(Still) Working to Save Orcutt’s Spineflower

Time really flies when you’re working to save tiny endangered plants! This vintage newspaper story in the San Diego Union from 1991 describes the exciting rediscovery of the endangered Orcutt’s spineflower in Encinitas that, before then hadn’t been seen for several years and had even been considered extinct as development chewed up San Diego coastal natural habitats. Way back then, now-TCLC Executive Director David Hogan was quoted, “This site is desperately needed as a seed bank to replant areas where it was once known. That would be part of the recovery program.” The spineflower’s status was somewhat improved when the species was also rediscovered in the late 1990s at several sites on Navy land on Point Loma and at one site near Del Mar in 2009.

Orcutt’s spineflower photo by Margaret Fillius.

Fast-forward to 2017: TCLC has been working to protect and restore the still-endangered Orcutt’s spineflower (Chorizanthe oructtiana) as part of its Rarest Plants Project. The spineflower live only in very particular soils near the coast where nearly all of its original habitat has been lost to urban development. So, starting in 2014, TCLC began mapping the special soils and conducting field surveys in other suitable habitat to identify any other unknown populations on nature preserve lands.

TCLC spread the exciting news in 2015 that this work resulted in the discovery of seven new populations of the species at several coastal North County preserves. Since then, TCLC staff, volunteers, and colleagues with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Cabrillo National Monument have found four additional populations for a grand total of eleven new, never before-recorded populations with hundreds of plants!

Typical open sandy Orcutt’s spineflower habitat at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.

TCLC has also worked with the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden to collect and bulk seed to attempt to establish new populations, weeded around existing populations, and installed fencing and signs at several preserves to direct visitors to designated trails and away from delicate spineflower populations. Seed bulked by the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden was introduced to several areas of suitable but unoccupied habitat in late 2015 and we’re pleased to report that nearly five hundred plants were counted at the seeded sites in spring 2017. In all, population numbers are quite a bit more encouraging than the mere fifteen seen in Encinitas in 1991! Check out this detailed report on TCLC’s work to protect Orcutt’s spineflowers for much more information.

TCLC sign closing a path into Orcutt’s spineflower habitat.

The conservation status of Orcutt’s spineflower has significantly improved since then with so many newly discovered populations. But even these populations located on lands protected from development like Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve are still seriously threatened by exotic invasive plants and trampling from visitors walking off-trails. One particular invasive plant, purple veldt grass has spread rapidly from freeway and other landscaping and could outcompete spineflowers and even crowd out most other coastal natural vegetation in just a few years. So much more work is needed to control invasive plants and to provide long-term stewardship for the spineflower and many other native plants, endangered and common alike.

City of San Diego Rangers and TCLC volunteers installing trail fence to protect Orcutt’s spineflower.

TCLC couldn’t have done the work to save Orcutt’s spineflower without the generous support of several government agencies and staff at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, San Diego Association of Governments, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Big thanks are due too to AJP Consulting, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Rocks Biological Consulting, and Torrey Pines Docent extraordinaire Margaret Fillius.