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Story of a Rare Plant Picture

by Thomas Oberbauer

For a number of years during the mid 1970’s, I searched for rare plants on San Clemente Island in southern California. At this time, feral goats ranged over the island. The canyon bottoms were covered with goat droppings, the lower slopes on the island were nearly barren from goat grazing and browsing, and the scent of goats was ever present owing to the droppings and the occasional rotting carcass of a goat that died of natural causes. During those visits, I could only find many of the endemic species on the island—Blair’s wirelettuce (Munzothamnus blairii), Nevin’s wooly sunflower (Constancea nevinii), and San Clemente Island bushmallow (Malacothamnus clementinus)—growing in the trash dump where the goats did not tread. There were others that I did not see.

I explored the island with Mitch Beauchamp of the California Native Plant Society and Dr. Reid Moran of the San Diego Natural History Museum herbarium. They utilized me, at the time a graduate student, to climb the steep cliff slopes to retrieve plants growing beyond the reach of the hungry goats. Our searches were sometimes successful. We found a new location of the bushmallow, Malocothamnus,when at the time, the trash dump was the only known location.

My holy grail species was the endemic yellow-flowered San Clemente Island Indian paintbrush, Castilleja grisea, an extremely rare and striking plant. On one search, while walking down a deep canyon, we spotted a flowering Castilleja grisea on a cliff above us. I very much wanted to photograph the flower. I carefully picked my way up the 60-foot slope, grabbing on to rocks to avoid the prickly Opuntia, Cylindropuntia and Bergerocactus growing in scattered locations. I got the photo and successfully climbed down with only a few cactus needles on my chest and in my armpits as my toll for the photograph. My efforts had other benfits when Marge Hayakawa, editor of Fremontia, the journal of the California Native Plant Society, put out a call for rare plant photographs. I sent a copy of the Castilleja grisea slide with a long note describing the difficulty of obtaining the photo. My photo and note were published in volume 6, 1978 of the journal.

Thirty years passed before I revisited San Clemente Island. During my absence, ecologist Jonathan Dunn and others had been busy collecting native seeds, replanting native plants, and restoring the island. Additionally, the Navy had removed all of the feral goats, pigs, and deer from the island. Although Jonathan described how the sage scrub vegetation on the island was recovering, I had a difficult time believing him. Then in 2012, when I finally revisited the island, I was absolutely shocked by what I saw. Areas that were barren like a moonscape were now covered with a scrub habitat. What was most shocking, however, was the new distribution of the Castilleja grisea. I did not believe Jonathan’s assurance that it was a major component of the vegetation until I saw the upper third of the island. The sight of a continuous cover of these shrubs with pale yellow flowers was eye opening and demonstrated the ability of the natural habitats to recover. It also illustrated the importance of the Navy’s great effort—even overcoming lawsuits by animal rights groups—to persevere in the removal of the destructive feral goats.

Thomas Oberbauer is a third generation San Diegan and rare plant enthusiast. He loves the vegetation and plant diversity of Baja California and its adjacent islands. He graduated from high school in 1970 east of El Cajon, California and posts documentaries about the natural wonders of Baja California on You Tube.


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