The Point Reyes Horkelia is a delicate rose-sister with finely fragranced foliage forming drought-hearty dark green patches in California’s remaining coastal prairies. This species, like other close relatives, has strong horticultural value; when only slightly watered in the driest of months, it forms a beautiful, resilient, fire retardant ground cover. White five-petaled flowers form starburst patterned over-stories to a leafy silver carpet. Plants are strong, long-lived microshrubs with deep, woody taproots. Given ideal conditions, mature square meter-sized Pt. Reyes Horkelia clones support extensive root systems, capturing nutrients and rainfall, sequestering carbon, and stabilizing slopes. Across the 25-odd distinct patches of coastal prairie that support this species, Horkelia clones are nurturing increased soil ecosystem diversity.
The Latin, Horkelia marinensis, references Marin County, California, the heartland of the species’ distribution. There are outlying populations elsewhere along California’s central coast. A few plants live in a meadow on the Moore Creek Greenbelt, more live in prairies near Twin Gates, upper UCSC campus and Wilder Ranch State Park. More recently discovered populations are at the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve, San Vicente Redwoods, and on the Cotoni Coast Dairies Preserve.
How rare is this wildflower? Should it be given legal protection under the State or Federal Endangered Species Acts? The criteria are not transparent for awarding threatened or endangered status to this kind of widely distributed plant, which mostly grows in ‘protected’ areas including heavily-used public parks. Some have suggested that if a plant were to have fewer than 16 populations, and if a significant number of those populations are substantially threatened with extirpation, and if a petition were submitted to the government and authored by a legitimate source…. then perhaps the bureaucracy would rule in favor of conservation.
There are dramatic swings in the annual number of new species protected under State and Federal Endangered Species Acts. Do we have a good system for adequately capturing the urgency of protecting particular species? Experts with the California Native Plant Society agree that the Point Reyes Horkelia is indeed endangered – biologically. These experts routinely reassess their recommended status for species, and make recommendations based both on close scientific observation and the knowledge of experts. Discovery of so rare a species in our hard-pressed midst merits at least an immediate population survey, without which we can’t begin to address its conservation status. Even when this rare species is on public lands there is no government botanist available to collate surveys across the range of the species. And so, surveys and documentation are left mainly to volunteers.
As just such a volunteer, I am pleased to offer what is already known about Pt. Reyes Horkelia distribution in our area. The Santa Cruz County populations of Pt. Reyes Horkelia live on many differently owned and managed lands, with varying management attention. The southern range limit for the species is currently believed to end on the Moore Creek Greenbelt. Santa Cruz City Parks Department has been spending some attention to managing the parks’ beautiful meadows, where the Pt. Reyes Horkelia and other rare wildflowers have been restored through carefully managed cattle grazing. UCSC land also includes a few patches of the species, in moist meadows mainly near Twin Gates, on both sides of Empire Grade in an area known as Marshall Field. The University occasionally does good things for those meadows, like prescribed fire and mowing to maintain native plant species, but the area with this species has been largely neglected for the past decade, so it may be declining. The BLM hasn’t really hit the ground with any kind of targeted meadow management aimed at conserving native plant species on their Cotoni Coast Dairies Preserve. The consortium of land trusts owning the San Vicente Redwoods know about the species being on their land, so they would presumably be careful with any of their timber, fire, or recreational management. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve has a single small patch of plants, but no management or monitoring to maintain the species.
While some of these patches are in good hands, others are under daily threat from disuse or overuse. The impossibility of cooperation across such broad swathes of countryside renders survey work on the holdings of amenable or accessible landowners more urgent. Stunned as we may be that work of this nature is barely funded for the government agencies tasked with oversight of such matters, there are things we can do to help this plant out. For instance, join the California Native Plant Society, which is the most effective native plant conservation organization per dollar invested in the state. Also, every time you hear about plans to increase access, adding trails and visitors, to the meadows of our area…weigh in on native plant conservation with the lands managing entity involved. Mostly, those weighing in are vocal users- mountain bikers, especially…people not inclined to also care about rare native plants. By speaking for, caring about, and investing in our rarest native plant species, you will be contributing to the possibility that future generations will have the chance to experience the fine, rose scented foliage of this beautiful, rare wildflower.
Many thanks to Wes Harman for editorial assistance.