On June 8, 336 plants of the Autumn buttercup (Ranunculus aestivalis) propagated at the Carl H. Lindner Jr. Family Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) were planted in a restoration project at a preserve near Panguitch, Utah. This small region of Utah is the only place in the world these plants are known to exist. The species was first discovered in 1894, but by 1979, it was thought to be extinct. A population of 400 plants was found in 1982, but within 6 years the numbers had plummeted to less than 20 plants. At that point, The Nature Conservancy purchased the land to protect the buttercups, but the buttercup population did not rebound.
In the early 2000s, CREW’s Plant Division developed a protocol for propagating the plant through tissue culture, thanks to funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The process started with a few seeds, and each seed produced a genetically unique clone that was then multiplied through tissue culture—a technique in which the tissues are grown on an artificial, sterile medium. The shoot-producing cultures initiated in this way can be propagated indefinitely, but when plants are needed, the shoots are transferred to a root-inducing medium. Once roots are formed, the plants can be moved to soil.
Once these protocols were established, CREW’s Plant Division became part of unique team that formed to restore the buttercup population in its native habitat. The team includes The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, The Arboretum at Flagstaff, and Weber State University. June’s outplanting was the third and largest the team has attempted. A planting in 2007 produced some survival in areas with appropriate moisture, but a planting in 2010 was quickly eaten, it is assumed, by voles. The site was also being overgrown by other vegetation, so the restriction on grazing, which was done originally to reduce pressure on the plant, came into question.
Based on these previous experiences, the new planting has fourteen sites, seven each in the grazed and ungrazed areas, and half of the 24 plants at each site will be protected from herbivores both above and below ground. Water availability was recorded for each plant, as well as the initial plant size, and number of leaves and flowers. Traps were set for several nights at the time of the planting in order to provide information on the current small mammal population at the site. All of this data will be evaluated by faculty and students at Weber State University.
It definitely took a team effort between the collaborating partners’ staff and students, as well as volunteers, to accomplish digging the holes (through very tough sod), organizing the plants, taking the data, and carefully putting each plant in its place. It was wonderful to see the plants, which had been sent to Flagstaff from CREW in test tubes over the past several years, as robust, healthy plants in soil, ready to take on the dry winds and heat of their new Utah home. Later in the summer we should get the first reports on how they are doing.