Conserving California’s native flora
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden saves rare species
by Mariela Patron
photography by Jasmin Miranda
A freezer door opens, and a dark room lights up with a too bright fluorescent white light. Color coordinated trays hold aluminum sandwich sized pockets that contain the key to life. It is a conservation experiment worthy of Dr. Frankenstein’s envy. The contents have the power to resuscitate life that has not seen sunlight for 30 years. Similar to a woman freezing her embryos to have the opportunity to conceive in the future, the seeds stored in Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden’s seed bank are kept under security to give nearly extinct rare plants a second chance at life.
Here, hunched over, two graduate students concentrate on a process similar to gold panning and prepare seeds for conservation. On a circular, tin container with a strainer-like top, the students manually separate thousands of seeds from plant leaves and other debris before they are sent through a seed blower. Nick Jensen, Claremont Graduate University student, works on the endangered Eriogonum Callistum native California plant. Jensen carefully threshes the plant. Some seeds go through and drop to the bottom of the tin container. “You can see it is actually really fine. It looks like sawdust and then mixed with it there’s going to be some seeds,” he says.
It is still unknown for how long the frozen seeds will stay alive. In an ongoing study created by Fritz Went and Philip Munz, which is running from 1947 to 2307, seeds’ viability is being tested. On the 50 year mark in 1997, frozen seeds still germinated. Time will only tell the seeds’ extended durability. The average seed collection at RSABG ranges from 2,000 to 3,000 seeds per species, says Evan Meyer, seed conservation program manager. “That gives us enough to have some sealed in the vault in case that thing goes extinct, and that’s like the doomsday collection.”
The collection may make all the difference for many plants. According to The Nature Conservancy website, “Erigonum Callistum,” (Tehachapi buckwheat), is found in the Tehachapi mountains in Kern County, Calif. Only about 2,000 individual Tehachapi buckwheats have been recorded. Most notably, the erigonum genus sustains a wide range of caterpillars. Today, Jensen takes the 200 Tehachapi buckwheat seeds he collected, puts them on a seed blower, and with a heavy blow of air, the seeds fly up a crystal clear tube—leaving them in their purest form. After being left to dry for two days, the seeds are finally ready to be preserved in negative 23 Celsius temperature, Meyer says. They are separated into two different pockets, the active and a sealed, doomsday collection. The active pocket is allowed to be opened for future scientific purposes, but the sealed collection is only used if the species becomes extinct, and scientists want to reintroduce the plant into the wild. “Every time you expose the seeds to fluctuations in temperature and humidity, it’s not ideal,” Meyer says. “A lot of the collections we have are associated with development and gathered if the population is going to get destroyed by construction.”
Saving Ventura marsh milkvetch
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden strives to use its seed collection to bring back to life the Ventura Marsh Milkvetch. In 2013, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife requested RSABG sprout 50 seeds from its Ventura Marsh Milkvetch collection—all of which germinated. The Department planted 28 plants at an appropriate site in Santa Barbara. As of now, Los Angeles International Airport is another potential future site for this endangered plant, as it was seen in LAX’s perimeter in the 1930s. “Ideally, what we want to do is to re-establish the species across its historic range and so, LAX is a site where it was known historically,” Naomi Fraga, conservation botanist says.
In 1997, undeveloped land in Oxnard, slated for a housing development, underwent an environmental study, when a surveyor found a population of Ventura Marsh Milkvetch, not seen since 1967. For Fraga, it is not love at first sight. “I don’t think it’s a very beautiful plant,” she says. “It’s tall and narrow, and it doesn’t branch out very much, and it has gray leaves and purple flowers. It looks like a weed.” Although the benefits of rare plants are not always known, it is important for RSABG to conserve endangered species, no matter their appearance, in case the plants are a miracle cure. “They can potentially offer a cure for cancer. They can be the next super food or have some other medicinal benefits,” Fraga says. Humanity cannot afford the risk of losing a possible life saver. “Once it’s extinct, it’s gone forever, and you can never get it back,” Fraga says. With cross pollination, the milkvetch produced seeds that were transported to RSABG for cultivation. Since then, the plant was reinstated to the wild in two locations: McGrath State Beach and Carpinteria Salt Marsh. During the cross pollination process to produce more seeds, RSABG separated each individual plant’s seeds to distinguish them. “We knew what individuals we had seeds from and understood how much genetic diversity was there,” Fraga says. Sadly, the Ventura Marsh Milkvetch sustained itself for several years at McGrath State Beach and even established a population until drought hit the area last year. “The population kind of crashed, and they all died,” Fraga says. “There were just no new seeds germinating because they were so dry for so long.” As for Carpinteria Salt Marsh, the plant did not respond well to its wetland environment.
Drought tolerant gardening
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden starts its plant sale season in early November, the best time to plant California natives. The 2013 sale features 300 plus different native California species for public sale, with about 80 percent of the plants cultivated at Rancho Santa Ana. On this day, plant aficionados bring long lists of highly desirable plants to jog their memory in their hunt for unique finds. They crouch over rows of plants, searching for the perfect one to take home, while others drag loaded wagons on the gravel road, ready to load their finds.
Sue Jackson, from Fallbrook, northern San Diego County, carries a wagon jam-packed with California native plants. Jackson says the hour-long drive to Rancho Santa Ana for drought tolerant plants is worth it. “The reason I came up here is for the Fremontondendrom. It’s an evergreen shrub, and once a year in the spring it has the most amazing show of yellow flowers,” she says. The Fremontondendrom, better known as flannel bush, rarely has to be watered. “If you water it one time in the middle of the summer it will die,” Jackson says. Like many Southern California gardeners, Jackson tries to recreate California’s native landscape in her yard because of the native plants’ high success rate in warm climates. She plants the Fremontondendrom along her driveway. “In the summer, it’s brutal, and I’ve had lots of plants come and go, and I’m learning that the plants that live right down the hill from me that are wild, native plants are for the most part the ones that do the best,” she says.
Besides its low maintenance, drought tolerant plants help people save money. Audrey Espinoza, from Claremont, used to pay up to $400 a month on her water bill before she switched to drought tolerant plants. “It’s horrendous—that’s why we went drought tolerant. We used to have a huge lawn which my husband loved, but keeping it up was murder,” Espinoza says. With drought tolerant plants, Espinoza reduced her bill to $150. “It is more pleasant to look at plants as opposed to a green style lawn that is high cost to maintain.” Espinoza is also helping her daughter Dionne Espinoza transform her garden to drought tolerant. “I really feel like it’s a waste of water for it to just go to this grass lawn. We need to conserve our resources,” Dionne says. Antonio Sanchez, nursery production manager at RSABG, says water bills are high in most of California—causing Xeriscape gardening to increase. More people are abandoning their lawns and letting them dry. “Before, in most neighborhoods that would’ve been unacceptable,” Sanchez says. Ten years ago, most nurseries would sell colorful, high maintenance plants, but now, homeowners are seeking places like RSABG’s plant sale to restore their gardens back to California’s original landscape.
Dana Heming, from Pomona, runs her hand through the long stems of a Monardella Villosa (coyote mint). She smells her hand and comments that they smell fresh and minty. The coyote mint will eventually produce purple flowers and is native to California. “I just really feel that the color, shape, form and scent is much more interesting than the propagated plants,” she says.
Other than drought tolerant plants, a number of visitors searched through Rancho Santa Ana’s selection of medicinal and edible plants. Marie Tom, from Montclair, is an edible plant gardener and has attended Rancho Santa Ana’s plant sale since 1988. Today, she searches through the Manzanita selection for a plant that will blossom pink flowers. “I actually like the rich color wood—the bark,” Tom says. “The food that it produces is edible if you make tea out of it. They have an apple type of flavor.” Manzanita also holds medicinal benefits, as it is an ancient treatment for rashes, bladder and urinary tract infections. Year after year, the Manzanita is one of the most popular plants sold, Fraga says.
Since its establishment in Claremont in 1951, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden’s mission statement is to conserve and promote California native plants—a mission that continues to flourish with the dedication of RSABG’s horticulturists, conservationists and members.
Calystegia makes a comeback
In a landscaped area in Chino, during a routine development inspection for a transmissions project, inspectors discovered a plant that still remains a mystery to botanists at RSABG. After it was discovered in 2010, the plant was brought to the garden to be analyzed and was initially identified as the Calystegia, or the more common name for it, bindweed, from the Morning Glory family. The Calystegia, known to grow in San Bernardino Valley wetlands up to Orange County, is exclusive to Southern California, but its Morning Glory family can be found around the world. Last seen in 1999, botanists thought that the Calystegia had disappeared due to the development of artificial wetlands. “A lot of the wet lands have been modified, where they have pumped water from the ground, channelized streams, so streams don’t feed in the same way,” Fraga says.
Since then, after extra research, some botanists believe it is not the Calystegia, but instead a new species never seen before, called the Calystegia Felix—a name that has not yet officially been published. Sandy Namoff, Claremont Graduate University student, researches the Calystegia and works with botanists who believe the Chino plant is a new species. One of these botanists is Mitch Provance, from University of California Riverside. “He wrote a paper that was more than just a description of the species but also talks about that habitat and how this plant would have been part of that habitat that’s now gone,” Namoff says. “So he’s kind of using it as an example of a relic species that no longer has a place in the natural world.”
Currently, the new Calystegia species lives in RSABG’s nursery where it is watered two to three times a day. Its biggest chance of survival is cross-pollination, something it has not yet accomplished. “The plant grows by stems that grow underground so we don’t know from what we collected whether we have one big giant individual that sprouted from its stems underground or whether we have many genetically recluse individuals,” she says. With further funding, RSABG will be able to discover whether each Calystegia plant that was found is genetically different. Additionally, botanists hope to one day eventually find a definite answer to unlock the mystery of the Chino plant.