Reintroducing a Rare West Coast Plant

After a less than satisfactory morning exploring the intertidal zone at Little Beach, Terrace Beach and Big Beach in Ucluelet (mainly due to the abundance of seaweed) I shifted gears and in the late afternoon decided to check out the Parks Canada Pink Sand-verbena (Abronia umbellate breviflora) reintroduction project at the dunes at Wickaninnish Beach in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. I had been out at the dunes earlier last week but recently heard that a number of these rare plants had been transplanted into study plots. It was a perfect opportunity to see a very special plant.

Pink Sand-verbena (Abronia umbellata breviflora)
Pink Sand-verbena (Abronia umbellata breviflora) is listed as endangered on the Species at Risk Act.

Pink Sand-verbena has long been on my “must see” list, and while the plants at Wickaninnish are transplanted and there are no historic records it occurring here, this is the only easily accessible place to see it in bloom. Historic records of the Pink Sand-verbena exist at Ahousat (1915) and on the shores of Pachena Bay (1927). Four to five plants were seen blooming in Clo-oose between 1940 and 1945 and nearly 60 years later a single plant was found in 2000. In 2001 there were 3 plants reported at Clo-oose but not seen in following years. Seeds were collected from the Clo-oose plants and the plants at Wickaninnish Beach come from this seed stock.

Transplantation Plot at Wickanninish Dunes
Transplantation plot at Wickanninish Dunes in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

At the Wickaninnish Beach dunes several plots are planted with Pink Sand-verbena and it is possible to see the flower without entering the roped off areas. Pink Sand-verbena is sensitive to trampling by both people and pets so it is important to keep dogs on leash if you’re exploring the dunes (or better yet, leave Fido at home). Pink Sand-verbena is listed as Endangered under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

Pink Sand-verbena has very specific habitat needs. It prefers the dynamic section of west and south-facing sandy beaches just below the line of driftwood. Characterized by unstable, free-flowing sand, these sites face the full impact of winter storms and high tides. Distribution and replenishment of populations of the plant may be dependent on the seeds which remain viable for long periods of time.

Pink Sand-verbena (Abronia umbellata breviflora)
Pink Sand-verbena (Abronia umbellata breviflora) has fleshy, oval shaped leaves and a round cluster of pink flowers.

A number of factors threaten Pink Sand-verbena’s survival in British Columbia including the small size of the natural population, winter storms, and driftwood deposition that may change the structure of the dune ecosystem and sand movement. Trampling and damage by people engaging in recreation activity, especially at Clo-oose along the highly used West Coast Trail is also possibility. Finally, invasive Beachgrass (Ammophila sp.) can alter dune habitat and displace Pink Sand-verbena and other dune plants that require dynamic sand movement.

Yellow Sand-verbena (Abronia latifolia)
The more common Yellow Sand-verbena (Abronia latifolia) is found in the dunes at Wickanninish Beach.

The neat thing is that the more common Yellow Sand-verbena (Abronia latifolia) also grows in the dunes so the two plants can be readily compared. A large taproot serves as an anchor for these plants in the shifting sands. Yellow Sand-verbena has thick fleshy kidney shaped leaves and a round cluster of bright yellow flowers on stout stalks. Pink Sand-verbena has fleshy oval shaped leaves and pink flowers in round clusters. Both have a very pleasant fragrance that smells a little like dishwashing soap. Bees seem to like the flowers and were active around both species of Sand-verbena.

Yellow Sand-verbena (Abronia latifolia) Taproot
The large taproot of Yellow Sand-verbena (Abronia latifolia) is typical of both species of Sand-verbena.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Pink Sand-verbena and/or the dunes at Wickaninnish Beach look for scheduled Parks Canada interpretive walks and presentations. Community participation in invasive European Beach Grass pulls in the dunes is another way to assist in the restoration of dune habitat and the survival of Pink Sand-verbena and other sensitive dune plants. More about the Pink Sand-verbena can be found on the Species at Risk Public Registry. You can also read more about typical dune plants in the article The Dunes at Wickanninish Beach.