Last stands on Whidbey

Golden paintbrush blankets Whidbey Island. Its spikey yellow flowers appear every spring.

At least it did.

European settlers arrived in the 1850s. Their plows ripped through the prairies. They introduced grains and old country weeds. Their domestic animals chewed across fields.

And golden paintbrush rapidly disappeared.

Golden paintbrush once grew from southern Vancouver Island south to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Today, golden paintbrush is a threatened native plant. It’s federally protected and grows in only eight known sites. Whidbey Island holds five of those areas. One is in Ebey’s Landing, two are in the Fort Casey area and one is at Forbes Point. The fifth is on private land in the West Beach area.

“You’re at the epicenter of golden paintbrush,” Peter Dunwiddie said. He is director of research programs for Nature Conservancy’s Washington office.

Because golden paintbrush is so rare, naturalists won’t reveal its exact locations.

Dunwiddie said the plant is so rare because so much habitat was lost so quickly.

“Native praires were the first areas significantly altered by early whites,” he said.

Europeans farmed by plow not fire as Native Americans did. Burning allowed food crops of camas, chocolate lily and bracken fern to flourish, Dunwiddie said. Once this practice ceased, shrubs, trees and other invasive plants began colonizing the prairies.

As huge areas changed so drastically, golden paintbrush disappeared, he said.

Today, residential development and lack of fire threaten the plant’s existence. Rabbits, voles and deer also take a toll.

Golden paintbrush only reproduces by seed.

“If plants have a bad year, there may be no seed produced in that area,” Dunwiddie said.

And with so few plants so widely scattered, botanists can’t amass huge quantities of seeds even during good seed years. Seeds must be left in the wild to ensure future generations.

With small numbers of plants that face many threats from weather, wildlife and man, golden paintbrush’s future might appear grim.

However, naturalists aren’t too apprehensive.

Many people are interested in preserving open land. Growing interest in raising native plants means commercial nurseries are successfully propagating native species. This spring, Coupeville Garden Club’s annual plant sale featured many native plants members raised from seeds and cuttings. While golden paintbrush isn’t commercially available, plant people are learning how to grow native species. That knowledge could eventually benefit raising large numbers of golden paintbrush.

“We’re monitoring populations everywhere,” Dunwiddie said. Shrubs are being removed from some areas to encourage the plant to spread. Another area is fenced to keep out voles and rabbits. And Dunwiddie is discussing a potential burn at one site to remove the amount of cover for nibbling animals and reduce the number of competing plants.

Dunwiddie said the Nature Conservancy wants to restore golden paintbrush in its native habitat.

“We don’t want to become farmers of golden paintbrush or museum curators of the species,” he said.

“We want to have a suite of native prairie plants, including golden paintbrush,” he said. “But it won’t happen overnight.”

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