Northern California Plant Relicts, four plants still kicking it after millions of years

During our nomadic stint in Northern California – Dunsmuir to be exact – we were exposed to the concept of plant relicts and during our adventures found a few notable members of this fascinating group. I wanted to dig deeper into these interesting plants, which is the topic of this blog. 

Northern California contains the Siskiyou and Klamath mountain ranges, which are composed of a variety of soil types which were once the sea floor, coral reefs became today’s limestone and marble rock types, and granite is the result of risen solidified magma. Some of these mountains were once islands or peninsulas extending out into the Pacific Ocean. As time went on sediments and other material then filled the valleys and gaps to create land between the mountains and ocean. Glaciers that no longer exist and fast flowing rivers also aided in constructing the landscape we see today. Northern California has a very diverse geology, of which I am not qualified to attempt to explain, maybe one day.


The Klamath mountains get a great dousing of rain, with roughly 250cm each year but the rock and soil types of serpentine and other ultramafic rocks add to the challenges plants must overcome in order to thrive. But some species have weathered many “storms” and have stuck around for millions of years. These are known as plant relicts, which are taxon or populations of an organism that was once widespread in a previous geologic epoch but now only survive in a small range. I took a dive into four plant relicts of Northern California: Kalmiopsis leachiana, Shasta Snow-wreath, California Pitcher Plant and Brewer’s Spruce. Enjoy!

Kalmiopsis leachiana 

May 30, 2021

Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Curry County, Oregon 

The first on the list is Kalmiopsis leachiana. After bagging a peak, visiting a gorgeous lake, and a trek along a hot and exposed trail we found the gal we were looking for. This slow-growing shrub related to the rhododendron, with its entire forest-green leaves, dark rose to light pink petals, and long exerting stamens, was discovered in 1930.

When Lilla Leach discovered the plant on a trip in the Klamath Mountains – equipped with two burrows named Pansy and Violet and husband in tow – what was found was not only one new species, but a new genus under the family Ericaceae. GAH! What all botanists dream of! 

Not only was this plant surviving and thriving when we found it, among the burned landscapes of recent wildfires, but it’s a pre-ice age plant relict. This makes it the oldest known member of the Ericaceae (Heath) family! Gosh what a tough beast! 

Obviously it’s seen many fires over it’s natural history, and while hiking the trails and ridgelines all day surrounded by recent burns it’s always nice to leave with the reminder that nature is incredibly resilient. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and eff this planet up more than our species already has. 

This plant’s range is quite condensed, only existing within the protected wilderness that bears its name, The Kalmiopsis Wilderness. It’s difficult to visualize its surroundings and plant associates pre-burn. The 2002 Biscuit fire and others more recently have left the area quite barren with charred trees, but life is definitely returning. Kalmiopsis is definitely fire-adapted, and multiple sources I read seem to hypothesize that this is aiding in its ability to outcompete nearby plants and therefore aid in dispersal.

We found some individuals on mostly flat ground near an old road, but the more fresh and more densely flowering shrubs were on steep rocky slopes. The latter seems to be the type of habitat that they can dominate over others due to limited competition.

With a whole wilderness named after it you’d think it would be pretty abundant. Small seedlings, and slow growth rate may be two reasons it has limited distribution, as well as low reproductive rates. Marquis, who wrote his thesis on the species in 1977 found that it grows exclusively on “exposed, silicified rock outcrops.” In addition, “germination and seedling development” weren’t factors limiting distribution so “competition for light, water and nutrients” must be a factor. This is all interesting to try and understand since it grows in such a small range. One other possible factor is if a biological control is keeping it from dispersing. Grazing has been determined to not be a factor, but two insects, a mite and a lygaeid, might be to blame as they have been found within the seed capsules. 

Overall, what a great plant. Totally worth the trek to find it, just make sure you bring lots of water.

Shasta snow-wreath, Neviusia cliftonii

Date: May 1, 2021

Shasta County, California

Sometimes a tough bushwack leads to cool views, neat geological features, and sometimes leads to progressively worse brushy conditions BUT one day in May it lead to this awesome botanical rarity! The Shasta snow-wreath, Neviusia cliftonii! 

This fluff ball producing thicket-forming shrub has some really interesting history. This plant actually wasn’t known to be a unique species until 1992 – ooo so fresh! Hiding in the woods of Shasta County, its resemblance to ocean spray (Holodiscusdiscolor) and ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus)  helped keep its uniqueness a secret. I read that perhaps due to the fact that bushwhacking in poison oak isn’t everyone’s cup-a-tea also helped keep this species unnoticed. These reasons are why it is ranked 1B.2 in California and only has seven observations on iNaturalist. 

Even though it’s now restricted to a small area around Shasta Lake in Northern California, it was once much more widespread under different climatic conditions, even up to BC! Its closest relatives exist within four species worldwide, with the closest populations and single fellow member of the genus Neviusia remaining on the east coast. Therefore this pup is a paleoendemic, its origin potentially dating back to the Eocene tertiary geological period which was 56 to 33.9 million years ago. 

With plants like this it’s always concerning reading about the limited range and low population which conjures up feelings of nervousness around it’s future with a rapidly changing climate. Perhaps there are more out there than we know about which can aid in maintaining genetic diversity since in 1992 only three populations were known, which has expanded to 33 in 2017. Northern California in the summer is quite dry, and only getting hotter and drier with climate change, so wildfire is an obvious concern and since this is a new species research is limited. But a 2017 paper by Jules et al. discussed the possibility that low canopy coverage by surrounding trees supported the largest population. So a normal fire regime that lowers the canopy coverage of surrounding trees like Douglas-fir could help the Shasta snow-wreath. But because we have suppressed wildfires for so long, fires are often much more severe which could affect this species negatively or positively, we just don’t know. 

If wildfires caused by climate change and old “management techniques” don’t squash populations, development and mining also threaten this great relict. The damming of Shasta Lake most definitely covered populations in 1948. But I do like to romanticize the idea that this species will survive and thrive in tucked away corners of Northern California where humans can’t get their dirty little destructive fingers on them. But this wonderful survivor is indeed a toughie, and currently a listing candidate in California.

California Pitcher Plant, Darlingtonia californica

May 28, 2021

Six Rivers National Forest, Del Norte County, CA

Even though I’ve met Miss California Pitcherplant, Darlingtonia californica many times over the last two years, reuniting with it while living in Northern California this spring was extra special as I saw it flowering! In multiple locations! Yipee! 

Insects fly under the balloon-y bulbous top section, get confused by the false exits, get tired, and eventually end up going down the tube, getting trapped by downward-pointing hairs and slippery walls. They fall to the bottom where proteolytic microbial enzymes dissolve the prey, releasing nutrients to the plant that’s absorbed through cells that are similar to cells found in their roots. These enzymes are not produced by the plant itself, instead it teams up with a symbiotic bacteria and protozoa as well as mites, and larvae. Prey includes bees, spiders, flies, and other insects, but only for about 2% of insects is this the last plant they’ll ever visit. These fabulous plants can grow in a variety of habitats including ultramafic soils, supplementing the lack of naturally occurring nitrogen with carnivory.

When you think of a flower it’s probably facing upright, receptive as possible to nearby pollinators. Well D. californica’s flowers nod right over looking straight at the ground. A 2011 paper by Meindl studied the pollinators and found solitary bees, particularly A. nigrihirta, were the primary pollinators with supplemental visits from the odd spider. The flower’s structure makes it difficult for insects to find an entrance, or an exit! Insects wandering around the flower may contribute to selfing, especially if a spider decides to make a web, increasing the chance pollen is carried to the stigma. This particular study was conducted in and around Scott Mountain and Mount Eddy (where we observed these plants) so perhaps in other locations the pollinator spectrum differs. 

One aspect I didn’t know was that it regulates the water inside the long tube by pumping water from its roots, which makes sense! While often assumed, rainwater is not the source of the liquid at the bottom of the tube, in such a dry state as California this wouldn’t make much sense. Instead the water level is managed by the pumping roots, perfect for the wet environments it thrives in, like seeps and bogs. 

Once again the California pitcher plant is the only member of its genus, and the only pitcher plant east of the Rockies. 

Brewer’s Spruce, Picea breweriana

May 15, 2021

Six Rivers National Forest, Del Norte County, CA

What a lovely elegant tree, no wonder it’s a sought after garden plant in foreign countries! But as always, it’s much better to observe a species in its native range, as we’ve done three times over the past two years (at least that’s what we’ve recorded on iNat).  Its branches hang downward, so elegantly and delicately, which is why it also goes by the weeping spruce. Totally makes sense. But it gets its scientific name from the botanist William Henry Brewer.

It’s drooping branchlets allow snow to slough off easily as winters in it’s range can bring heavy snow, but that is exactly what provides moisture in the spring to help combat the hot summer months. Ridgetop life is not for the weak or the fast growers, as this tree is a slow grower due to the poor soil it sprouts from. But these are the prices one must pay to avoid competition from others such as the Douglas-fir. It grows in rocky open stands where the soils are poor and fires are less of a threat, which explains its thin bark. But if the climate change continues to stoke hot dry summers with increased wildfires this spruce may not do so well as it’s quite susceptible when fires roll through. 

Well this plant relict is from the Arcto-Tertiary forest from the Pliocene and Miocene which is when it extended into today’s Idaho, Nevada, South/Central California and North/Central Oregon. But nowadays you’ll have to set your GPS to the Klamath Geomorphological Province which includes numerous mountain ranges of Northern California. These mountains, unlike the rest of the surrounding area, stayed above water over the last 100 million years therefore providing a refuge for species, which is why we still have the Brewer’s Spruce and other relicts to marvel over today! 

We just left Northern California for BC where the temps were high and the soils were dry, and just pondering the thought that smaller populations could be wiped out from fire was even more frightful after reading this next tidbit. It’s the only member of its Genus! WA! Even though human induced attempts have been made to hybridize with Englemann or Sitka spruce, they came up empty. Due to its high levels of selfing and with not much elevation left for it to move any higher it makes a great case for needing legal protection in my opinion! 

Summary

While I’m sure I missed multiple plant relicts (hello ferns and horsetails) from our time in Dunsmuir and the surrounding area I think these represent a wide variety and are pretty charismatic. 

Happy Botanizing!

  • Resources:
    • Kalmiopsis leachiana, by Michael Kauffman
    • Kalmiopsis, Journal of the Native Plant Society of Oregon, 1991
    • California Pitcher plant, Darlingtonia californica
    • Picea breweriana Wiki Page
    • Darlingtonia californica on Bionity.com
    • Ellison, Aaron M., and Elizabeth J. Farnsworth. “The cost of carnivory for Darlingtonia californica (Sarraceniaceae): evidence from relationships among leaf traits.” American Journal of Botany 92.7 (2005): 1085-1093.
    • Marquis, Robert John. An Investigation Into the Ecology and Distribution of Kalmiopsis Leachiana (hend.) Rehder. : Oregon State University, 1977.
    • Ledig, F. Thomas, Paul D. Hodgskiss, and David R. Johnson. “Genic diversity, genetic structure, and mating system of Brewer spruce (Pinaceae), a relict of the Arcto‐Tertiary forest.” American Journal of Botany 92.12 (2005): 1975-1986.Jules, E. S., Jackson, J. I., Butz, R. J., & Kurkjian, H. M. (2017). Population Structure and Site Characteristics of the Rare Shasta Snow-Wreath (Neviusia cliftonii). Madroño, 64(4), 116–123. doi:10.3120/0024-9637-64.4.116 
    • Meindl, George A., and Michael R. Mesler. “Pollination biology of Darlingtonia californica (Sarraceniaceae), the California pitcher plant.” Madroño 58.1 (2011): 22-31.
    • Geology of Northern California by Frank DeCourten

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Ken Reid says:

    Have yoy moved back to the farm ? Any problem at the border ? Grandpa

    Sent from Mailspring (https://getmailspring.com/), the best free email app for work

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    1. Indeed! We are back to exploring the great BC wilderness!

      Like

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi Chloe, I learned so much from this post. The California Pitcher plant is so cool. I love the photo that was taken of the plant. It must be so fun to discover the plant relics . I liked your comment about Patsy, Violet and husband in tow. There is so much going on right at our feet . Your blog posts make me happy:)))))))

    Like

  3. Kirsten Reid says:

    Hi Chloe, I learned so much from this post. The California Pitcher plant is so cool. I love the photo that was taken of the plant. It must be so fun to discover the plant relics . I liked your comment about Patsy, Violet and husband in tow. There is so much going on right at our feet . Your blog posts make me happy:)))))))

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks for your kind words, and yes indeed there is so much going on below our feet!

      Like

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