Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A Wildflower Wonderland

Rafinesquia neomexicana (desert chicory)
In my earliest years documenting plants as a botanist, I was fortunate enough to experience several consecutive wet winters including the 2004-2005 El Niño winter and the spectacular display of wildflowers that followed. I thought I could look forward to California’s seasonal show every spring but, unfortunately, I soon learned that spring in California is not an automatic wildflower wonderland and that these displays are the exception rather than the rule. However this past winter our region was forecast to experience one of the strongest El Niño events on record following four years of severe drought. El Niño alone doesn’t necessarily make for a stormy winter, but above average rainfall is an exciting prospect for our state which has suffered from extreme drought. It is also exciting for the staff at RSABG because of the exceptional wildflower displays that follow and the important work that will be carried out as a consequence.

Mohavea breviflora (golden desert snapdragon)
Showy spring wildflower displays in California are composed mostly of annual plants. A large percentage of California native plant species are annuals, meaning that they complete their life cycle from seed to seedling to a reproductive flowering plant and back to seed in less than one year. Most annuals require sufficient rainfall to germinate and in years of drought they are sparse or can be totally absent. A wet winter provides an opportunity to document these drought evading plants and learn more about their natural history, abundance, and distribution. Importantly, large shows of flowers of many species also may mean abundant seed production, providing out staff with the opportunity to collect seed for conservation and research.

You may have learned about RSABG’s important seed conservation program and the ambitious collaborative project now under way. California Plant Rescue (CaPR), a collaborative effort to save seeds of all California wild plant species for future generations. The CaPR project is currently focused on securing seed of the rarest, most threatened and endangered plants in California and is therefore critical to long-term plant conservation. Seed banks ultimately store genetic diversity and serve as a back system for natural populations in the event of catastrophic loss. In addition these collections make important contributions to research to expand knowledge of our native flora. As you can imagine, securing seed in a time of drought can be challenging no matter how ambitious the project!
Chylismia brevipes (yellow cups)

You can be assured that RSABG botanists have been watching the weather reports to identify the best locations for collecting seeds. One of our target areas is the Death Valley region which has experienced a "super bloom" this past spring due to a large storm event in October. We hope the rain will also trigger germination of annual plant species that are rare and seldom seen; these are in special need of seed banking to further conservation. A floriferous spring is not only important to ongoing seed banking efforts, but would also be valuable for other Garden collections such as our herbarium. Following the last El Niño event in 2005, RSABG staff set out on several botanical forays to document the flora and add important collections to our herbarium. We conducted forays in some of the areas that showed the best and most diverse blooms, especially in the Mojave Desert. Research and conservation staff traveled to the northern Mojave Desert in Inyo County, on the outskirts of Death Valley National Park to places like the Ibex Hills, Amargosa River, Avawatz Mountains and Chicago Valley. We also took several trips to Riverside County in the Palen Mountains, and to San Bernardino County to investigate the Marble and Rodman Mountains. That year (2005) RSABG staff brought home more than 2000 botanical specimens to add to our herbarium and to further documentation of California’s flora. This spring we hope to do the same, or even more!
Diplacus fremontii (Fremont's monkeyflower)

 Many of the botanists at RSABG watch the weather as avidly as we examine plants under a dissecting scope. Climate and weather events are intimately tied to the time at which plants bloom and their abundance on the landscape. Knowing that these weather events can be few and far between, we need to make the most of our resources to do the important work that is needed to advance understanding and conservation of California’s native plants. The spring season is short and fleeting so we prepare well in advance to ensure that we are able to make the most of our time. Our work is carried out in a coordinated effort between multiple departments at the Garden and staff will travel far and wide to make collections for the herbarium, seed bank and living collection. Once back home these collections will continue to serve our mission to promote research, horticulture, education, and conservation of California’s native plants long into the future.