September 21, 2002

Biologists Find an 'Extinct' Sunflower


Biologists working for the developer of a proposed 21,700-home project near Santa Clarita have found a sunflower on the site not seen since 1937 and thought to have been extinct.

The same developer, Newhall Land & Farming Co., on Friday was charged with a misdemeanor on suspicion of altering a streambed in the area.

The 10-to 12-foot Los Angeles sunflower was found on a boggy bank along the Santa Clara River. It produces large yellow blossoms much like the standard sunflower, prefers marshy habitats and was once found in San Bernardino, Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles counties.

It was forced into apparent extinction by urbanization and the channelization of many Southern California waterways, said Steve Boyd, curator of the herbarium at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont.

Newhall Land & Farming Co. this week wrote to the state Department of Fish and Game, requesting that the flower be added to the state list of endangered and threatened plants.

Plants and animals thought to be extinct have no protection under state laws, said Mary Meyer, a plant ecologist with Fish and Game.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office had been investigating whether the company has disturbed the habitat of the endangered San Fernando spineflower. The office would not say what the result of that investigation was.

But on Friday, it filed a misdemeanor complaint against the company alleging destruction of the streambed.

The complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court's Newhall branch alleges that the company changed "the banks, bed and channel of an unnamed tributary of the Santa Clara River" south of California 126 and west of Interstate 5.

Newhall Land spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer said she did not know details of the complaint and could not comment on it.

However, any activity on the land "absolutely wouldn't have been related to development. We are still farming portions of the land and have been doing that for more than 100 years," she said.

The streambed site is not far from the bank where fewer than a dozen Los Angeles sunflowers were found.

After the spineflower and the Ventura marsh milk vetch, the Los Angeles sunflower is the third plant formerly thought to be extinct that has turned up in the county, said Steve Martarano, a spokesman for Fish and Game.

"There's all these places being developed now that were private property, tucked away," Martarano said. "We're just starting to find out what's on them."

The housing project, now undergoing environmental review, is to be considered by the county Board of Supervisors in January.

Analysis by
Robert 'Roy' J. van de Hoek
Field Ecologist & Geographer
Sierra Club, Wetlands Action Network, National Audubon Society

The Los Angeles Sunflower, once thought extinct, has had the good fortune, I hope, to be rediscovered. The newly discovered population is a very sacred California treasure and must not be allowed to go extinct. This unique native plant grew to nearly 17 feet tall and was found in marshes, swamps, and damp river banks around southern California until about World War II. The major alterations of flood control that began just prior to the War, but accelerated after the War, led to the demise of this beautiful native endemic plant throughout the Los Angeles region, or so we thought. This one remaining population holds the seeds and thus the faith to be restored and recovered to historic locations where it once occurred such as the cienegas, Los Angeles River, Riverside, and even within the Ballona Creek watershed and its adjacent coastal wetlands. This web site will compile, synthesize, and analyze all that is known about the Los Angeles Sunflower, a plant known to science today as Helianthus nuttallii parishii, but has also been known as Helianthus oliveri, Helianthus parishii, and Helianthus californicus parishii. Two of America's most famous writers of the 20th Century, Wallace Stegner and Joseph Wood Krutch have talked about geographies of hope of their favorite landscapes. Now there is a new biogeography of hope to include as a landscape of the west; it is the places where the Los Angeles Sunflower grows and may grow again in the Los Angeles region.

Some Webpage Links to Learn More About Los Angeles Sunflower:
Los Angeles Sunflower Anthology

Los Angeles Sunflower Experimental Garden in Southern California Academy of Sciences Bulletin, 1903

Los Angeles Sunflower by Harvey Monroe Hall, 1907. In University of California Publications in Botany