Two centuries ago, a small pink flower framed the hills and prairie around the main village of the Steilacoom Indian tribe in what is now west Pierce County.
Other Puget Sound tribes took Steilacoom to loosely mean “people of the Indian pink area,” according to the tribe’s website. Some people say the historic town was named after the flower; others say the town was named after the tribe.
“It’s kind of lost there in the mist of time, you might say,” said Joan Curtis, curator of the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association.
It’s also lost in something of an identity crisis, and a fight for survival. The Steilacoom flower is more commonly known as the small woodland flower or small-flowered prairie star. And as the area was settled and later urbanized, it and other native prairie flowers and plants have slowly disappeared from Pierce County.
Now, Steilacoom town officials have jump-started efforts to reintroduce the flower to the area with assistance from the Pierce County Conservation District and others.
The town has purchased 20 flowers from Oregon that it plans to plant in local parks with the community’s help as a placeholder. After that, fans of the Steilacoom flower hope to grow and harvest it locally for enjoyment by future generations and as a reminder of the past.
“There’s a history lesson to it,” Steilacoom Mayor Ron Lucas said.
Lithophragma parviflorum, the flower’s scientific name, can be found over a vast area covering Washington state to California and stretching past the Rocky Mountains into the Great Plains. Locally, some can be found on the grounds of Joint Base Lewis-McChord and in areas of east Pierce County
But local populations of the flower have become rare, said Rod Gilbert, a biologist for the fish and wildlife program at Lewis-McChord whose work includes prairie restoration.
The introduction and growth of nonnative grasses, loss of prairieland to forest, farming and urban development have combined to chase the flower out of Pierce and Thurston counties,, Gilbert said.
Many of the 300 native species of prairie flowers and plants are hard to find today, and about half have disappeared completely, he said.
Town officials attempted to reintroduce the namesake flower in 2004 as part of Steilacoom’s 150th birthday celebration, but it was unsuccessful, Lucas said.
Curtis said folks scoured everywhere, including Canada, but came up empty.
“We just literally couldn’t find the flower,” she said.
Fast forward to this year. Lucas recalled the unsuccessful effort during a recent meeting with the Pierce County Conservation District, which promotes renewable natural resources in Pierce County. Homeowners pay $5 a year to fund the district, which includes unincorporated Pierce County and 11 municipalities.
The district agreed to the request to help revive the flower because one of its goals is to preserve native plants in the area, said Chris Towe, the district’s liaison to Steilacoom.
“We’re happy to help them to get this native plant back and reintroduced,” he said.
The district in turn sought the help of Susan Stuart, the owner of All Seasons Sustainable Plants. She was happy to lend a green thumb.
A former registered nurse, Stuart started her business about a year ago in space leased from the district’s greenhouse near its main office in Puyallup.
During a recent trip to Oregon, Stuart purchased 100 of the Willamette Valley variety of the flower, which are slightly larger than average.
The town will be able to plant them immediately.
She’s also on the hunt for remnants of the local stock that can be found around the area. Stuart harvested two of the flowers in east Pierce County and has a request out to visit a piece of prairie land across from Clover Park Technical College that might be home to more flowers. She also has enlisted others to search in other areas around the Puget Sound area.
“I’m a pitbull when I want to find something,” she said. “I won’t let go.”
The town will plant the Oregon variety until Stuart can establish the local version. It takes two years for local stock to grow from seed to flower.
Lucas said once the local stock takes root, he’d like to turn over the project to the Steilacoom Garden Club so residents can buy and plant it.
Stuart sees her work as important to secure the flower’s future in Pierce County.
“It’s beautiful, and I don’t want to see it disappear,” she said.