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Introducing Elan Alford, New Rare Plants Chair, San Mateo County

elan alford 3325 with Castilleja affinis ssp neglectaElan Alford on Coyote Ridge with Castilleja affinis ssp. neglecta on a recon survey Don Mayall sent her on in May 2014. Photo by Elan Alford

Full length version of an article published in the May-June 2016 Blazing Star Newsletter

By Vicki Silvas-Young, Hospitality & All-round Support

Our new San Mateo Rare Plants Chair, Elan Alford was born the second of four children on a misty, Spring day in Pennsylvania. She has always had a respect for plants ever since she could remember. Perhaps it has to do with the sense of joy and solitude that one can slip into so easily amongst a field of green? Perhaps it has to do with helping tend her father’s mountain side garden in Pennsylvania? Elan never intended to do anything in particular, except listen and explore. She views life as a series of happy accidents and her life philosophy comes from the cult classic musical Rocky Horror, “Don’t dream it, be it.”

When it came time for college, Elan chose to study ecology because one could specialize in plant biology. She graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in Ecology & Evolution. After school she decided to work in a laboratory at the university. There she learned about molecular biology, microbiology, and, most importantly, she started working on legumes. Elan was intrigued by their unique symbiotic interactions with rhizobia and the fact that it all happens in the hidden realm of the underground.

After being in the lab a while she started thinking about graduate school before she got used to making too much money and having too much free time! Plus she desired more sun than Pennsylvania had to offer, so she headed to Arizona on a road trip. There she found ... too much sun! What to do, what to do? Colorado seemed to be about right in terms of sun so she attended Colorado State University at Fort Collins and handily received her M.S. and Ph.D. in ecology. For her M.S. she studied invasive knapweeds and during her field work for her M.S. she stumbled across a most interesting plant, two-grooved milkvetch (Astragalus bisulcatus). This plant led her to pursue a Ph.D. because she could continue to work on legumes, focusing on soil flora and how they influence selenium hyperaccumulation in Astragalus.

elan ftCollins Astragalus bisulcatusAlthough Californians might not know much about this plant, Astragalus bisulcatus is restricted to seleniferous soils. To relate it to California, you can think about it acting much like the serpentine-endemic flora in California. The species just loves selenium-containing soils, and it is also able to accumulate very high levels of selenium from the soil and store it in above ground plant parts. Because of this interest in trace element hyperaccumulation in plants, she wrote papers demonstrating how soil microorganisms interact with plants in unique soils, and she also focused on legumes in her work. (“Metallophytes-a view from the rhizosphere,” Plant and Soil 7-2010; “Selenium hyperaccumulation by Astragalus (Fabaceae.) does not inhibit root nodule symbiosis,” American Journal of Botany 11-2012; “Roles of Rhizobial symbionts in selenium hyperaccumulation in Astragalus (Fabaceae),” American Botany 10-2014).

Now armed and dangerous, she looks for work. Fortunately for us, HT Harvey hired/lured her to the Bay area in 2012, just while we were sort of recovering from the 2008 bust and just when we needed help with coyote ceanothus, Ceanothus ferrisiae, and Congdon’s tarplant, Centromadia parryi ssp. congdonii. She found our Chapter of CNPS and immediately joined because she wanted to learn about our California natives! Toni Corelli and Don Mayall influenced her heavily regarding where to go and what to do with her “infinite spare time” by signing her onto the Rare Plant committee and giving her stuff to do!

Currently at HT Harvey she is involved with habitat assessments, rare plant surveys, CEQA environmental review, wetland delineations, and regulatory permitting to comply with the Clean Water Act. But she continues to be most interested in plant roots, legumes, trace elements, and unique soils. And, we got ‘em!

In her real spare time, Elan continues to learn more about our native plants and is now our Rare Plant Chair for San Mateo County. She loves American roots music and spends time playing old-time music, which is a pre-cursor to bluegrass. Currently Elan is a student of the fiddle and is Vice President of the Santa Clara Valley Fiddle Association. Elan also loves to play the banjo, which she plays on a track in the Old-Time Ramble album from Dave Earl & Friends. She is also a homebrewer and beer judge. Elan would love to hear from you because she loves listening and learning. You can drop her a line by emailing This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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