Botanists are combing Southern California hillsides and deserts in a nationwide scramble to gather and stockpile enough native plant seeds to restore public lands destroyed by wildfires and replace endangered species' habitat lost to commercial solar development.
The idea for the harvest sprouted in 2001 after massive fires across the country, similar to those burning now in Arizona and blazes that regularly damage the Great Basin in Idaho, said Peggy Olwell. She's in charge of the plant conservation program for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, overseer of the seed collection effort.
"We wanted to reseed, but we didn't have the native plant materials available on the market. We didn't have the quantity of material or the diversity of species," Olwell said.
The BLM buys an average of 2.2 million pounds of seed per year but often has to rely on non-native species because there isn't enough from endemic plants. Native species are preferred because they are better adapted to control soil erosion and provide food and shelter for wildlife, Olwell said.
Seeds of Success is part of a preservation effort that Congress ordered in response to an increasing number of catastrophic fires. But native flora also is threatened by invasive plants, climate change, urban development and off-highway vehicle use.
Botanists and volunteers from BLM offices, the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and the San Diego Institute for Conservation Research aim to collect 10,000 seeds from each of thousands of native plant species throughout the region.
Botanist Tommy Stoughton, who collects for the Botanic Garden, spends three days a week crisscrossing the mountains and the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, from the Arizona and Nevada borders to the Sierra Nevada.
He searches for wire lettuce, a gray perennial herb that feeds the desert tortoise; squirrel tail, a grass that adapts well after fire; and Indian rice grass, an edible grain that acts as a soil stabilizer.
The undertaking requires numerous trips, first to assess what's flowering, then to collect seeds of 34 species in 76 sites. They all are commonly occurring plants; endangered species are covered under a different program.
Once Stoughton find his targets, he and two interns, Christi Gabriel and Stephanie Rockwood, shake out the seeds or pull the buds into paper grocery sacks. They are careful to take no more than 20 percent of seeds from any one site and never collect that species from the same spot again.
On a recent trip, they climbed 2 1/2 miles near the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm close to Whitewater Canyon. Their focus was on the tiny black seeds of apricot mallow, a bright orange, cup-shaped flower with gray foliage. It's a favorite food of the desert tortoise, threatened with extinction.
The Seeds of Success trips often focus on the tortoise. The reptile's population has declined as much as 90 percent in the past 20 years.
Once back at Rancho Santa Ana, the team dries the seeds in their paper bags, boxes them up and sends them to the national Bend Seed Extractory in Bend, Ore. There they are sorted and X-rayed to see whether they are viable, and then scientists try to find out how they germinate.
The government must find private growers in the right climate to grow the seeds. Getting seeds to the stage where they can be commercially grown can take as long as 20 years.
Part of each seed lot is stored at the U.S. National Seed Bank as an insurance policy against future threats such as climate change, and some seeds go to native plant researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The trove also is shared with the Kew Millennium Seed Bank operated by the Royal Botanic Garden in England, which aims to save 25 percent of the world's plant species by 2020.