Autumn buttercup

The endangered autumn buttercup.

Lynne Nemeth

For the first time in my life, I saw an autumn buttercup in bloom, long delicate flower stalks holding brilliant yellow blossoms. The species, Ranunculus aestivalis, is endangered — very endangered, as it only lives in the Sevier Valley near Panguitch, Utah.

Three years ago I was part of the Arboretum group that re-introduced several hundred plants — and those we saw in bloom were from that planting. Not many survived, but some did. We were so gratified to see “our” seven-year-old buttercups in bloom! We planted 900 more this go-round.

The Sevier Valley borders the Sevier River, and is an unusual boggy, swampy flood plain. Reeds, sedges and grasses form a thick root mass that essentially floats on water; when holes are dug to plant the buttercups and the root balls are wrestled out, the holes fill with water. It's not easy work. You need strength and a sharp shovel to dig the holes, extra soil to backfill the holes, wire netting to keep the voles from eating the plants and all the identification tags. And you have to be prepared to get wet, endure constant wind and work in black mud with an incredible stench. Ah, what plant people will do!

The autumn buttercup is a perennial plant with deeply lobed leaves; in bloom it sends out six to ten two-foot flowering stalks. It was first collected in 1894 near Panguitch, probably in the vicinity of where we planted. It was rediscovered again in 1948, and by 1979 was thought to be extinct.

In 1982, a single population was discovered in a pasture, but by 1988 this population had only 10-20 individuals in it. Then in 1989, it made the endangered species list as agricultural and other land-use practices had altered much of the flower’s historic habitat. The Nature Conservancy, with help from US Fish & Wildlife Service, purchased the land in 1991, naming it the Sevier Valley Preserve, which is home to two endangered species — there is a colony of Utah prairie dogs (Cynomys parvidens) on the property as well.

But the preserve protects only a small, existing population of the buttercup, and subsequent habitat surveys, population monitoring and genetic studies didn't look good. A new strategy for species survival was needed.

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Here's where the Arboretum got involved, along with many other people and organizations. In addition to The Nature Conservancy, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and The Arboretum at Flagstaff, Utah Department of Natural Resources, Weber State University, and the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden came to the rescue.

The long and complex re-introduction process included seed harvesting in Utah, in vitro production of 200 plants from 35 genetic lines in Cincinnati, and soil acclimatization and growth at the Arboretum. Once the buttercups come to the Arboretum they are taken care of for three to four years before being out-planted.

In June of 2007, the first reintroduction took place, with all parties involved. Since then, we have undertaken additional reintroductions, and at least two other populations have been found.

It's looking better for this species, and I am honored to have mucked around in the mud and cut hundreds of tag wires for the plants. It takes a village — or in this case, three states.

Lynne Nemeth, executive director of The Arboretum at Flagstaff, is the editor of Gardening Etcetera. To reach her with articles or ideas, please email Lynne.Nemeth@thearb.org.

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