The race to save valuable wild seeds and sprouts

On a cool fall morning, deep in the rugged backcountry of San Benito County, Alex Hubner hops over boulders in his Toyota Tacoma truck, eyeing every passing plant like a bounty hunter looking for prey.

He stops abruptly beside a lonely gray-green lump, its roots clinging like skeletal fingers to the inhospitable serpentine ground.

Hübner crouches over the plant and takes a closer look. It is a rare variety of brimstone buckwheat – beyond its prime, seeds scattered.

“If you’re late, you end up with a whole lot of nothing,” he said, fumbling at the dirt in disappointment.

Then he goes in search of others.

UC Santa Cruz Arboretum Native Plant Specialist Alex Hubner searches for rare plants in the Clear Creek Management Area in San Benito County November 1, 2022 while searching for seeds of the state's endangered rare plants.  (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
UC Santa Cruz Arboretum Native Plant Specialist Alex Hubner searches for rare plants in the Clear Creek Management Area in San Benito County November 1, 2022 while searching for seeds of the state’s endangered rare plants. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Hubner and his wife Lucy Ferneyhough, who are residents of UC Santa Cruz, are collectors for California Plant Rescue, a federally funded consortium of botanical institutions dedicated to finding and preserving the botanical diversity of the Golden State.

As species disappear at an alarming rate, the couple’s efforts are helping California Plant Rescue build a network of plant banks to store seeds and sprouts, each a modern-day Noah’s Ark that could help save rich, unique, and irreplaceable life from permanent loss protection.

California Plant Rescue has had remarkable success. Since its inception in 2014, its members have collected seeds from 78% of California’s 1,166 rare, threatened, or endangered plant species, according to Katie Heineman of the Center for Plant Conservation in Escondido, which sponsors the effort.

An infusion of $3.6 million in government funding is boosting efforts to collect and conserve the remaining species. Prior to government support, the group only planted about 35 species a year. Now it’s an average of 131 species per year.

“These plants are part of our heritage and part of the biodiversity of the planet. Things can get out of hand at any time,” said Brett Hall, who is leading the UCSC effort. “Having them protected is a safeguard for their future.”

Brett Hall, native plant program director at UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, speaks during an interview Nov. 7, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Brett Hall, native plant program director at UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, speaks during an interview Nov. 7, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

UCSC’s Native Plant Program is leading the way. Located in the university’s arboretum, the program saved 50,000 seeds this year. It has a total of 375 collections representing 206 different species. Each specimen is stored in a small foil envelope in a freezer kept at minus 10 degrees, cold enough for the seeds to remain viable for years, maybe decades.

UC Berkeley collectors are also contributing, collecting seeds of the rare Humboldt Bay trefoil and 12 other species.

The plight of the plants can be lost between the dramatic stories about endangered mammals or birds, ecologists say.

The seeds of rare plants will be stored at minus 10 degrees in a freezer at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum on November 7, 2022.  (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
The seeds of rare plants will be stored at minus 10 degrees in a freezer at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum on November 7, 2022. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

And every loss doesn’t matter at first. When a tiny plant goes extinct, our world doesn’t change radically. But over time, like a plane losing its rivets, the ecosystem will collapse, scientists warn.

“We are only just beginning to understand these networks of networking,” said Hübner. “The web seems resilient. But if you start removing too many strands from the web, it goes down.”

Until recently, collectors have preferred the scenic and easy spots. The remote and harsher parts of the state — particularly the inner central coast, with the highest concentration of endemic plant species and endangered plant species in the US — are underrepresented.

Hubner, 36, and Ferneyhough, 32, are helping change that.

Restless, fit, and focused, they came to UCSC to pursue their passion for native plants. While seeds are the focus, they can also take cuttings or, if the plant is plentiful, bring them home to propagate in the Arboretum’s nursery. The Arboretum’s Native Plant Program receives $1,250 for each collection and an additional $1,250 for seed processing and preservation.

They breed over a computerized database of historical observations and plan their routes. In a truck outfitted for spending days alone in the wilderness, they have traveled to Modoc and Lassen counties, the Santa Lucia Mountains, the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada and beyond.

“We’re good at finding things,” says Hübner. “It is addictive.”

Lucy Ferneyhough, Project Manager for the Native Plants Program at UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, is an expert in the conservation and propagation of rare plants for future research, restoration and recovery.  (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Lucy Ferneyhough, Project Manager for the Native Plants Program at UC Santa Cruz Arboretum, is an expert in the conservation and propagation of rare plants for future research, restoration and recovery. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

“The entire state becomes like a game board,” he said. “You only have a certain amount of daylight and drinking water and gas and whatever else you need to get to those super deep remote places.”

Plants are not always where they are supposed to be. It may have been eaten by an animal, caught in wildfire, or died from drought. And the timing is difficult. If found too early, its seeds will not be ripe; when it is too late, they have scattered.

Sleuths, they’ve tracked down a rare Coyote Mint in the hills above Lompoc. They found a True’s Mountain Jewelflower in the Tahoe National Forest, the only known location.

Nearly 9,000 feet up in the Desolation Wilderness, on north-facing granite between two glacial lakes, they discovered tiny Cup Lake Draba.

In a still-hot, charred, and smoky landscape in the Mendocino National Forest, they discovered a damp green oasis. There thrived thriving clumps of the elusive Klamath sedge.

They take no more than 10% of a plant’s seeds and leave the rest to Mother Nature. At home in the arboretum, collection information is entered into a database. Seeds go straight into low humidity dryers.

Seeds must be cleaned before storage to prevent infection by dangerous fungi. Sieves are used to separate the seed from the chaff. Then the seeds are thrown into a blower to remove fine debris.

The seeds of a rare cultivar of sulfur buckwheat after cleaning during a demonstration at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum November 7, 2022. The seeds are cleaned, counted, dried and frozen for long-term storage.  (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
The seeds of a rare cultivar of sulfur buckwheat after cleaning during a demonstration at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum November 7, 2022. The seeds are cleaned, counted, dried and frozen for long-term storage. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)

Finally, each seed is counted. “It’s difficult,” says Hübner. “It’s literally bean counting.”

Half of the collection remains in the arboretum; the other half goes to another seed bank for storage. Gardeners can try germination.

November marks the end of the collecting season. As the days get colder and darker, plants use up their energy to get the rest they need.

But sulfur buckwheat is a late bloomer. Its tiny, teardrop-shaped seeds slowly mature and then fall off.

Hubner’s search begins at an empty campground in the Clear Creek Recreation Area, two hours south of Gilroy.

It is a hostile landscape created by a long serpentine rock with high concentrations of heavy metals and few essential nutrients. It still bears the marks of the California Gold Rush, when mercury was mined. The famous bandit Joaquin Murrieta is said to have hidden in its gorges.

But it is home to the rare sulfur buckwheat plant. Well adapted, the plant thrives in this harsh environment, Hübner said.

Hübner stops the truck behind closed gates on an old wagon path. Then he runs ahead. There, in numerous clumps at the roadside, there is sulfur buckwheat.

“You’re not here until you’re here,” he said triumphantly, filling envelopes with seeds.

“Then when you find them,” he said, “they go on and on.”

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