If anyone could find a way to grow the plant on Mars, the team joked during the hike, Schweitzer could do it. But then the whole point, of course, is to keep the large-flowered fiddleneck here on Earth.
The team working to repopulate the species traversed tens of thousands of acres, and surveyed areas more intensely based on a habitat model Schweitzer developed to narrow down the search. The species would need to be in shade throughout most of its life cycle.
But the majority of sites that could work were on private land. Schweitzer would need to ask ranchers for permission to grow an endangered plant on their property.
“They care about their land. Often they start with this feeling of being suspicious of outsiders, and especially conservationists coming in and telling them what to do,” Schweitzer said. “You start out with a little bit of humility and appreciation for what they’re doing.”
The team ended up working with six landowners, but this effort was constantly threatened by severe drought conditions. And then they also needed to figure out just the right amount of cattle grazing.
Too much grazing means the plant gets trampled; not enough and weedy grasses outcompete the plant. The team would need to put up and take down fencing at precisely the right times until the new population was established.
It was like any trial and error experiment, but eventually it paid off. Schweitzer says it’s likely that when the seeds get caught in the cow's hooves, the cows spread them around. The cows also press the seeds into the soil, making it less likely for birds or rodents to eat them.
By around 2018, the results were looking promising, and Schweitzer was feeling hopeful. The plants were thriving. Schweitzer remembers looking out and seeing 10,000 of them growing on a slope with big, luscious flowering branches that he knew were likely to produce a lot of seeds.
“I saw that telltale orange on the whole slope, and I jumped for joy,” he said. “All those beautiful flowers on the hill gave us hope.”
There will be many more challenges for the large-flowered fiddleneck. Vanessa Handley, with the University of California Botanical Garden, says there were times planting the fiddlenecks last winter when there had been so little rain felt like a fool’s errand.
“Typically, the soil has gotten moistened by the winter rains. The ground gives, you tuck the plants in, and wish them well. But this year it was almost like picking a rock,” she said. “We joked that we had developed our stabbing muscles.”
But the population seems to be doing surprisingly well, she says. The team is hoping the species now has a large enough population to hold on.