The earth is squishy. The wind is mosquito-y. And there’s a flower the color of fire on the Southern Oregon coast.
It’s called the Western Lily.
“If the habitat’s right and the water is right and the sunlight’s right, they're going to thrive,” said Sherri Laier, a natural resource specialist for Oregon State Parks.
Western lilies grow in peat bogs. They need open areas without much tree cover. And they need a high water table that stays wet even during the hottest, driest summers.
All of this exists in a narrow band of coastal land from Southern Oregon down into Northern California. And that’s the only place the endangered lilies grow in the world.
The problem is, land with this exact combination of characteristics is increasingly difficult to find – it’s been eaten up by cranberry bogs, parking lots and housing developments. Encroaching forests are sucking up the groundwater. What suitable habitat is left is often overrun with invasive plants like gorse.
Consequently, there are only a few thousand flowers left, growing in isolated pockets along the coast.
At one of these sites on state land near Coos Bay, Laier pushes through the thigh-high brush.
“There’s a lot of little babies in the trails, so keep your eyes open,” she said.
She points to a single three-inch tall juvenile - as easy to tread on as a blade of grass.
The lilies here were mostly grown in a nursery and planted as part of an experiment to reestablish them on this protected land. But there’s a sense that there are fewer than there should be flowering – there's barely a few dozen or so of the curled red and yellow flowers hanging from thin bent stems in the clearing. Managers don’t know exactly why.
But they have a suspect: Deer.
“After the flower’s done with its show of blooms, it becomes this nice fruit, and that really seems to be like candy to these deer,” said Madeleine Vander Heyden, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
What To Do?
“We came up with this idea to see if we could prevent herbivory – by putting up these little cages here,” said Laier.
The state park biologist opens the latch on one of the light, wood-framed cages. It’s about large enough for an old-school VW Bug. Lilies grow inside and out.
The question they’re really trying to answer with this little experiment is just how serious the threat of deer is to the Western Lily.
“Pretty soon we're going to send someone in here to count everything that’s going on in here and what’s going on next to it,” she said. “To see if deer are decimating them or having no impact on them or somewhere right in between that.”
Early results of these surveys have been mixed. The deer have hit some sites along the Oregon coast hard. Others appear untouched.
Still at others, mysteriously, it’s difficult to find any plants at all, even in the cages.
This is the way efforts to conserve the plant go. Just when everything seems perfect, it’s not.
It reminds the biologists that there’s still quite a bit that is unknown about the endangered plant. Things like what causes some to send up three-foot stalks and bloom, while others remain tiny single leaf sprouts. How long can the bulbs remain dormant underground? How many Western lilies are there actually, and are there flower sites we just don’t know about?
Blooms Of Hope?
That last question was answered in the affirmative not too long back.
Oregon’s newest population of Western lilies was discovered in 2013 on land now owned by South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve in Charleston, Oregon.
The reserve has finished surveying the property for lilies and it’s now known as one of the largest populations in the state.
But learning about a new population of this size is an extremely rare occurrence.
“I’d say there’s a contentious relationship with this flower, like all other endangered species. It’s listed, and so if someone finds it and has another use for (the land), you might not hear about it,” said Hannah Schrager, stewardship coordinator at South Slough.
The Endangered Species Act doesn’t protect plants as well as it does animals, and there’s no penalty for private landowners that harm or kill lilies on their property. They’d only run up against the environmental law if they want to do something that requires a federal permit or uses federal funds.
In a way, South Slough was lucky because they were able to acquire the land with the Western lilies and begin restoration of the tree choked bog.
Doing a cursory survey of the site, Schrager and Vander Heyden find heaps of juvenile lilies – and even some in areas where they hadn’t been found before – but very few are in bloom.
“This makes me think that perhaps with some restoration in here, we’ll open up this canopy. We might be able to get some of these young plants to flower,” said Vander Heyden.
And that’s what comes next here. Tree thinning and invasive plant removal is getting underway to open up the forest floor, as well as several other sites on the Oregon Coast.
But it hasn’t been enough to stem the lily’s decline.
“Some of the sites were previously known to have lilies have started to blink out and decline. Despite the fact we've discovered some new populations, I think overall the trend is still downward,” said Vander Heyden.
But despite this, the restoration work continues – on both private and public lands. And the hope is that there are even more lilies out there, lying asleep underground and waiting for just the right mix of water and sunlight to reveal themselves to the world.