|By Robert Sanders
May 24, 2005
BERKELEY - A petite pink flower that hasn't been seen in 70 years has been
rediscovered on the flanks of Mount Diablo in Contra Costa County by a
University of California, Berkeley, graduate student.
The Mount Diablo buckwheat,
Mount Diablo buckwheat, with its characteristic branched flowers, grows
along the edges of chaparral, in areas that have been partly cleared of
grass by rabbits. (Photos by Scott Hein / Save Mount Diablo)
|Eriogonum truncatum, "has been a Holy Grail in the East Bay for
several decades," according to UC Berkeley botanist Barbara Ertter,
who confirmed the identification in the field on Friday. Last
reported in 1936, the flower was presumed extinct, she said, because
its habitat has been overrun by introduced grasses. It is one of only
three plants, all of them rare, that are endemic to Mount Diablo.
Michael Park had the missing buckwheat on his mind when he hiked out
to a remote corner of Mount Diablo State Park on May 10, to a section
that had been acquired and donated to the park by the organization
Save Mount Diablo. Following a different routine from his normal
survey, he stumbled across the plants - about 20 in all - in full
bloom, looking like pink baby's breath. Less than eight inches tall,
the annuals are inconspicuous, and were growing in a balding area
between full chaparral and non-native grassland.
"When I took people out to see it, they just walked right by it,"
Park said. "They couldn't grok that the thing could be so small and
Park's discovery thrilled native plant enthusiasts and
conservationists like Seth Adams, director of land programs for Save
Mount Diablo, a non-profit group dedicated to preserving Mount
Diablo's peaks and foothills through land acquisition and other
"This is so monumental from our point of view," Adams said.
The discovery site, a full day's hike from public trailheads in the
park, is being kept secret for now so that admirers won't flock to
the area and inadvertently destroy the rediscovered plant.
"If it had really been lost, it would have been gone forever, and a
unique part of our heritage vanished permanently," said UC Berkeley
alumnus Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and an
internationally renowned botanist and conservationist. "Now we have
the chance to understand it, to enjoy it and to know that we haven't
done it in!"
Ertter, the curator of western North American flora at UC Berkeley's
Jepson Herbarium and co-author of the 2002 revision of Mary
Bowerman's "The Flowering Plants and Ferns of Mount Diablo,
California," noted that one priority should be to gather seeds and
start cultivating the buckwheat at the UC Botanical Garden.
Cultivated specimens conserved by the garden, which is part of the
Center for Plant Conservation network, will provide a reserve of
seeds in case the species declines further.
|"At some point, if we have
the mature seeds and can get them started in cultivation so there is
a backup, then we can relax a little more," Ertter said. "At this
point, it is really tenuous. Here, it's still hanging on by its
fingernails, and the publicity alone could be enough to wipe it out
"The worst threat to this plant is being loved to death," added
Park, 35, began surveying the flora of Mount Diablo three years ago
as part of Ertter's ongoing surveillance of the area's plants. Funded
by the Jepson Herbarium's Heckard Fund, Park took on the task of
surveying the plants on land newly acquired by Mt. Diablo State Park.
Much of this land was grazing land, but Park was pleased to discover
that the many introduced weeds have not pushed out the native plants.
"Fully 70 percent of the plants catalogued in the survey are native,
and 70 percent of the 20 or so plants newly discovered or properly
documented to occur in the Mount Diablo area during the course of my
study are native," he said.
Park included many of his findings in his senior thesis, which he
completed last spring under the supervision of Bruce Baldwin, UC
Berkeley professor of integrative biology and curator of the Jepson
Now finishing his first year as a graduate student in the Department
of Integrative Biology, Park found the buckwheat while completing his
survey during a prime time of the year, when plants are flowering
profusely after one of the latest and rainiest winters in decades.
After he discovered the small population, Park "vacillated back and
forth between excitement and denial." Finally accepting the fact that
he had been in the right place at the right time, he divulged his
secret to Ertter and alerted the park service.
Two days later, he hiked with two fellow graduate students to take
photos, which convinced Ertter he had indeed found the elusive
buckwheat. First reported in 1862, there are only seven historical
records of the plant, the last in 1936, when Bowerman, one of the
first women to receive a Ph.D. in botany from UC Berkeley, collected
a sample from Mount Diablo. She published her book of the flora of
the mountain in 1944, as the summation of her dissertation work done
under the guidance of Willis Linn Jepson, whose subsequent endowment
established the Jepson Herbarium. Bowerman later went on to become
one of the founders of Save Mount Diablo.
The buckwheat is important, Ertter said, because it is the only
presumed extinct plant restricted to the East Bay and one of only
three plants endemic to the mountain, that is, found there and
nowhere else. It has been found as far afield as Antioch and Solano
counties, though not in the past 69 years.
Park suspects that the unseasonably late rains may have produced the
flowering, since many native plants produce seeds that remain dormant
in the soil for decades until the right moisture conditions make them
germinate. Brent Mishler, UC Berkeley professor of integrative
biology and director of the Jepson and University Herbaria, noted
that this is typical of plants in Mediterranean-type climates like
"Mike is great. He's part of the long tradition of UC Berkeley's
field botanists, from Jepson and Bowerman on down to Ertter, who have
conducted the detailed studies of the flora of California that let us
recognize a find like this," Mishler said. "It really demonstrates
the importance of continuing floristic and systematic studies across
the decades and centuries, the key role of herbaria and the need to
maintain strong educational programs in these areas."
As park officials discuss conservation plans for the rare plant, Park
will continue to trek out to the buckwheat flowering grounds to learn
how long it flowers and more about its life history. The hoopla over
the find has interfered with his field studies at a critical time of
year, but he says he's trying to enjoy it.
"It was very exciting, and I've spent a few weeks being stunned over
this thing," he said. "But I'll be glad when it's over."