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.