Saturday, November 22, 2014

of buckwheats and butterflies

Eriogonum parvifolium (var. parvifolium)

edited 11/22/14 - This was my very first buckwheat ID on Nature ID.  As you know, I rely on photographs rather than keys for most of my IDs, and I think my process has served me well. I've been able to easily recognize seacliff buckwheat ever since this spring and my numerous casual trips down the coast, looking to learn the local buckwheats and butterflies.  It's a common plant around here, and it has caused me more headache than you can possibly imagine. 

To me, this shrub's leaves have a distinctive cobwebbiness to the topside (adaxial - with a 'd', as in dorsal) that can sometimes look like it's been partially rubbed off to a shoeshine, and underneath (abaxial - with a 'b', as in belly) there's a thick cottony felting that can sometimes be so thick it extends down the woody stem.  Granted, there are at least two forms I recognize locally, this one with the arrow-shaped leaves and another one found in sandy areas with really fat/wide round leaves.  If I were to assign a common name to each form, this arrow-shaped one I would call seacliff buckwheat (I find it really does grow on steep hillsides that have any hint of marine influence, i.e. extending several miles inland), and the sandy one I would call dune buckwheat.  Neither shrub form should be confused with the similarly-and-confusingly-named perennial herb coast buckwheat, aka seaside buckwheat (E. latifolium), a common mistake I've noticed online.  That's all fine and good that I can recognize these.  However...

Through a series of communications for my research permit application as required as part of my agreement with my Monterey Co. butterfly site, it's come to my attention that the local CNPS folks firmly believe this is CA buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) and more specifically, var. foliolosum.  Um, no, just, no! I went back and checked their local field guide, their CNPS-endorsed website, and a draft that was sent to me of the Monterey Co. wildflower bible revision that one of them is updating.  I can clearly see they have the mistaken impression this arrow-shaped seacliff buckwheat is CA buckwheat.  They do recognize the rounder one as dune, which is fine.  In my experience, the multi-toned pink, tight pom-pom shape they show in their photos is distinctive of the summer season's seacliff buckwheat, and I have never seen it on CA buckwheat, which tends to be much looser in shape (ex. of comparable summer season CA).  I specifically went to Terrace Trail at Garland Ranch's Garzas Creek access on 11/17/14 just to take these diagnostic photos (see also at the bottom of this post), because this is the location I was told by one of the authors where he's found CA buckwheat (the other fellow has chosen to completely ignore me).  Their field guide has been very useful to me as I learn the local plants, but I think their mistake makes it impossible for anyone to ID the local buckwheats by using their guides.  It doesn't help that what I've seen of the wildflower bible revision draft, which is a CNPS publication, is misleading and could be improved.  I hope they get that fixed, but not likely.  I tried my best to explain and provide evidence as to why I think their ID isn't right, but they maintain they're correct in calling it CA buckwheat.  Grrr.

Here's the thing, I have been staring at real CA buckwheat at Pinnacles every single week going on 8 months now and looking at thousands (thousands!) of my own pictures and others' online of CA buckwheat from all over the place.  This buckwheat of this blog post from Garland Ranch in Monterey Co. is not, I repeat, not CA buckwheat.  While I still may not always be able to distinguish Pinnacles' var. foliolosum (the CNPS ID, btw) against var. polifolium (I think they readily hybridize), I know CA buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum) to species, in person and in photographs, through the seasons.

I've also consulted with photo-documentarians for the Eriogonum Society, the National Park Service, and CalPhotos.  Even if they're unfamiliar with seacliff, they have confirmed it is not likely CA buckwheat, which is more common in SoCal.  I've been utterly amazed at how many people don't actually know how to distinguish buckwheats (or are not willing to say on record). It's really obvious to me now that I made it my mission to learn the local buckwheats this year.

Given the continuing disagreement over this ID, I had to seriously consider the possibility that the local CNPS authors could be correct in their determination, especially considering they're revising the local wildflower bible and many people defer to their opinions, including my butterfly site contacts.  The whole way it played out shook my confidence in my own abilities.  For my own peace of mind, I needed to double-check what I felt I already intuitively knew, so I took the time to research the keys and figure out the dizzying array of taxonomic terms.

Basically, it boils down to leaf shape.  The Jepson eFlora keys out E. fasciculatum at 60/60' with "Leaf blades narrowly linear to oblanceolate".  Additionally, eFloras of North America keys out similarly at 20/+ with an additional statement under the species description for E. parvifolium, "blade lanceolate to round".  Now, google images or take a look at this exaggerated graphic between lanceolate and oblanceolate.  The leaf shown above is clearly lanceolate, therefore E. parvifolium.

For additional reference, here are Jim Reveal's original descriptions, from which I believe most every key out there depends for EriogonumE. fasciculatum and E. parvifoliumTo go even further, E. parvifolium has not been keyed out into varieties since "there is no sharp distinction between the extremes", and Jim told me he doesn't officially recognize them.  But say he did, sorta, here's how I now understand it: var. parvifolium ("thickened leaf blades" and "compact clusters of involucres containing white to rose flowers", this is the one I find common around here), var. crassifolium ("compact and dense mat-forming", is this the round sandy one, I don't know?), var. lucidum ("yellow flowers", found on the Monterey Peninsula according to Jim), and var. paynei ("white-flowered inflorescences", and "more graceful habit" found out of Ventura Co. and is supposed to be large, but I wonder if this inland and sheltered Garland Ranch one shown here could be related - here's a pic from this exact spot on July 14, 2011).  Again, seacliff buckwheat varieties are not formally recognized.

So, why is this plant such a big, huge, deal for me to go to all this trouble?  Six words: the federally endangered Smith's blue butterfly.  The seacliff buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium) is its host plant.  There is only one person in the entire country who has ever been granted a permit to study this butterfly and in essence even be around seacliff buckwheat for research purposes (I may be exaggerating slightly, but you get the picture).  While I'm sure he's done a lot of good, he's also made quite a tidy and profitable business over his legally-mandated monopoly.  (Ha!  I wonder if he's hiring?)

The fact of the matter is, there are very few people who could see a blue butterfly and know it is or is not Smith's.  I think I could eventually tell if I could be allowed to get close enough and take enough photographs in replacement of specimens.  It's worked for me with buckwheats, why can't it work for me for butterflies?  I've heard that merely taking photographs of this endangered butterfly can be considered as "take" by the USFWS, a strict no-no.  Sigh.  It sure seems silly that the very laws created to protect an animal keep us from learning more about it.  Something is seriously broken in the system.

Hey, I'm not even particularly interested in Smith's, but I discovered seacliff buckwheat is the dominant native nectar source for butterflies at my Monterey Co. site.  I can't study the other butterflies without getting near Smith's, either in flight or potentially trampling over delicate pupae around the buckwheat bushes.  I wonder if we might even have one of the square-spotted blues (Euphilotes battoides) in the area, which isn't reported for anywhere near here, but that may be because no one admits to looking close enough over fear of Smith's restrictions.  They do look a lot alike.  The selfish solution for me is to see Smith's delisted, but it's all entangled with political and financial motives.

The federal permitting process for Smith's is essentially non-existent and shrouded with stories of how impossible it is to jump through the hoops to meet their requirements.  They require experience to get the permit, but no one can get the experience without the permit.  Catch 22.  It not only hampers research to learn more about this rare butterfly, it also hampers information made available about its host plant.  I figure there must be some antiquated law about not being able to update listings based on new findings.  Gordon Pratt believes the listed species (Euphilotes enoptes smithi) is not the one that's actually rare, but he told me he was talked out of delisting by the USFWS because the law, as it exists, helps protect the land from development.  Smith's close relative (Euphilotes enoptes arenicola), which he helped describe, that feeds on coast buckwheat (E. latifolium) in a small area in Marina is the one that he believes is truly endangered.  Likewise, I strongly suspect there was pressure on Jim Reveal to not reveal his buckwheat variety designations, because it would further complicate the listed identity of several endangered butterfly host plants.  The reason why I came to this conclusion is because Jim goes into such mind-boggling detail for the various buckwheats and their varieties (case in point, sulphur buckwheat/E. umbellatum has 45 keyed varieties as of 2002), and yet for the seaclifff (E. parvifolium) and coast (E. latifolium), nothing, nada.  They are as they are, no variety designations, even though it's patently obvious there are distinctly different forms, which unfortunately confuses a lot of good plant people.  You'll notice that both of these buckwheats are host plants for endangered butterflies (real or listed).

So, maybe Smith's blue is a common butterfly around here, who's to truly say?  I personally suspect it's way more common than anyone realizes considering the locally recognized "CA buckwheat" is actually seacliff buckwheat.  I imagine there might be some happy, wealthy landowners out there who were relieved to find out they had "CA buckwheat" and not seacliff buckwheat on their property when it came time to do their EIRs before they developed. Eh-hem.

On the flip side, I have a hunch CA buckwheat (E. fasciculatum) in Monterey Co. is not as common as is reported by the local CNPS chapter, unless it's found along the highway where it's been planted by Caltrans and maybe further south towards SLO.  eFloras also cautions that var. foliolosum is, "a potentially aggressive weedy shrub, efforts should be made to curtail its introduction into areas outside its native range."  I worry that good-intentioned native gardeners will plant the not-native to this area weedy CA buckwheat, where it could easily escape and compete with the locally native seacliff buckwheat, the host plant for the listed Smith's blue butterfly.  Additionally, the arrow-shaped form that is mistaken in our local books for "CA buckwheat" is, in fact, the seacliff buckwheat that I have personally seen Smith's blue on.  So, if anyone wanted or needed to do restoration or mitigation work, they'd be pulling the seacliff buckwheat (aka weedy "CA buckwheat") and planting the round sandy form based on name only, quite possibly the wrong seacliff buckwheat form for Smith's.  I'll admit I don't actually know, but who does?  Do these concerns make any sense?

You know, it would have worked in my favor if this really had been CA buckwheat, or at least if we continued calling it "CA buckwheat".  If I had only kept my big fat mouth shut, I might have been able to make nice-nice with the local CNPS folks.  Although, at this point, I don't feel they have earned, nor deserved, my trust.  They probably hate me at the moment, considering I've made such a nuisance of myself as I was attempting to get them to see reason.  And, I've pretty much burned that bridge.  Erm... Torched.  Burnt to a crisp, particularly given how I've now publicly blogged about it.  Man, I can be so damn pushy for the truth sometimes, and honestly, I'm not always concerned about the consequences, even to my own detriment.

But, imagine for a minute, the ripple effect their simple error has... 

I can easily see how their mistaken "expertise" is probably followed by many environmental consultants who do EIRs and restoration-type work (if you believe they always get it right, I have a burnt bridge to sell you), who also mistake this buckwheat ID (this is a known problem!), which ends up determining the fate of the land, potentially costing millions of dollars (or making others billions of dollars), and all to the detriment of the very butterfly we're trying to save from extinction.  This is important.

I sincerely thought I was helping by pointing out a simple correction, like I do all the time when I look up stuff for Nature ID (most people are appreciative).  However, it does beg the question why these old guys, who are no more botanists than I am (they're two fellows with a lot of money who moved here from far away places for retirement), are so adamant that I'm wrong without explanation.  This is not a fight I'm up for.  I wish I could continue with my butterfly studies at my Monterey Co. butterfly site, even if I avoided the seacliff buckwheat like the plague and went searching the brambles for Nymphalids (don't think I haven't thought of this).  Unfortunately, by doing so, I will not be able to honor the spirit and intent of my private land access agreement. 

One thing that became very clear to me this year is that I'm not willing to lie or cheat to get to my goal.  I'm not that kind of person, and I don't want to be associated with those who do.  It's because of this that I'm determined to follow the rules, get the permits, pay the fees, etc., even if it doesn't make a lot of common sense.  I want to be known for my integrity.  I want to be on record.  I want to publish my findings in some form, including on Nature ID, without influence from outside interests or someone else taking credit for my work.  And, I don't want to be one of those closet lepidopterists who lives in fear and flatly refuses to cooperate with other researchers over concerns of being raided by federal agents (yes, I've heard hushed horror stories, and I have no way of knowing how true they are).  I don't even want to collect specimens, yet I think I am good (maybe better than many others) at what I do, exactly in the way I want to do it.  So, it's a weird conundrum to be in, because many people scoff and dismiss me that I could even consider myself a lepidopterist and not carry a net, or a botanist and not press flowers.  I now have an answer to, "What are you?"

As it is, I may have to completely abandon my grand plan to have a companion Monterey Co. butterfly research site in conjunction with my Pinnacles one in San Benito Co., two sites on roughly the same latitude and with similar elevation changes, with similar historical and current cattle land usage, with two native butterfly-pleasing shrubby buckwheats, one cool coastal and one hot, hot, hot, to monitor as the climate changes for the next 20+ years.  Wouldn't that be an incredible and valuable data set?  I'm facing the reality that I will not likely be granted a permit anytime soon.  Even if I did manage to get it by some miracle, I would still have to fight the local transplants who apparently have their own agenda.  Quite frankly, I'm sinking into a major depression over this issue and how complicated it got rather quickly.  This has serious personal implications for me, far beyond a simple plant ID or a couple rare butterflies.  Am I being overly dramatic?  Sure.  Sob.  At the very least, this hullabaloo has made me rethink my plans and scale down, way down.

Terrace Trail - Garland Ranch - Garzas Creek

Again, I specifically went to Terrace Trail, because this is the location I was told by one of the authors where he's found CA buckwheat for his field guide.  This is the only type of buckwheat I found on the hillside.  Eh, there might have been an herbaceous buckwheat tucked in there, but remember, I went looking at shrubs.  The photographs below were taken as part of my ongoing effort to better document plants without the need to clip a specimen, bag it, press it, and store it for perpetuity who knows where. And, at the point we're taking photographs of dead, dried specimens, wouldn't photos of the living work just as well, or even better?  I feel the same about butterflies, too.  With the quality of macro-photography these days, I think we need to evolve past collecting things to be hidden away in closets (or for those wary of dermestids and moth balls, in freezers).  Plus, photos are so much easier to share. 

it's November, so the flower selection is sparse

Does anyone know the name of the stringy brown nest-looking stuff found at the base of the bundled perianths on older buckwheat flower heads (last photo here)?

variety of leaf shapes, from roundish to arrowhead to superficially linear 
(must look at individual leaf to really make that determination)

contrary to what the local bible says, I believe seacliff is often fasciculate

one last look at overall form and appearance
(note V-shaped cyme with flower clusters half-way up)