and is a worldwide coordinated effort to monitor climate change and its effects on alpine plants on the top of the world’s highest mountains. I have been aware of this project for sometime, so I was really excited when I learned it was going to be set up for the first time in the Panamint Mountains in Death Valley National Park. I joined the GLORIA botany team from June 24-27 to help with plant identification and gathering data in the vegetation plots. When I told my friends and co-workers that I was headed to Death Valley National Park in late June, everyone thought I was crazy! People immediately thought of the extreme heat in the low valleys and I realized that not many people are aware that there is a large mountain range called the Panamint Mountains that towers above the valley floor. Telescope Peak is the tallest summit in the Panamint Range and rises to 11,042 ft. The peak was our ultimate destination for the project, and on the final day I was able to summit the mountain and enjoy the view
Calochortus panamintensis
On the trip I learned a lot about more about GLORIA. The GLORIA project was first initiated at the University of Vienna in Austria in 2001. The goal of the project is to create a network of monitoring stations that use a standardized and universal protocol to detect changes in vegetation that are due to changes in climate. The project is now being implemented around the world with GLORIA plots in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. California was the first to established sites in the western hemisphere with GLORIA plots established in 2004 in the White Mountains and in Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada. There are now seven areas set up in California that will be resurveyed every five years. One of my goals in helping out with the GLORIA project was to find out how we can apply these methods to our high alpine summits in southern California. San Gorgonio Mountain in the San Bernardino Mountains rises just over 11,500 ft. This is our most significant alpine area in southern California with several species known only from the highest elevations and other species that have their southern most populations here. Having a GLORIA site in southern California will not only give us the tools to understand how climate change is affecting our local alpine species, but will also allow us to learn how changes here compare with changes around the world. To learn more about the GLORIA project in California you can visit this website, and to learn more about the GLORIA project globally you can visit this site. To see more pictures of my trip go here and here!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Hunting for Botanical Biodiversity, Joshua Tree National Park

Lost Palms Oasis, Joshua Tree National Park
Imagine if we could gather together an enthusiastic multitude of biologists and interested citizens to comb through a location on a single weekend, seeking to identify every living thing that occurs in that one spot. Think of how much we could learn about ecological complexity, and of how the dimension of our knowledge of that place would unfold like a Chinese fan. It is like we are taking a biological snapshot, capturing a record of everything that is there at that point in time. Holding such a gathering is the aim of a “Bioblitz”, or Biodiversity Hunt: to positively identify as many species as possible over a day or two in a delineated area.
Staff at Joshua Tree National Park organized a series of four Biodiversity Hunts over the past three years, assembling more than 100 people to search, identify, and report on the biological richness of the park’s desert wetlands, the focus of this project. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) botanists have been present at all four of these hunts, applying their botanical expertise to assist the National Park to identify plant species that reside within their boundaries, and more generally benefiting knowledge of Southern California’s botanical richness.

In March and April a group of botanists from the Garden, including Naomi Fraga, Sarah Degroot, Evan Meyer, Abby Hird, Loraine Washburn and Jessica Chu participated in the last two of these four Biodiversity Hunts. We spent four full days in Joshua Tree, doing thorough surveys for plants that occur around Cottonwood Springs and the Lost Palms Oasis, near the south entrance, and in Smithwater Canyon in the northwest of the Park. We joined birders, herpetologists, entomologists, and arachnologists, as well as students, photographers, and interested community members in a wide-ranging survey of these remarkable desert wetlands.

In March at Cottonwood Springs and Lost Palms Oasis, RSABG botanists fanned out into the washes and slopes, identifying common and dominant species as well as hunting for microsites where less common elements might be found, such as against a north-facing cliff face, in a more humid seep, or where the soil became richer in clay. We appreciated the shade of palms and cottonwoods as we hunted along the edges of the pools, where we found ferns (Cheilanthes covillei), rushes (Juncus acutus), and orchids (Epipactis gigantea) in the wetter parts of the oases.

By the end of the March weekend, the collected effort of all bio-hunters had identified more than 558 species, including more than 200 species of plants and 300 species of insects, as well as 32 bird species, 12 reptiles, seven mammals, and one amphibian species. For our part, we found many plant species that had not been documented before for this location in the Park, and at least one species that was new to the Joshua Tree park plant list.

The April Biodiversity Hunt at Smithwater Canyon focused on one of Joshua Tree National Park’s richest areas for plant diversity, due to its higher elevation, perennial water flow, and steep canyon walls that form diverse microhabitats for plants, as well as its location in the transition between the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. We were fortunate on Friday to be joined by Tasha La Doux, a Ph.D. graduate of RSABG’s program, who now divides her time between Joshua Tree and the Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center in the Mojave. We were also joined by Darryl Slate, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable amateur botanist who lives near the park. In our two day hunt at Smithwater Canyon we found 160 species of plant, both common and rare species, as well as contributing the sole sighting of a speckled rattlesnake to the reptile list. Due to the dry spring in the desert, the abundance of spring annuals has been quite modest throughout the Park, resulting in an under-representation of total plant diversity.

Earth’s biological richness belongs to all of us. A deep appreciation of the biodiversity of a place can stem from an understanding of the geological and biological history of that place, and can also help the human population of the planet deepen its connection to the other species that share their piece of the planet. We hope, also, that encouraging people to know the organisms around them will deepen their caring for wild species enduring presence on Earth. RSABG’s conservation efforts aim to increase the chances that California’s flora survives intact to the world of our great-grandchildren. Field studies such as our Biodiversity Hunt participation at Joshua Tree helps this effort by assuring that we know what grows where, while also helping federal resource managers do their job effectively, by helping them to know more about the biological diversity they are protecting.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Rare Plant Treasure Hunt

Several years ago Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG) teamed up with the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) through a contract grant from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Department of Fish and Wildlife to do rare plant surveys across California deserts as part of the Rare Plant Treasure Hunt (RPTH) program. Last year marked the third year for RPTH, a program created and named by Josie Crowford of CNPS.
A Rare Plant Tresature Hunt group travels out to Castle Peaks. Photo: Kim Clark
A Rare Plant Tresature Hunt group travels out to Castle Peaks. Photo: Kim Clark
It is largely a citizen-science program with the goal of getting volunteers out in the field to experience California wild places and assist in rare plant surveys. These surveys largely target rare plant populations that haven’t been revisited in more than 20 years in order to evaluate the current status of these populations.
Many people may be under the impression that the desert is nothing rocks, lizards and an occasional spiny plant—an open wasteland to be crossed to get to Las Vegas or Lake Havasu. But California deserts hold more than 35 percent of the flora of California and have some of the areas of highest diversity for the state. There are many botanically unexplored mountain ranges and valleys out there. In 2012 alone, there were five plant species found in California deserts new to science described by RSABG scientists and researchers.
The Rare Plant Treasure Hunt program largely focuses on the California deserts often associated with the development of renewable energy projects. There are currently thousands of acres proposed for possible development, of which a great deal has had little botanical exploration.
It is the goal of the RPTH program to get volunteers out to these places to experience them first hand and to educate others on California’s diverse flora and the importance of its conservation.

Coryphantha alversonni in the Big Marias Mountains. Photo: Kim Clark.
Volunteers from the Sierra Club, the Desert Survivors Organizations, HabitatWorks, The Wildlands Conservancy, CNPS chapters and subchapters from across California have often participated with Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in the Rare Plant Treasure Hunt. But many volunteers were not affiliated with any particular organization, but were just interested in joining the group to explore and learn about the desert and to have a personal experience with these wild places while doing so.
The spring field season in 2012 was one of the driest years on record for the California deserts; most areas got only 0.01 millimeters of rain or absolutely no rain at all. Watching the doppler in the winter of 2011-12 was often like watching a blank screen as there was so little weather action. Watching the weather stations and dopplers frequently helps plant scientists predict which areas may have germination or bloom. But even in dry years, the desert rarely disappoints and almost every area visited had at least one rare plant population if not dozens.
The summer field season seemed to the opposite as some parts of the California deserts received the most summer rain they have received in more than a decade. The eastern Mojave in particular had an amazing summer bloom and RSABG/RPTH participants were able to document around 100 rare plant populations on just a few trips.
A total of 24 trips were made in 2012. These trips ranged from day trips to three-day excursions into very remote places. We started in March at below sea level around the Salton Sea, topped out on Southern California’s highest peak on Mount San Gorgonio at 11,500 feet in July, and then headed back down to the lower elevations following the summer monsoonal storms in September. We documented around 300 rare plant populations. Many of these were newly documented. We trekked into the Panamint Mountains and found the type locality of the Panamint daisy (Enceliopsis covillei), which is the plant that has always adorned, and will continue to adorn, the CNPS logo; this population had not been revisited since Frederick Coville made the first collection of this plant in 1891 on the Death Valley expedition. The new species was later named for him. We found the first population of Abrams spurge (Chamaesyce abramsiana) in Imperial County in 100 years; all historic populations from Imperial County are likely extirpated due to development and agriculture. We documented many range extensions of rare plants, locating populations where they had never been found before. We provided information that aided in the evaluation of plant species for the CNPS inventory, including information about its abundance (or lack thereof!) in California and about threats to historic occurrences of a given species. We had many wonderful treks into some amazing places and spent many nights under star filled skies. All in all, it was a very successful and productive year.
If you would like to learn more about the Rare Plant Treasure Hunt program please visit the Rare Plant Treasure Hunt Website.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

In search of star phacelia

Phacelia stellaris with a swiss army knife for scale
Phacelia stellaris is is a tiny annual herb in the borage or forget-me-not family (Boraginaceae). Its common name is star phacelia which is derived from its latin epithet stellaris, meaning star. I find that name particularly fitting since the plant looks like a little star in the sand when it flowers. This is the first year I have had the privilege to see this species in the field.  For someone who loves belly plants (like me!), this plant is a show stopper! Phacelia stellaris has pale lavender to purple flowers, and a bluish green cast to the leaves.  It gracefully hides itself in the sand and because of this it takes several very skilled botanists with eagle eyes to find them! Its no wonder that there are few recent observations of this species across its range in California.

Phacelia stellaris is considered rare by the California Native Plant Society and is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  This species is of concern because it is known from just a few location in southern California, US, and in Baja California, MX. Many of the occurrence are considered historic; that is they haven't been seen in over 30 years. In fact many haven't been seen in over 80's years, since the 1920's and 1930's. One population that was recorded to be in the bed of the San Diego River is presumed to have gone extinct because it hasn't been seen since 1882!

Phacelia stellaris in the sand. 
Our goal is to retrace the steps of the botanists who have come before us and find Phacelia stellaris at locations where it was historically known in the US. We've started with the easy ones that have been documented since the year 2000.  So far we have seen it at four locations which has given us a better understanding of its habitat requirements.  I truly hope we can find several if not all of the long lost populations of Phacelia stellaris, and perhaps even document a few that we didn't know about before.