UW Today

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November 20, 2008

UW, volunteers join forces trying to save Washington’s imperiled plants

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Salish fleabane. Cotton’s milkvetch. Green keeled cotton-grass. Mt. Rainier lousewort.

Collecting seeds from these rare alpine plants in Washington can involve clambering up steep ridges and facing winds up to 50 miles per hour on the exposed rocky slopes. In spite of such difficulties, plants that make up these “pincushion communities” are favorites of Wendy Gibble, program manager of the Washington Rare Plant Care and Conservation program at the UW Botanic Gardens. Both are parts of the UW College of Forest Resources.

Pincushion communities? They’re so called because the tiny plants, sometimes only an inch tall because of the harsh growing conditions, can look like bright pin heads poking out of the cracks between rocks.

Seeds of these and other Washington rare plants are being collected and stored in a climate-controlled vault on the UW campus in the event a population gets so low it needs a boost or the plant dies out completely and seed is needed so it can be reintroduced. One of the effects of global warming may be that plants will have to “migrate” farther north to have the right growing conditions, Gibble says. Imagine how difficult it would be for seeds of alpine plants high atop ridges to be carried by wind or animals to the tops of ridges farther north. That’s where having seeds in the deep freeze in the Miller Seed Vault would be so important.

Collecting and storing seeds, research on rare plants and monitoring Washington’s rare plant populations are tasks of the Washington Rare Plant Care and Conservation — or Rare Care — program that just celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Gibble thinks the program’s greatest contribution to date is the monitoring which helps update the database of the Washington Natural Heritage Program, a part of the Washington Department of Natural Resources. That database is important because organizations and people need to know how many and what kinds of rare plants might be on land they are considering buying or including in a preserve or park in order to protect what’s there, Gibble says.

Rare Care has updated 20 percent of the 3,000 records in the database, Gibble says. Some of those records are from the ’60s and ’70s and some populations of rare plants haven’t been visited for years.

Much of the monitoring work is done by volunteers, none of whom have ever gotten lost in spite of the sometimes challenging task of trying to find plants when the only location information is a dot on a map. If there aren’t details, then volunteers have to do research: Are there logging roads in the area? Trails? Many choose to take extra Rare Care training on using maps, compasses and the Global Positioning System.

Searches can take volunteers to some of the most interesting natural sites in the state, Gibble says, and sometimes they get to go on lands that are otherwise closed to the public. Lots of brown bears and other wildlife are observed and there’s been one grizzly bear and one wolverine sighting. When volunteers find the plants, they’ve been trained to either count or estimate the number of plants. And if the plant is in bloom, they’re asked to be on the lookout for ants, beetles, bees, flies or whatever might be pollinating the plant.

“We’ve got 350 rare plants in the state but only about 20 have been studied,” Gibble says.

Altogether 250 to 300 persons have been trained since 2001, when UW associate professor of forest resources Sarah Reichard and graduate student Laura Zybas modeled the volunteer monitoring program on the one at the New England Wildflower Society.

Becoming a volunteer involves submitting an application and attending a one-day training. To thwart rare-plant rustling, volunteers pledge not to collect any rare plants or tell others of their locations. Those interested in volunteering for monitoring or for work in the seed vault can visit http://courses.washington.edu/rarecare/Volunteer2.html.

Learn more about Rare Care and the UW Botanic Gardens by visiting http://courses.washington.edu/rarecare/index.htm.