Podcast | Hunting for one of Washington’s rarest flowers

Professor Steven Clark is on an ongoing quest to find a rare daisy that helps us understand the intricacies of evolution.

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Columbia Gorge daisy

The Columbia Gorge daisy is one of Washington's rarest plants. (Sarah Hoffman)

Professor Steven Clark spends his days bushwhacking brushy trails until they turn into rocky scrambles, then vertical cliffs. It’s arduous work in service of a unique goal. He’s searching for the Columbia Gorge daisy, a rare flower that only grows in the trickles of water and tiny pockets of dirt in the wet, cliffside crevices of the Columbia River Gorge.

You may or may not be the kind of person who goes to this kind of trouble to find a flower. And this flower is not even particularly beautiful or environmentally consequential, as far as modern science is concerned. But for Steven Clark, this flower is about as special as any in the world.

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For this episode of Crosscut Escapes, Clark and Crosscut video producer Sarah Hoffman slog through the woods and scramble up to a ledge in the middle of a waterfall in order to count a few tiny, rare flowers as part of a larger research project documenting rare plants in the Pacific Northwest. 

Their journey provides a deeper sense of just how beautifully complex the natural world is — and the importance of each tiny piece of the evolutionary puzzle to make a thriving whole.



Transcripts for Crosscut Escapes are the product of a third-party service. The audio stands as the official record for the reporting in this series.

[00:00:00] Anonymous: Crosscut Escapes is sponsored by John S. Adams, CFP, and UBS.

[00:00:10] Sarah Hoffman: You know, a lot of times, people will say, uh, before filming something like a science story or with a biologist that it's, you know, it's hard to get to. You might, you might have a hard time. And usually I get there and it's, it's fine. And in this case, it was super challenging.

[00:00:26] Ted Alvarez: Sarah Hoffman is a video producer at Crosscut who focuses on science and the environment. Earlier this summer, she got the opportunity to go into the field in the Columbia River Gorge with Professor Steven Clark.

[00:00:38] Steve Clark: I'm going to shoot ahead a little bit. And see how things look.

[00:00:42] Ted Alvarez: But the daylong trip might've been a bit more than she was bargaining for.

[00:00:45] Sarah Hoffman: Yeah. So pretty much everything that he searches for he can only get to on foot. And he's a trail runner, so he has a lot of energy and a lot of excitement to scramble up cliffs and bushwhack through all kinds of branches. And, you know, we had devil's club and spiky things flying our faces. So at a certain point, I ended up having to put the camera down so that I wasn't getting smacked in the face by everything.

[00:01:15] Steve Clark: It'll start to get steep and stop when you're not comfortable. There's plenty to see without getting scared.

[00:01:24] Ted Alvarez: Steve Clark teaches biology at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, right near the Columbia River. He spends a lot of time scrambling around the Gorge for fun and work. The day Sarah tagged along with her camera, he brought a couple of grad students, too. After a long slog through the thick forest, the group emerged into open, rocky bluffs, aiming for a misty waterfall in the distance, or more specifically, a ledge in the middle of that waterfall.

[00:01:51] Sarah Hoffman: To get there, you basically scramble up a boulder field, but it's not big boulders. It's these tiny rocks and they slide.

[00:02:01] Steve Clark: Now watch I’m in… right above you. Ooh, stay, stay.

[00:02:06] Sarah Hoffman: And so you kind of have to use both hands and feet as you're, as you're making your way up to try and get to this ledge.

[00:02:14] Steve Clark: I'm going to get off the talus so I don't endanger.

[00:02:18] Sarah Hoffman: I, you know, was just trying to focus on one hand and one foot at a time, but you look behind you and it's just a sheer, you know, rock straight down to where you came from. And so I kind of stopped turning around at a certain point and, you know, there's only one way to go, which was, which was up.

[00:02:48] Ted Alvarez: It's true that lots of scientists go to great lengths to find the thing they're studying in the wild. And Steve is no exception. But at this point, you might be wondering, what is this mysterious treasure hidden somewhere on a wet and slippery rock ledge up a steep talus slope through a dense forest and along a gigantic river gorge?

[00:03:07] Sarah Hoffman: That ledge is, uh, where the Gorge Daisy likes to hang out.

[00:03:11] Steve Clark: Have you found my daisy?

[00:03:14] Ted Alvarez: That treasure is a daisy. But it's not just any daisy. It's a rare, very delicate kind of flower that as far as science knows, pretty much only grows along the Columbia River Gorge and only in extremely specific environments.

[00:03:32] Sarah Hoffman: It is, uh, pretty hard to find and hard to get to.

[00:03:36] Steve Clark: You have to go out in the Gorge. Okay. You go to a cliff. Okay. It has to be a wet cliff. It can't be dry cliff. There has to be sort of a seepage coming down it, you might see a little bit of filmy moss. Okay. Can't be in direct sunlight, has to be north facing or maybe in shade somewhat.

So you go out, you have to find a cliff that is wet, that is north facing. And then you look for the Gorge Daisy.

[00:04:19] Ted Alvarez: Hi there. This is Crosscut Escapes. I'm your host, Ted Alvarez. So you may or may not be the kind of person who goes to this kind of trouble to find a flower. And this flower, it's not even particularly beautiful or environmentally consequential, as far as we know. It really is just a tiny daisy with pink and purplish tinges on its white petals, born and bred in a very specific part of the Pacific Northwest. Pretty for sure, but pretty indistinct, too.

But for Steve Clark, this flower is about as special as any in the world.

[00:04:50] Steve Clark: What you really think is how in the world are you growing? You're on a cliff. You're in a little tiny crevice that has maybe a quarter inch of sand in it. That's what tells you it's the Gorge Daisy, because it's growing on a cliff.

[00:05:02] Ted Alvarez: Steve has a degree in environmental science and teaches his students all aspects of biology from cell reproduction to botany. Above all, though, he loves ecology.

[00:05:12] Steve Clark: And ecology is the study of how one thing relates, how one living thing relates to another. So you could say, well, here's a little bit of a ecology right here.

This purple flower happens to be a clover and that clover has special roots that will take nitrogen from the air and fertilize the soil. So that's a little bit of ecology, how that plant makes a contribution to something else. And of course, uh, this morning I saw a hummingbird, uh, sipping the nectar out of, uh, one of those clovers.

So that's a fascinating thing about plants. What, well, that's a fascinating thing about all biota, living things. They'll have an area where they live and they'll have a little role there.

[00:06:00] Ted Alvarez: And some of those roles are something that you can only really see and experience when you go outside. He says his favorite part of the school year at Clark College is when he can take his students out to the Gorge to study its complex ecology.

[00:06:13] Steve Clark: What I really enjoy is teaching. So that's probably my biggest passion. But I teach biology majors. And in the fall we teach about cells. And everything is microscopic and it's hard for students because they haven't seen it before. And because you don't have microscopes at home. And then in the winter, we teach about organs and organ systems and it starts to be a little bit more familiar.

But then in the springtime, we teach about evolution and ecology and we're outside and students say, how can you not love this?

[00:06:50] Ted Alvarez: So back to this elusive Columbia Gorge Daisy. Steve is particularly fascinated with it because of its rarity and the relationships it cultivates in the wild as a result. But it's not rare for the reasons you might think.

[00:07:03] Steve Clark: The reason it's rare isn't because it's being wiped out. It's because it has such a narrow tolerance.

Think of some kid who doesn't eat this, doesn't eat that, doesn't eat… The next thing you know, all they're having is apples and macaroni. Those are the only two things they like. You might think of it as sort of finicky. That would be a nice way of putting it. Weak would be another one. Meaning if it's not in just the right place, everything else will overwhelm it and you'll never find it.

I can take those seeds from that flower, plant them here lovingly tomorrow, and it would get overwhelmed because it can't grow in this spot. In biology, we call that a niche. And so some of the rare plants have a very narrow niche. Like a panda bear. Its niche is to live in and eat bamboo. You can put it out here, it'll die.

[00:07:58] Ted Alvarez: But there's more to this hunt for the panda bear of flowers than just seeing it and appreciating it. Finding rare plants of all kinds and monitoring and counting them is a big part of what Steve does, both with his students, and as a part of a bigger research project.

[00:08:13] Steve Clark: I find it, I count it and I characterize it.

Is it growing in the shade? Is it growing in the sun? How many are there? Are there any insects around? Did I see a pollinator? That's what I do. And I write all those things down. I submit them to the rare plant program out of the University of Washington. And I'm a contributor.

[00:08:30] Sarah Hoffman: Steven Clark volunteers with Rare Care, which is an organization that monitors rare plant populations.

And so the mission is that in order to promote the conservation of the species, they have to know where they are. Um, the more information that they can gather, the better idea they have for what is actually out there and how things rely on each other and interact. How they're adapting and changing with climate change. Are certain populations decreasing? Are they, you know, growing in other places? And, um, what can we learn from that?

[00:09:04] Steve Clark: My job is to go out and do a survey. See if the plant that was perhaps seen 10 years ago, is it still there? Are there more of them, less of them. And I take a bunch of, uh, data, ecological data about them.

[00:09:19] Ted Alvarez: So that's what Steve was aiming for when he went scrambling up the scree that day with Sarah. The Columbia Gorge Daisy was a flower he'd counted for Rare Care a decade ago. His goal was to return to the same spot and see how it was doing.

This is hard science, but it's also kind of an ongoing quest or a scavenger hunt. Like Indiana Jones, the intrepid Steven Clark sets off across the landscape in search of a kind of ancient relic. A relic that just happens to bloom only under precarious cliffside waterfalls.

[00:09:55] Steve Clark: Uh, when I look for rare plant, usually I'm given an assignment.

What, what you typically get is a piece of paper. It’ll have, uh, instructions to drive down this road and drive down that road. Drive down. Now you're on a dirt road. You go down this dirt road and look for a little turnoff here, stop. And now you're, um, at a trail. You walk down that trail for about a quarter mile, and then the site is off the trail, somewhat to the north.

So head in a north direction. Now we have GPS. So I punch in my GPS numbers and now I'm bushwhacking through the woods. I'm going about 300 meters and it says, remember, uh, you're going to be heading towards the cliff. And I come out. I'm in a clearing. I see the cliff. And I'm looking for a wet spot.

[00:10:40] Ted Alvarez: Steve says the first time the Rare Care program sent him out to find yet another kind of native daisy in the region, he was intimidated.

[00:10:48] Steve Clark: It was a massive cliff, like hundreds of meters long. I thought, I have to find a flower that I've never seen? I couldn't imagine. I couldn't imagine how I would find it.

You desperately want to find it because if you can't find it you think, did it die out? It's rare. Or you think, how come I can't find this. Okay. Am I not seeing it right? What a better botanist find it?

[00:11:14] Ted Alvarez: But when he finally found what he was looking for, it was like stumbling on some kind of holy grail.

[00:11:19] Steve Clark: Then when you do find it, then you feel like the world is right.

You feel like I've found the Gorge Daisy and I can count them and I'm sure it's it. And it's unambiguous. That isn't always the case. One time I had to find a sword fern and the rare sword fern looks almost exactly like the non-rare sword fern, so you're ambivalent. But with the Gorge Daisy, you're euphoric.

[00:11:50] Sarah Hoffman: You know that you're looking at something. That is very unique and that has survived for such a long time in this one place.

[00:12:02] Steve Clark: The fact that it's got a neat little spot is kind of cool, then the fact that it's rare makes it, um, oh it makes it like a pearl in an oyster.

[00:12:20] Ted Alvarez: We'll be right back.

[00:12:31] Anonymous: The Arbor Group at UBS has a straightforward mission. To help you make the world a better place. Through personal financial planning and sustainable investment management, the Arbor Group works with each of their clients to pursue that client's specific goals. Learn more by visiting ubs.com/team/thearborgroup.

[00:12:59] Ted Alvarez: Comparing Steven Clark’s search for a plant to Indiana Jones’ quest for ancient relics might seem a little over the top. But ancient relic is a pretty accurate term to describe native plants like the Gorge Daisy. Native plants have been evolving and adapting in their specific environment for thousands and thousands of years.

[00:13:17] Steve Clark: If you were plopped down on this piece of ground 9,000 years ago, you'd find it. It was here since the last ice age. And it's always been contributing, uh, what it contributes now. It could be food for a certain animal. It could be giving something else. Evolution has crafted these beautiful, intricate, minute relationships for thousands of years.

And when we find that rare plant, we found one that is still here doing its job the way it always has. And then when you ask, what does that give us? I think sometimes it gives you… It makes you feel beautifully small in the world of evolution, because that plant has been here for thousands of years in that spot.

It's not like the apple tree, that apple tree right there. That's not native. It wasn't here 12,000 years ago. So a lot of the things that we see around us, they weren't here. They’re part of the human world, the modification world, as opposed to the natural world, the natural order of things.

And do you see the, it has a little bit of a stripe right here by my fingernail?

[00:14:34] Ted Alvarez: Steve Clark is always pointing out the native creatures that support the natural order of an ecosystem. Like for instance, this Pacific sideband snail the group found in the woods on the way to the Gorge Daisy.

[00:14:45] Steve Clark: So this is a sideband snail.

Come on, get your antenna out so you can see who we are. Hmm.

You see how, you know, you kind of want to watch where you step because you, by accident, you could do something that you wouldn't want to do.

[00:15:06] Ted Alvarez: Steve has this kind of reverence for evolution. He's impressed with the time and complexity and maybe even luck that has gone into creating every single organism, but especially the strange, unique and finicky ones.

[00:15:19] Steve Clark: When I go look for the Gorge Daisy, it's not like the other daisies. Why is it different? It's different because it has found a way to survive through mutations. It's sculpted itself through evolutionary mutations so that that daisy can harvest the resources on a cliff face with a little bit of water running down and a little crack that has a little bit of soil.

Most daisies can't do that, but that one can.

[00:15:53] Ted Alvarez: I'm guessing that for many, the Columbia Gorge Daisy is still just a flower, one among millions of flowers. What makes this one so special? It isn't the only food for an endangered bird. It doesn't have any medicinal properties that we know of. It's pretty, but aren’t most flowers? For those of us who aren't Steven Clark, why get so enamored with this one little plant?

[00:16:14] Steve Clark: And when people say, what is the purpose of it? I think a lot of people are saying, what does the Gorge Daisy do for me? And, and if you could maybe answer nothing, um.

But I feel a sense of impoverishment when I recognize any species has unnecessarily declined or gone extinct. Even if it's one on a continent that I'm not gonna visit.

[00:16:47] Ted Alvarez: What's most important, he says, is the interconnectedness of everything. The way that Earth's organisms rely on one another in ways we might not ever truly understand.

[00:17:00] Steve Clark: I, one time, just as a model, I took a bicycle, a child's bicycle. And I said, imagine this is your natural world. This bicycle. You can pedal it. And I said, humans have an impact on things. So let's suppose we take something out. What would you take out? What would you take off of that bicycle? Well, the first thing you might take off would be the handle grip because you can still ride it.

So we take that off. In my mind, that's what happens when you lose a native species or when you have your landscape dominated by something where other animals can't live. So you take something else off, we take off the other handle grip. You might take off the fenders, the bike still rides. You can take off the bell if you had one, it still rides.

But at some point, you're going to take off, maybe every fifth spoke or maybe you'll take off the seat. You can still ride it if you're standing up. But if you keep doing that, you're going to dissemble the whole thing. And it won't work. To me, the natural world has all these intricate, interdependent relationships and they're built on all the parts being there.

And so you can't really take them, you can't take them out.

[00:18:44] Ted Alvarez: If you, like Steven Clark, want to take that kind of appreciation to the next level, the good news is you can. You don't have to be a biology professor to help the University of Washington's Rare Care program monitor rare plants. Steven and Sarah say they're always looking for volunteers.

[00:19:00] Steve Clark: Yeah. They actively want, uh, volunteers.

They want people to come out.

[00:19:05] Sarah Hoffman: And so if you have curiosity, or if you're someone who tends to love the outdoors, and you pick a population that you want to identify, then, you know, you can go up to Alpine Lakes Wilderness, or other parts of the North Cascades or Olympic National Park and, and look for your species.

And maybe, you know, you can, that can be your thing that you're monitoring for the future.

[00:19:31] Steve Clark: When you're walking around and looking for that rare plant and you find it. You feel like the shepherd, like the caretaker. Like, I'm going to take your picture, I'm going to write it down. I'm going to look at your leaves and I'm going to see who's here and you're in good hands and you’re missed.

You know, that sort of feels like it's, it's, it's silly, but it's also solitary and, and joyful.

[00:20:09] Ted Alvarez: Going on a grueling hike just to smell the flowers, or in Steven's case, count them, that might not be everyone's idea of a good time. But there's something undeniably beautiful about finding that kind of meaning in the smallest things, about finding hope in the miraculous interdependence of it all.

And maybe the Gorge Daisy, putting down roots in a little teaspoon of sandy soil in a wet, north facing rock crevice in the Columbia Gorge, well, maybe that reminds us that there are still things that can surprise us. There are organisms that still cling to life in the toughest of places, despite all the damage we've done to this planet, despite how much we've taken apart the bike. And maybe, maybe they can inspire us to put that bike back together.

[00:20:52] Steve Clark: When I see a plant, especially a rare one. I feel like I can't believe that you are sculpted so perfectly, evolutionarily, to fit right there. And you've been doing it for thousands of years. To me, it is a masterpiece.

And if I’m in an intact ecosystem, everywhere I look, I feel like, that is just perfect. Perfect. Perfect. Perfect. That's how I feel.

[00:22:03] Ted Alvarez: That's it for this week's episode. Many thanks to Steven Clark and Sarah Hoffman. This episode was produced by me and Sara Bernard. Our executive producer is Mark Baumgarten. Our theme music and other sounds are by the Explorist. You can subscribe to Crosscut Escapes on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you listen. For more on Crosscut Escapes, go to crosscut.com/escapes. And if you like the show, please review us. It helps other people find us. Crosscut Escapes is a product of Cascade Public Media. I'm Ted Alvarez, and we'll be back with another episode next week.

About the Hosts

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez is formerly an editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9 focused on science and the environment.