Save the Malheur Wire-lettuce: The loneliest flower in Oregon
The Malheur wire-lettuce is the loneliest plant in Oregon. It looks like a low shrub with thin, wire-like stems that support tiny six-petaled pink, red, or white flowers. One of the 17 currently endangered plants in our state, this small flowering plant has only ever been found in a single location on the hills surrounding Harney Lake in southeastern Oregon. Interestingly, while the Malheur Wire-lettuce is an annual plant, its parent species “wire-lettuce” is a perennial. Despite its isolation, it has evolved to be distinct from its parent plant.
The species has been monitored since 1974, but the initial population of 228 plants had mysteriously dwindled to almost zero in 1999. During this dark age, Malheur wire-lettuce faced a new threat: the aggressive non-native “cheatgrass.” This fast-spreading grass is speculated to have played a role in threatening the species. While the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) directed an initiative to restore the species between 2007 and 2011, sowing about 46,000 seeds in the area, annual surveys in 2016 found only three individual plants in poor condition. Currently, the Malheur wire-lettuce is designated endangered, and while thousands of seeds are stored in seed banks, it is suspected to be naturally extinct.
While just one footnote of a species in decline, the entire story is alarming. The extinction rate of plants and animals is thousands of times higher than the background extinction rate. It is more important than ever to learn about locally threatened species and find ways to eradicate or prevent invasive species.
Please help me in bringing awareness of the plight of the Malheur Wire-lettuce.
The ODFW is a helpful resource for information about sustaining a healthy local environment.
Shion is a junior at Southridge high school and enjoys playing the trumpet, baseball and hiking.