A New Phacelia Hidden in Plain Sight

By Emily Underwood

On a hot, dusty day in July 2019, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) botanists Julie Kierstead and Martin Lenz jostled along a dirt road toward Damnation Pass, northwest of Redding. They were out looking for rare plants after the 2018 Carr-Delta wildfires as part of a USFS-funded study of the fires’ impacts. They could see the “vast, blackened landscape” left behind by the fires, which charred roughly 300,000 acres combined, Kierstead recalls.

As they drove, listening to the local logging truck radio’s chatter, Kierstead noticed an unfamiliar collection of large plants rooted in a gravelly talus slope by the roadside. “Martin, what is that?” she said. They pulled over and sat down by the side of the road, examining the plants more closely, using their Jepson Manual of California’s native flora.

Botanical treasure in a burned landscape — the newly discovered Phacelia species. Photo: Julie Kierstead

The stems were brittle and left a rusty brown residue on Kierstead’s fingers, she says. Judging from the plant’s greenish, bell-shaped flowers, arranged in coiled inflo- rescences, the plant belonged to the genus Phacelia, a group of annual herbs of which there are at least 130 species in California. But the plant didn’t look like any Phacelia species Kierstead had seen before — not Phacelia bolanderi, which has pale lavender blooms, nor Phacelia procera, which has greenish flowers. “I knew procera, and that wasn’t it,” she says.

The team sent photos and specimens of the plant to Genevieve Walden, a “Phacelia maven,” as Kierstead puts it, and senior plant taxonomist at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Walden checked the samples in her herbarium and ran a molecular analysis confirming that the plant was a new, previously unknown species that had never been collected before. Biologist Len Lindstrand III, of Sierra Pacific Industries, later found several more occurrences of the plant near where Kierstead and Lenz first found the plant. Others have found more examples further northeast, Kierstead says.

The plant doesn’t have a name yet, but the team is leaning toward P. damnatio to commemorate the location of Damnation Pass, “and the feeling of standing in front of a large unexpected new plant species in our own botanical neighborhood,” Kierstead says. One explanation for why no one has identified the plant before is that the places where it’s been found — open scree slopes at mid-elevations in the eastern Klamath Range — don’t get much recreational traffic aside from hunters, she says.

The discovery was a career highlight for Kierstead, who recently retired after 30 years with the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. “I find it remarkable that a robust, very distinctive perennial can remain undetected for so long,” she says. The find also underscores the importance of looking for new plants in familiar places, says Aaron Sims, rare plant botanist at the California Native Plant Society. “It presents clear evidence that there are likely many other ‘obvious’ plants, hidden in plain sight, that have yet to be described in California.”

A Species Nova Seed Collection

Captions by Aaron Sims, CNPS Rare Plant Botanist

Last September, Julie Kierstead revisited the site of her Phacelia discovery to lead a California Plant Rescue (CaPR) team in what may have been the first dedicated conservation seed collection of an undescribed species. CaPR will send the collected seeds to an off-site seed bank, providing the raw materials for population enhancement, restoration and recovery, and research. Seed-banking offers a crucial, last-hope insurance policy against extinction.

The stiff hairs of Phacelia inflorescences are striking at different angles. Photo: Aaron Sims
Uncoiled inflorescences of Phacelia. Photo: Aaron Sims

7 Comments

  1. Yes very interesting, and great that someone from California Department of Food and Agriculture verified it as a new species !

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