Heath Bartosh, EBCNPS Rare Plants Chair, and two other CNPS members recently encountered a rare rock sanicle (Sanicula saxatilis) with reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle.  Here’s the full article.

Sanicula saxatilis by Heath Bartosh

Sanicula saxatilis by Heath Bartosh

“Where’d you go?” called Joe.

“Mmmgrumph. Ow! I’m OK,” said Ron. Translated from couple speak, that’s: “I haven’t tried to work this combination of gravity-defying gymnastics while not stepping on anything precious since I worked in Jenny Fleming’s garden, and I was 25 years younger then and her rocks weren’t this sharp.”

This is Extreme Botany.

Leaving bits of blood and skin to the genius loci, we joined California Native Plant Society botanists Heath Bartosh, Nick Jensen and Shannon Still downslope. Tucked into the rocks were botanical gems: a Mount Diablo phacelia and a scattering of Mount Diablo jewelflowers. Endemic to the mountain, neither had been confirmed at this spot near the summit since the early 1990s.

This was part of the CNPS Rare Plant Treasure Hunt, teaming professional botanists with amateur volunteers statewide in an ambitious effort to document the survival of California’s botanical rarities. In a way, the phacelia and the jewelflower were easy targets, with semi-precise location records. Other plants’ historic locations are vague: “A lot of plants from the late 1800s only have ‘Antioch’ as their collection site, because that’s where the botanists got off the train,” explained Bartosh.

The goal is to update some 30,000 known occurrences of rare plants and record geospatial information for them, for a database maintained by the California Department of Fish and Game. “Thousands of these occurrences, up to 40 percent, haven’t been documented in over 20 years,” said Jensen. Some Diablo species were last recorded by legendary botanist Mary Bowerman in the 1930s. “When you have old data, it’s hard to make accurate decisions about conservation priorities.”

On a shoestring budget, Still is responsible for coordinating treasure hunts over most of California; another CNPS botanist, Amber Swanson, covers the deserts. Current data would help inform planning for solar facilities in the Mojave Desert: “We can find whether some desert plants are as rare as we think they are.”

“If volunteers are inexperienced,” Still told us, “we team them up with someone knowledgeable. Up to half the people we’ve logged so far are amateurs.” The largest response has come from the Bay Area.

Other local groups had already been tracking down rare plants. For the past two years, National Park Service botanist Michael Chassé has led forays in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, from Mori Point in San Mateo County to Nicasio Ridge in Marin County. This year, he’s partnering with the CNPS effort. “The park tries to get people excited and involved about these treasures in a way that continues to protect the resources,” Chassé said. There’s a serendipity factor: His groups have found undocumented occurrences for the San Francisco wallflower and Marin checker lily.

Like the coast, Mount Diablo is home to a concentration of uncommon plant species – some found nowhere else, others at the northern or southern limits of their ranges. “Many plants at the edge of their range are disjunct, found in population islands,” said Jensen. That’s where evolutionary changes are most likely to happen.

After the first finds, we scrambled back up the talus slope and circled the summit on the interpretive trail named for Bowerman. Bartosh flushed a small rattlesnake, who did not have the courtesy to rattle. Bright yellow Mount Diablo sunflowers, banks of red larkspur and orange wind poppy, lustrous white bitterroot flowers and the raspberry-pink blossoms of sickle-leaved onions surrounded us, but Jensen, Still and Bartosh were after less showy specimens.

On a rocky slope below the visitor center, they discovered what Jensen called “the most important of the find of the day”: rock sanicle, a parsley relative with yellow flower clusters and geranium-like leaves. Another Diablo specialty, it was last documented at this spot in 1973. We’d walked the Bowerman trail half a dozen times before; dazzled by the bitterroots, we never noticed the sanicle. Bartosh sprawled on the talus for close-up photography while Still took a GPS reading.

On the way back, as the team coined the “extreme botany” term, we thought of what CNPS education director Josie Crawford had said earlier: “Our hope is that young people will go out and see what a great life professional botanists have.” We’re not young, but we’re sold.

Resources

— California Native Plant Society’s Rare Plant Treasure Hunt page:www.cnps.org/cnps/rareplants/treasurehunt

— Golden Gate National Recreation Area rare plant surveys: michael_chasse@nps.gov

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