SAMS VALLEY — Following her best botanist instincts, Kristi Mergenthaler pushed through a wall of buckbrush and side-stepped some coyote scat when out from the rain-dampened undergrowth sprang the object of her affection: a rare white fairypoppy, aka Meconella oregana, with its signature, bananalike fruit poking skyward. It's a true gem to find anywhere, let alone on a private, 133-acre, Sams Valley ranch like this one.

SAMS VALLEY — Following her best botanist instincts, Kristi Mergenthaler pushed through a wall of buckbrush and side-stepped some coyote scat when out from the rain-dampened undergrowth sprang the object of her affection: a rare white fairypoppy, aka Meconella oregana, with its signature, bananalike fruit poking skyward. It's a true gem to find anywhere, let alone on a private, 133-acre, Sams Valley ranch like this one.

"My heart kind of jumped out of my chest when I saw them," Mergenthaler says. "It was a very ecstatic moment."

For rare-plant hunters, this is called a discovery.

Local hikers, however, can call it Saturday.

Mergenthaler will lead a group of hikers Saturday, March 31, to this tiny pocket of white fairypoppies and other rare plants on a working Sams Valley ranch that illustrates how cattle, crops and conservation can coexist.

This hike is the opener of a new nine-hike series planned this spring by the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy to highlight various unique habitats protected locally by the nonprofit conservancy through conservation easements and other activities.

The free, guided and sometimes pet-friendly hikes are the conservancy's way of reaching beyond its membership to share access to rare flora and fauna found in places like the Sams Valley ranch, where a 10-year-old conservation easement helped protect this white fairypoppy well before it was ever discovered.

"These hikes are a way to ensure that people are getting out and enjoying the outdoors, and we thought this (ranch) would be a good place to start that," says Michael Stringer, the conservancy's development director.

Most of the hikes are in April and May and are spread from Ashland to Grants Pass. The hike leaders will take participants on trails that feature topics ranging from forest ecology and conservation on private land to bird-watching and rare botanical treasures.

The series will end with an October bicycle tour of the Bear Creek Greenway that should include peeks at wild fall chinook salmon spawning in Bear Creek.

The hikes are structured similarly to the Bureau of Land Management's annual spring hikes on the Table Rocks, in which a local expert leads a hike and points out key aspects of flora, fauna and geology. In fact, Upper Table Rock is one of the hikes on SOLC's agenda.

But the conservancy's hikes expand to multiple habitats that have multiple stories to tell.

The conservancy four years ago began offering occasional guided hikes for its members and last year expanded it to a modest set of four hikes that collectively drew a few dozen hikers, Stringer says.

This year the conservancy expanded its offerings even more and is using a $2,500 grant from the city of Ashland to advertise the series. Stringer is hoping to draw about 150 participants.

The first group will get a rare glimpse at that private ranch where SOLC has a conservation easement. The ranch includes an area for grazing and others for grass crops. Sprinkled among the working plots are protected riparian zones, oak habitats and deer and elk forage.

But it's far more than a pretty oasis amid a sea of ranch work.

Mergenthaler, who is the conservancy's land steward and spends time inventorying these lands, says several rare and even endangered plants and animals call this ranch home. Wildlife includes western pond turtles, Lewis's woodpeckers, western bluebirds and western meadowlarks, Mergenthaler says. Other documented species include Gentner's fritillaria, a state and federally protected endangered species, along with the white fairypoppy that is now a candidate for state protection.

On the day last spring when she found the white fairypoppy cluster, she found two more satellite populations.

A few weeks later, beneath some manzanita, she found the Gentner's fritillaria — long, slender plants with bright, reddish flowers found only in and around the Rogue Valley.

"It really shows the power of conserving land," Mergenthaler says. "You'll never know what you're conserving, sometimes, until many years later.

"Who knows what else we'll find here in the future," she says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman