Santa Barbara botanists work to conserve rare plant found only in Lompoc
A rare native plant was recently re-discovered on the Central Coast. Local botanists pieced together historical information to find the tiny Santa Ynez groundstar, a plant they say grows only in Lompoc.
In the basement of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden rows of cabinets house an archive of plant specimens that grow throughout the Central Coast. Matt Guilliams, Ph.D, is a botanist and curator at the garden.
“We have almost 200,000 or more objects that we curate down here,” he said.
Guilliams is part of a team that re-discovered a rare plant that hadn’t been seen for decades.
“It’s in the sunflower family, so in your mind’s eye see a sunflower and everything that’s present in the sunflower, all of the things that look like petals and the interior part, all of that is condensed down to about two millimeters across. So this is a very, very tiny plant,” he said.
Guilliams said the plant, now called the Santa Ynez groundstar, was first collected in 1929. The chart he pulls from the archives includes a few dry, pressed leaves the size of a fingertip and very few notes.
“These specimens are almost one hundred years old. It was first collected in 1929 by Ralph Hoffmann who was affiliated with the garden here in Santa Barbara,” Guilliams said. “He did not know that he was collecting something special, so his field notes that were transcribed say Lompoc to Buellton.”
Guilliams said that’s not much information to go on, especially when searching for something small and rare — so rare, that only two botanists had ever collected it.
David Keil, professor emeritus in the biology department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is one of those people.
In 1995, Keil said he noticed the low-lying plant with fanned out furry leaves while at Vandenberg Air Force Base on a different project.
“At the time, I didn’t recognize that it was anything of significance, it was just another plant we encountered during our survey,” he said.
He brought back a few specimens and recorded his observations. He didn’t even take photos, but he did send his notes off to a colleague associated with the rare plant society.
Keil said it turned out the plant had not been previously identified. So, it was officially named after him.
“Ancistrocarphus keilii. He named it in honor of me as a collector and colleague,” Keil said.
Keil went back to Lompoc a few more times hoping to see the plant again, but with no success.
“That was the first and only time that I ever saw that plant in living condition,” he said.
In April, Matt Guilliams from the botanic garden and a few colleagues went to Vandenberg Space Force Base on their own expedition.
“We were down on our hands and knees, saw something we thought was the groundstar and then got all the way on our bellies and with a hand lens were able to tell we had the right thing,” Guilliams said.
The plant had not been documented for almost 30 years. But why?
The botanists said they don’t know. Professor Keil said it’s possible the groundstar doesn’t bloom every year in drought conditions, and Guilliams said when it does bloom, it lasts only a month or two. But even more surprising is that it’s never been seen anywhere else.
“As far as we know, there is only one population that botanists can go to right now, on earth. Just one small part on the earth’s surface,” Guilliams said.
He said it’s not clear why the plant doesn’t grow in other places. He suspects it doesn’t disperse seeds easily, so they’re not spread by the wind or other natural means.
Guilliams estimates the population in Lompoc is more than a thousand plants and he said the area is well protected at Vandenberg.
“This is a great example of why we need to be looking more closely, and precisely why we went out to look for the groundstar. First to document that it was there, but also just to know more about it,” he said.
He said with the updated information, botanists can study the rare plant and focus on conservation.
“Without this knowledge, without that basic biodiversity knowledge, we can’t work to conserve this plant which is ultimately what we hope to do,” Guilliams said.
He said the team successfully collected hundreds of groundstar seeds to ensure the plant’s future survival.