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A plant enthusiast inspects a plant species located in the Santa Fe Valley Open Space in Rancho Santa Fe. Photo by Lexy Brodt
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Plant enthusiasts hunt for rare specimens

RANCHO SANTA FE — Several plant enthusiasts meandered up a lush, off-trail hill in the Santa Fe Valley Open Space on a cool day in early March, their eyes peeled to the ground.

To the untrained eye, the group seemed to be looking for something lost in the bushes.

But the participants — led by California Native Plant Society Rare Plant Biologist Amy Patten — were actually “treasure hunting” for a plant called the Juncus Acutus Leopoldii.

Participants take notes on plant species at the Santa Fe Valley Open Space, located off of Del Dios Highway in Rancho Santa Fe. About 15 participants took part in the event, which helped instruct interested citizens on collecting data on rare species to upload to an online database. Photo by Lexy Brodt

The plant, commonly called a spiny rush, is native to California.

“What a rush!” said one participate as the group finished their count, adding to the morning’s panoply of plant puns.  

“Treasure hunting” is a method by which individuals can observe “occurrences” of a rare plant in certain locations and submit them to the California Natural Diversity Database, an inventory of the state’s rare plants and animals and their locations and statuses.

Operated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the database helps inform research and conservation efforts, as well as certain land use decisions such as the environmental review of development projects.

A group of plant enthusiasts from across San Diego County and beyond gathered on March 8 to participate in a “treasure hunt.” The event, hosted by the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy, intended to teach citizens how to gather data on rare plants in the region to upload to the California Natural Diversity Database (CNDDB). Photo by Lexy Brodt

“You don’t have to be a professional botanist to find a new occurrence,” said Patten, as she led the group to a Rancho Santa Fe entrance of the Coast-to-Crest trail.  

The event, hosted by the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy, was meant to serve as a “training wheels” treasure hunt for participants looking to take their outdoorsmanship to a new level.

“We hike a lot, and this’ll be an opportunity when we’re out walking to participate,” said Karen Robertson, from Rancho Peñasquitos.

Armed with template forms to help gather information needed to upload an occurrence to the database, the group headed out onto the trail to learn the ropes.

This meant learning how to note and describe things such as phenology (plant life cycle events, in short), topography, sun exposure, and site conditions.

Jim Smith, a Del Mar resident and conservancy board member, said encouraging and training “budding citizen scientists” in treasure hunting is an efficient way to build the database without breaking the budget.

“The more people that are doing this, the more data gets into the database to inform development,” he said.

The event is just one of many linked to the Conservancy’s citizen science programs, which kicked off in 2014. The programs take on a “focal site” every year, and this year the conservancy and its volunteers will be honing in on the Santa Fe Valley Open Space, also referred to as Crosby Estates Habitat Management Area.

The conservancy’s volunteers contributed a total of 120 hours to the programs in 2018, and so far, 27 total volunteers have contributed 95 hours in 2019.

The conservancy’s programs extend far beyond documenting plant life — volunteers also conduct quarterly bird surveys, wildlife camera trapping and herpetological surveys (focusing on reptile and amphibian populations), to name a few.

For more information on San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy programs and future events, contact Conservation Manager Jonathan Appelbaum at [email protected].