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 


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