It seems God kept Tiehm’s buckwheat a secret for centuries. If humans knew about the desert bloom before the mid-1980s, no one had bothered to name it. Now the rare plant is locked in a battle of mine versus wildflower.
Tiehm’s buckwheat looks like something from a Dr. Seuss illustration. The Creator gave it multiple orange-tinged white blooms that form a bon-bon-sized sphere. Each wispy orb rests on a spindly stalk rising from a bed of thick, fuzzy leaves resembling gray-green bunny ears. The quirky plant thrives in the rugged, lithium-rich soil of Esmerelda County, Nevada—and only there.
The flower was first discovered at Rhyolite Ridge in the Silver Peak Range in 1983. It grows on just 21 acres there. Scientists recognized Tiehm’s buckwheat as a new species in 1985.
Now the plant’s habitat is at the center of a fight over a proposed lithium mine about 200 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Lithium is a valuable resource. It is used in batteries for electric vehicles and for clean energy storage. The United States imports almost all its lithium from other countries including China, Chile, and Australia. But activities to mine it domestically—digging, drilling, scraping—would destroy Tiehm’s buckwheat’s only habitat.
Two years ago, conservationists filed a petition to list Tiehm’s buckwheat as an endangered species. They wanted the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to create a mile-wide buffer around the flower’s habitat.
Last July, officers of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a 12-month review of the area. They are considering formal protection of the plant’s habitat under the Endangered Species Act. Their decision is due this summer.
But documents show Tiehm’s buckwheat has been on the government’s radar for decades. In 1994, the scientist the plant is named after—Arnold Tiehm, pronounced like a sports “team”—suggested Rhyolite Ridge be declared a special botanical area. That title would have made it off-limits to mining.
“Aggressive measures are needed to prevent its extinction,” James Moreland, supervisory botanist for Nevada’s Division of Natural Heritage, wrote in 1995.
Back then, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) considered labeling the buckwheat’s turf an “Area of Critical Environmental Concern.” But the agency decided not to.
This fact angers conservationists. “BLM recognized that the habitat of Tiehm’s buckwheat needed to be protected . . . years ago,” says Naomi Fraga of the California Botanic Garden.
Today, the Nevada site remains the only place on Earth the plant is known to exist. Fraga says, “Tiehm’s buckwheat is staring down the barrel of extinction.”