Highlights from the 2018 Washington Botanical Symposium

Tucked high in the nooks and crannies of the Olympic Mountains, Synthyris pinnatifida var. lanuginosa has a limited geographic range and is in peril as temperatures increase. (Photo by Richard Ramsden)

The UW Botanic Gardens, in conjunction with the University of Washington Herbarium at the Burke Museum, hosted another successful symposium that brought together professionals, academics, and botanists from around the Pacific Northwest to share knowledge and celebrate Washington State’s flora. The full day event was coordinated by a diverse group including Washington Noxious Weed Control Board, Washington Native Plant Society, Seattle Public Utilities, Washington Natural Heritage Program, US Forest Service, and Washington Bureau of Land Management. The day was filled with engaging speakers speaking on a wide array of subjects from practical topics like changes to Washington State’s flora and vegetation mapping in WA’s national parks, to more research oriented topics like plant-pollinator networks and habitat suitability for alpine plants in the face of climate change. The speakers and material were all so stellar that it makes choosing which to highlight a challenge.

The day began with David Giblin, Ph.D., the curator of the UW Herbarium. He updated us on the much anticipated and forthcoming revised Flora of the Pacific Northwest and how that process contributed to changes in WA’s flora. Notably, around 100 new taxa have been added to our state’s checklist as a result of the work gone into the flora revision and in 2017 two species new to science were described and added to the flora: Sabulina basaltica and S. sororia. In answer to the often asked question, “When will the new flora be available?” Giblin hopes for sometime this summer. Until then, we will continue waiting on the edge of our seats.

In botany, it’s often the case that non-vascular plants get the short end of the stick while much of our attention and resources are dedicated to the more showy members of the photosynthesizing world. However, botanist Erica Heinlen, M.Sc, pricked our curiosity for the significantly understudied and under-admired groups of bryophytes residing in the Okanogan and made a strong case for why our gaze should turn their mossy way. As a result of the convergence of several distinct habitats, the Okanogan is home to a rich diversity of bryophytes and is ripe for discovery. Many mosses and liverworts in this area are known only from a few sites and none of these have been assessed for their conservation status. We also learned that there is no working checklist for Washington State liverworts and there are no rare plant lists for either liverworts or hornworts. For those of us tempted to consider our state as a well-botanized area, Heinlen made us think again.

Further expanding our thoughts beyond vascular plants was Susan Waters, Ph.D., the rare species ecologist with the Center for Natural Lands Management. She has been studying plant-pollinator interactions in the South Puget Sound Prairies since only 2015 but has already uncovered some intriguing findings about these complex and dynamic relationships. Her research has been able to identify which plants best support a wide diversity of pollinators and assess how often these plants are used in restoration planning. She is also able to assess the effectiveness of restoration efforts by studying these interactions, which serve as valuable information for land managers. Of particular interest was the finding that some non-native species can actually have a positive role in rare plant conservation and restoration. On the face, this seems counterintuitive to much of what we assume: non-native and invasive plants are bad, plain and simple. But Waters’ research shows that some non-native plants serve as important food sources for the pollinators that also pollinate rare plants when the rare plants are not in bloom. As a result, she urges land managers and restoration ecologists to create management plans that do not eradicate all at once non-native plants that are food sources to the same pollinators that also serve our rare native plants. Instead, she suggests ensuring that adequate food sources are available to the pollinators of rare plants even when the rare plants are not blooming. This may require more finesse in management but it is a significant finding and one that could tip the scales towards greater efficacy in native and rare plant restoration.

Along with these exciting findings, we were also met with more sobering news from some of our region’s most fascinating habitats. Claire Wainwright, Ph.D., of the University of Washington and Eric DeChaine, Ph.D., of Western Washington University shared their research on two unique habitats that are imperiled: sagebrush-steppe and alpine communities. Wainwright studies how fire frequency and non-native plant invasion affect the sagebrush-steppe ecosystems using long-term datasets. Her findings reveal a habitat that is disappearing due to unrelenting fires and the subsequent intrusion of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum). Recovery efforts are context dependent and she showed that restoration efficacy has been a mixed bag. In a dramatically different ecosystem, nestled high in the Olympic Mountains are alpine plant communities. Clinging between rock crevices and limited in their geographic distribution, species like Olympic violet (Viola flettii) and cut-leaf kittentails (Synthyris pinnatifida var. lanuginosa) are just two of the rare plants that reside in what’s known as Insular Mountain Refugia where endemism is high. DeChaine and his graduate student Sam Wershow M.Sc, wanted to know how climate change might affect these alpine habitats and whether or not there would be suitable areas, known as thermal refugia, for them to retreat to as temperatures increase. While it did not come as a surprise, it was nonetheless disheartening to learn that these species will lose between 86-99% of suitable habitat by 2080. Of the suitable habitat remaining, it will be confined to the highest peaks in the eastern portion of the Olympics. How and if these species will disperse into these thermal refugia is another question entirely.

Although we may have left the symposium with heavy hearts, we also left with minds buzzing with new ideas and inspiration from the wealth of knowledge shared. We also left that day steadied by the words of Warren KingGeorge, the Historian of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe Preservation Program. He reminded us of the resilience of his people on these lands we now inhabit and study. He spoke of how their deep history in seeking native plants for sustenance and healing is a part of a greater echo of humanity, and one that he called us to slow down and join. As gardeners, botanists, or people who care for our natural resources you know this echo. It connects you to the land and it is what carries you as you walk the grounds of the Arboretum, dig fresh spring dirt, or volunteer in your community garden. It is a part of the larger responsibility we have to steward these lands with care. Our region is indeed a unique part of the world and the Botanical Symposium was a reminder of this truth.