In 2002, former CNPS East Bay board member John Game wrote an article for the July-August Bay Leaf about the plight of the Pitkin Marsh paintbrush. That plant, an endangered Sonoma County native, was rescued from extinction by the late Lawrence Heckard of the Jepson Herbarium and given a home in the UC Botanical Garden nursery. Twenty years later, we’re looking back at John’s Game’s article and then forward with an update on how the plant and its habitat are faring in 2022.
Readers familiar with Californian plants from the days before The Jepson Manual may remember that Munz, Mason, and other authors included among the paintbrush species a rare one with yellow flowers called Castilleja uliginosa Eastw. It was known only from Pitkin Marsh in Sonoma County, a highly threatened place famous for its lily, Lilium pardalinum ssp. pitkinense. Readers who consult The Jepson Manual, however, will find C. uliginosa “downgraded” to synonymy with the more widespread mountain species C. miniata, although it does get an honorable mention in a statement that “Plants from Pitkin Marsh . . . have been called C. uliginosa.” Worse news seems to follow when the CNPS Inventory of Rare Plants (2001) is consulted. This treats C. uliginosa as a true species but lists it as “presumed extinct.”
Fortunately, I can report more positively about the Pitkin Marsh paintbrush. Thanks to the efforts of Margriet Wetherwax, Holly Forbes, John Domzalski and others, a living plant of C. uliginosa, originally collected as a cutting by the late Larry Heckard, lives on in the UC Botanical Garden at Strawberry Canyon, where it has been propagated into three flower pots—not a wide range, but alive nevertheless! Moreover, I was fortunate to be able to photograph flowering stems in one pot recently and can comment that it doesn’t look much like the typical C. miniata I have seen many times in the wild. First, the inflorescence is a clear attractive lemon yellow, with none of the usual red of C. miniata. Also, the inflorescence is longer and narrower, and does not show the rather large and spreading flowers of C. miniata (see photos). In shape, but not color, it does resemble a rare subspecies of C. miniata called C. miniata ssp. elata, but this variety differs in other ways and is confined to serpentine mountain bogs hundreds of miles from Pitkin Marsh.
The current “known range” of C. uliginosa—three flower pots—makes it probably the rarest of all living Californian plants. One other Californian plant, Franciscan manzanita, is now known only in cultivation but is more widely grown. Like other Castilleja species, C. uliginosa is hemiparasitic and may be difficult to grow extensively in cultivation without the skilled attention of the expert staff at the UC Botanical Garden. C. uliginosa remains listed by the State of California as a recognized endangered species.
Several lessons emerge from the story of C. uliginosa. It illustrates the importance of keeping living collections of our rarest plants in cultivation as an insurance policy against extinction. This has received scant attention from CNPS until now, and some in the Society have even voiced opposition to it. It is almost seen as not quite “politically correct”—there is a view that a plant in cultivation isn’t “really” saved.
This may perhaps be related to a larger trend away from saving individual species and towards overall habitat conservation. No one in the State CNPS rare plant program seems to have been aware of the existence of C. uliginosa in cultivation. My own view, shared by many professional botanists, is that conserving habitat should in no way dilute our efforts to protect living material of every threatened native species and variety in the state. I was able to see and enjoy C. uliginosa because Larry Heckard had the common sense to take a cutting from the last known patch of this species in the wild before it too was lost to habitat degradation. Let’s follow his example by making sure that each of our other plants that are comparably rare are also maintained for others to see in the future. This includes keeping “safe” populations in our botanical gardens as well as vigorous efforts to preserve native habitat.
The Department of Fish and Game [now the California Department of Fish and Wildlife] is currently trying to save the remaining remnants of Pitkin Marsh. Perhaps one day C. uliginosa can be reintroduced into its original habitat and can thrive along with the other rarities that occur there. Paradoxically, current laws provide stronger protection against reintroducing endangered species into habitat where they might not survive than they do against preventing their loss from such places in the first place. This will make it difficult to reintroduce the plant until legal protection is afforded to the reintroduction site, even when sufficient living material is generated in cultivation. Again, CNPS may want to revisit policy issues concerning reintroductions so that its own voice can be heard on the side of common sense in cases where legal details can sometimes be accidentally counterproductive. In the meantime, let’s wish both the UC Botanical Garden and the Department of Fish and Game every success in efforts to amplify living material of this attractive plant and to protect its potential habitat.
— John Game
Twenty years after John Game wrote about the Pitkin Marsh paintbrush, the plant is alive and well at the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley. According to the garden’s curator, Holly Forbes, it is growing in five pots.
The Pitkin Marsh paintbrush gets a little more respect in the current Jepson eFlora than it did in the 1993 edition of The Jepson Manual. The taxon page for C. miniata ssp. miniata now includes the following note: “If recognized taxonomically, plants in lowland southern NCoRO (Pitkin Marsh, Sonoma Co., ± 60 m) with yellow inflorescence assignable to Castilleja uliginosa Eastw., Pitkin Marsh paintbrush.”
In the current online CNPS Inventory of Rare Plants, Castilleja uliginosa’s California Rare Plant Rank is still 1A, presumed extirpated or extinct (presumed extirpated in California and either rare or extinct elsewhere). It is listed as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act, and while it is not federally listed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes it as a Category 2 taxon, meaning that “information now in the possession of the Service indicates that proposing to list as endangered or threatened is possibly appropriate, but for which sufficient data on biological vulnerability and threat are not currently available to support proposed rules.”
Although the Pitkin Marsh paintbrush no longer exists in the wild, part of its former wild habitat in Sonoma County’s Pitkin Marsh is now a preserve. In 2001, the Sonoma Land Trust purchased 27 acres of Pitkin Marsh where a residential care facility was slated to be built, and that portion became a preserve in 2007. This small but unique habitat includes native riparian, marsh, bog, oak woodland, and grassland plant communities. It protects the federally and state-listed endangered Pitkin Marsh lily (Lilium pardalinum ssp. pitkinense) and white sedge (Carex albida) as well as rare assemblages of other marsh species, and it serves as an important wildlife connectivity corridor.
CNPS now has a number of robust statewide initiatives to protect rare plants as well as their habitats. Notable among these is the Important Plant Areas project, which began in 2016 and followed the lead of our CNPS East Bay Chapter’s Botanical Priority Protection Areas initiative. CNPS is a member of California Plant Rescue (CaPR), which collects and stores seed of rare, threatened, and endangered California plants and also gathers data about wild populations to inform plant conservation efforts. In addition, CaPR conserves California plants that are difficult to maintain as seed through a program of living collections in nurseries, labs, or botanical institutions like the UC Botanical Garden.
Whether the Pitkin Marsh paintbrush can ever be reintroduced and successfully reproduce at Pitkin Marsh (or elsewhere) is currently unknown because it must cross with a genetically distinct plant to produce offspring. The genetics of the plants at the UC Botanical Garden are in need of study: one or more of the pots contain plants that resulted from backcrosses, and those details only exist in Lawrence Heckard’s notes. But the UC Botanical Garden has succeeded in keeping the paintbrush alive and thriving in its nursery for 35 years, and part of Pitkin Marsh is now a preserve, so the future may hold unforeseen promise for this rare plant.
— Sue Rosenthal, Bay Leaf editor