N.W.T.'s rare hairy braya plant first documented on Franklin expedition

The hairy braya is a little plant with a long history that many people may not know — one of the first people to document the rare Northwest Territories plant was an explorer on Sir John Franklin's expedition back in 1826.

Journals from John Richardson in 1826 led to modern discovery of plant on Cape Bathurst

Jim Harris in 2004 when he first discovered the hairy braya on the Cape Bathurst peninsula. It was journals from an explorer on the 1826 Franklin expedition that led Harris to where the extremely rare species are located. (Submitted by Jim Harris)

The hairy braya is a little plant with a long history that many people may not know — one of the first people to document the extremely rare Northwest Territories plant was an explorer on Sir John Franklin's expedition back in 1826.

Known in the botany community as braya pilosa, the hairy braya is a flowering plant in the mustard family and it's listed as a threatened species in the N.W.T. — the only place in the world it is found.

For decades, little was known about the plant's origins, but Jim Harris, a professor at Utah Valley University, helped solve the mystery.

As a graduate student in the 1980s, Harris first encountered a sample of the hairy braya at the British Museum in London.

The hairy braya is a flowering plant in the mustard family. (Submitted by Jim Harris)

"It's not something that would leap out at you," he told The Trailbreaker's Loren McGinnis. "It's a rather small plant."

Harris didn't know much about the hairy braya at the time, but he knew the sample was authentic.

"The original collection of the plant was made by John Richardson, who was a member of the first and second Franklin expeditions to find the Northwest Passage."

No other specimens of the plant had been taken since 1850, Harris said, so no one knew exactly where it had been collected or if the plant even existed anymore.

"I figured it was either extinct or perhaps it was found in such a small area that no one had ever stumbled across it again."

Clues in Richardson's journal

In 2003, Harris came upon a copy of Richardson's journals from the second Franklin expedition. The explorer was also a naturalist, who wrote about geology and botany on the trips.

"I came across a passage where he described finding a beautiful, cruciform flower that was scented — it had a wonderful scent to it," he said.

"When I read that I knew immediately he was talking about braya pilosa."

Richardson also described where he collected the plant: eight miles south of Cape Bathurst on July 18, 1826 — about 200 kilometres away from where it was believed he had collected the plant.

Harris decided he had to try to find the hairy braya, and see if it was still growing in the area.

The hairy braya is only found on the Cape Bathurst peninsula and Baillie Islands in the Northwest Territories - over a total range of about 250 square kilometres. (N.W.T. Species at Risk)

He and a friend travelled thousands of kilometres to Inuvik, hopped a floatplane to Cape Bathurst, and walked several more kilometres to the suspected area.

Harris says he was trying to keep his expectations realistic, but he was "desperately hoping" to find the plant.

"I kept thinking to myself, 'I think I've pinpointed where this plant should be found, and I'd like to be the one to go and find it,'" he said, laughing.

And find it he did.

"I looked down at my feet and there it was. It was kind of an overwhelming experience," Harris said. "It was just shocking, really."

He says he knew instantly that it was the hairy braya, but he went through all the features to be absolutely sure. Then, he quietly celebrated.

"It was truly the highlight of my botanical career."

'A tragic loss'

Despite reports that the hairy braya has been spotted in Russia, Harris says the only verified location of the plant is on the Cape Bathurst peninsula. But the hairy braya's future is up in the air.

"It won't last long over the long haul," Harris said.

There are an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 individual Hairy Braya plants remaining, according to the N.W.T. Species at Risk. (Submitted by Jim Harris)

In the short-term, he believes the plant's chances are good. Coastal erosion is one of the species' biggest threats, but Harris says enough specimens are inland that they're not in immediate danger of being eradicated. However, 20 to 30 years from now, it could be another story.

"I think it would be tragic to see it go."

He says the threatened species adds to the evolutionary puzzle of geology, glaciation in the North, and the territory's history.

"Braya pilosa is part of that. It's part of the story."

With files from The Trailbreaker