Meadowfoam and Cluster-Lilies: Empowering Research on Rare Plants Through Open Access to Biodiversity Literature

April 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Organizations around the world have commemorated the occasion by participating in the global Earth Optimism movement — an initiative spearheaded by the Smithsonian to “turn the conservation conversation from doom and gloom to optimism and opportunity”.

Throughout 2020, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and our partners are joining the movement by sharing conservation success stories from and made possible by the BHL collection. Follow our blog for conservation stories — past and present — and visit our website for more information and to explore our Earth Optimism book collection.


Photo of a field of white flowers

Baker’s meadowfoam (Limnanthes bakeri), which grows in wet meadow and on the shallow margins of freshwater marsh in Little Lake Valley, Mendocino County, California. Photo credit: Robert Preston.

Little Lake Valley, located in northern California’s Eel River watershed, is home to several thousand acres of wet meadows and riparian woodlands that are habitat for diverse plants and wildlife, including tule elk, many bird species, and gorgeous spring wildflower displays. A landscape formed when sediments from several creeks filled an intermountain valley bounded by faults, the Valley is also home to two rare plants: the North Coast semaphore grass (state-listed as Threatened) and Baker’s meadowfoam (state-listed as Rare).

“The large lowland wetland ecosystem found in the Little Lake Valley, if not unique, is quite rare,” asserts Dr. Robert E. Preston, a Senior Biologist in the Sacramento office of ICF, an international consulting firm. “Most or all of the small interior valleys of California’s North Coast Ranges were long ago converted to agriculture or were hydrologically altered. Moreover, it supports almost half of the known occurrences of Baker’s meadowfoam, including the largest and most extensive population.”

In November 2016, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) completed construction of the Willits Bypass Project, a 5.9-mile long bypass of US Highway 101 in Mendocino County. First proposed in 1957, the controversial project, which crosses a corner of Little Lake Valley, raised a variety of environmental concerns due to its impact on endangered species and state and federally regulated resources [1].

Preston served as the lead botanist for the team that prepared the Project’s Mitigation and Monitoring Plan, which was developed and is being implemented by Caltrans to offset the bypass’ impacts on wetlands and rare plants.

“For the past several years, I have spent six to eight weeks each spring collecting data on Baker’s meadowfoam and sampling the vegetation to document progress towards meeting the Project’s habitat restoration and enhancement goals,” explains Preston. “It has been one of my most satisfying projects, because impacts of the Willits Bypass led to the preservation, restoration, and management of large parts of the Little Lake Valley ecosystem.”

man in blue shirt, grey pants and khaki hat in a forest

Rob Preston collecting Brodiaeas growing in serpentine habitat in Northern California. Photo credit: Laurie Preston.

Preston has been an avid student of California flora for nearly 40 years. It has been the focus of his floristic and taxonomic research and career as a consulting botanist. As suggested by his work on the Willits Bypass Project, much of his research focuses on the conservation of rare plants in the state.

“My position as Senior Biologist with ICF provides me with opportunities to travel throughout California to help clients comply with laws and regulations that help conserve rare plants and wetlands,” shares Preston. “This work includes field-oriented studies such as floristic inventories, rare plant surveys, wetlands delineations, and mitigation monitoring. An important aspect of my work is to convey the results of these studies to clients, resource agencies, and the public through many types of environmental documents, including survey reports, Habitat Conservation Plans, Environmental Impact Reports, and other planning documents.”

Preston’s work involves a great deal of taxonomic research, which has led to the discovery and description of several new rare species. For example, he has worked extensively with the genus Brodiaea, commonly known as cluster-lilies, which consists of about 19 species growing mostly in California.

“About half of the species are rare, and several species are state or federally listed as threatened or endangered,” states Preston. “One species I described, Brodiaea matsonii (named for its discoverer, Gary Matson), is known only from two small populations near Redding, California, and is currently being reviewed for state listing as endangered.”

white and purple flower with yellow center

Sulphur Creek brodiaea (Brodiaea matsonii), known from only two small occurrences growing along Sulphur Creek, in Redding, California. Photo credit: Robert Preston.

As Preston explains, taxonomy and conservation go hand-in-hand.

“To preserve biological diversity, species must be identified and named,” asserts Preston. “Since publication of the first edition of The Jepson Manual, the ultimate catalog of the California flora, over six new species per year have been added to the flora, and the rate of new species discovery does not appear to be slowing. Not surprisingly, many of these new species are rare and face various types of threat.”

Taxonomic research, in turn, is dependent on access to historic literature. In order to name, describe, and classify organisms, scientists must understand the scope of biodiversity that has already been described. This is documented within the published record of scientific literature.

Not long ago, however, it was often difficult for scientists to access the literature required for such taxonomic research. Many of the necessary publications were available in only a few libraries globally, requiring expensive and time-consuming trips to holding libraries or weeks to sometimes months of delay waiting on interlibrary loans—if the publication could be shared at all. This was a major impediment to the efficiency of scientific research, greatly hampering progress at a time when the biodiversity and climate crises demand greater speed and efficiency in scientific outputs to inform conservation.

Fortunately, the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) has tackled this challenge head-on and transformed scientific research globally by providing free and open access to this essential literature. Preston has experienced the benefits of BHL’s collections first-hand with his own taxonomic research.

“When I’m conducting a status review for a rare plant, I often find it useful to check the original species description,” shares Preston. “I use BHL primarily to find historic documents with these descriptions.”

Preston first discovered BHL in 2010, while investigating a disagreement over the name of a species that required consultation of the original species description.

“I had been able to find some documents using other sources (Botanicus, Google), but BHL provided a much broader availability of historical resources,” affirms Preston.

Since discovering the Library, Preston has used BHL regularly to support his taxonomic research, including his work on the Brodiaea. For example, in order to determine the correct name for Brodiaea minor, which is endemic to California, Preston needed to confirm the collection location of the type specimen, which had been collected by Theodor Hartweg in 1846. Through BHL, Preston was able to access Hartweg’s account of his collecting trip, published in the Journal of the Horticultural Society of London as “Journal of a Mission to California in Search of Plants.”

“Hartweg recorded the wildflowers, trees, and shrubs associated with his collection, from which I was able to deduce the plant community and pinpoint the collection location to within a few miles,” shares Preston.

While researching the names of other Brodiaea species, Preston discovered that there was confusion over several names arising from a rivalry between two early 19th century English botanists. Materials accessed through BHL helped him unravel this taxonomic mystery.

“In researching the history of this rivalry for my article on ‘How the Brodiaeas Got Their Name,’ published in the journal Fremontia, I found a number of historic sources of information through BHL,” recalls Preston. “Among these was the ‘Monthly Botanical Report,’ a regular feature in the The Monthly Magazine, which chronicled newly described species and horticultural introductions by the botanical community along with snippets of gossip about the botanists themselves.”

Free and open access to biodiversity literature has transformed taxonomic research, which, as Preston’s testimonial demonstrates, is essential to the conservation process.

“‘Species’ and ‘ecosystems’ are constructs that we use to describe and organize the world around us, and taxonomy is how we name and organize those constructs,” asserts Preston. “Names are important, and in fact, a species must be named before it can be legally protected as threatened or endangered.”

scanned page of text from a book

First scientific description of Baker’s meadowfoam (Limnanthes bakeri). J.T. Howell. Leaflets of Western Botany (1943), v. 3(9), pg. 206. Contributed in BHL from the New York Botanical Garden with permission from the California Academy of Sciences.

The identity conveyed in a species name extends well beyond a simple binomial. It also articulates an organisms’ context within its wider ecosystem and its relationship to other species. Understanding this context is vital to the creation of any holistic conservation strategy.

“A species name is also an hypothesis, and our concept of a species can change depending on the data we use to interpret it,” explains Preston. “Because many plant species were described and named in the 18th and 19th centuries, it can be difficult to discern the original author’s concept of the species. We can’t call or email them to find out what they were thinking or how they came to a particular conclusion. The historic literature is the only way we can communicate with our colleagues of the past.”

BHL ensures that anyone, anywhere—from the curator in a major natural history museum to the scientist in a developing country without access to a robust research library or the botanist working from home—has easy access to the information they need to study and conserve life on Earth.

At BHL, we’re Earth Optimists because we know that open access to biodiversity literature empowers scientific research and conservation—and that is a reason to be optimistic.


[1] Oakes, Harry and Maureen Doyle. “Willits Bypass Project (US Highway 101) – The Long and Winding Road of Planning, Permitting & Mitigation Implementation and Monitoring.” International Conference on Ecology & Transportation. September 22-26, 2019. Accessed on December 12, 2019.

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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.