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Reaching Recovery One Plant at a Time
By Sarah Swenty
Photo Credit: Kate Symonds/USFWS
Peaking out from an unassuming hillside along a well-traveled road north of the Bay Area is one of California's most endangered plants, Baker's larkspur. From theft, to fire, to flooding, the plant known to botanists as Delphinium bakeri has been through the ringer.
Luckily for this lonely flower, botanists from the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley (Garden) are working closely with biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) to improve the species' chance for survival.
The only remaining naturally occurring population of Baker's larkspur is located on a steep embankment along Marshall-Petaluma Road in West Marin. Not long ago, this was the only place in the world this beautiful flowering plant could be found.
Baker's larkspur, a member of the buttercup family, is truly worthy of a Shakespearean-type tragedy, having faced an unbelievable series of unfortunate events in its bid to avoid extinction.
Considered rare when it was first formally described in the late 1930s, Baker's larkspur has only been known to exist in three locations—one in Sonoma County and two in Marin County.
The species was originally proposed for Endangered Species Act protection in 1976, and by the time it was listed as federally endangered in January 2000, two of those three locations had been lost to the plant. The steep roadside embankment was the last place this plant clung to survival. In 1992, all the seed capsules were collected by unknown individuals, which resulted in all sexual reproduction for that year being lost.
Photo Credit: Kate Symonds/USFWS
By 2001, the last remaining site had only 55 flowering plants. In 2002, despite repeated discussions between staff at the Garden and others with the agency responsible for roadside maintenance, local work crews gouged the slope removing the largest plants before seed set was completed.
In September 2004, fire-fighting crews set backfires on the slope above the species, in an effort to control a wildfire that started nearby. The only surviving individuals were those plants that were protected by the roots of woody plants or were growing low on the slope and escaped being burned. One month later, during routine maintenance, local road crews removed most of the remaining individuals from the slope while clearing out the culvert located below the population, although the slope above the culvert had not eroded to block the culvert.
By 2007, only seven plants appeared. Only two of those plants flowered, and both lost their flowers before seeds set.
Baker's larkspur's story doesn't end there. Because the plant is so rare, little is known about what specifically the plant needs to pull it back from the brink. New planting sites have been carefully selected by botanists at the Garden and Service biologists, based on what is known of the species' habitat requirements, required habitat conditions for similar species, and the availability of interested and willing landowners whose use could be compatible with Bakers larkspur recovery efforts.
Photo Credit: Valary Bloom/USFWS
Determined to give the plant a real chance at survival, in 2009, Garden staff – with support from the Service's Sacramento Field Office – introduced plants propagated from wild seed to three sites within its historic range: two on private ranches, and the third site on Marin Municipal Water District's land near Soulajoule Reservoir. All are within three miles of the last remaining occurrence in Marin County.
Between 2009 and 2011, over 200 plants raised in the nursery were planted in those experimental locations. Although the sites all had some success, some conservation challenges facing the species remained. Many of the plants were eaten by banana slugs and other animals. Some reached maturity but failed to flower. Those that did flower often lost their flowering stem before setting seeds. Adding insult to injury, trees fell at two of the three sites changing the microclimate of the locations.
Still, Garden and Service staff members have persevered. Despite falling trees and limited resources, a small but dedicated crew keeps the species from going extinct.
Garden staff and volunteers continue to monitor the original and experimental sites. Counting begins each year in early spring, just as the first leaves burst out of the soil. Periodically, new plants are propagated in the nursery and are out-planted when new information about habitat requirements is learned or additional opportunities for landowner partnerships arise.
Recovery is the ultimate goal of the Endangered Species Act. Sometimes success needs to be measured one plant at a time.
Sarah Swenty, a public affairs specialist in the Service's Sacramento Field Office, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 916-414-6713.
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