The Plant Rescuer

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden's new rare plant biologist on mission tosave the state's endengered species.

July 2, 2016

Brett Leigh Dicks for the News Press

Home to more species of native plants than any other state in the nation, California has it covered when it comes to plant diversity.

The California Floristic Province, which encompasses most of the state along with small portions of Baja, Nevada and Oregon, is considered to be one of the world’s hot spots for biodiversity. From the heart of its searing deserts to the alpine reaches of its towering mountains, the Golden State is believed to have more than 6,500 species, subspecies and varieties of native plants.

As impressive as those figures are, it’s sobering to consider that 35 percent of those species are considered to be rare, endangered or in need of special attention. The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is well aware of the statistics and is dedicated to doing something about it — so much so that the nonprofit has recently appointed Dr. Heather Schneider to the position of rare plant biologist.

On July 16, Dr. Schneider will give a talk at the garden entitled “Why Care About Rare Plants?” as part of its Summer Sips wine and cheese lecture series. She will look at the biological, social and cultural reasons behind why rare plants are worth fighting for.

Having recently completed a three-year National Science Foundation-funded postdoctoral project at UCSB that helped established a national seed bank to study the evolution of wild plants in response to environmental change, Dr. Schneider is well aware of the role botanic gardens play in educating the public about current environmental issues.

“One of the great things about doing research here is interfacing with the public,” Dr. Schneider told the News-Press during a visit to the garden’s recently completed John C.

Pritzlaff Conservation Center, which features a rare native plant garden. “As well as conducting research, spreading the conservation message in an authentic way that people can understand is part of our mission.”

Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Dr. Schneider was introduced to the plant world at an early age.

“My mom always had a big vegetable garden and she grew native prairie plants in the backyard, so I was always around plants,” she said. “But once I was in college and took a few botany and ecology courses, I realized just how cool plants really are, and from then on, I was hooked.”

Her college studies took her to Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Ill., where she graduated with an undergraduate degree in biology. She then moved to California, where she earned a Ph.D. in plant ecology at UC Riverside. Working out of the Botany Department, she investigated native and invasive plant species in the Colorado and Mojave deserts and their response to nitrogen.

After completing her Ph.D., Dr. Schneider moved to Santa Barbara to start her seed bank work through UCSB.

“I spent three seasons collecting seeds for storage in the national seed bank at the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo.,” she said. “The whole goal was to create a resource for future biologists to study the evolution of wild plants. We set up a baseline collection of genetic information.”

Since starting at the Botanic Garden, Dr. Schneider has worked on several of the JohnC. Pritzlaff Conservation Center’s research projects involving rare plants.

“I started in late March, which, being a drought year, was in the thick of field season,” she said. “The idea was to get me out on as many of the projects we’re working on as possible.

“I’ve done some pollination surveys on species like the Vandenberg monkeyflower, a lot of tissue collection for two species of Eriodictyon, and now that summer has started, I’ve a done lot of conservation seed collection in association with the Center of Plant Conservation and California Plant Rescue, with the goal of seed banking all of California’s plant species, starting with the rarest.”

As part of the California seed bank initiative, Dr. Schneider has collected seeds from species such as the Chorro Creek bog thistle, salt marsh bird’s beak and dwarf golden star. The latter is a plant for which she has developed a particular affinity.

“It is a really adorable diminutive plant,” Dr. Schneider explained. “It sort of looks like a fairy wand with a small stem and sphere of yellow flowers spraying out of the top.”

While the plants Dr. Schneider has been investigating inhabit very different habitats, they are united by their rare or endangered status. The reasons for their precarious existence are many, running the gamut from destruction by cattle through grazing on the Channel Islands to climate change.

“Climate change will be a big issue for plants like the salt marsh bird’s beak that grows right on the edge of salt marshes,” Dr. Schneider said. “For anything that grows near the shore, climate change will be an issue as sea levels rise, but for plants like the Chorro Creek bog thistle, development is the big issue they face.”

All of which raises the question: Why is the conservation of rare plants so important?

“One argument I hear a lot is extinction is a natural process, so why is it a big deal?” Dr. Schneider said. “Aside from the fact that theextinction rate is higher than ever before and it’s probably our fault, we don’t know a lot about these species, so we don’t know what we’re losing.

“It’s like tearing a page out of a book you haven’t read yet.

“You might not notice it — or there might have been something really important on that page.”




Dr. Heather Schneider, rare plant biologist, will present “Why Care About Rare Plants?” from 4 to 6 p.m. July 16 at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, Blaksley Library, 1212 Mission Canyon Road. The event is part of the Summer Sips wine and cheese lecture series; the featured winery is Derby Wine Estates. Cost is $35 general, $25 members. For more information, call 682-4726 or go to



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