Hiding in Plain Sight

Snow Wreath

In 1992 Leonard and I were excited by reports that a new species in the Rose Family was discovered on a limestone deposit in a canyon along CA Highway 299 near Ingot CA, which is not too distant from our home.

According to newspaper articles at the time, Dr. Dean Taylor and Glenn Clifton, consultants at an environmental consulting group, described a new plant found on the far bank of Cow Creek, which closely follows Highway 299 near Ingot. They named the plant Neviusia cliftonii, Shasta snow wreath. The story I remember, which may be inaccurate, notes that Clifton, while driving by, noticed an unusual shrub in bloom on the far bank of Cow Creek, which closely follows Highway 299 near Ingot. After observing the plant from afar for a while, he eventually donned a pair of fishing waders, cross the creek and retrieved specimens of the plant. After further study, the plant was determined to be a new species in the genus Neviusia. Glenn Clifton was probably the first person to “see” this plant as a different species since he is honored by the species designation.

Shortly after Taylor and Clifton described Shasta snow wreath, other occurrences were reported in the mountains around Shasta Lake in Shasta County CA. There are now about 33 small populations of Shasta snow wreath known, all in the Lake Shasta Area of Shasta County CA.

How did a plant exist until 1992 without being discovered? And once it was described, why were other populations identified? Shasta snow wreath is a shrub that “hides in plain sight”. It occurs in remote mountainous areas and almost always in association with poison oak. These are not places where many people venture. More importantly, Shasta snow wreath leaves, and the plant itself, which only flower for a short period each spring, closely resemble ocean spray (Holodiscus discolor) and ninebark (Physocarrus capitatus) when not in bloom. For years, Leonard and I casually looked for Shasta snow wreath and never found it. This spring we again returned to Waters Gulch Trail near Lake Shasta where we previously searched and found Shasta snow wreath in blossom (photo). The plants, without flowers,  were ones we thought were ninebark. We were misidentifying Shasta snow wreath and  probably much more experienced botanists did the same.

Neviusia is a genus that previously contained only one species, Neviusia alabamensis, Alabama snow wreath, native to and found in Southeastern United States.  The discovery of Shasta snow wreath in a location widely separated geographically from Alabama snow wreath is an example of disjunct distribution. An extinct Neviusia species, dunthornei, is also known from the Early Eocene fossil record in British Columbia.

Neviusia was named by Asa Gray for Dr. Ruben Denton Nevius (1827 – 1913), a minister who supplied Gray with Alabama snow wreath plant material. Interestingly there is some conflict concerning genus name. Generally the first person to “find” a plant gets to name the plant or has the plant named in their honor. Professor W. S. Wyman and Dr. Nevius were out together. Professor Wyman moved a distance ahead of Dr. Nevius and first saw the new snow wreath. But Dr. Nevius sent the specimens to Dr. Gray. Discussion continues about who should be honored by the genus name.

In my next post I will discuss this rare, elusive plant further.

This entry was posted in Shrubs, Wildflowers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Hiding in Plain Sight

  1. tonytomeo says:

    They may have simply been less abundant for long time. You know how they can be. If you look at old pictures of familiar regions, even if the native species are unidentifiable, it is obvious that the ecosystems have changed dramatically. The Monterey pine that is now endemic to only three colonies may have been much more common only a few centuries ago, but retreated to only the three known colonies in relatively recent history. The California poppy that was so abundant south of San Jose as late as the early 1970s is disturbingly rare because of encroachment of exotic specie, but has a way of appearing in new regions where it had not formerly been common.

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