Presumed Extinct: Address Unknown


Presumed Extinct: Palo Alto lost thistle, Pitkin Marsh Indian paintbrush

As with the presumed extinct ivory-billed woodpecker reported in Arkansas in 2004, there is always the chance that a long-lost plant or animal will be rediscovered, thanks to persistent searching and luck. That’s true even in a busy metropolitan area like the San Francisco Bay Area. In May 2005, botanist Michael Park stumbled upon a population of Mount Diablo buckwheat (Eriogonum truncatum) on the slopes of Mount Diablo. The buckwheat was a  species long thought extinct, last seen in 1936 by UC Berkeley botany graduate student (and later Save Mount Diablo cofounder) Mary Bowerman. 

Spurred by the rediscovery of the buckwheat, it bears asking today which plants and animals endemic to – but presumed extinct in – the San Francisco Bay Area scientists continue to search for in the hope they may still be hanging on by a thread, waiting to be found and protected.

Palo Alto lost thistle (Cirsium praeteriens)

Pitkin Marsh Indian paintbrush (Castilleja uliginosa)

Illustration by Devin Cecil-Wishing

The little that’s known about the Palo Alto lost thistle (Cirsium praeteriens) would fit on a postage stamp. This elusive white-flowered thistle was collected by lawyer and botanist Joseph Whipple Congdon in 1897 and 1901 at a location identified simply as “Palo Alto,” roughly mapped at the present-day site of the Palo Alto post office. “It seems remarkable,” wrote Harvard botanist James Francis Macbride, “that this splendid thistle should have escaped notice so long since it grows at the very door . . . of one of the principal herbaria [Stanford’s Dudley Herbarium] of the Pacific coast.” Since we know nothing about the thistle’s habitat, botanists like California Polytechnic’s David Keil, the de facto expert on the species, don’t know where to begin looking. “I would guess that it would be a wetland species, since a number of the other native thistles occur with their feet wet,” he explains, “[but] I won’t go looking for it because I don’t know where to start. Going into an urban area to find a plant is a real challenge.”

Illustration by Devin Cecil-Wishing

The story of the Pitkin Marsh Indian paintbrush (Castilleja uliginosa) is one fraught with tragedy. It was first collected in 1937 by botanist John Thomas Howell from two freshwater marshes near Sebastopol. At Trembley’s Marsh, the paintbrush plants were reportedly common between 1937 and 1950, but vanished altogether the following year. They persisted longer at Pitkin’s Marsh, but by 1971, only a single plant remained. The marsh was fenced off in 1978, and in 1984 the paintbrush’s rhododendron host plant—paintbrushes live in part by parasitizing other plants—was trimmed to reduce shading on the single remaining paintbrush stem. Four weak stems survived but were soon overtaken by rushes and sedges. These too were trimmed, but February rains in 1986 flooded the marsh, wiping the palette clean of all traces of the Pitkin Marsh Indian paintbrush in the wild (some plants still grow at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley).

Field Guide to the Lost Species of the Bay Area

SPECIES: Palo Alto lost thistle (Cirsium praeteriens)

LISTING STATUS: CNPS List 1A (presumed extinctin California)


RANGE: known only from Palo Alto in Santa Clara County

HABITAT: unknown

FIELD NOTES: with nothing but “Palo Alto” recorded for the type specimen’s collection location, botanists know nothing about this thistle’s preferred habitat; notes to the effect that the species represents an introduction from the Old World are unsubstantiated and the species is still recognized today as a native California thistle


CNPS Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants of California, Online Edition, 2007, by the Rare Plant Scientific Advisory Committee, California Native Plant Society

Digitized type specimen at Harvard University Herbarium Index of Botanical Species

Flora of North America, Flora of North America Committee


SPECIES: Pitkin Marsh Indian paintbrush (Castilleja uliginosa)

LISTING STATUS: state Endangered; CNPS List 1A (presumed extinct in California)


RANGE: Pitkin Marsh, Trembley’s Marsh in Sonoma County

HABITAT: marshy meadows

FIELD NOTES: the Pitkin Marsh Indian paintbrush grows solely in association with rhododendron plants in a type of hemiparasitic relationship; all known plants were reported on private land, which has prevented further surveys to determine if any unrecorded plants have persisted


Indian Paintbrush: The Sunset Shades of Castilleja (Bay Nature), by Geoffrey Coffey

CNPS Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants of California, Online Edition, 2007, by the Rare Plant Scientific Advisory Committee, California Native Plant Society

The account excerpted above was originally featured in the October/December 2007 issue of Bay Nature magazine.

Illustrations by Devin Cecil-Wishing.

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  1. #1 by silence on January 8, 2013 - 9:57 pm

    Palo Alto presents a double problem: most of the creeks in town were turned into concrete ditches by the Army Corps of Engineers over the past couple decades. There is very little unmodified freshwater marsh around.

    • #2 by Matthew Bettelheim on January 15, 2013 - 8:26 am

      You make a good point. The plant’s persistence may depend on a relict seed bank and daylighting efforts.

  2. #3 by silence on January 8, 2013 - 10:18 pm

    A number of your links are broken. is a current link for the digitized herbarium specimen of Cirsium praeteriens

    • #4 by Matthew Bettelheim on January 8, 2013 - 11:23 pm

      Thanks, and fixed!

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