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Mount Diablo Buckwheat Rediscovered
The list of extinct species just dropped by one.

Mount Diablo wildflower presumed extinct for 69 years rediscovered in Mt. Diablo State Park

Representatives of U.C. Berkeley's Jepson Herbarium (Jepson Herbarium), Mt. Diablo State Park (MDSP), and Save Mount Diablo (SMD) announced today the rediscovery of the Mount Diablo buckwheat (Eriogonom truncatum), a pretty wildflower last seen in 1936 and presumed globally extinct.  The Mount Diablo buckwheat resembles a small pink powder puff version of the baby's breath used in floral arrangements.

On May 10, 2005, Michael Park, a botanist and graduate student at U.C. Berkeley rediscovered the buckwheat in a remote corner of Mt. Diablo State Park, at a location previously unrecorded.  The location is being kept secret but more than a dozen plants were found on a property preserved in recent years by Save Mount Diablo, an East Bay conservation organization, and added to Mt. Diablo State Park for long term management.  Photos are being made available to the media.

All but one of the historic records of the plant—there were just seven records of the plant from 1862 to 1936—are from Mt. Diablo or the Antioch-Brentwood area; one record is from Solano County.  The three organizations, as well as the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), had made a concerted effort in recent years to find the wildflower, which is known only from Contra Costa and Solano counties (records from Alameda County were misidentified).  Until Park's rediscovery, the last record of the wildflower was by SMD co-founder and botanist Mary Bowerman, sixty nine years ago.

The three organizations announced the rediscovery to support ongoing research and conservation objectives—most of the plants historic locations are threatened by development—and because the annual wildflower is in bloom at present.  On a site visit on May 20, 2005, representatives of the organizations began to assess the condition of the plant population, and threats to it, in order to stabilize and preserve the population and to develop a site specific management plan.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

The Rediscovery

'We've been calling the Mount Diablo buckwheat the holy grail for botanists working in the East Bay, both for professionals and for dedicated volunteers—it's been the number one priority that we've been trying to relocate,' said Barbara Ertter, Curator of Western North American Flora at U.C. Berkeley's Jepson Herbarium.

Michael Park, 35, is a wiry and energetic botanist based in Berkeley, CA for the past 15 years, who grew up in Los Angeles.  He is a first year graduate student at U.C. Berkeley pursuing a PhD in integrative biology.  He is continuing a survey on a portion of Mount Diablo that was begun as part of his senior's thesis. He earned a bachelor's in physics, but turned to plant ecology in part because of an ethical distrust of how his work in physics might be used.  He works on the evolution of plants within California (specifically Eryngium, in the carrot family, often found in seasonal wetlands and ponds), and the role that geologic change or evolution plays in the history of these plants.  5'10" and 145 pounds, he is known for forgetting to eat while carrying out field work, and for hiking long distances to reach his study area, where he has made over ninety field visits.

'Several years ago when Michael was a senior honors student at Berkeley he wanted to do a local floristic project—where you actually study the distribution of species on the ground and analyze patterns.  It was a good idea because there are so few being done.  We had recently updated [SMD Founder] Mary Bowerman's flora, The Flowering Plants and Ferns of Mount Diablo, California, [published in 1944, and revised in 2002 by Bowerman and Ertter] and I realized that because of hiking distances I hadn't managed to get much done in some areas of the Mt. Diablo State Park, especially in the new acquisitions.  Michael was looking for a project so we carved out this area.  He really sunk his teeth into it and had no qualms about mega-hikes, often returning late after dark.  He was always on the look out for the Mount Diablo buckwheat.  He scoured the area then found this tiny population of plants.

'I'm sleep deprived because I've been working on a big project for the last month,' said Park, who rediscovered the plant on May 10, 2005. 'The last few weeks have been particularly busy—the rains have compressed the season.  I was chipping away on my floristic project and in the back of my mind I was always looking out for the buckwheat on the edges of chaparral.

As I arrived at the location where I park my car to leave for the survey route, my cell phone rang.  It was Dr. Bruce Baldwin, the curator of the Jepson Herbarium, who is also my major professor and a great advisor.  We talked about work I was to complete, since he had also hired me as a Graduate Student Researcher for a project on the evolution of flower size and pollination syndromes in Collinsia (sometimes known as Blue-eyed Mary).  But more mysteriously, we ended up having a brief discussion of the study I was doing on Mt. Diablo including the search for the Mount Diablo buckwheat.  I told him that I felt the plant was still present, but that I'd never be the one to find it.  He replied that, 'It's just a matter of being at the right place at the right time.  He encouraged me further with news of another recently rediscovered plant found in the Channel Islands, Dissanthelium californicum or "Catalina Grass" which had last been seen in 1912.  Prophetic words; I found the buckwheat that day!'

'On May tenth I was walking excruciatingly slow in order to maximize the species count.  The route finding involved a slight detour from the usual survey route, to more thoroughly search promising areas that hadn't gotten enough attention, by starting with it rather than ending with it because toward the end of any survey day fatigue sets in, hunger becomes a factor, and attention to detail suffers.  I was looking at a common plant which likes rock outcroppings and was wondering why it was growing on sand when I realized that I was surrounded by early blooming buckwheat.  I decided I needed a closer look since I didn't recognize it and then realized 'this is something new'.  Once I realized that it was the Mount Diablo buckwheat I was in shock so I pretended it wasn't there and continued with my other work.'

'The plants are all in flower, approaching full bloom, and they're very distinctive because the flower stalks branch upward in a wishbone pattern, with flowers at the bottom node and at each end of each wishbone.  They're between three and eight inches in height, highly branched.  The large plants have several dozen flowers which are pinkish with a maroon center line on each petal.  It's a surprisingly dainty plant once you see it in the field, because it's so celebrated in the botanical community that it had grown in my imagination.  It's only because I stopped and was moving very slowly that I even recognized that it was there' said Park. 'It's growing in a strip next to chaparral.  At one point it was thought that chemicals from the chaparral plants might make it harder for grasses and annuals to colonize but now the theory is that brush rabbits create the zone, hiding from hawks and eagles in the brush then darting out to browse, creating a narrow strip along the edges of the chaparral where native species can persist.'

'I took photos for confirmation then when I got back to Berkeley I slept on it and met with Barbara Ertter the next morning,' said Park. 'The plant has this very clear branching wishbone pattern that was confirmed in the photographs,' said Ertter.

'Then I took several botanists back to the site for more confirmation.  We kept it secret until now because it'™s a small population and I was afraid it could be loved to death' said Park. 'I'm still pretty much in shock—I never thought it was extinct, but I never thought I'd be the one to find it either.  Now I'll write up an article for Madrono, a publication of the California Botanical Society.'

'I do this work out of the love of discovery—it never gets old!' said Park. 'As humans we crave positive news; I'm hopeful that people will enjoy hearing about the buckwheat's rediscovery as a balance to a world filled with negative news.'


Reactions

'The CNPS started doing an inventory of rare plants over thirty years ago, many of which need management, and that's when botanists started looking for the Mount Diablo buckwheat.  There's a list of about thirty species presumed extinct in California that we've been giving special attention.  Locally the buckwheat has been at the top of the list because it's a full species not a variety and the habitats are there, yet we weren't finding it.  Whenever you're dealing with annuals there could be seeds that last for years.  If we went to this exact same spot last year it might not have been present', said Ertter.

"There have been a few special efforts to find the plant but mostly a few individuals have been making a concerted effort," said Ertter. 'I've been looking for twenty years, so my first reaction was that I was delighted for Michael.  He got the gold ring.  That the plant is on already preserved land is another gift because most of its historic locations are still threatened.  I was so overwhelmed with the sudden logistics of what to do about it, that I failed to jump up and down and wave my hands in excitement.  But that's how I felt.'

'It was thought to be extinct but we all felt there was a likelihood that it still existed,' said Joanne Karbavaz, a State Park Resource Ecologist.  'It's in a rugged type of habitat that's received a lot of protection so botanists didn't assume that it was gone.  It's an annual and there are good and bad years. We didn't know what year would be good.  State Park personnel keep their eyes open but our most important action has been that before we consider projects in the park we always look for this species.'

'Save Mount Diablo is incredibly pleased and excited that the Mt. Diablo buckwheat has been rediscovered on a property we had a hand in protecting, 'said Malcolm Sproul, President of the Board of Directors of Save Mount Diablo and a Principal at LSA Associates.  'The rediscovery is an example of why Save Mount Diablo is working so hard to preserve similar properties around the mountain.  Rare species focus the public's attention and preservation of these species also benefits a range of other wildlife that live in similar areas.  The rediscovery shows that we can protect a unique species in the middle of a dense urban area and that diversity of our natural resources can be protected despite intense development pressure.'

'When Barbara told me the location I realized that it was a property SMD had previously protected,' said Seth Adams, SMD's Director of Land Programs, who went along on the May 20 site assessment tour.  'It's an amazing feeling.  In part, because of Save Mount Diablo's work this beautiful little wildflower still exists.  Just three weeks ago the rediscovery of the ivory billed woodpecker was announced.  Both species are poster children for conservation.  With all of the normal controversies and land battles, what great news that this beautiful and unique wildflower has managed to survive.  When I visited the site I was struck by how fragile the plant is.  There are less than twenty, it's an annual and re-seeds and dies each year, but has managed to survive.'

'I've been thinking about this plant for fifteen years; I've had the search image in the back of my mind for year,' said Joanne Karbavaz, a State Park Resource Ecologist who formerly worked at Mt. Diablo State Park and has participated in buckwheat searches.   'My first thought was hooray, this is something we've been looking for a long time and I was excited that it was found within the boundaries of Mt. Diablo State Park.  It's part of the tapestry of life, the biodiversity that State Parks is in the business of protecting.  Then I thought, 'how do we appropriately manage it?'"

'The native plants of California are some of the most exciting in the world, because so many of them are so local,' said Peter Raven, Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and an internationally renowned botanist and conservationist. 'Taken together, they form an intricate jigsaw puzzle of interlocking and separate distributions.  Many of them are of recent origin geologically, and the Mount Diablo Buckwheat is clearly one of these.  Like many other annuals in California, it presumably originated when the formation of cold currents offshore lead to the summer-dry climates, Mediterranean climates that are so characteristic of the State now, opening up new habitats and forming an incredible array of new species.  One of many species of buckwheat in California, the Mount Diablo Buckwheat has had its own history, and differs in its features, in its genes, and in its associations with other plants and animals in nature from every other kind of organism.  If it had really been lost, it would have been gone forever, and a unique part of our heritage vanished permanently.  Now we have the chance to understand it, to enjoy it, and to know that we haven't done it in!

Conservation

"After we made the confirmation, we contacted the State Park to decide our next steps.  We have a chance to save the Mount Diablo buckwheat but its situation is still very tenuous.  The burden is on us to bring it back from the brink and we can't allow this opportunity to slip through our fingers," said Ertter. 'Why did the buckwheat survive here?  For one the site is preserved.  The chaparral edge is also one of the few places where the balance has been against invasive non-natives so that the species could survive—it seems as though rabbit browsing may be a main positive factor—the plant probably can't compete well against the flood of Eurasian annual grasses that dominate California's landscape and the rabbits thin those plants.  We'll need to study what the factors are that allow it to persist, to develop a management strategy.'

'The best management plan is to protect the land to allow natural processes to continue, and to remove obvious impacts where we can, like exotic plants,' said Mt. Diablo State Park Superintendent Brian Hickey. 'The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has produced a Draft Recovery Plan for Chaparral and Scrub Community Species East of San Francisco Bay.  It covers six listed species of plants and animals and four species of concern including the buckwheat, even though it was presumed extinct.'

'Based on the Plan, the first step is what we're doing now, a status review to assess the condition of the population and to see if there are any threats to it,' said Hickey' Our second step will be to stabilize the population and eliminate any threats.  Likely impacts are exotic species, which we may be able to address.  Others threats might be feral pigs, turkeys, and other non-native species.  This buckwheat population isn't near a trail or road and we're not likely to allow one nearby, as a consequence.  Third, we'll develop a site specific management plan with experts, which might include monitoring, and finding and protecting other populations now that we know more about the habitat.  The plan will probably include discussion of insurance for the population like propagation at a botanical garden.'

'This is definitely a case where offsite propagation will be considered,' said Ertter.  'The U.C. Berkeley Botanical Garden is a member of the Center for Plant Conservation and experienced in the conservation and propagation of rare species.  We might be able to harvest some seeds and experiment with them to find out the unique conditions the buckwheat needs.'

'The Mount Diablo buckwheat is part of our unique Bay Area biological heritage, a plant that grows only in this one tiny area on the whole planet, representing millions of years of selection to fit this one place, Mt. Diablo.  If we don't take care of it nobody will and we will have lost something irreplaceable,' said Ertter. 'It's great that we're still supporting local student work to do floristics that allows this kind of discovery.  Our Herbarium specimens date back to  the 1830s and allow us to make confirmations—without them it would just be words on paper which nobody could confirm.'

Background & History

'California has about 6300 native vascular plant species, about 1/3 are endemic (found only) in the state.  Mt. Diablo has 900 plant species of which a quarter are non-native, yet non-natives represent a vast majority of what you see in grassland areas.   Twenty-nine plant species on Mt. Diablo are considered rare or endangered and eleven are endemic to the Mt. Diablo region, including the Mount Diablo buckwheat,' said Ertter.

The Mount Diablo buckwheat (Eriogonom truncatum) is an annual herb, 10-70 cm in height (the plants found range from 3-8" in height), with white to rose colored flowers from mid-April to May (although records show April to December, with May most common).  It was historically found in Chaparral, Valley Grassland, and Northern Coastal Scrub habitats, in sandy soil and grassland slopes.  It is thought that competition by introduced non-native plants is responsible for its rarity.  In recent years its historic habitat has been threatened by development pressure.

Eriogonom truncatum was first recorded on May 29, 1862 by William H. Brewer, a member of Josiah Whitney's California Geological Survey from 1860-1867.  Brewer's chronicle of the survey, Up and Down California, is an important work of early California history.  What is less well known is that his biological collections during the survey include many of the first discoveries of California species.  He collected the Mount Diablo buckwheat at Marsh's Ranch near Mt. Diablo' nearly 4000 acres of the Marsh Ranch have recently been preserved in the new Cowell Ranch State Park.  Over the next 78 years the Mount Diablo buckwheat was found just a handful of times, for a total of seven historic records.

The buckwheat family has over 1000 species worldwide and is well represented in California, with approximately 113 species. Some buckwheat species are edible; the seeds of some members of the family are eaten and ground into flour like cereal grains.  The three-sided achenes (or fruits) resemble miniature nuts from the beech tree . This resemblance led to the German name 'buchweizen' (beech-wheat) which was corrupted to 'buckwheat.'

Species vary in growth form from herbaceous annuals and perennials to woody shrubs.  Basal rosettes of leaves are often inconspicuous, but nearly leafless flower stalks are distinctive. One to several of them arise from the basal rosette and branch profusely, and bear tiny flowers at each node.  Buckwheats flowers in a wide variety of colors, providing a stunning display of color in the late spring and early summer, then dry out and persist as skeletons for a year or more.   Buckwheats are widely used in native plant gardens and the flowers are attractive to butterflies and other nectar loving insects.

Read the media release.

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