Rare Plants on the Central Coast
By Danny Slakey
In 2013 the Rare Plant Treasure Hunt made its debut on the Central Coast of California, with a big emphasis on the Ventana and Silver Peak Wilderness Areas near Big Sur. We had some great experiences searching for rare plants and noxious weeds with the volunteers who came out on these trips, becoming very familiar with Corky Matthew’s Monterey County Flora, braving trails lined with poison oak, gaining up to 3000 feet of elevation in a single day, and soaking in natural hot springs, creeks, and pools at day’s end.
Santa Lucia Mountains
On our first backpacking trip of the season we set out for Pine Valley from the eastern side of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Our big goal for this trip was to relocate the two populations of talus fritillary (Fritillaria falcata) that are known from the Santa Lucia Range. When we reached the rock outcrops where the frit had been found, we scoured the rockfields, but the only bulbs were found were onions (Allium sp.) and checker lily (Fritillaria affinis). Maybe the fritillaries hadn’t done well in this low-rain year, but hopefully they are still there. We did, however, find populations of the rare fern carlotta hall fern (Aspidotis carlotta-halliae) and large groves of the santa lucia fir (Abies bracteata), a tree that only grows in the Santa Lucia Range. In the evenings, we relaxed at nearby Pine Falls, and at the end of the trip, we made a visit to Tassajara Hot Springs, a remote Buddhist “resort” with warm pools and a cool creek for swimming in.
On the way back from our trip to Cone Peak, we made a visit to the site of the only recently-seen population of Jolon clarkia (Clarkia jolonensis). After a little bit of searching at the site, we came across its close relative Lewis’ clarkia (Clarkia lewisii), a Rank 4 rare plant. The only way to tell these two plants apart is by the nodding inflorescence axis of Clarkia lewisii. After wondering how different these two species really were, we consulted with Clarkia expert, Brian Le Neve, president of the Monterey Bay Chapter, who confirmed that they are indeed separate species. C. jolensis is probably much rarer than previously thought because it has been misidentified as C. lewisii.
Silver Peak Wilderness
We led some of the most botanically interesting trips toward the end of the season, in the Silver Peak Wilderness just north of the San Luis Obispo County border. At the Alder Creek Botanical Area, we found a serpentine seep that was home to six different rare plant species, including the very rare Palmer’s monardella, Monardella palmeri. We were fortunate enough to be joined by amateur botanists Brian and Eileen Keelan on that trip, who added several new taxa to their life list, as they work toward their goal of seeing 80% of the genera in California.
Cruikshank and Salmon Creek
On another trip we backpacked along the Cruikshank and Salmon Creek trails from the coast to the ridgeline and back. We led this trip in late June, a time of year when few people visit these mountains due to the high temperatures. Braving the heat was worth it, though, as were able to see some beautiful displays of the late-flowering mariposa lily (Calochortus fimbriatus). Of course, the heat was bearable because of our stops at several creeks and because botanist John Chesnut hauled a lot of our gear from the coast all the way to the ridgeline in his truck!
Our final trip to the Ventana was a visit to Sykes Hot Springs. Due to the extreme popularity of the Hot Springs, the Pine Ridge Trail that traverses 10 miles from Big Sur to the Springs is heavily impacted by hikers, who sometimes abandon gear at the camp or along the trail. We were pleasantly surprised to find that most of the weeds did not extend very far inland, and a few rare plant populations were even persisting along the trail, most notably the Santa Lucia gooseberry (Ribes sericeum). At the end of the 20-mile round trip backpack, we visited Pfeiffer Beach for a late lunch on the water, and to get a look at the little Sur manzanita (Arctostaphylos edmundsii). We are pretty sure we found it, but the cliffs had eroded away so much that we needed a pair of binoculars to get a better view of the plants that were 30 feet above us. As we sat down for lunch, we were curious about the man who was being filmed while strumming his guitar on top of a large boulder. We later found out it was country music star Steven Lee Olsen, so we’ll be sure to keep an eye out for his music video that was being filmed!
The Central Coast is also home to a great number of State Parks, and we had a chance to visit several of them, from Monterey all the way up to Sonoma County. On a recent trip at Salt Point State Park in Sonoma County, we found a great diversity of late-flowering coastal rare plants. One of our main goals was to search for new populations of the extremely rare and possibly extinct Mendocino dodder (Cuscuta pacifica var. papillata). We were excited when we found a bright orange population of dodder parasitizing a lupine, but closer inspection showed it to be the common chaparral dodder (Cuscuta californica var. californica). Hopefully we can relocate a population of this plant on a future trip! Our most spectacular find at Salt Point was a new population of perennial goldfields (Lasthenia californica subsp. macrantha). Unlike most goldfields, which dry up and die every year, this subspecies makes use of the year-round moisture on the immediate coast, allowing it to live for multiple years. We nearly missed this plant, as its yellow flowers blended right in with the surrounding invasives Hypchaeiris glabra and H. radicata, but an astute volunteer was able to spot it right before we turned around on the hike!
Our 2013 field season on the Central Coast was a big success, as we were able to document about 200 populations of rare plants! We are still going through the weed data, but it looks like we will have many weed populations mapped as well (unfortunately!). Pending funding, we plan to continue this work next year, so we hope you can join us for some of trips like these in the future.