Researching The Last Manzanita

by Gretchen Kell

Undergraduate Shannah Anderson is getting a rare experience at Berkeley--doing research on the Raven's manzanita, a plant so rare in the wild that there is only one left on Earth.

While the coastal shrub has been cloned, the last wild plant is in San Francisco's Presidio, where Anderson has been observing it and noting habitat restoration, encroaching plants, and preservation and cloning efforts.

"I always thought of endangered species as being far away, in the rain forest," said the 22-year-old junior, who is majoring in English with a minor in Conservation and Resource Studies. "I never thought I'd find any at the local level."

The plant's exact location in the Presidio, where it was discovered in 1951, is a secret that Anderson and others who want to protect it won't reveal.

"The habitat is very sensitive, and we don't want people trampling it," said Sharon Farrell, a biological technician at the Presidio. "Most people who call and want to see it are genuinely interested in the plant, but there also are people who poach and sell endangered species."

Farrell said there are 11 rare and endangered species in the Presidio alone and that some of those that are rare will be listed as endangered this year. Of these 11 species, she said, the Raven's manzanita is the most critically endangered since just one wild plant remains.

Anderson learned of the lone plant after signing up for an undergraduate research project at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden. The nation's leading university garden, the botanical garden is a 34-acre classroom--with 13,000 species grown from seeds collected worldwide--for students in fields including botany, biodiversity, evolution, ecology, ornithology and art.

Undergraduate research at the garden is a new opportunity developed by the garden's director, George Rogers.

"The garden is a perfect place for undergrads to get research experience," he said. "There are many topics that need investigating, writing and a little research. The proj-ects are low budget, have a short time frame, are close to campus, and are exotic and pleasant.

"The chancellor wants to promote a high quality undergraduate experience at the university. This gives students a chance to

interact with the faculty and get an experience other than being in an introductory course with hundreds of other people."

Anderson and Rogers got permission from the National Park Service, which has taken over much of the Presidio, to visit the site. Then came the difficult task--even with a map--of finding the plant in the large and diverse Presidio landscape.

"It was an adventure," said Anderson.

The species was named after its discoverer, Peter Raven, a famous botanist and Berkeley alumnus who is director of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Raven grew up in the Bay Area and, as a youngster, began conducting botanical studies. He found the single plant when he was 15 and in high school. The plant later was named in his honor, but also goes by the name Presidio manzanita.

Raven said the Raven's manzanita is one of five subspecies of the species Arctostaphylos hookeri that occurs from Mount Tamalpais to the Arroyo de la Cruz in northwest San Luis Obispo County.

Experts say that manzanita plants never have been abundant in the Bay Area. Over time, the number of plants was reduced by development.

"There's virtually no chance that plants of this subspecies occur anywhere else now," said Raven, "and it is highly likely that all the others have been exterminated."

Cuttings of the Raven's manzanita have been taken by groups including Saratoga Horticultural Foundation, East Bay Regional Park District and Strybing Arboretum and grown in the groups' nurseries.

"The Raven's manzanita grows on serpentine," said Farrell. "But there isn't much of this type of soil left in the area."

Anderson's work with the endangered species has prompted her to join a habitat restoration team through the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The volunteer team meets weekly to remove exotic species encroaching on endemic plants, reseed areas with native species, map trails and do transplanting.

She also has been inspired to teach youngsters about endangered species and habitat restoration.

Anderson brought the children native plants as gifts and showed them the movie version of "The Lorax," a Dr. Seuss book. The Lorax is a character who tries in vain to save the truffula trees from extinction. Luckily, another character gets a seed from the last tree to plant.

The Presidio's Farrell said that because studies on many endangered plants such as the Raven's manzanita are rare, "anything that could be added will help us know more about land management and doing restoration work."

Of Anderson, she said, "People with passion and enthusiasm are who will help save our environment. They will inspire young people to get involved and continue the work that's already started."


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