Understand Biodiversity

From Field to Flora

The Garden seeks to increase our knowledge of the world we inhabit – a world that depends on native plants for our survival. We apply our understanding to how we can best protect and restore California’s magnificent and unique diversity of plants, and all that depends on them.

In the Field

Image of an Herbarium specimen taken by Kristen HehnkeThe scientific foundation for plant conservation lies in collections and evolutionary research. Plants collected in the wild are preserved as dried specimens in our herbarium, and remain available for studies of historical and current distribution and identification. Our herbarium is the official repository of plant specimens collected on the Channel Islands National Park, making our Garden the largest collection of Channel Island plant specimens in the world. In 2016, we completed a contract with the Channel Islands National Park to database, mount, and integrate just over 2,000 of these specimens. One island specimen was used to identify Catalina grass (Dissanthelium californicum) that was thought to be extinct.

Black Holes

Image of Figueroa Mountain wildflowers taken by Kate DavisSanta Barbara County is incredibly rich floristically, and although the region has been studied historically there are still large gaps in our knowledge where no documented investigation into plant distribution has taken place – especially in the mountains. In 2015, we began work on a voucher-based checklist of the County that has updated botanical names, rarity status of plants, and whether the plant is native or non-native. This living document is searchable geographically and will fill in some of the data black holes in our area.

The Channel Islands, on the other hand, have been meticulously mapped out by botanists and researchers over the years. This careful collection and documentation has given birth to multiple Channel Island Floras. One of these, A Flora of Santa Catalina Island, is planned for release and sale by the end of 2016. This flora includes 700+ taxa complete with descriptions, keys, and illustrations. As Garden researchers continue their quest for floral documentation, a comprehensive book of all eight islands will be produced to aid in identification, appreciation, and conservation of these unique landscapes.

Unlocking Evolutionary History through DNA

Image of the First rendering of a phylogenetic tree for all plants found on the Channel Islands. This unique tree is the first of its kind in California and will help us predict the genetic histories of native plants across the region. Created by Matt Guillams in collaboration with UC BerkleyWith a wide range of climate and a variety of geological formations such as mountains and valleys, California has given rise to a wealth of floral diversity found in desert, forest, coastal chaparral, and other habitats. Over 35% of California’s 6,500 native plants occur nowhere else in the world; over 2,300 are at risk of disappearing forever.

By understanding how and when California became so diverse, we can figure out how to keep it that way. DNA data is being analyzed to reveal how our California native plants are related to each other and when they became separate species in the past. For example, the popcorn flowers (Plagiobothrysssp.), which began to form different species when our region’s Mediterranean-type climate began to develop between 5 and 15 million years ago, is a critical part of this story. Our Systematist, Matt Guilliams, continues to work with U.C. Berkeley in sequencing DNA of this and other California Native plants.

The amazing lichens of California

Image of Flame dot lichenSome people say that lichens are fungi that have learned agriculture. That’s because a lichen is not just one organism—it is a little ecosystem consisting of one or more fungi that houses one or more photosynthetic partner. At least 1869 lichen species occur in California, but lichenologists are few and far between so there are undoubtedly more than 1869 species in the state. Because lichens are so understudied, we barely know which ones are endangered, or even worse, which ones have altogether disappeared. Only 13 lichens are officially listed as endangered in California, but several others should probably be included. The Garden lichenologist wants to learn EVERYTHING about California lichens, and she encourages their official listing as endangered when appropriate at the state, federal, and international levels.