A green plant flowers purple amidst the red dirt of the desert.
Holmgren Milkvetch Holmgren Milkvetch © Daniela Roth

Stories in Utah

New Hope for an Endangered Flower

The Holmgren milkvetch is a desert masterpiece and a scientific wonder, and it can only be found in one place on Earth.

Washington County is a vibrant hub of biodiversity, where several major ecosystems converge and create rich habitat for many rare plant and animal species. As human population expands across this treasured landscape, undeveloped land becomes scarce and, consequently, nature suffers.

Holmgren milkvetch, a unique and rare desert flower found nowhere else in the world, is one of the most recent species to suffer from the region’s unprecedented habitat loss. 

The Great Save

In the fall of 2015, a group of dedicated individuals from federal and state agencies, universities, and The Nature Conservancy in Utah collaborated to protect this threatened plant species, covering a wide array of activities from research to habitat acquisition.

One of these activities was “The Great Save,” a volunteer event during which 25 people collected approximately 50,000 seeds from 800 acres of Holmgren milkvetch habitat scheduled for development. Once the seeds were collected, they were stored for various purposes.  Some were planted to establish new plants near St. George in January 2016.

What is Holmgren Milkvetch?

Holmgren milkvetch is a critically endangered perennial herb that can only be found in a tiny section of the northern Mojave Desert between Utah and Arizona.

This rare flower has won the hearts of many plant enthusiasts due to its unique adaptations and delicate beauty. Unlike many flowers, Holmgren milkvetch lives close to the ground, its leaves growing flat upon the desert floor. In the spring, its flowers bloom, producing striking pink pea flowers.

The plant is dependent on a healthy seed bank and ground-nesting bees for persistence.  Disturbance of the surrounding soil, from activities as varied as cattle grazing to weed invasion, poses serious threats to its survival.

Understanding Its Future

To understand the Holmgren milkvetch’s future viability Dr. Renée Van Buren and Ally Searle, from Utah Valley University, and Dr. Susan Meyer from the USDA Shrub Sciences Lab analyzed more than 23 years of research on the desert flower and its unique adaptations and wrote a Population Viability Analysis report. The plant is in a downward trend, but the scientists’ report recommended a number of best land management practices to increase its chances.

Following one of their recommendations, volunteers planted some of the seeds collected during “The Great Save” to supplement the existing population on 14 acres of protected habitat owned by the Conservancy. In this new location, Holmgren milkvetch will be protected from disturbance.

A Second Chance at Survival

Thanks to the efforts of many dedicated individuals and caring donors, many are hopeful that the milkvetch will survive well into the future.

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