'Late to rise, early to bed'

Abundant winter rain this year ushered in a series of super-blooms in southern California, including the thread-leaved brodiaea in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in eastern Los Angeles County. "It’s the only brodiaea left in Los Angeles County, so it’s extremely rare, and what we have on our land is pretty special,” said Ann Croissant, a retired professor with a background in plant physiology, who has led a local effort to protect this endangered plant. Credit: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

A petite purple flower erupted in rare bloom in southern California this spring

By Joanna Gilkeson
June 13, 2017

Nestled between the city of Glendora, California, and the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, a large golden field of wild oats is subtly sprinkled with amethyst hues.

“They wake up around 10 a.m. and go to sleep around 4 p.m.,” Ann Croissant said, as she pointed out the first of the tiny sleepy flowers along the path. “I like to say they’re late to rise and early to bed. Their petals are just starting to unfold in the sunlight.”

The flowers  "wake up around 10 a.m. and go to sleep around 4 p.m. I like to say they’re late to rise and early to bed," said Ann Croissant, founder of Glendora Community Conservancy.  Credit: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

Croissant has lived in these foothills for nearly 40 years, and founded the Glendora Community Conservancy in 1991.

A retired professor with a background in plant physiology, she now spends her time tending to this endangered plant, and sharing her wisdom of the land and the quirky nature of brodiaea plants with visitors to the preserve.

The wildflowers Croissant referred to are thread-leaved brodiaea (Brodiaea filifolia) and native to southern California.

Abundant winter rain this year ushered in a series of super-blooms in southern California, and thread-leaved brodiaea experienced its own mini-superbloom in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains in eastern Los Angeles County.

I heard about the brodiaea superbloom and decided to see it for myself.

Waking up late morning, a sleepy brodiaea begins to open its petals. The only brodiaea population left in Los Angeles County is within the limits of Glendora Community Conservancy Preserve. Credit: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

“This is also the greatest number of plants and blooms in the protected area seen in observations in over a quarter century,” Croissant said. “Based on volunteer counts, there are around 8,000 brodiaea plants here at the Glendora Community Conservancy Preserve. It’s the only brodiaea left in Los Angeles County, so it’s extremely rare, and what we have on our land is pretty special.”

Local photographer Dave Matson reviews his photos of the thread-leaved brodiaea. Credit: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

Thread-leaved brodiaea is listed as federally threatened and as a state endangered species. At the time of federal listing in 1998, habitat loss was the primary threat to the plant. Ranging from San Diego to the Glendora Community Preserve in Los Angeles County, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been working with partners like Croissant to manage brodiaea populations and aid its recovery.

“This area used to be an orchard, and when it went on the market, I had never written a grant before, but I knew I had to save this place,” Croissant said. “I knew it was special.”

Croissant received her grant and purchased 50 acres of open space to preserve the plant and offer recreation opportunities for the community.

The blooming brodiaea of Glendora flirted with fame this spring. News of the superbloom was carried by newspapers, radio stations and word of mouth. Soon, people began visiting from near and far.

Azuza Pacific students Carolyn Garnham (right) and Francesca Ragusa document the location of individual brodiaea plants as part of a study of how the plants are responding after the 2014 Colby Fire. Credit: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

Up ahead on the trail, Dave Matson was busy photographing the brodiaea with his friend, Russell Balcom. “I’ve never been to the preserve before, but Russell heard about it in the news,” he said.

“I photograph wildflowers in and around the hills of Southern California, label them with their scientific names, and share them with my friends,” said Matson.

Then, Dr. Scott Kinnes, professor of soil microbiology at Azusa Pacific University, arrived at the preserve to conduct research with two students. Kinnes is surveying the brodiaea population to see how various plots are responding to the Colby Fire of 2014.

As part of the research, they’re tagging plants by slipping a ring at the base of randomly selected flowering brodiaea. This allows them to assess how long each flower blooms, and whether they bloom from year to year. As part of Kinnes’ research this year, drones will be used for the first time to gather images and video providing an aerial perspective into how brodiaea were affected by the fire. Kinnes’ research will help land managers understand how this rare plant responds in a wildfire prone region of the world, and offer clues about protecting it.

Croissant has watched the brodiaea population ebb and flow, and has seen what factors bring about the healthiest blooms: shade, water and black bee flies.

“We’ve observed the flowers over time, and now have an idea of what kind of habitat they thrive in. But we always have more to learn,” she said.

The Colby Fire occurred in January 2014 and eventually burned 1,992 acres in the foothills above Glendora, California. As part of Dr. Scott Kinnes’ research this year, drones will be used to gather imagery to provide an aerial perspective of the fire's impact on the brodiaea. Photo Credit: CalFire

She said the Conservancy has come a long way due to support from the local communities. “In 1993, we had about 900 plants and 50 acres of land. Thanks to proper management informed by science, our observations and the protection of this land, today we manage nearly 3,000 acres across the foothills and we have thousands of brodiaea plants in our wildlands,” she said.

As my visit to the Conservancy came to a close, Croissant stopped each person along the preserve’s trail to ask them if they knew about the blooming thread-leaved brodiaea.

“This is the most genetically pure population of brodiaea we have in California because they haven’t been disturbed in the same way as other populations,” she said. “Oat grass is a best friend to brodiaea because it provides some shade and holds moisture near the soil.”

A native black carpenter bee visits a freshly opened brodiaea blossom.  Credit: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

Some visited the preserve specifically to see the brodiaea, while others learned about the plant for the first time while there. The quiet brodiaea sanctuary slowly filled with people, who began sharing stories about their background and the origination of their interest in such a tiny unassuming flower.

Croissant’s loyalty to the preserve, along with her generous demeanor, has brought the local community together with a shared interest: the thread-leaved brodiaea. The Glendora Community Conservancy is known as the “home of Glendora’s historic flower – Brodiaea filifolia,” and brodiaea is the city of Glendora’s official flower.

The community’s passion for protecting brodiaea is contagious, and as it spreads, the future of this petite purple wildflower becomes a little more secure.

Azuza pacific student researcher Carolyn Garnham, displays a tagged thread-leaved brodiaea. Credit: Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS

 

Joanna Gilkeson is a public affairs specialist in the Carlsbad (California) Fish and Wildlife Office. She writes about the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service in southern California and is communications team leader for the Service's monarch butterfly project in the west.