Reflections from Rare Care Intern Maya Kahn-Abrams

This year the Rare Plant Care Internship worked with the National Park Service on a project focused on establishing long term monitoring plots in alpine and subalpine ecosystems in Washington state National Parks (Olympic Mountains, Mt. Rainier (Tahoma), and North Cascades). This monitoring programs seeks to understand the effects of climate change on vulnerable alpine/subalpine communities as a whole and rare and largely endemic species in particular. Our work this summer in the Olympics and at Mt. Rainier involved scouting and mapping both previously known and new populations of rare plants of interest and will be used by the Park Service to make decisions about what areas to continue monitoring in the future.

The internship was structured in three phases: planning our field season, field work, and reviewing field notes, reports, and mapping. We began in June by reviewing Washington National Heritage Program data of past plant sightings and mapping locations of suspected populations with ArcMap GIS software. We worked with Wendy Gibble, Rare Care’s Program Manager, to identify which locations to target for certain species. We utilized data from the Consortium of the Pacific Northwest Herbaria and Burke Museum to develop a monitoring plan for the summer based on site location and plant phenology, which we pieced together from historical data. This was a very interesting process, and it was exciting to see information others had collected through-out the 20th century, from the 1970’s, ‘40’s, ‘20s, and even as far back as the 19th century! Our oldest siting was from the 1880’s, and it felt very special to be part of a chain of botanists paying attention to these special plants and passing down the information about their lives across centuries. Callie and I visited the Burke Herbarium to review our target species before heading into the field, and found a hand-written note tucked into one the specimens. It was dated from the 1940’s, written by a student discussing a recent trip to the Olympic Mountains and some finer taxonomic details of the species, and was addressed to (and presumably read by) Charles Hitchcock himself!

Rare Care intern Callie Zender at the Burke Herbarium researching target species for internship
Maya Kahn-Abrams
(Left to Right) Callie at the Burke Herbarium; Monitoring Polygons Mapped on Google Earth, Olympic Mountains in forefront/ Mt. Rainier in background; Herbarium specimen dated from 19th century

Field work was both fun and challenging, but extremely rewarding. For the months of July and August we spent close to 40 hours a week climbing and hiking up and down ridges, scrambling across talus

slopes and large boulders, and literally clawing our way up and down scree slopes combing the alpine for our species, some of which are 1” wide or smaller. We learned to distinguish our target plants from their common look a-likes, such as cut-leaf kittentails (Synthyris pinnatifida var. lanuginosa) versus alpine smelkowskia (Smelowskia americana) and silky phacelia (Phacelia sericea), and Olympic saxifrage (Micranthes tischii) versus rusty-hair saxifrage (M. rufidula).

Video: On top of Elk Mountain in July!


The weather in the Olympics was wet, unpredictable, and highly changeable, going from clear to completely cloudy in within minutes, and we experienced hail and ice on the top of ridge lines more than once. I have vivid memories of fog so thick I couldn’t see three feet in front of me, being enveloped in clouds which opened up to clear skies and 360˚views within five minutes, and standing on a rock overlooking Royal Basin watching the clouds roll in and completely envelop the mountain top in what felt like seconds.

Video: Mist Coming In at Elk Mountain


Mist clearing at Elk Mountain
Maya Kahn-Abrams
Mist clearing within minutes

One of our first days in the Olympics I was following an extensive stretch of cut-leaf kittentails (Synthyris pinnatifida var. lanuginosa) across a scree slope trying to find the populations edge and punch the point into my GPS unit. I had lost sight of Wendy and Callie, and the fog around me got thicker and thicker as I kept following the Synthyris. Five, fifteen, then thirty minutes later the fog was super thick, I had no idea where I was or where the others were, and all I could see was one plant or a small patch of silvery Synthyris leaves two feet ahead of me. I followed the Synthyris until suddenly the plants stopped and I was standing on a sheer cliff edge, nothing but white swirling clouds below me. Later I would return to this area on a clear day in the end of August for seed collecting, and was able to fully appreciate the expanse of mountain ridges, valleys and alpine lakes rolling into the sea at my feet.

Cut-leaf kittentails with next years buds
Wendy Gibble-Left and Maya Kahn-Abrams-Right
(Left) cut-leaf kittentails (Synthyris pinnatifida var. lanuginosa) with next-year’s buds which it puts on the previous summer in order to bloom quickly after the snow melts; (Right) Following Synthyris

Many of the plants we monitored in the Olympics only grow on high exposed mountain ridges and sheer rock cliffs. Callie and I spent an entire day trying to reach a ridge line, bouldering and sometimes crawling over rocks and up scree that crumbled in our hands. It was in this position- face-to-face with the mountain- that I discovered our first lancefruit draba (Draba lonchocarpa), its erect and twisting fruit pods level with my eyes. After an hour of scrambling up a vertical, crumbling slope we got to the top of the mountain ridge, only to look over the edge and find a sheer rock cliff on the other side, and one Flett’s violet (Viola flettii) plant in full bloom. Hanging onto the rocks for dear life, we took a GPS point.

Mist rolling into Royal Basin
Maya Kahn-Abrams
Mist rolling into Royal Basin

Roaming across the alpine and looking at different plants across a number of families in many different locations, I began to notice a diversity of interesting morphological characteristics that help plants adapt to this harsh environment. Many species such as lancefruit draba exhibited wooly hairs to trap water, protect from UV rays, and prevent moisture loss. The unique morphology of these microscopic hairs is a key component to distinguishing Draba species. Another common adaptation is sticky glands seen on sticky crazyweed (Oxytropis borealis var. viscida), and my favorite- the inflated seed pods of Cotton’s milk-vetch (Astragalus australis var cottonii) that puff up creating a greenhouse like warming chamber which help its seeds mature faster.

Lancefruit draba in fruit
Maya Kahn-Abrams
Lancefruit draba (Draba lonchocarpa) in fruit
Cotton’s milk-vetch (Astragalus australis var. cottonii) with inflated seed pods (Photo: Maya Kahn-Abrams)
Maya Kahn-Abrams
Cotton’s milk-vetch (Astragalus australis var. cottonii) with inflated seed pods

I also found an interesting species cross over from work I did this past spring monitoring plants in the South Puget Sound Prairies in Thurston County. Plants I had learned such as early blue violet (Viola adunca) and Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum var. integrifolium) made surprise appearances in the alpine, and were interestingly quite abundant. It was super fun to see a number of common plants I know well such as common juniper (Juniperus communis) and willow (Salix spp.) growing as low, rhizomatous creeping ground covers with reduced aerial parts and massive root systems in response to the alpine climate. Similarly, it was great to see a number of plants I had worked with in an herbalism context growing in the subalpine such as Sitka valerian (Valeriana sitchensis), Artemisia spp, and Arnica spp.

Moth on Sitka valerian (Valeriana sitchensis) bloom (Photo: Maya Kahn-Abrams)
Maya Kahn-Abrams
Moth on Sitka valerian (Valeriana sitchensis) bloom


Wendy and Callie at Elk Mountain (Photo: Maya Kahn-Abrams)
Maya Kahn-Abrams
Wendy and Callie at Elk Mountain

At Mt. Rainier the sun was hot and shining as we gallivanted up and down rocky ridges descending into subalpine forests and lush valleys of blooming wildflowers including lupine (Lupinus latifolius), Bistort (Bistorta bistortoides), Hellebore (Veratrum viride), western pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis)). We crossed rolling hills of purple lupine, saw stream banks white with bog orchids (Platanthera dilatata) and meadows carpeted in magenta Mountain Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja parviflora var. oreopola), found king boletes (Boletus edulis) nestled among blooming beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) and subalpine firs (Abies lasiocarpa), and hiked glacial streams exploding in the yellows and pinks of monkeyflower (Erythranthe sp.) and great purple monkeyflower (E. lewisii). From different points around the mountain I was able to look across the state and see both Mt. Baker and Mt. Adams, and long summer nights found us following lush stream banks carpeted in obscure paintbrush (Castilleja cryptantha) under a pink twilight sky, waxing crescent moon, and a cloud of vicious mosquitos.

Tahoma (Mt. Rainier) at dusk (Photo: Maya Kahn-Abrams)
Maya Kahn-Abrams
Tahoma (Mt. Rainier) at dusk
View of Mt. Adams from 6700’ (Photo: Maya Kahn-Abrams)
Maya Kahn-Abrams
View of Mt. Adams from 6700’


Video: Monkeyflower (Erythranthe sp.) growing along glacial run-off in alpine meadows (6000’)

At Grand Park we discovered what I later dubbed “The Curious Case of Castilleja cryptantha”. The Park Service literature we initially read on the Alpine Monitoring Program discussed how climate warming is causing loss of alpine zones due to encroaching subalpine firs as the tree line moves up the mountain slopes. According to the literature, this combined with human made disturbance are some of the biggest threats to the rare species we were monitoring. Park service signs stipulating to stay off meadows to aid ecosystem recovery were ubiquitous, as were old trail systems that were “resting”. However, as we mapped the location of obscure paintbrush, noting its distribution in relationship to features such as tree line, stream banks, and trails, we noticed that it actually occurred most abundantly in areas along the subalpine fir tree line and right off the trail about 10 ft. Obscure paintbrush is known to require moist open meadow, and was also found in smaller patches along a dried out stream bank with plants visually baking and dying in the sun.  We concluded that the trees and the trail were actually creating moist microhabitats that provided refuge for the obscure paintbrush, while adjacent populations died out in the open meadow and hot sun.

Obscure paintbrush (Castilleja cryptantha) in bloom (Photo: Maya Kahn-Abrams)
Maya Kahn-Abrams
Obscure paintbrush (Castilleja cryptantha) in bloom
Callie backpacking through Berkeley Park (Photo: Maya Kahn-Abrams)
Maya Kahn-Abrams
Callie backpacking through Berkeley Park

Video: Stream banks of obscure paintbrush growing along meadows of blooming lupine

Evidence of drought was widespread at Mt. Rainier: we found many dried out streams, ponds and small lakes that were historically full of water, and saw thundering waterfalls and gushing rivers of clear cold glacial melt. I find how plants adapt to their changing environments fascinating, from obscure paintbrush to Mt. Rainier lousewort (Pedicularis rainierensis) hybridization (see Callie’s post). I would love to continue working with obscure paintbrush in the future to understand more about its hemi-parasitic lifestyle and how it continues to respond to a changing, warming climate. Despite the heartbreaking effects of drought we witnessed it couldn’t be a complete trip without a little hail, which we got accompanied by lightening at our highest elevation site. Gotta love the mountains.

Caption: Unique morphology of Mt. Rainier lousewort (Pedicularis rainierensis) in bloom (Photo: Maya Kahn-Abrams)
Maya Kahn-Abrams
Caption: Unique morphology of Mt. Rainier lousewort (Pedicularis rainierensis) in bloom

Video: Waterfalls formed by glacial melt

In the last month of the internship we learned how to collect seeds from populations we mapped earlier in the summer, making sure we collect only 10% and maintained genetic diversity, as well as how to clean and organize seeds for the Miller Seed Vault. We have also transformed the raw data from our field notes and GPS units into full reports on each species by location. This has included using ArcGIS to make polygons complete with information on habitat, elevation, and plant phenology, and written reports detailing associated species lists, population size and directions to populations, and catalogued photos of plants and their habitats.

During the internship, I was able to accompany Stacy Kinsell, Rare Care’s Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator, on a trip to Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge as a part of the recovery project to re-introduce Spalding’s catchfly (Silene spaldingii), as well as work with Callie, Wendy, and the Jon Bakker lab to help set up permanent monitoring plots for Oregon checkermallow (Sidalcea oregana var. calva) in Leavenworth, WA.

Waterfalls formed by glacial melt (Photo: Maya Kahn-Abrams)
Maya Kahn-Abrams
Monitoring Spalding’s catchfly (Silene spaldingii) with Stacy at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge in June of 2019

Working for Rare Plant Care has been a supremely wonderful experience and I am extremely grateful for this opportunity. Wendy is an exciting, extremely knowledgeable and inspiring person, and I have grown enormously as a field botanist under her mentorship. Stacy has also been an incredibly patient, kind and knowledgeable and it has been a pleasure and an honor to work with them in service to the rare plants of the alpine and our majestic Washington state. Finally, I want to shout out all the marmots, pikas, hawks, frogs, elk, deer, chipmunks, and mountain goats who made this field season possible and truly unforgettable.

Lower Palisades Lake (Photo: Maya Kahn-Abrams)
Maya Kahn-Abrams
Lower Palisades Lake

Video: A marmot chilling in the alpine

The author in the field (L) Olympic Mountains (R) Mt. Rainier (Photos: Maya Kahn-Abrams)
Maya Kahn-Abrams
The author in the field (L) Olympic Mountains (R) Mt. Rainier