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Editor's Picks

The oak tree in Skjomendalen © Gerhard Sørensen-Fuglem and Cecilia Piccirilli Bjerkeset
An oak grows north of the Arctic Circle in Norway
Website Editor | Aug 14, 2023
Unusual symptoms linked to phytoplasma infection in Quercus humboldtiii, Colombia © Eric Boa
Symptoms linked to phytoplasma infection found in Quercus...
Website Editor | Aug 06, 2023
Different names are being used for one species.
Website Editor | Jun 20, 2023

Plant Focus

A small but mature Alabama sandstone oak producing acorns © Patrick Thompson
A Critically Endangered dwarf oak 

Finding His Roots: Michael Eason's Journey in Conservation

“Right place at the right time,” was the phrase Michael Eason, now Associate Director of Conservation and Collections at San Antonio Botanical Garden, used to describe how he came to work in the conservation field. While employed at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Michael attended in 2003 a presentation on the Kew Millennium Seed Bank and heard about a position that opened up at the Garden for someone to manage the seed bank partnership with Kew. Michael jumped at the opportunity to interview for the job and was given it on the spot.

Michael Eason
Michael Eason hiking in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to observe Washingtonia filifera in situ

In this position, he was involved in field collections throughout Texas. He and his colleagues covered collections from west Texas, central Texas, all the way to east and coastal Texas, working with institutions across the state to collect seeds. In one year, he had stayed at hotels for over 260 nights! Michael explained that, unlike typical 9–5 pm jobs, field work does not finish at the end of the work day; he would work through the night to sort and process the bags of plants and seeds he collected during the day. Although it was a lot of travel and work, he maintains this job is where he learned the most about Texas flora. The position also solidified his conservation career, opening up numerous doors, such as connections with private landowners, other non-profits, and a myriad of small nurseries in Texas. The work was not just about collecting and conserving both common and rare plants, but it was also focused on building key relationships and engaging with volunteers.

MIchael Eason photographing
Michael photographing Physaria fendleri along a roadside in Presidio Co., Texas

Now, at San Antonio Botanical Garden, one of Michael’s goals is to resolve the collection records; some of the records do not have provenance information, so he is tracking down the provenance of rare plants, and those he cannot track down he recollects in the field. Also, he is largely focused on establishing conservation programs within the Garden, working in partnership with other institutions throughout the U.S., building up the collections, and creating a collections database. He also works with a small volunteer crew, which he helped establish and which deals with propagation, plant care, and general maintenance.

With dog
One man and his dog: Michael and Roemer with Castilleja integra in foreground, Presidio Co., Texas

This season Michael plans to bring the volunteers out of the garden and into the field where they will assist with surveys, seed collection, and monitoring. He is also involved in fundraising to support the Garden and its conservation work.

On top of his many responsibilities at the Garden, Michael is out in the field collecting Texas flora for ex-situ and in-situ conservation projects. For example, he has been involved in conserving Q. hinckleyi, a west Texas oak that faces the imminent threat of long-term climate change. Its native habitat has become drier and hotter, compared to the wetter and cooler conditions it adapted to, so it is struggling to survive in its current range. Therefore, he has helped collect material from its native populations to propagate and grow plants and establish them in areas where they will grow as small trees, reaching their full potential in a healthier habitat.

Quercus hinckleyi seedling
Seed-grown Quercus hinckleyi from Presidio Co. population, part of an ArbNet/BGCI-funded trip/project

In addition to Q. hinckleyi, Q. depressipes, a species with one remote population on a Nature Conservancy property in the U.S. (though more abundant in Mexico), is also facing the threat of long-term climate change. Though it is protected on The Nature Conservancy's property from habitat loss, destruction, human involvement, etc., a drought or wildfire could easily wipe out this only known U.S. population, so ex-situ collections have been a focus for Michael and colleagues with this species.

Quercus tardifolia
Quercus tardifolia in Big Bend National Park © Amy Byrne

Similarly, Q. tardifolia, recently rediscovered by a team of researchers, including Michael (you can read more about this exciting discovery here), is also facing the threat of long-term climate change. Michael has discussed this with other experts: it appears that Q. tardifolia is a relict species, so when things were cooler and wetter it was thriving, but now that the conditions in west Texas are becoming hotter and drier, the species is only found at higher elevations and in canyons. And finally (for oaks), Michael has focused on collecting Q. buckleyi, Q. laceyi, and Q. muehlenbergii, more common oaks found throughout Texas. He includes these three species in a tree giveaway each year at the Garden, so that wild-provenance, locally sourced trees will be included in landscape settings.

Quercus laceyi seedlings
Quercus laceyi seedlings

Aside from oaks, Michael is involved in the collection and conservation of other Texas flora. One of his most prized collections at the Garden is Caesalpinia phyllanthoides (creeping bird of paradise), which he is propagating through root cuttings and will put on display at the Garden. He is also working with Asclepias prostrata (prostrate milkweed): a large number of plants are housed at the Garden, and there are plans to distribute some to a satellite location for long-term conservation.

Michael Eason photographing
Ready for my close-up... Michael with Cardamine concatenata

Overall, regarding oaks and other important Texas flora, Michael emphasizes that collecting rare plants takes a lot of careful planning and timing; it can take a couple of years before the species is collected for ex-situ conservation, and even when material is collected plants can be difficult to propagate. Therefore, ensuring that the right protocols are followed and that experts are involved to help with this part of the process is key to getting the seedlings or propagules to grow into mature, healthy plants.

Michael explained that what we can do right now and in the near future for conserving oaks successfully is continue to collect them and grow them in multiple locations such as botanic gardens, universities, etc. and work with expert growers to preserve the genetic diversity of these species. He also mentioned that land protection is critically important for oaks, as a large number of them have restricted habitats and ranges. Finally, he emphasized the need to include more local plants in the nursery trade in Texas and elsewhere so that the plants used for restoration, commercial, or residential landscape projects represent the local genetic diversity; we know these plants are already adapted to their habitat and conditions and will successfully grow in the restored site.

Quercus depressipes
Quercus depressipes grown from root cuttings, San Antonio Botanical Garden [confirm this is correct]

To sum up, Michael noted some of the biggest achievements he and his colleagues and collaborators have made for oak conservation thus far. Top of the list is the rediscovery of Q. tardifolia and the subsequent finding of more plants in other locations. Other highlights include obtaining root cuttings/suckers of Q. depressipes, which are now growing at the Garden, and collecting acorns of Q. hinckleyi for ex-situ conservation collections. To conclude, Michael said that getting involved with the GCCO really put oak conservation on his radar, identified new partners and collaborators to work with, and allowed him to appreciate the diversity of oaks and how successful they have been in the face of so many changes and threats. He knows we are just scratching the surface and that there are so many more pockets of diversity out there to be researched; he looks forward to being involved in oak conservation and research efforts to uncover new, important information.

Quercus tardifolia discovered in BBNP
Michael (right of tree) with other researchers with Quercus tardifolia in Big Bend National Park © U.S. Botanic Garden

Photos © Michael Eason unless specified