Endangered Oregon wildflower makes a comeback

By Oregon Department of Agriculture,

Portland has its Rose Festival. Woodburn hosts a tulip festival. For the Southern Oregon city of Jacksonville, a festival is dedicated to the showy red wildflower known as Gentner’s fritillary. There are plenty of roses and tulips for everyone to enjoy, but the fritillary is a different story. The species of lily is on Oregon’s endangered plant list and also has been similarly listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Several partners, including the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Jacksonville community itself, are working hard to keep the rare plant from going extinct.

You know there aren’t many of them when each population is subject to GPS tracking.

“The first component of a recovery effort is to simply get more plants,” says Kelly Amsberry, a biologist with ODA’s Native Plant Conservation Program. “Surveys have shown the location of additional plants. In the meantime, we are continuing a project the relies on the ability to cultivate and transplant Gentner’s fritillary ourselves.”

The species is found from far northern California to Oregon’s Josephine County. But the largest number of populations are centered near Jacksonville. It is the city’s signature flower and, because of its extremely rare status, attracts visitors from around the world as it blooms each spring. While the city celebrates its existence, several groups and agencies continue efforts to protect its existence.

“We actually create new populations of Gentner’s fritillary,” says Amsberry. “We collect bulblets from existing plants, grow them in a nursery, and replant them to sites that are administratively protected. We are having good success.”

A major challenge is the plant’s lack of viable seed production. The recovery effort involves harvesting small, asexually produced bulblets from mature plants. Each bulb produces an average of 50 bulblets, grown out by ODA botanists in an Oregon State University greenhouse. In the fall, cultivated greenhouse bulbs are outplanted at selected sites in the Jacksonville area. The city and the Bureau of Land Management have provided those sites. To date, more than 13,000 bulbs have been transplanted.

“It’s still a new project, so a lot of the plants are quite young,” says Amsberry. ” But we seem to be doing well with up to 70 percent of the transplants recurring after one year and up to 30 percent surviving after three years.”

With the recent bloom of the wildflower, surveyors have been out and about locating existing populations as well as finding new ones this spring.

The plant’s strange name is tied to a fascinating story. In the late 1940s, a local teenage girl spotted a beautiful flowering plant while riding her bike. Laura Gentner dug it up and gave it to her father to replant in the family’s flower garden. The father happened to be an entomologist at the Southern Oregon Experiment Station and when he noticed the unique characteristics of this fritillary compared to other known species, he sent a specimen to an OSU botanist. It took three years of peer review to determine it was a new species, which was then named after the Gentner family. During that time, other small populations of the rare flower were discovered locally. Today, despite her advancing age, Laura Gentner Dunwald excitedly hikes the pathways that take sightseers to known and protected populations of the plant.

The residents of Jacksonville have adopted the cause of recovering its signature flower. A yearly festival highlighted by organized hikes in hundreds of acres of protected habitat has been an economic benefit. Awareness of Gentner’s fritillary has been one of the biggest achievements for the local community.

“In the last month, we have had eight hikes involving about 400 people,” says Larry Smith, executive director of the Jacksonville Woodlands Association. “We take kids out on a hike and talk about this rare flower. They they start spotting them and get real excited. A few days later, you will see the kids out with their families. The trails have been built around populations of the fritillary, but close enough to see them.”

Thanks to grants, the association has been able to purchase land in order to protect the endangered plant species as well as provide needed green space for the city. The association has secured funding to help treat weeds in the area that threaten Gentner’s fritillary. Combined with the effort of ODA and other partners, there is great hope that the plant someday can be de-listed.

“The species has a good chance of successfully surviving,” says ODA’s Rebecca Currin, another biologist with the Native Plant Conservation Program. “First of all, more resources have been put into this one compared to others in Oregon. So we know more about it. We have a large number of partners working on it. And because it is so showy and local citizens have been so active, a lot of resources to protect it have been leveraged. Some of the other endangered species we are working on in Oregon aren’t quite as well known or beautiful. They don’t get quite as much attention, but we still work hard to keep them all from going extinct.”

ODA’s Native Plant Conservation Program develops and implements conservation plans for state-protected threatened and endangered species to facilitate recovery. When the program can collaborate with other agencies and the local community, success is more likely. They may not draw the attention of the spotted owl or various salmon runs, but these endangered plants are important to protect.

“It’s a matter of philosophy whether or not you feel a native species has a right to exist,” says Program Leader Bob Meinke. “Beyond that, you need to look at the human perspective. We don’t know the value of these species. It’s possible some might have scientific, medical, or even economic benefits that have yet to surface.”

In the case of Gentner’s fritillary and the city of Jacksonville, the economic and aesthetic benefits are readily apparent.

For more information, contact Dan Hilburn at (503) 986-4663 or Bob Meinke at (541) 737-2317.

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