The Gentner's fritillary, a wildflower found only in Jackson and Josephine counties and endangered by human development, is getting a boost from greenhouses in Corvallis.
Since 2003, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Department of Agriculture have collected tiny bulblets as small as grains of rice from thriving colonies, nursed them for two years in greenhouses at Oregon State University, then planted them where colonies need strengthening, said Mark Mousseaux, Medford BLM botanist. The flower was placed on the federal Endangered Species List in 1999.
"After we get the numbers up, we plan to down-list it and (eventually) de-list it," Mousseaux said.
"We know how to do it now. The species is very much recoverable."
The plant is threatened by residential development, agricultural activities, logging, fire suppression, road and trail maintenance, off-road-vehicle use, and collecting for gardens, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Seven years after recovery efforts began, Kelly Amsberry, a biologist with the state's Native Plant Conservation Program, said the Gentner fritillary is experiencing a comeback, with 146 known locations, all identified with GPS coordinates.
The largest populations are centered around Jacksonville's trail system and cemetery, with others around Butte Falls, the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, the Applegate Valley and Picket Creek in Josephine County.
The fritillary doesn't produce viable seeds, so botanists harvest bulblets. Each plant produces about 50 bulblets, allowing botanists to produce clones in greenhouses. The botanists then replant the flowers in autumn in the Jacksonville area, on sites identified by the BLM and the city of Jacksonville, Amsberry said. So far, some 13,000 flowers have been planted.
"It's still a new project, so a lot of the plants are quite young," said Amsberry in a news release. "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. "… We are having good success."
The species, fritillaria gentneri, was unknown to science until the 1940s, when a teenage Jacksonville girl, Laura Gentner, took one to her father, an entomologist with the Southern Oregon Experiment Station. It was tagged a new species by OSU scientists and named after the Gentner family, said Lillian Maksymowicz, an Ashland wildflower expert and member of the Native Plant Society.
"It's rare. There never were a lot of them," said Maksymowicz. "I don't want to see any plant go extinct. We're losing a lot of species all over the world, every day. This little flower can't compete against invasive weeds, which take all the water and nutrition."
All native plants, she added, are vital to an ecosystem and each one has a role in pollination and reseeding for itself and other plants as well as for the health of birds and bees.
"If there are no wildflowers, you have no pollinators. It's a sensitive balance that's (thrown off) by human population and activities," she said.
The fritillary grows as high as 18 inches, with red to maroon petals and yellow streaks. It blooms from April to June, according to www.fws.gov/oregonfwo/Species/Data/GentnersFritillary/.
On a fritillary-spotting tour of Jacksonville trails, Armand Rebischke, BLM botanist for the Ashland area, said fire suppression works against wildflowers by increasing the vegetation load and the competition for water, space and nutrients.
However, he added, the Jacksonville Woodlands Association has worked to reduce invasive species, such as Scotch broom, many of whose dead stalks dot the landscape.
"We're doing a good thing for Mother Nature up here," said Rebischke. "The fritillaria is an important piece of our natural heritage. Who cares if it survives? Well, it's like a library; if you start throwing out copies of books, pretty soon you have big holes in our knowledge."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.