British Columbia's endangered plant: the White Meconella.

Photo: Tab Tannery via  Flickr creative commons

Photo: Tab Tannery via Flickr creative commons

Have you ever heard of White Meconella? If you are from British Columbia’s southern coast and have a botanist as a family friend perhaps you have; however, even most of us who inhabit this plant’s range have not heard of it.

White Meconella (its scientific name is Meconella oregana) is an extremely rare and minuscule plant that produces a tiny white flower between early March and mid-April, before producing a pod full of tiny seeds and dying. It is part of the poppy family but is the only representative of its genus in all of Canada. 

In fact, here’s why you’ve probably never seen or heard of White Meconella: there are only about 1,000 little plants left in the country and they are spread out between eight locations in southern British Columbia. 

The plant can be found in a few locations between Nanaimo and Victoria as well as one location in the Gulf Islands and a location near Port Alberni. All of these areas fall within the Coastal Douglas Fir biogeoclimatic zone, with the exception of the Port Alberni location, which is a very dry maritime subzone of the Coastal Western Hemlock zone. The plant also exists in a few isolated areas in the United States, but is in equal danger of extinction there.

White Meconella is a picky plant that will only live in very specific spots. It needs an open rocky or grassy slope that gets very wet in early spring but dries out in the summer. It must be below 300 meters of altitude and needs arid soil where competition amongst other plants is limited and forest will not encroach on it. There is also some evidence that White Meconella seeds may need a warm spell in late January for significant germination success.

This short, small plant has very limited ability to disperse its seeds. Its height and size mean seeds do not disperse far and are not carried to new locations by animals. Thus it is very difficult for White Meconella to spread and establish new populations. It is also impossible for the small isolated populations to rescue each other from local extinction, since seeds from one population could almost never reach one of the seven other populations to help increase its numbers.

The lack of suitable habitat also prevents White Meconella from spreading and establishing easily, leaving its population extremely small and vulnerable and reducing it to its current endangered state.

The main threats to White Meconella are habitat loss and degradation. Open hillsides, which suit the plant, are very desirable for residential development. Thus it is no surprise that 75% of Canadian White Meconella populations exist on private land. This means close cooperation with landowners is critical in protecting the little plant.

Meanwhile, colonization by exotic plants, fire suppression, grazing, and recreational traffic also play a large role in degrading White Meconella habitat. Scotch broom is an especially aggressive and widespread invasive plant that is known to encroach on and modify Garry Oak Ecosystems and more broadly the Coastal Douglas Fir Biogeoclimatic zone where White Meconella live.

Given the threat from exotic species, it is important that we keep these species away from known White Meconella sites and their potential habitat, and that Scotch Broom be removed from these areas.

White Meconella incur extreme fluctuation in population numbers every year. This danger is thought to be due to variation in precipitation timing and amounts. A plant whose population level fluctuates more is in much graver danger of extinction than a plant whose population does not fluctuate, as severe fluctuation can lead to a dangerously small population. A very small population can then be easily extinguished by chance events.

Recovery strategies for White Meconella include the idea of re-introducing the plant to suitable habitat areas. At least one conservancy in the area has been known to attempt this recovery.

Although we understand this plant is at risk of extinction, serious research still to be done on the plant. With governmental protection under the Species at Risk Act and an official government plan recommending further research on the plant, there is hope that we will soon learn more about White Meconella and how to preserve and re-establish it.