UKIAH, CA, 3/12/23 — While out on a walk near Lake Mendocino one night in 2016, Jim Xerogeanes had no idea that his dog taking off after a deer would lead him to find a Mendocino County plant that hadn’t been seen since 1939. A few years later, that plant would no longer be presumed extinct, following the PhD work of a fellow California botanist.
“I look at my feet and I’m going, ‘I haven’t seen that before,’” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Well, maybe it was [another species] that was accidentally planted or something.’ I thought it couldn’t be the one that was presumed extinct. And so I sat on it for a few years.”
But as a lifelong plant enthusiast who taught at Mendocino College for 26 years, Xerogeanes still took a sample.
“People who are into plants, it’s just like someone who plays music,” he said. “They hear a tune that’s a little bit different and say, ‘But wait, that’s not one I’ve heard’ or ‘That’s a different way that instrument’s being played. You can do that with plants. ‘That one’s growing different, or has a different color.’”
A couple of years later, when someone from the state called him to talk about area plant life while planning for a potential fuel break, Xerogeanes mentioned that he thought he’d found a Mendocino bush-mallow (Malacothamnus mendocinensis). That person gave him the email of Keir Morse, a biologist working on his PhD at California Botanic Garden in association with Claremont Graduate University. After they corresponded, Morse flew to Mendocino County for his research.
Morse had become interested in bush-mallows when he discovered what turned out to be a new species. He then noticed that a scientist in 1983 had classified several different species and varieties of bush-mallow as one while updating a new edition of the Jepson Manual used to identify California plants.
“Sixteen of them were on the California rare plant list,” Morse told The Mendocino Voice. “And almost every single one of these rare plants, this guy lumped [into other species]. It became kind of problematic as far as, if you’re trying to protect these plants, now a lot of these plants aren’t in the books as far as how to identify them.”
Morse focused his PhD work on determining, through DNA testing and identifying different characteristics of each plant, which bush-mallows merited classification as distinct species or varieties. After he connected with Xerogeanes, he was able to prove through DNA testing — using the new sample and Ukiah historical collections from 1939 — that Xerogeanes had indeed found a Mendocino bush-mallow.
The California Native Plant Society (CNPS) and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) officially changed the Mendocino bush-mallow’s status from 1A (presumed extinct) to 1B.1 (rare or endangered) this year.
“I provided the evidence that we had found a new population,” Morse explained.
Fire-followers need a burn
What’s more, though they had only found one plant, Morse was able to use seeds from several other species in the same genus to conduct tests that gave some indication as to why. He confirmed that the plant germinates only under very specific conditions; when fire is able to break down the seed coat and let water in. Its “fire-follower” status could explain why Mendocino bush-mallow hasn’t been seen for decades, in a zone of Mendocino County that hasn’t burned much recently.
“Bush-mallows will pop up occasionally with a roadside disturbance that can scrape up the seeds, and some may just pop up on their own here and there,” Morse explained. “But the vast majority of them come up after fires, and you can have just entire areas completely covered with them. There’s good reason to believe that there’s probably a lot of them out there.”
He believes that the bush-mallow near Lake Mendocino may have appeared as the result of a small burn pile. And there could be more seeds just waiting in our soil for the right conditions.
Proving the return of a plant endemic to Mendocino County, which was presumed extinct, is exciting on its own. But both Xerogeanes and Morse have key reasons to believe in their work beyond that novelty.
“Every plant probably has some connection with insects, or fungi — the whole web of life,” Morse said. “They’re an individual that’s evolved.”
Xerogeanes loves exploring the biodiversity of our area with local chapters of the Native Plant Society and agrees that each individual species plays a role. Mendocino County is home to at least 2,275 species, subspecies, and varieties of California native plants, and these are just the plants “known to occur” here. As someone who loves to follow his curiosity, emphasizing that point is important to him.
“It’s all the unknowns,” he said. “We don’t know what that plant is going to tell us. We don’t know what the history was, we don’t know how that plant may adapt to the future — or tell us clues to adapt to the future.”
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.