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Fire, an old road and a rare plant produce an epic journey of renewal

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After the 2017 Atlas Fire burned all of the Land Trust’s Foote Preserve on Mt. George, rare fire-following wildflowers were not the only exciting botanical discoveries made in the months that followed. Ceanothus purpureus, or Hollyleaf Ceanothus seedlings started coming up as well. As a fire-dependent species, Hollyleaf Ceanothus seeds need fire to germinate, and the Atlas Fire did just that.

“Hollyleaf Ceanothus is listed as rare and endangered by the California Native Plant Society,” said Mike Palladini, stewardship program manager at the Land Trust. “Napa and Solano Counties are the only places on the planet this species is found.”

Unfortunately, dozens of new seedlings sprouted up on an old road that was identified as a post-fire erosion risk after the Atlas Fire. Since the work needed to address this erosion concern would severely damage the new plants, the Land Trust decided to put them on a journey to Berkeley and back so they could later flourish nearby. By choosing this path, the erosion control work on the old road could continue, helping to reduce sedimentation in nearby Sarco Creek, protect neighborhoods below, and increase the seedling’s chance for survival by moving them out of harm’s way.

“Even though we were seeing an impressive rate of germination of this species throughout the preserve, we felt we should really protect all seedlings since these are rare plants with a very limited range,” said Megan Lilla, the assistant stewardship coordinator at the Land Trust. “In fact, the population on this preserve was down to just a handful of plants before the fire.”

Erosion-control projects on old ranch roads normally do not get the same publicity as remote camera photos of black bears, for example, but the benefits are long lasting and just as important.

“Re-designing and reshaping old roads with poor drainage are big projects that lead us to partner with experts at the Napa County Resource Conservation District, the California State Water Resources Control Board and the Natural Resources Conservation Service,” said Doug Parker, CEO of the Land Trust. “These projects can significantly reduce sediment run-off, leading to cleaner water in nearby creeks and streams. It’s something we’ve done across a number of our protected properties.”

“It also decreases road maintenance costs, reducing annual expenses and saving the Land Trust money that can then be directed toward other conservation work,” said Parker.

When the plants were only a few inches tall, Land Trust staff, along with staff from Oaktown Native Plant Nursery in Berkeley, carefully dug up the Hollyleaf seedlings. From there, the seedlings rambled down Mt. George with the help of their caretakers and hopped in a truck en route to the nursery’s headquarters.

“Once I got the very small plants to the nursery, we tried to mimic the rocky ground they had been growing in by cutting them back and sticking them into perlite as if they were cuttings,” said Kristen Hopper, owner of Oaktown Native Plant Nursery. “This worked very well and we had a decent success rate — enough so that the Land Trust ended up with almost 100 one-gallon sized plants.”

After seven months by the Bay, the time came for a road trip back to their home on the Foote Preserve. With the help of funding from the Napa County Wildlife Conservation Commission, a crew from American Conservation Experience planted the Hollyleaf near the newly improved road.

“It’s going to be really important for these plants to build another healthy seed bank throughout the preserve to prepare for whenever the next fire may be, and every plant counts toward that effort,” said Lilla. “So far, almost 18 months since they were placed in their new home, the plants are really thriving.”

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