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'The Unicorn Plant': How a Team of Scientists May Have Saved the Large-Flowered Fiddleneck

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Roger Raiche and a team working to repopulate the large-flowered fiddleneck are feeling hopeful for the plants future (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

It’s a sunny day in April, and a group of native plant experts, wildlife officials, and others are about to hike up a steep slope in the Altamont Pass region. 

From the bottom of the hill, they can already see the signature, bright, bursting orange of the Amsinckia grandiflora, the large-flowered fiddleneck. On a crease on a hill where one side is all rock, the fiddleneck stands out among the gray and brown landscape.

This site has about 6,500 fiddleneck plants now, and the species would not be growing here if it weren’t for a  a massive repopulation effort that began about a decade ago.

“I almost want to cry,” said David McCrory, a landscape contractor and the co-founder of Planet Horticulture, a landscape and garden design studio.  “To see a site having thousands of flowers reproduce, spread, naturalizing, and happy … it’s glorious to see.”

The location is strictly classified because the large-flowered fiddleneck is critically endangered. In fact, the plant is so rare it’s been dubbed the California condor of botany. This group is not about to let anyone snatch these precious plants away.

It’s a rare conservation success story about an even rarer plant. McCrory said the large-flowered fiddleneck is like a canary in a coal mine. 

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“It’s telling us a story about how as climates change, certain species can expand while other species can retreat,” he said.

The group has called the large-flowered fiddleneck Damn-sinckia (a play on the word Amsinckia, get it?) because it’s seemed doomed for so long. The fiddleneck has struggled to complete with invasive grasses that arrived hundreds of years ago, and its decline has accelerated over the last century, says Roger Raiche, co-founder of Planet Horticulture.

The climate has been getting hotter and drier since the ice age, and plants like the large-flowered fiddleneck that prefer cool, moist, shady habitats tend to lose out, he said. The fiddleneck has struggled to compete with the non-native plants dominating the landscape.

People say Raiche has a botanical sixth sense; he’s discovered several plant species and even has four named after him. But the large-flowered fiddleneck in particular has been a part of his life for a long time. Raiche landed a job in the 1980s with the University of California Botanical Garden, where he began growing the plants in in wooden boxes in the nursery.

The University of California Botanical Garden has a long history with the large-flowered fiddleneck, and has displayed them for visitors in the past. (Beth LaBerge)

He says seeing the fiddlenecks here today makes him feel like his whole life has circled around one plant. 

“You realize you’re not moving in a linear direction. There’s patterns in your life that keep getting you involved, and plants have been that for me,” he said.

In the 1990s, a birder and a naturalist approached him at the Botanical Garden, excited because he had stumbled on a large population of the large-flowered fiddleneck while birding along the eastern edge of the hills of the Diablo Range.

“He said, ‘You’ve got to see this place!’” Raiche remembers. Together they drove up to the site, parked on the road, and walked through the overgrazed land of weedy grasses.

Suddenly, he recalled, he was in a place that was “to a native plant person … like a  little garden,” Raiche remembered.

He understood how incredible that discovery was, because the quest to study and repopulate the large-flowered fiddleneck goes back to at least the 1960s.

Researchers over the last few decades established committees, poured over maps, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. But when there were glimmers of hope, they didn’t last. The large-flowered fiddleneck loves steep slopes, but that can lead to problems.

“There was a rainy winter and the whole thing slid away in a landslide,” Raiche said. “And nothing came back.”

But mapping technology has changed plant conservation. Vollmar Natural Lands Consulting  specializes in using technology to create habitat models for endangered species. In 2012, Jake Schweitzer, a senior ecologist and geographic information science specialist with the company, landed a grant with the Bureau  of Reclamation to repopulate the species.

Jake Schweitzer is the senior ecologist and GIS specialist at Vollmar Natural Lands Consulting. (Beth LaBerge)

If anyone could find a way to grow the plant on Mars, the team joked during the hike, Schweitzer could do it. But then the whole point, of course, is to keep the large-flowered fiddleneck here on Earth. 

The team working to repopulate the species traversed tens of thousands of acres, and surveyed areas more intensely based on a habitat model Schweitzer developed to narrow down the search. The species would need to be in shade throughout most of its life cycle.

But the majority of sites that could work were on private land. Schweitzer would need to ask ranchers for permission to grow an endangered plant on their property.

“They care about their land. Often they start with this feeling of being suspicious of outsiders, and especially conservationists coming in and telling them what to do,” Schweitzer  said. “You start out with a little bit of humility and appreciation for what they’re doing.”  

The team ended up working with six landowners, but this effort was constantly threatened by severe drought conditions. And then they also needed to figure out just the right amount of cattle grazing. 

Too much grazing means the plant gets trampled; not enough and weedy grasses outcompete the plant. The team would need to put up and take down fencing at precisely the right times until the new population was established.

It was like any trial and error experiment, but eventually it paid off. Schweitzer says it’s likely that when the seeds get caught in the cow’s hooves, the cows spread them around. The cows also press the seeds into the soil, making it less likely for birds or rodents to eat them.

By around 2018, the results were looking promising, and Schweitzer was feeling hopeful. The plants were thriving. Schweitzer remembers looking out and seeing 10,000 of them growing on a slope with big, luscious flowering branches that he knew were likely to produce a lot of seeds. 

“I saw that telltale orange on the whole slope, and I jumped for joy,” he said. “All those beautiful flowers on the hill gave us hope.”

There will be many more challenges for the large-flowered fiddleneck. Vanessa Handley, with the University of California Botanical Garden, says there were times planting the fiddlenecks last winter when there had been so little rain felt like a fool’s errand.

“Typically, the soil has gotten moistened by the winter rains. The ground gives, you tuck the plants in, and wish them well. But this year it was almost like picking a rock,” she said. “We joked that we had developed our stabbing muscles.” 

But the population seems to be doing surprisingly well, she says.  The team is hoping the species now has a large enough population to hold on.

Vanessa Handley works with the University of California Botanical Garden. (Beth LaBerge)

As the grant that supported this effort winds down, Schweitzer is figuring out next steps. He said he doesn’t want to impose on the landowners indefinitely without compensating them. 

“We live in a capitalist society, and that’s how it works,” he said. “People are going to be more likely to protect endangered species if it not only doesn’t impact their wallet, but fattens it.” 

In the meantime, the team is proud of the work they’ve done. Back in April, Raiche hiked down with the group to a nearby site where the fiddleneck has grown naturally. 

“That’s where the plant wants to be,” he said, looking down at the orange in the distance. 

He walked down the steep slope to see the plant again in the wild.

The steep, nearly vertical slopes are just the kind that the large-flowered fiddleneck loves. (Beth LaBerge)

The vivid oranges of the large-flowered fiddleneck looked more and more intense the closer he got. The terrain was so steep it was practically vertical, and Raiche said it felt like you could slide down and take the population with you. He was joking, but a disaster could happen. Wild pigs could come running through, or a catastrophic event could eliminate the entire species.

The large-flowered fiddleneck population is not gone yet, but it’s still at risk. 

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“This is not the only plant that’s endangered, that’s the problem,” Raiche said. “Everything, all life forms are forced to change now. And this is just one.” 

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