Scientists and a volunteer organization taking part in restoring the 600-acre Ballona Wetlands are thrilled with a recent rediscovery of the rare Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion in a section of the wetlands, which they feel can lead to other important finds through continued efforts to recondition the state-owned ecological reserve.
“To us, this is really validating,” said Diana Hurlbert, the restoration coordinator for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. “This tells us that if you provide species with a habitat and remove the obstacles to the ecosystem, they can come back.”
The commission is assisting the California Coastal Commission in monitoring plant and water studies as part of the planned restoration of the Ballona Wetlands, a state ecological project that is slated to begin later this year.
Playa de Rey was once home to the Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion, and there is scientific data documenting the annual flower’s appearance in the area since 1902, said Dr. Edith Read, who manages the Playa Vista Freshwater Marsh.
Known as Chaenactis glab orcuttiana, its scientific name, the rare flower was rediscovered last month in sand dunes behind Gordon’s Market in Playa del Rey, an area where the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands has been working to remove non-native vegetation like ice plant from the wetlands that can be an obstacle to the growth of native plants, like the pincushion.
“(Ice plants) are restraints on the natural system of the wetlands,” Hulbert noted. “If we can provide natural habitat and remove the obstacles, they can come back.”
Dr. Shelly Luce, the executive director of the commission, credited the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands for its decades-long work on dune restoration. “The new presence of the pincushion in this area is an excellent example of how restoration by the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands has transformed this landscape from an area dominated by invasive ice plant, to a thriving native community with rare species,” Luce told the Argonaut.
The findings were confirmed by Aaron Arthur, a botanist with San Rafael -based Wetlands Research Associates, which was hired by the state to perform special status plant surveys. “We identified it in the field with another botanist, Morgan Trieter,” Arthur confirmed. “We also took a sample of the plant and confirmed with another botanist that it is Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion.”
Karina Johnston, a restoration ecologist on Luce’s staff, echoed Hurlbert’s views on how sand dune rehabilitation can yield important discoveries and rediscoveries.
“I found the presence of the pincushion and the other rare species to be a very promising display of the success of the restoration efforts in that area,” Johnston said. “The presence of the rare species is an exciting indicator of the shift in habitat quality from invasive ice plant-dominated habitat to a flourishing dune community.”
While Luce and others at the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission are thrilled with the discovery of the pincushion in Playa del Rey, Read indicated that she was a bit more circumspect.
“They have occurred here before, so it’s more of a rediscovery,” Read, who is a board member of the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, reiterated.
The Argonaut first reported a discovery of the rare dune flower last March in Ballona Lagoon by members of the Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute at the site of a city restoration project in the Marina Peninsula. The authenticity of the bright, yellow flowers was confirmed and the area where they are sprouting was subsequently cordoned off to prevent any damage to them.
The restoration project, which required a permit from the California Coastal Commission because the area is in the coastal zone, has been approved, but the pincushions have been fenced in for their protection and the commission directed city officials to work with a restoration biologist to ensure that the Orcutt’s Yellow and other native plants are not disturbed.
Two weeks after the Argonaut broke the news about the discovery of the dune flower, its status was upgraded.
The Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion was listed as a “1.B.1” by the California Native Plant Society, which means the flower is rare, threatened or endangered. Its new rank is G5T1.S1. “G stands for global, T is the global for the variety and S is for the state rank,” explained Roxanne Bittman, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game.
“C. glab (an abbreviation for Chaenactis glab orcuttiana, ) as a species is common. But, this variety is very rare and endangered,” Bittman wrote in an email last year.
Read, who is a biologist and plant specialist, said on prior occasions the rare Orcutt’s Yellow was thought to have been rediscovered in the wetlands but after further investigation, it was concluded that they were yellow pincushions, but not the distinct looking Orcutt’s Yellow.
“The challenge has been proper identification,” said the scientist, who was initially skeptical of the Ballona Lagoon pincushions but later became convinced. “It has to be based on geographic taxonomy.”
Based on the confirmations of other scientists, she also believes that the Playa del Rey flowers are the rare pincushions.
“If three botanists have confirmed it, that’s good enough for me,” Read said.
Arthur said only one other type of discovery is more exciting than identifying a rare species like the Orcutt’s Yellow. “For a botanist, it would be finding one that was thought to be extinct,” he said.
In addition to the Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion, there were two other flowers that were located during the plant survey: the Lewis’ evening primrose (Camissonia lewisii) and the suffrutescent wallflower (Erysimum insulare ssp. Suffrutescens), both rare flowers.
“The primrose species are always a delight to see flowering in the restoration area,” Johnston said. “In addition to the rare Lewis, the area also contains the beach evening primrose, which is a native species common to open dunes and sandy areas in southern California.”
“None of these rare species were planted by the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, so we are confident that the improved ecological value of the area due to restoration efforts so far is the reason these rare plants can thrive here,” Luce added.
Read does agree that dune restoration has played a significant role in the rediscovery of the Orcutt’s Yellow. “It’s evidence that the efforts by the Friends to encourage the growth and restoration of native species is working,” she said.
And while she does applaud the dune restoration efforts, Read said she would prefer to wait until other types of discoveries are made before she is as overjoyed as members of the commission are.
“I would get more excited if someone came across a new species that has been presumed extinct,” the biologist said.