The Secret That Botanists Are Keeping From The Public

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With its small bright green leaves and dangling, pearl-white flowers, Raven's Manzanita is instantly recognizable—except that nobody sees it anymore. Botanists won't disclose the location of the last known wild specimen in California. They've concluded that secrecy is the best way to protect rare species.


And it's not just in California. "This is happening all over the country, all over the world," Dylan Burge, a botany curator at the California Academy of Sciences tells Modern Farmer. "Taken collectively, secrecy basically functions like a parallel national conservation policy."

The reason for the secrecy is that once the public learns about a plant species that has been designated as rare or endangered, its chances of survival plummet:

The UK's "rarest wild flower" has been thieved to the point where it requires 24-hour "petal patrol" from the local police. Organized crime in Mexico has moved into the lucrative rare-cacti poaching business. The startling, art-heist-like theft of the "world's smallest water lily" earlier this year highlighted a soaring, black-market trade in rare plants, an industry currently valued at more than $14 billion annually.

And lest you think it's only the beautiful ones we need to worry about, consider the words of botanist Peter Marren ….following the theft of a rare, 2-inch-tall bog orchid: "It's a dull little thing, which could only be wanted by a collector. The fact it is certainly among the most vulnerable … and at risk of dying out just makes it more wanted." In this case — and all the cases listed above — botanists either tried or are still actively trying to keep plants' locations secret.

Revealing the location of …. Raven's Manzanita….seems like a death sentence any way you slice it. Is it at risk of being uprooted by people opposed to rehabilitating native habitat? Yep. Could it be thieved by low-morality gardeners eager for some novelty in their yards? Sure. But it's the clueless nature-lovers who would almost certainly kill it — people interested enough to trek out to the plant's humble bluff, but not knowledgeable enough to realize they (like pretty much everyone else in California) carry [a root-rotting pathogen] on the soles of their shoes.

Burge, however, is not entirely comfortable with the secrecy. He wonders whether this approach presents a missed opportunity to raise public awareness about how quickly species are disappearing.

"Secrecy isn't a solution," he says. "With training and education, we could use non-secrecy as a way to defend these plants." He know that's risky, but "if people can't be anything but a problem, we're f–ked anyway. So I think we have to try."



Couldn't you grow seedlings in a controlled environment and then reintroduce them to the wild, perhaps on protected land? Wouldn't that automatically make the plant less valuable to a rare collector since the plant would become mundane thanks to the presence of the reintroduced specimens? Or would that somehow be inauthentic since it wouldn't be a naturally occurring instance of the plant?