Botanist Kristi Mergenthaler strolls the paths of the Jacksonville Woodlands with an eye that's well-trained for picking out the rare flower from among its imposters.
She's on the prowl for the rare Gentner's fritillary, an endangered wildflower found only in Southern Oregon, and its epicenter is in these woodlands.
"A beautiful red flower that's big, bright and visited by bees and butterflies and is federally endangered? Yes, it's sexy," Mergenthaler says.
Just a few feet off the trail on Thursday, she points out a handful of tall and vibrant red bells reaching for the sun. A relative of the Gentner's, this species of fritillaria looks awfully similar to its celebrated cousin, but it's an extremely common spring bloomer throughout the West.
Mistaking one fritillaria for the other is like spying a gull and mistaking it for a bald eagle.
"But they're both lovely," Mergenthaler says.
You can learn to distinguish between Gentner's and red bells during a free hike on Saturday, April 13, which Mergenthaler will lead in these same Jacksonville Woodlands.
The hike is one of a series of guided treks being organized by the Southern Oregon Land Conservancy this spring as a way of highlighting some of the region's unique habitats that have been protected by the nonprofit group through conservation easements and other tools.
The free — and sometimes pet-friendly — hikes are the conservancy's way of reaching beyond its membership to share access to rare flora and fauna found in places such as the Jacksonville Woodlands, which was created largely by conservation easements bought by SOLC on private land in Jacksonville.
"It's a much more engaging way to show folks what's out there and what needs to be protected," says Michael Stringer, SOLC's development director.
The popular program of hikes for non-SOLC members began last year and may be a reason the 600-member chapter grew by about 10 percent, Stringer says.
Most of the hikes are on weekends through June and they are spread out from Ashland to Grants Pass. The hikes will feature themes that range from forest ecology and conservation on private land to bird watching and rare botanical treasures.
The hikes are structured similarly to the Bureau of Land Management's annual spring hikes on the Table Rocks, in which a local expert leads a hike and points out key aspects of flora, fauna and geology. In fact, Lower Table Rock is one of the hikes on SOLC's agenda.
"We try to cover the region as much as we can to make sure we're reaching out to the community as best we can," Stringer says.
The conservancy's hikes expand into multiple habitats in multiple areas, and they all come with unique stories.
The species fritillaria gentneri was unknown to science until the 1940s, when a teenage Jacksonville girl named Laura Gentner took one to her father, an entomologist with the Southern Oregon Experiment Station. It was tagged a new species by Oregon State University scientists, who named it after the Gentner family.
The largest concentrations of the flower are found around Jacksonville's trail system and cemetery, with others near Butte Falls, Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, the Applegate Valley and Picket Creek in Josephine County. A patch was recently found in Siskiyou County just south of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, Mergenthaler says.
The plant is listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Its main threats are residential development, agricultural activities, logging, fire suppression, road and trail maintenance, off-road-vehicle use, and collecting for gardens, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Gentner's fritillary should be in bloom during Mergenthaler's hike, she says.
As part of her outing, Mergenthaler plans to visit a plot where the state's rare plant program is attempting to grow more Gentner's fritillary.
The plants are grown from tiny bulbs harvested from adult plants and grown in a greenhouse for two years before they are planted in area sites.
"We'll see if the plantings are successful," says Mergenthaler, SOLC's land steward.
But you get more than just the facts on a Mergenthaler-led hike.
"The bulbs are way-cute," she says. "They're small. They look like little, bitty potatoes."
And you'll learn how to tell the difference between Gentner's famous finding and the relatively pedestrian red bells.
The secret lies, in part, within the more-common plant's scientific name, fritillaria recurva.
"The red bells have petals that curve out like little elf shoes," Mergenthaler says. "Gentner's goes straight down."
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.