Native plants get new home.
To be outdoors in Santa Barbara is to be wrapped in a panoply of flora. Not just acres of ocean-blue ceanothus and wispy sages, but a whole spectrum of leafy evergreen herbaceous plants under our noses and in the distant panorama—from demure creepers to bold and thrusting succulents to phallic-looking yucca, prickly pear and spastic oaks. Our county, indeed our state, is a mecca of biodiversity, a botanist’s dream. Currently, 6,550 varieties of plants grow in the golden state and roughly one-third of them (2,270 to be exact) are endemic—that is, occurring naturally here and only here.
Now for the bad news: 35% (2,353) of California’s plants are at risk, and 283 endemic varieties receive some kind of official protection. Now for the good news: a cadre of energetic and brainy scientists and philanthropists are working hard to keep them around. And even more good news: the Santa Barbara organization most focused on this task has built and opened a great new space in which these brainy scientists can toil even smarter than before.
The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s Pritzlaff Conservation Center, a $5.3-million concrete and steel fireproof building named after late board member and benefactor John C. Pritzlaff, is a long-dreamed-of and decades-in-the-planning addition. Its three stories of sustainably designed labs, storage space, offices, meeting rooms and patios give researchers and educators 11,000 square feet of sparkling space to expand their investigations and draw the community in closer to its conservation mission.
Walking through the new structure earlier this spring, Santa Barbara Botanic Garden Executive Director Steve Windhager, PhD, proudly points out the building’s many sustainable features, including rooftop solar panels, stone planters for capturing and filtering storm water runoff for irrigation, a state-of-the-art cooling system that moves air through tubes threaded through outside soil and more. “If you can’t do this in Santa Barbara,” Windhager says, “you can’t do it anywhere.”
But it’s the quiet human-propelled activities that most excite garden staff and volunteers—the work taking place in the first floor labs, some of which visitors can view through an observation window.
“As soon you walk into the building, the story of conservation begins to be told,” says Windhager. “Anytime the garden is open, anyone will be able to walk into the building and see into the lab where volunteers and staff are working.” They might see, for example, Denise Knapp, PhD, director of conservation research, investigating some of the pollinators that allow native plants to produce seeds, or examining the salinity of soil samples taken from San Nicholas Island, where an invasive crystalline iceplant might be changing the growing environment.
Next door in the new molecular genetics lab—which does not have an observation window—the garden’s new systematist, Matt Guilliams, PhD, examines, among many other things, the genetic make-up of the beautiful malva rosa (aka lavatera assugentiflora) plant, native to four Channel Islands. He wants to know if there are two distinct variants, a northern and a southern, as one botanist has suggested, or just a single variety.
“Why would this matter?” posits Guilliams. “They’re very rare across their distribution—of the two naturally occurring populations on the northern islands, there are probably fewer than 200 individuals. On the southern islands, I would say there are probably fewer than 100 or so. So if it’s one species, it’s a very rare plant that’s endemic to the Channel Islands. But if our genetic analysis shows that there are two distinct [varieties] then, wow, it’s really, really rare and probably both forms are worthy of protection under the Endangered Species Act.”
Down a flight of stairs is the garden’s seed bank and herbarium—an estimated 145,000 specimens of plants and lichen in airtight cabinets—that hedge against climate change, development and other alterations to the landscape that imperil native plants. The herbarium has double the capacity of its old home—that is, plenty of room to grow. And now, too, a space for digitization. Each specimen will be gradually gaining a digital-self: a label in a grand database (many have this already) and, ultimately, a high-density image to accompany it online, so researchers from around the world can examine the particulars of leaves, roots and stamens from the comfort of their desks.
“More and more, this is what herbariums are moving to nowadays,” says Windhager. “I try to avoid going to the herbarium specimens, not only because they’re fragile and the more you access them the more they degrade, but also because I hate microscopes. If you get one of these images, you can zoom in on a big monitor and never have to squint.”
Given that the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens was founded by the renowned plant ecologist, Dr. Frederic E. Clements, and with a grant from the Carnegie Institution, the Prizlaff Conservation Center, and the work it supports, is in keeping with Clements’s original purpose: to learn and to understand. And with today’s global extinction rate for plants and animals 1,000 times that of pre-human levels, the timing appears to be just what the doctor ordered.
For more information: Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, 1212 Mission Canyon Rd. 805/682-4726, sbbg.org.
This story was originally published in the Summer 2016 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.