Sebastopol meadowfoam, a rare and endangered wildflower, gets a new lease on life thanks to the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation
Sebastopol meadowfoam (Limnanthes vinculans) is probably west county’s best-known endangered plant. According to local lore, environmental activists once planted it on the site of a future housing development, hoping to derail the project. Despite its fame, however, it has continued to slide ever closer to extinction, a victim of residential and vineyard development in its prime habitat.
When the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation did a population count of Sebastopol meadowfoam in 2008 in a large field near the Laguna de Santa Rosa trail, there were 16,000 plants; a few years later there were just two in that same area.
Local botanists and native plant lovers held their breath, wondering if the end was near for the delicate, low-lying, white-blossomed wildflower, which grows only in the Santa Rosa Plain and in one other spot near Napa.
Then last year, the population in what’s known as Balletto Field bounced back up to 500 plants.
According to Sarah Gordon, the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation’s conservation science program manager, this allowed the foundation to get a permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to gather a small number of meadowfoam seeds. The foundation’s plan was to grow Sebastopol meadowfoam in its native plant nursery in order to create even more seeds that could be used for restoration.
“With two plants, you can’t do anything. You can’t even collect seeds because you might accidentally extirpate the population,” said Gordon, who has a masters in conservation genetics from Sonoma State. “With 500 plants, we could actually collect 5% of the seed and bring it back to our nursery and bulk them up.”
According to Gordon, that effort was wildly successful.
“I think we collected around 300 seeds from the field, and we thought maybe, if we’re really lucky, we could get several thousand seeds. But at this point — and we haven’t finished counting them — we’re way into the tens of thousands. We could have 50,000 to 100,000 seeds, which would be really cool because this is a state and federally endangered plant,” Gordon said.
Because Sebastopol meadowfoam is so rare, Gordon said the plants got special treatment in the nursery.
“They were celebrities in our greenhouse,” she said. “The staff was always checking on them.”
They were particularly concerned about pollinators.
“Because these are insect-pollinated plants, in order for us to get viable seed or any seed at all, we had to have pollinators,” Gordon said. “We were worried that we wouldn’t get pollinators in our shade house because it’s enclosed by netting, so we moved them outside. We were still nervous, so we had a local beekeeper bring a hive over … but the thing that was really awesome was that they ended up just loaded with native pollinators — like native bees and beetles — that just found them. We were hoping that would be the case, and it was really exciting to see it happen.”
Gordon said the foundation will replant the seeds later this summer in the field where they found them — restoring them to the areas where they bloomed back in 2008.
In the meantime, foundation volunteers (and several sheep) have been working hard to make Balletto Field and other parts of the laguna more hospitable for Sebastopol meadowfoam and other native plants, as a part of a larger program to preserve the laguna’s wet meadows and vernal pools.
“The places where they grew before have now been restored through grazing, invasive species management and thatch removal,” Gordon said.
“We’ve been working on doing grazing on Balletto Field to enhance the habitat and do restoration,” she said. “We believe the meadowfoam was actually there because that property was grazed. Grazing helps with seasonal wetland habitat.”
Some readers may be startled to learn that grazing is an important part of the restoration effort, because early attempts to save the flower involved removing grazing animals like cows and sheep from areas where Sebastopol meadowfoam was found. Much to everyone’s dismay, meadowfoam populations crashed, which is how conservationists discovered that Sebastopol meadowfoam was actually dependent on grazing.
According to Gordon, “There’s been a huge shift in the last 10 to 20 years where biologists have started considering the importance of grazing, especially for native forbs and grasses.” (Editors note: a forb is an herbaceous flowering plant that is not a grass, reed or sedge.)
“The native forbs need bare ground to germinate and grow,” Gordon said. “When you have all these non-native grasses, a thatch builds up, and it inhibits the ability of native plants to grow.”
Mowing and raking by hand can help, but grazing is even more effective, she said — not to mention less time- and volunteer-intensive.
“Based on our over a decade of data collection, grazing by cattle, sheep, goats and horses, if it’s done well, can all provide good habitat for these plants.”
Managing the grazing is a balancing act, Gordon said.
“If you have way too many horses or cattle or sheep on a parcel, you just end up with a mud lot.”
In addition to replanting Balletto Field, Gordon said they are hoping to plant some of the seeds in other areas of the laguna.
“We’re starting to dream big,” she said, but noted that first they’ll have to get the OK from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“When you get a permit to handle these rare species, you have to say exactly what you’re going to do with them, and you’re only allowed to do what you say,” Gordon said.
“We’re considering going back to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and saying, ‘We got way more seeds than we expected. Can we set some of them aside to do other restoration work?’ They’ve been really supportive of this project so I think they’ll seriously consider our request.”
One of the places the foundation would like to replant Sebastopol meadowfoam is along Irwin Creek, which runs across the north end of the Laguna Foundation property.
“Irwin Creek used to have Sebastopol meadowfoam in the adjacent wet meadow, and it’s been extirpated because they took cattle off,” Gordon said. “When they realized what was happening, they tried to put cattle back on, but it was already too late. So that’s one site we’ve had our eye on for doing a reintroduction, but we wouldn’t want to put them out unless we could get regular grazing there.”
Gordon said the foundation staff has been so pleased with this year’s seed saving project that they’re hoping to replicate it next year with the small population of Sebastopol meadowfoam at the Earle Baum Center for the Blind.
“We’ve watched that population of meadowfoam shrink as well,” Gordon said. “So we’d like to collect seeds from the Earle Baum center next year and then bulk those seeds up and put them back out. So we’re working on a grant for that right now that we have to submit in a couple of weeks.”
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department Recovery Plan for the Sebastopol meadowfoam, 99% of Sebastopol meadowfoam exists only on 36 sites on the Santa Rosa plain — and some of those sites haven’t been visited in years, Gordon said.
“If we want to protect this endangered plant, we have to do it here in Sonoma County in the Laguna watershed,” she said.