Farewell to the CLM team

My last blog post as a CLM intern is definitely a bittersweet occasion. Although I’m excited for the next step (grad school), I will miss working with such a great team at my field office and beyond.

When I showed up for my first day at the Motherlode Field Office, I didn’t know what to expect. I remember waiting confusedly outside, not sure whether to use the public or private entrance, and not wanting to call my new mentor yet because I was a bit early. Luckily someone showed up and let me in, and Graciela (new mentor) took me under her wing, introducing me to everyone in the office.

Since then, I have gotten to visit amazing landscapes and have learned countless new skills. To avoid a making a laundry list, I will highlight three of my biggest take away lessons.

First and foremost, I learned how to work in a team. I have always been an independent person, generally preferring to work alone rather than in a group; but of course a nationwide effort like SOS can’t materialize from a bunch of lonely botanists refusing to talk to one another. Working with my mentor and coworkers, and training new volunteers and interns, taught me a lot about how to coordinate the efforts of many people towards a single goal and how powerful it is to do so.

Another big take away was to be ready for anything and that attitude is key. The nature of our fieldwork is such that plans can easily go awry – weather, dead electronics, locked gates, steep hikes, and countless other obstacles can stand in between you and your 10,000 seeds. Staying positive and on task no matter what was crucial in this internship and has been a good general life skill.

Last, I have learned that opportunities will unfold if you seek them earnestly and enthusiastically. Graciela and other BLM/CLM employees have opened so many doors for me – I am grateful and humbled to be moving on to my next step with such wonderful allies.  Thanks to all, and best of luck to current and future CLMers!


I took this photo in my first week.  My mentor and hero, Graciela Hinshaw, alongside a rare Ceanothus roderickii


Castilleja foliosa, one of my all time favorite plants!

Mycobiota of Kanaka Valley Preserve

After a busy season of collecting seeds and pressing plants, it was a pleasant change of pace to start the year’s mushroom collection last week.  We began at Kanaka Valley Preserve, an oak-woodland parcel where grassland and chaparral shrubland lie adjacent, with an abrupt transition between the two.  We collected in a shaded, grassy area where old stumps and fallen branches hosted a wide variety of mushrooms.

Our team doesn’t have much experience with mushroom ID, but armed with several books, many photos, and dried specimens, we are confident about our prospects.  If you, kind blog reader, have any insight, please comment!


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Visit to a scorched landscape

On our drive towards Caleveras county, I had no idea what to expect. I joined a team from our field office that was working on the emergency stabilization and rehabilitation plan for the devastating Butte Fire, which had consumed about 70,000 acres of land over three weeks in September. As we got closer to the edge of the burned area, there were more signals of what lay ahead – signs thanking firefighters and law enforcement, warnings against looting and unlicensed contracting, stations offering free food, water, and clothes.

Abruptly, the ground on one side of the road turned black – then, both sides. Some properties had escaped the flames, and some had suffered minor damages.  Others were burnt to the ground – small traces, an above-ground pool or chimney, were all that remained. The desolation was hard to comprehend as we approached the public land that we were planning to survey.

It was a huge relief to get out of the residential areas. Without the painful indications of human loss, one could almost imagine being on another planet.  Here, all was grey, orange, and red.  Without leaves blowing, or bees buzzing, it was very quiet – flies were about the only thing that moved.   But even here, you couldn’t look far without finding some trace of human life – a charred beer can, or the metal threads of a tire.  Even when these remnants were difficult to identify precisely, their geometry, their unmistakable built-ness, served as inescapable reminders that this still was, after all, our world.



A crispy summer of collections

In the past couple weeks, my field offices’ SOS collection season has come to a bittersweet close. With the drought in CA still in full swing, it was difficult to meet our target, as water-stressed plants in our area consistently showed a lack of viable seeds.

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A collection of redbud (Cercis orbiculata) in Bear Valley was our final collection. The fruits we were finding generally had one or two seeds, where those of a healthy tree would’ve had four to six. Although we had to sweat to meet our target of 10,000 seeds, my mentor Graciela and I couldn’t complain too much – the occasional cool breeze and the view out towards Yosemite made the day.


Spivey pond frog survey

At 12:30AM on a Friday morning, the Mother Lode Field office is a peaceful place. Coming back after a late-night survey, motion activated lights lit the way back to my cube in an otherwise dark and quiet office. Between the coolness of the outside air and the tranquility of the empty office, my coworkers and I agreed that the night shift really wasn’t so bad.

We had gone out to do a survey of California red-legged frogs, a federally endangered species found on the coast and in the Sierra Nevada foothills. As a plant person, I knew very little about the frog, and decided I should do some googling before heading to work that evening. I read up about the ecology and distinguishing features of the red legged frog. But what stuck with me most from my crash course was that the red legged frog is California’s official state amphibian. I hadn’t realized that official state amphibians existed in the first place, and there I was about to get a privileged glimpse at California’s own in its natural habitat.

As it turns out, 20 states have official state amphibians, and two have unofficial amphibians. The list is dominated by frogs and salamanders, with newts and toads making the occasional appearance. The momentum to give the California red-legged frog this distinction began with an after-school program at an elementary school where students learned about how bills become laws. They made posters and buttons for the red-legged frog, and initiated a considerable letter writing campaign.

On June 29, 2014, Governer Jerry Brown signed a bill into law designating the red-legged frog as the state amphibian. On January 1, 2015, the designation became official. On June 30, 2015, after a quick lesson in frog handling, I got to have a photo-op with one of California’s amphibian ambassadors.


Why protect rare plants?

A couple weeks ago, I was asked to introduce the Pine Hill Preserve to a group of high school students. The task of introducing the preserve and its mission in a compelling way felt like a challenge. The landscape of the preserve is dry, thorny, steep, and shrubby. It lacks most of the features that usually attract people to the outdoors – and in fact, it wasn’t really protected for the purpose of recreation in the first place. Instead, the primary mission of the preserve is to protect several species of rare plants.

Around the same time, we found out that a new species – Carex xerophila, named in 2014 – may constitute a new rare plant for the preserve. Before this sedge was recognized as a unique species, it had been lumped in with Carex brainerdii and Carex rossii in the Pine Hill Preserve area.

Inflorescence from the newly described Carex xerophila

Inflorescence from the newly described Carex xerophila

As I considered the possible addition of this new rare plant and my upcoming task of presenting the preserve, I got to thinking about the philosophy behind rare plant conservation. Is it truly important to prevent species from going extinct? If so, why?

There are a few go-to responses to the question of why to protect rare plants. One is that if a species goes extinct, there are likely to be unforeseen consequences for the entire habitat. In complicated ecosystems where pollinators, primary producers, predators, and prey are tightly intertwined, it is nearly impossible for us to predict what will happen when a species disappears.

Another is that individual species of plants can be immensely valuable to humans in ways that aren’t always obvious. Medicinal plants are a good example – many of the compounds used in pharmaceuticals come directly from plants. So, when we drive a plant to extinction, we could be losing an effective treatment or even a cure for some human ailment.

But is it worthwhile to protect a species even if it isn’t a linchpin in its ecosystem, and even if it doesn’t hold any secrets for our well-being? I think that protecting a species from extinction could be justified as a simple demonstration of respect for life. We don’t understand very much about many species, and in some ways we don’t know very much about life itself – so perhaps we should prevent extinction simply out of deference to the unknown.

Carex xerophila at Pine Hill Preserve (low shrub on bare soil)

Carex xerophila at Pine Hill Preserve (low shrub on bare soil)

Know your chaparral

If you’ve never ventured into a chaparral forest – as I hadn’t just a few weeks ago – it might be hard to get a good mental picture. The name is derived from chapparo, a Spanish scrub-oak resembling some of the shrubs that thrive on California’s mountains and foothills. It’s the same word from which “chaps” derives – in the past few weeks I’ve often thought a pair could be useful in navigating the dense and thorny vegetation.

A trail through the chaparral at Pine Hill Preserve

A trail through the chaparral at Pine Hill Preserve

Three plants are considered characteristic of California’s chaparral, and are very common in the Pine Hill Preserve where I’ve been working – Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos spp.), and Ceanothus (Ceanothus spp.). These plants are all characterized by extensive root systems that travel far and wide in search of water. These root systems hold the soil in place on steep hillsides. The species are well-adapted to fire, readily producing new shoots after a fire destroys their above-ground portions. In a stand of chaparral, most shrubs will be roughly the same height and age, dating back to the last fire. In the first few years after a burn, herbaceous plants take advantage of the abundant sunlight and emerge in great numbers. Some of these plants even have seeds that are activated by fire. This is of special interest at the Pine Hill Preserve – herbaceous rare plants have been noted to flourish after burns, both prescribed and accidental.

Layne’s butterweed (Packera layneae), a rare aster found in Pine Hill Preserve

Layne’s butterweed (Packera layneae), a rare aster found in Pine Hill Preserve

In my first few weeks of exploration, I found two plants to be particularly exciting. The leaves of Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon californicum), as my mentor Graciela explained, are medicinal and can be brewed into a tea or chewed raw. When chewed, the initial taste is bitter, but slowly begins to have a cooling and sweet taste and a thirst-quenching effect. This has earned it the nickname of “mountain gum”, and after a few chews I was sold.

Eriodictyon californicum

Eriodictyon californicum

The second great discovery was a small, deep purple plant roughly shaped like a Christmas-tree – a native broomrape (Orobanche bulbosa). Its otherworldly appearance results from an aggressive survival strategy. It’s a parasite that doesn’t produce chlorophyll, instead relying on nutrients and water siphoned from the roots of neighboring plants.

Orbohanche bulbosa

Orbohanche bulbosa

First post from the Mother Lode Field Office!

On Tuesday, my second day with the Mother Lode field office in El Dorado Hills, CA, I was very excited to head to the field for the first time. Our first stop at a small plot known as “vernal pools” was a little anticlimactic. We weren’t surprised to not find any pools – even outside of conservation circles, the four-year drought has been a hot topic, with water restriction measures getting more and more stringent. Without the vernal pools, my mentor Graciela informed me, much of the native flora we might’ve found at this plot was absent.

Our second venture was more exciting. Graciela and I accompanied the staff’s botanist to Cronan Ranch to check out the progress of a grazing project there. The rolling hills in Cronan are currently dominated by invasive non-natives – mostly yellow star-thistle (Centaurea solstitialis) and medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusae). The grazing project aims to give natives a chance to get a foothold by allowing sheep to chew down the existing vegetation and reduce the amount of viable seeds produced by invasives.

Yellow star-thistle

Yellow star-thistle

The 500 sheep had made quite alot of progress when we arrived. The hill they’d been grazing on looked dramatically different from the others – almost everything green had been eaten. Sure enough, most of the star-thistle had been chewed nearly to the ground, in time to keep it from producing seeds in a few weeks. The sheep had done less damage on the medusahead – perhaps because, as our botanist pointed out, the plant is so high in silica during parts of its life cycle. This makes it unpalatable and undigestible to grazers.

Yellow star-thistle thrives just outside of the enclosure, while inside only short stalks remain

Yellow star-thistle thrives just outside of the enclosure, while inside only short stalks remain

A clear line between grazed and ungrazed turf

A clear line between grazed and ungrazed turf