Botany student researches plant native to Oregon Cascades

A threatened plant in the pea family faces challenges from off-road vehicle use, but first-time undergraduate researcher Abbi Pearson is doing her part to save it.

Pearson, a third-year botany major from Chico, Calif., started working with Peck's milkvetch after receiving the Ernest and Pauline Jaworski Fund for Summer Research Experiences for Underserved Undergraduates in Plant Sciences.

Peck's milkvetch, also known by its scientific name Astragalus peckii, specializes in ground cover, making it vulnerable to off-road vehicles. It's a rare species of plant only found in the Cascades near Sisters and Bend. Pearson said studies have shown that a little bit of disturbance is good for the plants. Too much disturbance, though, is harmful for the plant.

Pearson works with the Oregon Department of Agriculture and Oregon State University to help preserve the rare plant in the wild. This involves going out in the field to survey and coming up with ways to encourage the plant population to grow. Pearson also studies the effects of long-term storage on the seeds' ability to germinate.

"We're trying to figure out if we plant it somewhere else, if it will establish populations," Pearson said.

This summer, that means doing germination and soil tests. In the fall as the rains come, she'll try transplants in the wild.

"It's sometimes difficult to get them to grow if the root is the wrong kind of shape," Pearson said, so she's growing them in tree pots so the long taproot has the room it needs to grow straight down. The seedlings will be planted in four different areas as part of their effort to reintroduce more plants.

As desert plants, the seeds must be scarified before they can germinate. To make the tough seeds accessible to water, Pearson has been experimenting with sandpaper, said Kelly Amsberry, a conservation biologist in the Native Plant Conservation Program at ODA who works with Pearson on Peck's milkvetch.

"It's nice to have Jaworski scholars," Amsberry said. "It's been great (working with Pearson)."

As part of their work, they'll offer recommendations for a highway expansion near Sisters.

Her research experience has helped cement her interest in rare plant conservation, Pearson said.

Robert Meinke, Pearson's mentor and an assistant professor in the department of botany and plant pathology, said that Pearson is one of several Jaworski scholars to come through his lab. Meinke is also the Plant Conservation Biology Program leader in the ODA.

Meinke has had positive undergraduate experiences in the last few years, beginning with the first undergraduate in his lab, Matt Groberg. Groberg went on to be a graduate student in Meinke's lab.

Meinke's lab recently completed a five-year project on the endangered western lily, which grows along the southern coast of Oregon.

"Oregon has a good suite of species worth preserving," Meinke said.

McKinley Smith, news editor

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