Sunday, March 3, 2013

In search of star phacelia

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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.