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Totora: Biogeography of a sedge

Phylogeography, Ethnobotany, Ecology, and Biogeochemistry of the sedge Schoenoplectus californicus, the amazing Totora!

In the western hemisphere, Schoenoplectus californicus (C.A. Mey.) Sojak is one of the most widely distributed wetland plants. It frequently dominates freshwater and brackish marshes across temperate, tropical and alpine zones, from northern California to Patagonia, and into the Pacific islands of Easter Island and Hawaii. It has also been introduced to New Zealand and Australia.

Historically, S. californicus served an important function in the economy and culture of indigenous peoples. Scientific interest was limited until the recent discovery of its potential as a tool for wetland remediation, and its ecological importance as endangered species habitat (e.g. the California Black Rail). However, many cultures of South America still depend on S. californicus as a natural or managed resource to supply material for food, housing, transportation, and livestock feed (Heiser 1979). Livestock production in the Andean highlands is virtually dependant on S. californicus and similar species. One of the most common and widespread uses of S. californicus is in the construction of boats. These lightweight, replenishable crafts were historically used as far north as southern Oregon, but recent use is limited to Central and South America.

In our lab we have focused on understanding the variability of habitat for this species, its ecology, and its genotypic and phenotypic variation. This information could be useful in future management projects in indigenous as well as modern communities. An understanding of its environmental constraints could greatly benefit the application of S. californicus to bioremediation. Finally, the information gathered in this study could facilitate future studies into understanding the impacts of ecotypes on community structure and function.