Researchers plant endangered jewelflower on Ring Mountain, ask hikers to stay away

(Craig R. Solin / Marin county parks, fb.me/CraigRSolinPhotography)

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the May 18, 2016, edition of The Ark. It earned an honorable mention for Environmental Reporting in the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s 2016 Better Newspapers Contest.


By GRETCHEN LANG
glang@thearknewspaper.com

Researchers have successfully transplanted the critically endangered Tiburon jewelflower, whose only two known colonies in the world occur on Tiburon Ridge, to a new location on Ring Mountain. Now they need the cooperation of the public to make sure the new plants aren’t trampled underfoot.

Sarah Swope, a professor of biology at Mills College who leads the project, said that if a new colony of the jewelflower can be established on Ring Mountain it may help pull the species back from the brink of extinction.

“Once a species like this become critically endangered, we have an obligation to protect it. That’s the law,” Swope said. “I would hate to see this particular species go extinct.”

Also called the black jewelflower, or Streptanthus glandulosus niger, it is a leggy plant with dark maroon bell-like flowers that bloom in summer and can be most easily spotted on the fire road in the Old St. Hilary’s Open Space Preserve between Vistazo West and East streets. It is one of a handful of plants that has evolved to tolerate the toxic serpentine soils of the Tiburon Peninsula.

The species was listed as endangered in 1996 and continues to struggle, Swope said. The two colonies are within a few miles of each other but too far apart to pollinate each other, and they are in danger of losing their genetic diversity. Successively dry winters have further threatened the species, which dies off completely each year and only germinates in wet weather.

“The plant is in pretty bad shape,” she said.

Swope gathered seeds from jewelflowers in the preserve, supplemented them with seeds gathered 14 years ago by the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley and Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, and grew them in the nursery at Mills.

The seedlings were planted on Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve in December and are thriving, but will not bloom until July, she said. They are marked with stakes and flags, but Swope declined to identify their exact location for fear the plants will be vandalized. She urged walkers not to pull up the stakes if they see them.

Marin County Parks rangers at the Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve also worry that careless walkers who do not stick to the paths could destroy the new seedlings.

Overuse and vandalism are ongoing problems at the 367-acre county preserve. The popular walking spot is accessed from many different points and walking paths cut every which way over the hills. Rangers have tried to keep walkers to established trails and fire roads without much success.

Marin Parks recently removed a fence surrounding a hilltop portion of the preserve that was burned in a 2012 wildfire. The area was cordoned off for four years to allow vegetation to regrow and prevent the spread of invasive species. Mills College researchers took the opportunity to conduct several plant studies in the burned area while the fence was up, and some of these projects are ongoing, Swope said.

With the fence gone, however, researchers are worried that walkers will trample over these newly recovering species, including plants like the jewelflower and another unique native, the Tiburon mariposa lily, which is also found nowhere else in the world.

Researchers say stands of the lily have survived the fire because their below-ground bulbs were protected, and they have flowered and reproduced since.

When the fence around the burn area was removed, rangers placed half a dozen signs around the hill forbidding walkers to use the informal paths over the top and alerting them of the presence of rare plants, but these signs are repeatedly torn down, said Sarah Minnick, the stewardship coordinator for Ring Mountain.

Rangers have learned to carry extra signs, which they post when they find another torn down, but recently the vandal or vandals have taken to sawing the posts off as well, Minnick said.

“Many people get very attached to using a particular trail or preserve entrance and feel it is an unnecessary inconvenience to go another way,” Minnick said. “However, we have a responsibility to protect these places, keep them beautiful, and preserve biodiversity, now and into the future.”

Swope agreed and urged walkers to stay on trails and respect research sites. In addition to being home to a variety of rare flowers, Ring Mountain is also one of the last remaining sites in California where native grasses occur, she said.

“It is one of the most pristine, most diverse California grasslands I’ve seen,” Swope said. “Maybe people don’t know what’s at stake.”

Swope said she has no plans for planting more jewelflower seedlings until the success of the new colony is established. If the project fails and the plants die, then critical seed has been wasted, she said.

“We are going to take this one step at a time,” she said.

Contributing writer Gretchen Lang of Belvedere covers the environment. She spent 15 years abroad writing for newspapers including the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune.

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