by Naomi Fraga
When I first heard about Plant Love Stories, I had one thought. Must follow! I am a plant nut. Everyone who knows me knows it, and I can’t even try to hide it. I wanted to contribute, but I had a huge dilemma. Which plant love story do I tell?! I have so many, and when it comes to plants, my love travels far and wide.
So I narrowed it down to tell the tale of my current love affair. Here is my love story with the one, the only, Amargosa niterwort (Nitrophila mohavensis). The Amargosa niterwort is a rare plant in the goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae) and it has a lot of special requirements. It lives on salt flats near Death Valley, in one of the hottest driest places on earth, but the niterwort is a water loving plant. It lives in an area with a high groundwater table that is relatively salty, but the niterwort doesn’t like it too salty.
This plant has very specific habitat requirements and that means a couple of things that relate to its rarity: 1) Its habitat is very limited because finding a wet place in the desert isn’t easy and 2) the places where the niterwort grows are under threat because when people find water in the desert they do not always use it responsibly or conservatively. If the available water in its habitat is reduced, then that makes it more salty, and that is not good for the niterwort.
My relationship with the niterwort runs deep. I visit it every month to monitor its growth, and that means I have a fairly good understanding of the extreme environment it lives in. From 50 MPH winds to over 120 degree F heat, this plant rolls with the punches. It is also federally listed as endangered which means it needs our help.
I am excited that I was recently awarded a grant to give this plant and other rare plants in the region a boost towards recovery. I am one of the few people that knows the niterwort best, but it still holds secrets and mysteries that I am trying to unfold. In all my time studying the niterwort (since 2012), I have never seen it make a lot of seed. I have managed to find a few seeds here and there, but they are hard to find.
I know it reproduces by underground stems or rhizomes, but is sexual reproduction important to the longevity of this species? Also, what the heck pollinates this plant? Some have speculated ants, but we don’t know for sure. Do we know the extent of its habitat? Are there some plants hiding out there that we haven’t found yet? There is only one way to find out; we have to go looking for them and map them. I hope to answer these and many more questions over the next few years.
Ultimately, I’ve made it my life’s mission to save the niterwort from the threats it faces. It is an incredibly unique plant. There are only two species of Nitrophila in the world and this one lives in a tiny corner of the Mojave Desert. It is a relict from a wetter time, but it is still holding on because this part of the desert has water, and that is a special thing. I have intimate relationships with many plants, but the niterwort holds a very special place in my heart. With each plant relationship I develop, my commitment to them grows deeper. I do my best to say it loud and proud, but plants matter, and I live my life by that motto. They are a gift to be treasured and cared for by everyone.
Naomi Fraga is Director of Conservation Programs at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. Her research focuses on floristics of western North America and monekyflowers. She has been studying plants of the Mojave desert for over 15 years and she wouldn’t trade it for the world.