When Mike Cipra left his job in Death Valley National Park in February 2014, his wife Jane, the park’s botanist, did not go with him. When curious park staffers asked her how much longer she was staying, her face lit up and she replied with a smile “After the Eurekensis blooms.” As it turned out, only Jane Cipra and her crew of biological technicians really understood what was waiting to happen a few months later.
This story, about the totally unexpected and magnificent 2014 bloom of the Eurekensis, has its beginnings in 1978 when the Eureka Valley evening primrose (Oenothera californica ssp eurekensis) was put on the Federal Endangered Species list along with the Eureka Valley dune grass (Swallenia alexandrae). The listing came into effect on May 27, 1978. The necessity of listing both these species had been triggered by threats to the plants and their habitat from off-road vehicles (ORV’s).
The threat posed by ORV’s actually dates back to the 1960’s when the Eureka Dunes’ steep slopes had become a popular playground for visitors fond of engine noise and piston power. Increasing numbers of people coming into the area also meant more campers. All this human activity had a detrimental effect on this fragile ecosystem, as plants were repeatedly crushed and buried. But it took some time before the threats to the dune vegetation were clearly understood. In the seventies the Eureka Valley was still under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and was not closely monitored. Also values were different in the 1960’s. Preservation and conservation were not priorities. These days we have a much better appreciation of why the Eureka Valley evening primrose as well as the Eureka Valley dune grass should be valued instead of being allowed to vanish into the abyss of extinction. BLM eventually recognized the devastation that was being wrought by people enjoying the “good times” on the dunes, and the area was closed to vehicular traffic in 1976.
The 1994 passage of the Desert Protection Act brought the Eureka Valley under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. The area became part of Death Valley National Park and was designated as wilderness. Unfortunately the throaty rumble of a trespassing ORV can still occasionally be noted to tear up sand and silence. Perhaps the driver is unaware that it does not take much to significantly impact this delicate ecosystem.
The Eureka Dunes cover three square miles and are the tallest dunes in California, rising 680 feet above the valley floor. They are a visible and dominant feature of the valley. The dune vegetation, on the other hand, is usually not an attention grabber. During dry years, the Eureka Valley evening primrose remains dormant in the subsurface. When conditions are right, which tends to be only during wet years, these perennials grow from the roots. But even when the plant seeds germinate, this primrose comes up only as a tiny basal rosette of grey-green leaves. This means that normally there is little to betray their presence. But when the timing of rain is right, the stems elongate rapidly, and sometime between April and July the plants bloom. This bloom is, as most desert blooms tend to be, a spectacular but ephemeral event lasting only a few weeks. When the bloom is over, the elongated stems die off. The plants retreat into the subsurface and wait until the conditions are favourable once again. Then the cycle begins anew.
The Eureka Valley evening primrose is a remarkable plant. It is unique in that the Eureka Dunes is the only place in the world where it grows. But growing in sand is challenging business. The surface of dunes is forever in motion and anything that grows there needs to have ways of dealing with being repeatedly buried in shifting sands. The Eurekensis has a fleshy root that is capable of storing the plant’s energy underground, which is especially important during the hot summer months or even during dry years. This highly adaptive survival strategy gives it a substantial head start on flower and fruit production when conditions are favourable. The Eurekensis also has two different reproductive strategies to deal with these conditions. As well as being a prodigious seed producer like many desert plants, it can clone itself by sending out lateral underground shoots that form new rosettes at the end of every branch. This gives it the ability to rise and spread above the surface.
When the Eureka Valley evening primrose was added to the Federal Endangered Species list, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) became involved because the listing and delisting of species come under their jurisdiction. In 2007 the USFWS completed a five year review and concluded that the threats to the Eureka Valley evening primrose were reduced to a point where the plant no longer needed to be considered endangered, and it could potentially be taken off the Endangered Species list. They also turned to Death Valley National Park’s botanist, Michelle Slaton at that time, to request as much additional information as possible. Ms. Slaton initiated surveys in the Eureka Dunes to evaluate the plant’s status. When Jane Cipra took over as the park’s botanist in 2010, this project came with her new job. She increased the survey activity in 2011 and with the help of an exceptionally dedicated crew of bio-technicians and volunteers she was able to survey the entire habitat of the Eureka Dunes rare plants in the same season for the first time. Prior to this, the Main Dunes was surveyed in 2007 and the Marble Canyon and Saline Spur were surveyed separately in 2008.
Every spring for four consecutive years, Jane and her crew made the trek to the Eureka Valley braving furious dust storms, rain, sleet, and desiccating heat. The team remained at the dunes for days at a time no matter what the conditions. In 2011, Jane and four bio-technicians covered 6,568 acres between March 15 and April 11. The spring of 2009, as well as spring 2010, had been good “flower years” in the park, and the Eureka Valley evening primrose had a decent showing. But when the drought hit southern California, the Eureka Valley evening primrose became elusive.
In addition to drought conditions, there was another threat: Russian thistle (Salsola gobicola). Russian thistle, also known as tumbleweed, was documented for the first time in the Eureka Valley in the 1970’s. In the Eureka Valley, the Eurekensis and the Russian thistle grow in exactly the same habitat of dune slopes and semi-stabilized sand surrounding the dunes. In the spring of 2011, the botany crew found very little Eurekensis and instead found many thousands of acres of Russian thistle that had already dried and gone to seed in what had been historically Eurekensis habitat. The results of the 2011 survey suggested that the Russian thistle had replaced the evening primrose in its prime habitat. However, the Eurekensis’ growing season is winter and spring, whereas the Russian thistle’s season is typically summer and fall. The crew was hopeful that this offset in timing meant that the primrose was still there underneath the sand and might come back.
Monitoring continued in the spring of 2012 but there were no visible changes. When the crew prepared for their spring 2013 survey, their mood was subdued. Southern California was into the third year of drought. Jane described the scene upon the crew’s arrival in the Eureka Valley: “When we arrived and looked at the area, it seemed that there was nothing alive. Everything was brown, but then we went out and started seeing tiny little seedling rosettes. There they were. Eureka Valley evening primroses, hundreds of thousands of them. But the plants were all the size of quarters and dimes.” She continued: “The seeds had germinated, but we couldn’t figure out why. Nothing unusual had shown up in our weather information.”
Weather information is currently tracked carefully in the area. There are three strategically placed weather stations that were installed in December 2012, that record rainfall, wind and temperature on a daily basis. But they may not have been installed soon enough to provide Jane with the information she needed. At this point, the only possible explanation Jane could give for the plants’ unexpected presence was that sometime between September and December 2012 there had been a freak rain storm that was not recorded by any weather stations but was enough of an event to stimulate the seedlings.
Jane then worried about the survival of the seedlings during the summer time. She explained “the Eureka Valley gets as hot as an oven and sees temperatures that can easily push the thermometer to more than 120 degrees. I did not expect these seedlings to survive the summer.” In November 2013 Jane and her crew returned to the valley to check and found that the seedlings had not only survived the summer but were now 3-6 inches in diameter. Relieved and encouraged by what they saw, they expanded their assessment to include land outside of their survey areas. Much to Jane’s surprise they found many seedlings there as well. Then a new concern started to weigh on Jane. “I worried about the seedlings’ survival during the hard winter freeze.”
In February 2014, full of anticipation but trying not to get their hopes up, Jane and her crew once again bumped north along Big Pine Road (a.k.a. Death Valley Road) on their way to the Eureka Valley. Once they arrived at their destination, their concerns dissipated – jubilance took its place. Jane described what they found: “The primroses were still there. The plants were now the size of dinner plates and steering wheels.”
Fast forward to March 2014. The news spread rapidly among park staff and regular Eureka Valley visitors: “There is a bloom at the Eureka Dunes that you’ve got to see.” Two senior park rangers reported that they had never seen anything like this during the twenty plus years they’ve worked in the park.
The botany crew was delighted to note that there was hardly any Russian thistle and the plants that could be seen were in the seedling stage while at the same time, the primroses were in full bloom and beginning seed production. This means that while the two species share the same space, they do not share it at the same time. They are stimulated by different temperatures, precipitation and amounts of day light and do not appear to be competing for the same resources. The primroses were there all along, just waiting for the right conditions for them.
Somehow those “right conditions” occurred and the result was this “once-in-a-life-time” event. This bloom, lasting six weeks, started with fields of yellow just about as far as the eye could see. The initial stages included the yellow desert evening primrose (Oenothera primiveris ssp. bufonis) interspersed primarily with yellow desert marigolds, although many other flowers could be found as well. The yellow desert evening primrose is not specific to the Eureka Valley but can be found in desert flats and gentle slopes from south-eastern California to western Texas and south-western Mexico. It cannot fail to charm with its pale to bright yellow flowers consisting of four heart-shaped petals and measuring two inches across growing out of the center of a basal rosette of leaves. Within weeks these flowers faded. Then the Eureka Valley evening primrose exuberantly took center stage. The fields of the soft white flowers with a hint of a pink blush, interspersed with the vibrant apricot-colored desert mallow, were breathtaking.
When sunlight faded and the promise of darkness hung in the air, this playground of wind and sand, light and shadow came alive. It was the hour between butterflies and moths when the evening primroses opened their petals. Where previously the white and yellow had been barely visible, the flowers now glowed luminescent in the gentle light of the rising moon. When the wind did not provide the music and the perfumed night air hung still, one could hear the constant buzz of the night pollinators. Hawk moths, sphinx moths and other insects darted from flower to flower. The only words that came to mind: This is magic.
As the bloom was coming to an end, Jane reflected on the fact that this area is still in a severe drought cycle. The Eureka Dunes receive more precipitation than other areas in Death Valley and sand tends to hold water, which makes this area more hospitable to vegetation than one might think. However what made these plants bloom in such profusion at this time? There is no answer to that question. All we know is how little we really know.
Jane has developed a deep respect for these remarkable plants. She knows, perhaps better than most people, the ways in which these plants are challenged by human activity and natural forces. Yet the force of life prevails in spite of it all. Jane Cipra has joined her husband in northern California, but the memories of the amazing Eurekensis will, most likely, remain with her for a long time to come.
Birgitta has volunteered in Death Valley National Park since 2008. Currently she and her husband, photographer Neal Nurmi, are working together documenting Death Valley’s backcountry cabins and other structures.