Close-up of the flowers of Tejon buckwheat. Photo courtesy of Neal Kramer.
Back in 2006, Tejon Ranch became the site of one of the most significant botanical discoveries in recent memory. While performing botanical surveys associated with the construction of an energy transmission line on the ranch, Dr. Rob Preston encountered a morphologically-distinct Eriogonum (known commonly as wild buckwheats) growing on carbonate substrates (derived from sedimentary rocks such as limestone or dolostone, and typically high in pH and calcium) at around 4500 ft (1400 m) in elevation. The distinctness of these plants from other Eriogonums was immediately apparent to him, and Dr. Preston sent an herbarium specimen to Dr. Jim Reveal (the world’s expert on Eriogonum) for identification.
Tejon buckwheat, in habitat.
Dr Reveal’s diagnosis of the Eriogonum from Tejon as a species new to science was essentially a no-brainer. In communication with me back in 2008, he indicated that, “the discovery of another undescribed member of Eriogonum Michx. (Polygonaceae Juss., subf. Eriogonoideae Arn.) from California is not, in itself, a surprise, but one so distinct as to represent a new section…is at least unusual.” Eriogonum is California’s most diverse genus, with 215 taxa (species and varieties) recognized as native to the state.
Dr. Reveal chose to call the Tejon (or Tehachapi) buckwheat Eriogonum callistum. The specific epithet, callistum, comes from the Greek work calli, and means “very beautiful.” I think this is a fitting name for such a wonderful plant. As alluded to in the previous paragraph, the characteristics of the Tejon buckwheat are so unique that it also necessitated the naming of a new section of Eriogonum subgenus Eucyclya, Lanocephala, which is characterized by hairy flowers arranged in dense heads (capitate infloresences), and hairy stems (pedicels) leading up to each flower. These characters combined with leaf characteristics, growth habit, habitat, and geographic distribution separate the Tejon buckwheat from all other species.
As you can see from these photos, the Tejon buckwheat is truly a striking, unique plant. The fact that it took until 2006 for this species to be be discovered provides evidence that Tejon Ranch is a botanical frontier where new species are likely to be encountered.
When I was working for CNPS back in 2008, I had the pleasure of preparing the documentation (known as a status review) for the proposed addition of the Tejon buckwheat to the CNPS Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants. The plant was subsequently added to Rank 1B, a category containing the rarest plants in the state. Back then, Eriogonum callistum was only known from a single location, and the Tejon Ranch Conservancy-reserving 90% of the ranch from development-had yet to be created. Recent surveys conducted in 2013 by Neal Kramer and Tejon Ranch Conservancy staff located a number of additional locations of Tejon buckwheat on carbonate soils on the higher elevations of the ranch. Even with these additional locations, Eriogonum callistum, is known from no more than a couple thousand individual plants, and can be considered one of California’s rarest species. In essence, the whole known distribution of the species is restricted to a few thousand acres of potential habitat in openings in shrubland on carbonate rock outcroppings on a singe ridge of the Tehachapi Mountains. This is one incredibly rare species! Some good news is that the vast majority of the habitat of Tejon buckwheat is unlikely to be affected by development, ensuring that it will be conserved for future generations to enjoy.
In the coming field season I will continue to search for additional locations of the Tejon buckwheat. Owing to the fact that such a unique species was discovered so recently, this indicates that Tejon Ranch may be the home to additional species new to science (see my previous post on the Tejon Streptanthus). This was certainly on my mind when in September of last year I collected a small, perennial member of the sunflower family growing at a newly discovered location of the Tejon buckwheat. While certainly more work is needed on this plant, I have, with the help of Dr. John Semple, identified this plant as possibly a new species of Heterotheca (golden aster), likely related to Heterotheca monarchensis, known only from Kings Canyon National Park. Stay tuned for more information of the Tejon Heterotheca.
Lastly, a number of us here at RSABG have recognized that a beautiful plant such as Tejon buckwheat might just make a pleasant addition to native plant gardens. Back in last September Seed Program Manager, Evan Meyer, and fellow graduate students Manuel Lujan and Tommy Stoughton, and I made the first seed collections of Eriogonum callistum.
Seeds of Tejon buckwheat will be stored in the conservation seed bank at RSABG, where they will be preserved for decades under cold storage, and will be available for limited research use. In addition, Evan and I germinated a couple seeds of Eriogonum callistum, and they are now growing quite nicely in 2 inch pots. Let me tell you, these are cute little seedlings! Provided that they continue to grow well, we will try growing them in the garden here at RSABG, and in the near future possibly introduce them into the horticulture trade. Who wouldn’t want a Tejon buckwheat in their garden?