The lush Ballona Wetlands west of Lincoln Boulevard hold a treasure trove of animal and plant species, so it isn’t surprising to learn that that a certain native frog, bird or insect resides within its rich ecosystem.
But a recent discovery of a rare flower has scientists who work in the wetlands ecstatic, and they believe there could be more species there that have yet to be uncovered.
The Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion, a flower native to coastal sand dunes, was identified during a public works restoration and beautification project in the wetlands off Pacific Avenue in the Marina Peninsula March 4th. The discovery of this rare flower could have a number of positive implications for the wetlands’ ecosystem, according to biologist Robert “Roy” van de Hoek, co-director of the Ballona Institute.
“This discovery could trigger even more new discoveries in this habitat,” van de Hoek said a day after he and a city environmental specialist noticed the threatened species. “We could begin to see other native species, now that the Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion has been found.
“This is really a very significant discovery.”
Van de Hoek said the location, as well as the distinct features and characteristics of the plant, convinced him that the flower was indeed the Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion.
“All of these same plant species near the coastline from Ensenada to Los Angeles are Orcutt’s Pincushions,” the biologist said.
William Jones, an environmental specialist with the city’s Public Works Department, examined the flower the following day and is convinced that it is the rare Orcutt’s Yellow.
“It’s never found at the Ballona Wetlands,” Jones confirmed.
Chaenactis glabriuscula DC. var. orcuttiana, the Orcutt’s scientific name, is endemic, or limited, to California. The California Native Plant Society, a statewide nonprofit organization of amateurs and professionals with a common interest in California’s native plants, lists the Orcutt’s Yellow as a 1B, meaning that the flower is rare, threatened or endangered, according to the society.
Jones said the flower’s succulent lower leaves are what distinguishes the Orcutt’s from other yellow pincushions, which are more common inland.
“You have to observe them when they’re in their flowering state (in order to tell the difference),” he explained.
Jones said that he consulted with Dr. Mark Porter, professor of botany at the Claremont Graduate University, before he made his determination that the flower at the Ballona Wetlands was the Orcutt’s Yellow,
“He agreed that it’s the Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion,” Jones said.
Dr. Jonna Engle, a biologist for the California Coastal Commission, calls the flower “seriously threatened” and has requested that the Los Angeles city government take precautions to prevent any damage to the plant.
“It’s a very rare native plant,” Engle told The Argonaut. “We have asked the city to install protective fencing to protect the Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion.”
Marcia Hanscom, co-director of the Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute, said she and van de Hoek had been worried about the manner in which city employees were removing iceplant and other non-native plants during the restoration effort, and while they were unaware of the existence of the threatened flower at the site, they were concerned that other native plants could be harmed.
“We’ve been concerned because we’ve been watching how a contractor does (the restoration work), and as volunteers we’ve been doing it with the community very carefully,” she said.
Hanscom and van de Hoek say this is why someone with restoration expertise should be on hand when excavation or any type of work is done in a sensitive environmental habitat.
“There should be a qualified, specialized biologist on site while city workers are removing non-native plants,” van de Hoek asserted. “It’s also important that the work be done slowly, so that another rare species is not harmed or destroyed.”
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl accompanied Hanscom to the location of the rare pincushion and marveled that an uncommon species had been found.
“It was extraordinary,” Rosendahl said, describing how he felt after he was told that the Orcutt’s Yellow is a rare flower. “I listen to Roy and Marcia and their support is what is needed to help preserve this amazing ecosystem.”
Van de Hoek says that urbanization has played a role in the flower’s scarcity.
“Because we’re in an urban population area where human impacts have been happening for a long time, I think that is one contributing factor for it to be very rare,” he said.
Both Jones and van de Hoek suspect that heavier than usual rainfall has accelerated the early blooming of the pincushion.
“Absolutely,” van de Hoek said. “The pattern and the repeated nature every week or two that we’ve been getting has had a big effect, and the soil is staying consistently wet.”
Jones added, “Usually, when you have a rainy period followed by a dry period, it triggers the flower to start flowering.”
He thinks the yellow pincushion, which is an annual flower that blooms once a year from April until July, could alter its pattern due to the early rains.
“It could finish by May,” Jones said.
Hanscom said the possibility that new plant or insect populations could return or grow in the wetlands now that the Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion has been identified is exciting.
“Who knows what else we’ll see now,” she said. “An ecosystem works together, and if you take any one thing out of the ecosystem, who knows what’s going to fall apart.”
Van de Hoek added, “There are birds that fly around looking for different kinds of insects, and we know through previous studies that birds are linked to insects that eat it and the insect is linked to the plant. So there’s already three species that are enlarging the ecosystem and the biodiversity concept.”
A butterfly and a caterpillar were seen among some of the flowers, and that, van de Hoek says, is encouraging for the wetlands.
The approximately 1,000 flowers are now cordoned off by appropriately colored yellow tape and will be undisturbed while the restoration work continues, Jones said.
Hanscom said that government officials should take note of the discovery for many reasons.
“The bigger lesson here is that a highly mechanized restoration for the state-owned lands at Ballona could be very dangerous,” she noted. “What happens if you find another population of plants or animals? You have to be very careful with this sensitive ecology.”
Jones said most of the work at the city-owned site is being done with hand-held tools.
Rosendahl said he agrees with Hanscom about local, county and state governments being more sensitive to the remaining open space and ecological preserves.
“The message is native plants need to be appreciated,” the councilman said.
Jones said the discovery of a rare native plant is not something that happens often, and should not be discounted.
“It’s nice to have an enclave of nature still intact,” he said.