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A Tarplant Tale

news2A look at the plant that took the spotlight during the Arana Gulch debates and what its well-being says about the area’s larger ecosystem 

In the middle of Arana Gulch, a 63-acre greenbelt of rolling meadow and oak woodland nestled between Live Oak and Santa Cruz's Eastside neighborhood, there are about a dozen tiny yellow flowers, each about the size of a nickel. And while they are small, mostly dried out this time of year, and aesthetically quite simple, the plants tell a much bigger story than their appearance suggests.

These little flowers, called the Santa Cruz tarplant—or commonly the “Santa Cruz sunflower”—are declared an endangered species by the state and threatened on the federal level.

The few remaining tarplants in Arana Gulch represent just a tiny portion of the flora and fauna that live there, but, according to local biologist and member of the Friends of Arana Gulch group Jean Brocklebank, they are a very important means of gauging the health of the whole park's ecosystem.

“If the tarplant is healthy, then the habitat is healthy,” says Brocklebank, who has worked to save the park from development since the late '90s. “When we work to save the endangered tarplant, we work to save everything else in its dance of life.”

Historically, the tarplant occurs exclusively on the stretch of land between the San Francisco Bay Area and northern Monterey County, which once represented a portion of the state's ancient coastal terrace prairie ecosystem, dating back about 600,000 years.

Today, just 1 percent of that ecosystem still remains, Brocklebank says. The rest of the coastal terrace prairie lands have been consumed by modern development, mostly for agricultural purposes, and, as a result, the tarplant's numbers have plummeted.

As such, Brocklebank and others are concerned about the City of Santa Cruz's long time yet intermittent initiative to pave a half-mile, multi-use pedestrian and bicycle trail through the park, which will join Broadway with Brommer Street. The plan has been embroiled in a controversy dating back 17 years, but has persevered, with some concessions to protect the habitat. However, Brocklebank and others remain opposed.

Last month, the Arana Gulch Multi-use Trail project acquired a Coastal Development Permit, which authorizes construction to begin as early as this month.

As a part of the trail project, the city launched the Arana Gulch Habitat Management Plan, which factors in environmental conservation tactics, according to an Oct. 21 press release from the city. Project manager Aaron Becker stated that the trail project “complements and supports the park's management plan,” and will be designed to minimally impact the ecosystem.

The tarplant has 13 known populations remaining in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, and only six of those have enough plants regularly sprouting for biologists to feel confident they will persist over the years, says doctor of botany Grey Hayes, whose research has in part focused on the ecology and restoration of the Santa Cruz tarplant and its habitat.

There are several distinguishing features that make the tarplant an especially interesting species.

One, Hayes tell Good Times, is its ability to thrive, bloom, and bear seeds—which the Ohlone Native American tribe harvested and ground on rock slabs for food—during the dry summer months, significantly later than most other flowers. This is possible because the tarplant produces a sticky resin that enables it to retain moisture through the summer.

“It's an incredibly drought-tolerant plant,” Hayes says.

Because tarplants are so short—usually six to 20 inches—and historically populated meadows where the grasses grow tall, the seedbed becomes stimulated into growth by periodic burns and grazing animals, which eat down the grass and allow the flowers to emerge into sunlight. This is what Hayes calls a “disturbance-dependent species.”

The county's largest current population is at the Watsonville Airport, where the grasses adjacent to the runways have been continuously mowed and grazed to maintain pilots' visibility, according to the Elkhorn Slough Coastal Training Program, which does work to facilitate the tarplant species.

That mowing and grazing at the airport helped to significantly increase the plant’s germination process, earning the site the name “Tarplant Hill.”

Up until 1989, Arana Gulch was a dairy farm, Brocklebank says. With cows grazing regularly, the number of tarplants was up around 100,000, but when the farm shut down, the tarplant population declined, almost completely disappearing by the mid '90s.

Last year, Brocklebank counted a total of 18 tarplants at Arana Gulch. This year, 16.

According to an Elkhorn Slough Coastal Training Program study, the most significant resurgence in Arana Gulch's tarplant numbers occurred following an arson fire in 1996. And while the city has experimented with replicating the burn and bringing in grazing animals, the results have not been the same.

While far fewer tarplants are sprouting annually due to the loss of prairie meadows and the relocation of the animals that graze them, there are likely many tarplant seeds lying dormant under the soil, waiting—perhaps for decades—for the right time to pop up into the sun. 

In that way, Hayes explains, the tarplant as a species reflects how its habitat is functioning and being managed.

“If we're not managing that habitat correctly,” Hayes says, “species like the Santa Cruz sunflower will let us know.”   

Comments (10)Add Comment
Fact Check Please...
written by Local Resident, November 18, 2013
Several courses at Uni does not make you a biologist. Period. Those who earned that degree would, I'm sure, also take offense. I took numerous courses in biology, physiology, anatomy, and chemistry but I don't go around telling folks I'm a doctor. Nor do I pass my advice off as such. Your opinion is just that. Your opinion. We all have opinions. Only those who are actually experts in a field should be credited as such.
...
written by Jean Brocklebank, November 12, 2013
The Broadway Brommer project was never needed in order for the City to do restoration management at Arana Gulch. The City received funds from the then CA F&G, with whom they had a Memorandum of Understanding. Friends of Arana Gulch was one of two volunteer organizations that were listed the MOUs. Three years ago we did field work at Tarplant Hill in Watsonville, filing a report with the City, which used some of our recommendations for management prescriptions the following year. It was not necessary to build two wide paved bike route through Arana Gulch in order to save the tarplant.

...
written by Jean Brocklebank, November 12, 2013
Yes, my first degree (from UCLA) was in Biological Illustration, with six years of course work, including nine upper division Zoology courses, as well as comparative anatomy. My second degree (from UCSC) was in Environmental Studies, where I took several more biology courses. Forty years of a biologist's take on the whole of biosystems -- my perspective is always that of a biologist. Thus the "biologist" remark to the reporter.

A bike path is hardly the enemy
written by Theryl McCoy, November 10, 2013
The bike path comes with a management plan. alone the tarplant will be gone by the end of this decade. There has been no bike path built, yet the tarplant population has dwindled from 100,000 to a mere 16 plants. Where has the Native Plant Society been for the past 20 years?
We add a bike path- we get a management plan- we get tarplants. By the way, who is this lady with the camera stomping all over the habitat? She may be inadvertently stepping on a tarplant seedling. Get her out of there.
Handicap freindly
written by Sienna White, November 08, 2013
I have a sister in a wheel chair and she will now be able to enjoy the Arana Gulch trail, as soon as it is paved. I thought the idea of paving a pathway is that most people will stay on the path, and therefore be less likely to trample the native flora and fauna. I believe this method has worked quite well in other areas.
Fact check please.
written by Arana Gulch Neighbor, November 08, 2013
The author writes that Ms. Jean Brocklebank is a biologist, giving her claims an air of legitimacy. In truth she has a degree in Biological Illustration. Not at all the same thing. Weather this is the author's error, or simply a quote of Ms. Brocklebanks's own claim, it is incorrect and misleading. I for one would like to hear from a real biologist on the topic.
Hmmmm.....I'm confused...
written by Local Resident, November 08, 2013
To quote the article, the Tarplant is a "disturbance-dependent" species I can't for the life of me figure out how paving a path will cause it harm. Certainly not any more harm than the current muddy track that exists there. Not more than the current homeless encampments that exist. The logic is missing. Sounds suspiciously like the whining of folks who didn't get their way.
I for one will enjoy being able to traverse the Gulch and enjoy it's beauty without the worry that I am adding to the potential erosion and soil damage that the current "path" is susceptible to.
neighbor of Arana Gulch meadowland
written by Joy LeClair, November 05, 2013
Thank you for this article. The thought of bridges and asphalt traversing Arana Gulch's amazing open space saddens me. While the construction will mangle the tarplant habitat, it will also negatively impact the survival of the hawks and owls and sparrows. Our children will never be able to touch the earth of the primitive pathways through the meadow and under the ancient oak trees. Casualties of progress?
Tar plants survival in Arana Gulch?
written by Frd geiger, November 05, 2013
I hope the City will make sure that these threatened plants are adequately protected, especially during the comstruction process. I also hope that the public , when using the completed path, will be aware of the need to not cause any damage to,these rare plants. I had hoped that a bike path would be built a little further away for a safety barrier but , regretably, it appears that is not going to happen
Santa Cruz supports its namesake wildflower
written by Grey Hayes, November 05, 2013
Working together, we can help the City manage greenbelts for responsible recreation, providing for plant and wildlife conservation. Here's what you can do: support City Council members with commitment to wildlife conservation AND demand the City proceeds fairly, in compliance with laws, with projects like the Arana bike roads. Do your part: volunteer with Friends of Arana Gulch, the California Native Plant Society, or Friends of Pogonip. Help protect nature - before its too late.

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