Channel Islands Chapter
Rare Plant Profiles: Astragalus pycnostachyus var. lanosissimus
Astragalus pycnostachyus var. lanosissimus, Ventura Marsh Milkvetch, is a short-lived perennial herb in the Fabaceae (Pea family).   It has felty white pinnately compound leaves with 27 to 39 leaflets per leaf, and cream-colored flowers that have at on average 37 flowers per inflorescense (flower stalk), and each plant producing about 26 inflorescences.   The seed pods contain (2-)7 to 9 seeds each, largely depending upon the seasonal (winter-spring) rainfall.   Each mature plant has multiple reddish-colored, hollow stems that attain a height of up to 1 meter.

Astragalus pycnostachyus var. lanosissimus   Astragalus pycnostachyus var. lanosissimus
Astragalus pycnostachyus var. lanosissimus   Astragalus pycnostachyus var. lanosissimus - by Rick Burgess
Astragalus pycnostachyus var. lanosissimus   Astragalus pycnostachyus var. lanosissimus

Astragalus pycnostachyus var. lanosissimus, pronounced "A-strag-a-lus" "pick-no-stake-e-us" variety "lan-o-sis-i-mus", is federally and state listed as Endangered, based on the petition written by David Magney, with the assistance of annonymous helpers.   It historically ranged from the mouth of the Ventura River southward along the coast to Bolsa Chica wetlands in northern Orange County.   Contrary to as suggested by its common name, it does NOT like to live in salt marshes, too salty, and too wet.   It grows in mesic soils seasonally saturated, but NOT inundated, with fresh water, or slightly brackish at most.   It needs a shallow groundwater table, of fresh water, and can grow in sand to clayey loam soils.

There is only one (1) natural population growing in the world, at a residential development site that was an oil waste dump site from 1955 to 1982, located at the corner of 5th Street and Harbor Boulevard in Oxnard, California.   Before this small populations was discoverd (by U.S. Fish and Wildlife wildlife biologist, Kate Symonds) in 1997, Astragalus pycnostachyus var. lanosissimus was thought to be extinct.   The last known occurrence of Astragalus pycnostachyus var. lanosissimus was at McGrath State Beach along Harbor Boulevard in 1967, when its remains were found by a Ventura County Farm Advisor's Office botanist after being mowed down by California Department of Parks and Recreation maintenance workers (who obviously had no idea what they had done).   Many botanists had searched all over coastal southern California to find it, to no avail, that is until Kate Symonds asked the developer's consulting botanist what it was on the North Shore site.   That botanist didn't bother to identify the strange looking species of Astragalus, either out of incompetence, fraud, or ignorance (which would be incompetence since a professional should know better).   [The whole story about the North Shore development and CNPS' fight to protect the VMMV can be found on this website's Conservation Issues page.   All other natural poplulations had been extirpated years before 1967, based on the lack of sightings or collections after the first discoveries.

Interestingly enough, in 1984 while working at the UCSB Herbarium, I wrote a proposal outline to the California Department of Fish and Game about resurrecting this variety from potentially viable seeds found on herbarium specimens.   My proposal was rejected as infeasible, or something like that.   It was just a year or so later that the active oil waste dump site at the corner of 5th Street and Harbor Blvd., owned by a branch of the McGrath family, was ordered closed.   It was likely that a short time afterwards, some dormant seeds, possibly from the McGrath State Beach site, having been deposited in the soil covering the oil waste dump site, germinated and expanded into a small, discrete population of a few hundred plants.   No one would have expected this extinct plant to start growing in such a highly disturbed site.   Or, was my power of suggestion and desire so strong that it manifested in the taxon resurrecting itself from the dead?   I have no answer to that, only speculation on the unexplained.

As of this writing, the "natural" population at the North Shore development site is still living, but definately threatened and not doing well with all the soil remediation activities going on by Trimark's contractors to ready the site for building homes.   The primary concern by CNPS and botanists is that any significant changes to site conditions could alter the microclimate present that allowed this taxon to become established and viable.   Only time will tell.   But, additional populations, at least trials, have been planted at Coal Oil Point Preserve, Carpinteria Salt Marsh Preserve, McGrath State Beach, Mandalay State Beach, south Ormond Beach, and Ballona Wetlands.   The Coal Oil Point Preserve planting is highly managed and not likely to become a vialable, self-sustaining population.   The first attempts at Carpinteria Salt Marsh failed, but a new planting in a better site is doing well.   The McGrath Lake plantings are growing, but have suffered setbacks from flooding and competition from other plants, native and nonnative.   The south Ormond Beach plantings failed miserably, almost certainly due to planting them in an unsuitable site in saline soils that flooded for too long.   The Ballona Wetlands planting is just getting started, but the site is not ideal in many respects, and CNPS does not expect it to survive or become a viable self-sustaing population.

McGrath SB Trial Plantings McGrath SB Trial Plantings

CNPS conducted a study of potential (re)introduction sites along the southern California coast to see what was out there, and which sites CNPS and others should consider for planting the Ventura Marsh Milkvetch. That study can be downloaded here.

Special thanks to Carlin Moyer for the beautiful illustrations on our site.   All photographs are by David Magney, unless otherwise noted.

Last updated: 4 September 2008
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