November’s Conservation Champion, Joe Davitt, is a frequent collaborator and dedicated conservation partner to the Center for Plant Conservation (CPC). As research associate at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s(SDZWA) Native Seed Bank, Joe utilizes his experience in conservation botany to identify and make seed collections from rare species of conservation concern, and to process and conduct germination testing of the seed bank’s accessions. He actively collaborates with CPC and the SDZWA Plant Conservation team on the California Plant Rescue initiative and a large-scale restoration project at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Joe is also instrumental to the creation of educational resources featured on the Rare Plant Academy. He contributes his expertise to develop storyboards and edit content for the educational videos that instruct practitioners in rare plant conservation best practices – as well as a fun and informative how-to video on creating educational videos using commonly available technological resources, such as your smart phone. We are grateful to count Joe as a valued partner and friend of CPC, and we thank him for all he does to Save Plants!
When did you first fall in love with plants?
Some of my earliest memories are of planting gardens with my parents. I was born and raised in rural San Diego County, surrounded by avocado and citrus groves, and we always grew tomatoes, squash and sweet corn. My mom was interested in ornamental horticulture, and I can remember tropical gingers, interesting succulents and cactus, and butterflies and hummingbirds all around the house. I think those early years in life are often a time we feel most safe, content, and happy. I associate that period in my life with digging holes in the soil, learning the names of flowers and trees, and my family.
What was your career path to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance?
It was somewhat of an untraditional path. I received my undergraduate degree in biology with an emphasis in plant science and a minor in chemistry, I worked briefly in the pharmaceutical industry, and then spent 7 years in the Midwest, removed from the California flora. In 2014, I returned home and was so thankful to find a position at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, working in the seed bank to locate and conserve seed from the rarest plant populations in the area. Science and conservation have always been a passion, as were the plants in the region where I was born and raised. Finding a way to combine the two has been very rewarding.
In your experience, what are some of the pressing conservation needs impacting the rare and native plants of California?
I think there are two ways of looking at this. The pressing risks are climate change, invasive species, altered fire regimes, etc.—and there is a definite need to mitigate these. However, in my opinion, the most pressing conservation need is in conserving the genetic diversity that currently exists as quickly and completely as possible. This is best done via seed banking. Living in California, we have amazing institutional infrastructure in place and programs like the California Plant Rescue network that can optimize the work being done to conserve species ex-situ. We also have a well-funded government that directly supports these programs with funding and initiatives like the 30×30 California. If we can conserve the genetic diversity available to us now, I’m optimistic for the future. Seed banking allows us to conserve genetic diversity in a cost effective, space effective way, and allows us to proactively plan for a better future.
What are some of the projects you’re currently working on at SDZWA’s Native Plant Seed Bank?
Working as partners in the California Plant Rescue initiative, we are prioritizing the collection and conservation of rare species that are currently underrepresented in ex-situ collections. San Diego is a “biodiversity hotspot,” and we aim to conserve the genetic diversity of the entire flora in our seed bank. I’m involved in the locating, monitoring, and collecting of the seed, as well as the processing and germination testing of the accessions. Our seed bank also supports a large restoration project at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. We’ve collected seed from multiple species throughout the reserve, including the Torrey pine, and are experimentally reintroducing the propagates to the wild. This project will both restore this beautiful park and document protocols so that others can learn from our efforts.
How do you draw upon your conservation experience at SDZWA to create storyboards and educational video content for CPC’s Rare Plant Academy (RPA)?
I’ve really enjoyed working with the CPC to create video content for the RPA. I’ve made a few videos documenting our own work at SDZWA, and I’ve been working with partners throughout the country to create storyboards for videos that document the amazing work being done throughout the CPC network. We hope to teach others about plant conservation. I’ve been working directly with animators and video editors to piece together content and make it accessible to anyone at any time. I believe the Rare Plant Academy is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in plant conservation, and it’s been a pleasure to contribute.
What successes or challenges have you encountered in your work?
I’m an optimist, and maybe that’s because I am constantly surrounded by successes in my day-to-day work. Because we are working with the rarest species in our area, I think that every herbarium voucher, every seed collection, and every germinated seed is a success. Challenges abound, but every day we learn and take further steps toward our conservation goals.
What has surprised you about working with and learning more about rare plants?
When I first started to focus on rare taxa, the number of rare and threatened plants in our region was surprising. I’ve always known that the flora here was special, but when I started exploring the many different ecoregions, the amount of diversity was astounding. My interests are in the connectivity of life and the natural history that has led to the beauty and cohesiveness of the world around us. Working with rare species has brought a finer resolution to my understanding and a greater appreciation of the life on our planet.
What advice would you give to those who wish to learn more about how they can help save imperiled plant species?
No matter where you are, there is a plant species, habitat type, or some aspect of the natural world that could use your help. Help might come in many forms, including just learning all you can and disseminating this knowledge. I’d recommend starting at the Rare Plant Academy, and be sure to watch for the upcoming Applied Plant Conservation course that will be free and available to everyone on the CPC website in the coming months.