New plant species named for Shasta-Trinity National Forest Botanist

A plant with small flowersIn June of 2014, a new stonecrop will be named - Sedum kiersteadiae, honoring Forest Botanist Julie Kierstead Nelson. The species is a common inhabitant of rock outcrops in The Eddys and Scott Mountain, at the juncture of Trinity, Siskiyou, and Shasta Counties. How was this common and beautiful little plant overlooked for so long? The truth is that we’ve been calling it by the wrong name all these years.

The story starts in 2010, when North State Resources (NSR) biologists were contracted by the Shasta-Trinity NF to monitor historical sites of the rare plant, Shasta eupatory, on remote mountaintops of Shasta County, north of Shasta Lake. NSR reported finding an unknown stonecrop at some of the eupatory sites. The stonecrop was already done blooming for the year so could not be identified to species with certainty, but possibly represented a significant range extension for the rare Canyon Creek stonecrop, at that time known only from Trinity County and extreme western Shasta County. This rare species is designated as a Forest Service Sensitive species, and is managed to prevent it from needing protection under the Endangered Species Act; so finding out the true identity of these new stonecrop populations was important to the Shasta-Trinity.

The Forest entered into an agreement with the Carex Working Group, a company of professional botanists, to answer the question: what stonecrop species is this? As simple as that sounds, the answer was not easy to get. Most plants are documented with dried, pressed specimens kept in plant libraries called herbaria, which can be compared with fresh material to get an accurate identification; but stonecrops make terrible specimens - the leaves shrivel and fall off when they dry, and the brightly colored fresh flowers turn a dull brown. Botanical books distinguish different stonecrop species by using flower colors and leaf shapes, so dried specimens are nearly useless for identification. In order to make sense of the stonecrops of northern California and answer the original question, field trips to visit flowering stonecrops was necessary.

Three years, thousands of miles, five flat tires, and hundreds of specimens later, the original question was answered. Yes, those new populations north of Shasta Lake are Canyon Creek stonecrop, which suddenly became less rare. In the process of answering that question, half a dozen new stonecrops were discovered and will soon have new botanical names. The Eddys stonecrop, Sedum kiersteadiae, is expected to be officially published in June 2014.