Meet the little flower adopted by a small town

Pretty in pink —  The endangered Yreka phlox (Phlox hirsuta) is the topic of a guided nature program on April 4 presented by the Yreka Fish and Wildlife Office. The program is open to the public and meets at the Chinese Cemetery kiosk east of Yreka on Highway 3. Credit: Serena Doose/USFWS

The Yreka phlox, a perennial shrub found in just five locations within Siskiyou County and nowhere else in the world

By Susan Sawyer
March 28, 2018

Each spring on the dry, rocky hills around Yreka, California, a small native plant comes to life with colorful flowers ranging from bright rose pink to white. The Yreka phlox (Phlox hirsuta) is a perennial shrub no more than six inches high, grows only on serpentine soils, and is found in just five locations within Siskiyou County and nowhere else in the world.

China Hill, which overlooks Interstate 5, is one of the five known phlox locations, and where the Yreka Fish and Wildlife Office offers an annual guided ‘phlox walk.’ Nadine Kanim and Sheri Hagwood, biologists for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, lead the walk as part of the Yreka phlox recovery effort to educate the community about this delicate little plant. This year’s walk is set for April 4 from noon until 2 p.m., and is open to all ages.

Nadine Kanim, right, biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Yreka office leads the annual Phlox Walk on China Hill, one of five locations where the phlox is found. Kanim has been monitoring the endangered plant for the past 10 years. Credit: USFWS

“The program is free and anyone is welcome to join us on this fairly easy two-hour walk. We also identify other native plants and wildflowers,” said Kanim. During the walk, she and Hagwood provide Yreka phlox history, how state and federal laws protect the species, and conservation and recovery efforts to date.

“The phlox walk is one of our more popular programs,” said Jen Jones, who directs the monthly guided nature walk program for the Yreka office. “We had 33 people come out last year.”

The Yreka phlox was first described in 1876 by Episcopal priest and botanist Edward L. Greene. He discovered a population of the hairy-stemmed plants near Soap Creek Ridge, which today holds about 14 populations of phlox totaling 5,000 to 10,000 plants on 584 acres. The area is privately owned by timber companies, private landowners, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Three other locations in the county may have from a few hundred to a few thousand plants each and are under City of Yreka and private ownership.

Efforts to conserve the Yreka phlox began in 1975 when, in a report to Congress, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution included it on a list of endangered plants. In 1984, The Nature Conservancy included China Hill and Soap Creek Ridge as part of their Element Preservation Plan.

Yreka phlox is uniquely adapted for life in otherwise barren landscapes, on dry soils derived from igneous (volcanic) rock with high levels of iron and magnesium, between 2,700 to 4,400 feet elevation. Credit: Matt Baun/USFWS

The City of Yreka then became involved alongside The Nature Conservancy in 1986. In 2000, Phlox hirsuta was placed on the Federal endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (due to its limited range, proposed developments, off-road vehicles and invasive plant competition), and an official Yreka phlox recovery plan was released in 2006.

A key partner in the phlox recovery effort is the City of Yreka, which purchased – or obtained through donations – nearly 75 percent of the land on China Hill. David Simmens, former Yreka mayor said this was a tremendous achievement and saved the Yreka phlox from being destroyed by development.

“Now that this land is in city hands, the phlox will be protected forever,” Simmens said. “We are pretty happy to have this plant around, it’s unique and we’re very proud of the fact it’s the only one of its kind.” In 2009, that pride resulted in the Yreka phlox being named as the official flower of the city.

“There is a lot of support in the community to recover Yreka phlox – from the local timber company to the city and county governments to our citizens,” said Kanim. “The recovery team identified threats to the species and our local partners have made a lot of progress to protect the phlox from various threats.”

City officials are hopeful that one day they can provide full sanctuary for the phlox and turn China Hill into a public park, complete with an interpretive center telling the story of how one small community came together to save a pretty pink flower from the verge of extinction.

Kanim noted that the Yreka phlox recovery effort is a good example of how the federal government is working with local communities to preserve a unique and precious resource for the enjoyment of future generations.

Biologist Nadine Kanim, of the Yreka Fish and Wildlife Office, shown here leading a plant walk, was honored in 2008 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for her work with partners to help recover the endangered Yreka phlox. Credit: USFWS

The April 4 phlox walk will start at the Chinese Cemetery parking lot, off I-5 at Yreka exit 776 on Hwy. 3 east, just before Juniper Way. For more information on this and other U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service programs offered by the Yreka office, please call Jen Jones at (530) 841-3109 or visit: https://www.fws.gov/yreka