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. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Intern Blog. Glen Morrison from Citrus College.

At Citrus Community College this past spring, I had learned very last minute that I was eligible to apply for a summer research internship. Hastily, I filled out the application and wrote my personal statement. I turned it in all of ten minutes before the deadline. To my surprise I was soon called for an on-campus interview, which gave way to another interview at RSABG. I was overjoyed when I learned that I was selected for a Summer Research internship at RSABG. I had previously visited the garden, and had long thought, very specifically, that it would be an awesome place to work. All I knew for sure was that I would be working on a research project. I also hoped that I would have some opportunity to get into the field, as it is my goal to become a field biologist. The internship, in all ways, exceeded my expectations.

More days than not we were working in the field. I was immediately introduced to cross-country hiking. Translating my years of trail-hiking experience to the scrubby, rocky, crumbly, pokey, spiny Pinyon-juniper Woodland of Bighorn Mountain Wilderness was a challenging and fun experience. I found that soon the boundaries between passable and impassable terrain soon faded in my mind. Never in these wilderness areas did we ever see another person hiking. One memorable event was discovering, by reading a log book, that we had been the first people to summit one of the Granite peaks since 2009. Seeing just how under-explored much of California is, inspires me to contribute to the biological understanding of this state. Every day in the field was another reminder that I made the right decision in pursuing a career in field biology.

Duncan Bell and Glen Morrison in the Monarch Wilderness
This field work was my first true trespass into the discipline of field botany. I discovered how much I like this discipline of biology. There is such great botanical diversity and so much room for study. Great gaps exist in our botanical understanding and this intrigues me. It is an added bonus that plants stay put. There is no need to trap, or track plants. The botanist needs not wake at strange hours to catch the plants in the open. Plants can be collected, usually, with general ease and stored as a record of specific research and tool for future research. I really came to appreciate the details and process of field botany.

Many days spent on the garden were spent in horticulture. This was the field about which I knew the least. I soon became aware of relationship between horticulture and conservation. Horticulture makes places like RSABG possible, places like RSABG generate interest in native plants, interest propels protection. RSABG horticulturists also play a direct role in growing plants for conservation projects. Discovering the work that is done with cultivars (cultivated varieties) of native plants was fascinating to me, as well. It is a win-win situation when people plant these attractive native plants that please the home gardener and function within the flora. My experiences in horticulture were hugely enlightening.

Above all else my research project had to have been the most educational part of this internship. The RACE-to-STEM internship grant that had made my internship possible required a student research project. The researchers at the garden had put aside for me an AWESOME project. I was assigned to research Allium marvinii, an onion that has generated some taxonomic and conservation concern. Over the course of the eight week internship I had to understand the question in need of address, figure out how to investigate that question, and interpret the results of that investigation. Working with seasoned researchers was exciting and invaluable. Having to communicate and defend my work showed me the rigor involved in making a claim from research. This was an incredibly educational experience. In those eight weeks I learned a lot about how research plays out and how to better conduct research going forward. For more background information on this onion, botanist Fred Roberts wrote a very informative piece in the San Diego CNPS March 2014 newsletter. My research poster is available here.

I have never learned so much in two months as I did this summer. My experiences at the garden have affected my academic and career goals. Every person I worked with at RSABG taught me something that changed my perspective. To see the kind of community that exists at RSABG is very encouraging and makes me feel very optimistic about my future career. I made friends, found resources, and gained so much. In my experiences so far at Cal Poly Pomona, where I start this fall, I can already see how this experience affects how I am perceived. The importance of a quality internship, like the one I had at RSABG, cannot be overstated.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Intern Blog. Katie Roland from Centre College, KY

Being from Nashville, TN, I have the honor of being the intern who traveled from farthest away, whilst still being from this country. This obviously excludes Perrine, an intern from France who was also at the garden this year. Being not only from the eastern half of the country, but also from the South, I grew up in an area of constant green and high humidity. There is always water, if only in the air, and I am surrounded by deciduous trees. Needless to say, everywhere I went during the course of my internship was different and exciting. I did a lot during my two month stay at RSABG, too much to even begin to describe here, and I had the privilege of getting to meet so many wonderful people. I was able to work in the herbarium, the seed house, and the nursery. The best part was the fieldwork. We took numerous day trips, mostly to Bighorn Mountain Wilderness. I also had the opportunity to go on several overnight trips.
Erika's Study Site. Kiavah Wilderness,  Kern County, CA

My first overnight collecting trip was with Erika Gardner, a Masters student at the garden. The Masters students at RSABG often do a flora of an understudied area, which means that they document and collect every species of plant that grows in that area. This generally requires two or three seasons of field work, and Erika is just finishing her second. Her study site includes parts of the Kiavah Wilderness and the surrounding area, and it is a gorgeous section of desert. At the end of the second week of my internship, I went with her on a two-day camping trip to document whatever of interest we found.
 The first day, we had driven the perhaps three hours from the garden to her site, hiked part way along the Pacific Crest Trail, and set up camp. Possibly my favorite moment from this first day occurred just outside a trailhead where we parked and ate lunch. Erika noticed a piece of paper under a rock sitting under a tree near the trailhead. After staring at it for several minutes from afar, she decided to go investigate. It turns out that it was a warning, presumably left by some industrious hiker, about a snake that had been seen under the tree from several weeks ago. Whether the note-writer meant this as a general warning about the existence of snakes, or they thought that the snake was a permanent resident under that particular tree, I cannot say. I can say, however, that there was not a snake in sight. We left the note, just in case the snake came back.
 The section of the Pacific Crest Trail  (PCT) we hiked was fairly high elevation, although I could not tell you the number exactly. It was definitely desert, and very dry, but we did find some things flowering, and we made a collection of wonderfully mature mustard seeds, because they looked good. There was very little in the way of trees, or even large shrubs, in this particular area. This meant that there was almost nothing to shield us from the wind, perched on the side of an exposed slope. And there sure was wind. I do not know whether it was just the lack of shielding that caused the impressive wind, or if the location of her site in the desert or if the aspect of the slope influenced it as well, but it was magnificent.
The PCT, Erika said it looked like we were about to hike off the edge of the world

The wind continued to be strong throughout our two days, and in the evening of the first day found us hunched over in the covered back of the truck, trying to press the days collections without having plants and newspaper flying away in the breeze. Nearly everyone I accompanied into the field collected specimen in the same way, excluding only Joy England, another graduate student working in the Rock Creek area in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, who presses her specimen in the field. The collections were made for preservation in herbaria, primarily the herbarium at RSABG. They must be collected, pressed, and later attached to herbarium sheets. For most smaller herbaceous plants, this meant collecting the entire plant, roots and all. For people doing floristic surveys, this generally means collecting a large number of plants in a day. Trying to press plants in the field is time consuming, and in windy areas like Erika’s site nearly impossible.
To avoid these problems, at Rancho they place them into Ziploc bags and press them all together at the end of the day, usually back at the garden. For someone who still struggles with plant identification, this process seemed very intimidating. You have to be able to identify everything well enough the first time so that, when you go back through the plants, you can tell them apart and label them correctly. Of course everyone working at the garden was quite skilled at this, and I could just write down what they told me and try to remember as many plant names as possible. I also got very good at dismantling newspaper, as each specimen had to be pressed in an individual sheet. 

The next morning, we got up early to try to beat the heat. Our mission was to hike back into a nearby canyon to look for water. Erika had found water in this canyon at different times of year, and we were trying to figure out whether it was permanent or ephemeral. The hike started off across another steep slope, but unlike the day before there was no easy trail, and the slope was covered with little ankle-height plants that felt like they were growing tiny razorblades. By the time we finally got to what I would describe as the mouth of the canyon, we had nearly turned back and had come up with an alternate route back that would require us to climb up a pile of large boulders, but could not be nearly as painful.

Evening at our campsite.
The obvious path to follow back into a canyon would be along the bottom, but that was absolutely impossible in this case. The floor was alternately covered with impassible brush, usually willow shrubs that reached well over our heads, and boulders that did the same. Our only other option was to hike up one of the sides and back at a higher elevation. The slopes themselves were steep, to say the least. In fact, at some points it ascended at a 90-degree angle. This was made even more exciting because the slope itself was only occasionally made up of stable soil. The rest of the time, we were climbing up deep sand, loose rock fragments, and sometimes large boulders. If all of this were not enough, fairly frequently there would be no way to continue along a side at any height. Something would block our path, and we would have to descend once again to the bottom of the canyon and climb up the other side.

By the time we heard the drip of water, neither of us was sure what it was. In fact, for a while we thought it was some wild animal in the brush. We followed the drip until we found several clear pools of water, still present in the heat of summer. By one, we even found what had once probably been a coyote, but now was a ragged pelt floating at the edge of the water. The water there is likely a year-round source of drinking water for the surrounding fauna, as well as a haven for water-loving desert plants. It was a gorgeous area, and I do not think I will ever forget it. It was also some of the most exciting, and possibly death-defying, hiking I have ever done. This is just one of the many fond memories of the desert I have taken with me, and Erika is one of the many people I will never forget.

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!

Class of 2014 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