California Pipevine

Along a scrub-covered river bank, a leafless alder is draped in a leafless, flowering vine. This is the California pipevine (Aristolochia californica)–a showy early bloomer, that can be surprisingly hard to spot. When viewed up close, it is striking. The distinctive pipe shape is nearly two inches long, with brick red petal lips and veins streaking the bent green tube of the flower. It just needs a pair of googly eyes perched on top to become a goofy puppet a la Sesame Street. One would think this would be hard to miss–and yet in its leafless stage, pipevine flowers camouflage nicely with the brown leaves and spring buds of our winter forest, and one can (and I certainly have) walked right past it without noticing. As the season advances and the vine’s bright green, heart-shaped leaves emerge it becomes easier to see.

California pipevine, also known as Dutchmans pipe, is the only food for the caterpillars of the beautiful, iridescent-black pipevine swallowtail butterfly. The vine contains toxic compounds which don’t harm the caterpillars, but render them toxic to predators–a benefit which lasts throughout the pupal and butterfly stages as well. Mature pipevine swallowtails are often seen fluttering around this plant, where they lay their eggs; in fact, following one of these butterflies has led me to a nearby, unobtrusive pipevine plant that I otherwise would not have noticed!

The musty-smelling bloom itself is very attractive to flies and gnats, and fungus gnats are thought to be one of its prime pollinators. The pollination process is vividly described on this Putah Creek Council blog post: “Guided by stiff hairs, the insects are directed into the convoluted flowers, picking up pollen as they seek a way to exit. Eventually the flower hairs relax and the pollen-covered gnats are able to escape and spread pollen to other plants.”

This is the only pipevine species in California, but there are numerous species worldwide.


Filed under Plant of the day

A nature treasure hunt for August

As I am talking to my five year old about seasons, I decided to make a little scavenger hunt for her and other interested kiddos. I’m a little late posting it – in hotter places, the blackberries are well over, for example – but all the elements should still be find-able. Please know that this is a LOOKING ONLY hunt (photos are okay), as we don’t want anyone picking a beautiful bunch of poison oak, or trying to make off with a rancher’s hay bale! But hopefully it will be as fun for you to do as it was for us.

I included a few fun facts about each treasure, and for the plants, there are a lot more on this blog: read about pink ladies, poison oak, fennel, Himalayan blackberry, or Pacific blackberry. What are your favorite facts or stories about each of these? Tell me in the comments!

August treasure hunt

1 Comment

Filed under Plant of the day

Nature coloring for kids (and grownups)

Parenting has suddenly become exponentially more challenging. Overnight, we have had to fill all the roles for our kids–teachers, friends, extended family, the friendly barista at the coffee shop, etc–all while dealing with the emotional fallout (for the kiddos and for ourselves). Phew. Let’s take a minute to acknowledge: this is hard.

Pages from Pollinators-of-Alaska-coloring-bookWay back in the old days, like a month ago, nature was a huge part of my parenting. In a world that bombards us with screens, superheros, and shopping, I have always struggled to push the focus back onto the outdoors. Ideally, I do this by actually being outdoors: one of the beautiful things about little kids is that a 300 foot trail, or a pullout by the bay, can offer an hour of adventure and exploration.

But now most parks and open spaces are closed. We still get out in the yard, but sometimes even that isn’t possible – like when mama has work from home. One resource that I discovered keeps my little one entertained (and my outdoorsy heart happy) has been nature-based coloring pages; I send her to wait by the printer, and she’s delighted when a new one pops out. If I space them out properly, the print-and-color cycle might keep her happy for 45 minutes, or more. This time is like gold, people.

Here are some links to a few different pages that I liked; I’m sure you can find a lot more on your own. And if you have no kids, you might enjoy them anyway, to de-stress and take your mind on a little nature vacation.

  • 20 pages of National Parks, here from You have to create an account, but it’s fast and free (scroll to the bottom of the page to download all at once).
  • This is a really great one, here. In addition to coloring a cactus wren or a desert landscape, you can do an artcic brine maze or an ant head matching game! And on and on. Feather anatomy, comparing arm bones in people and bats, a biome matching game… SO FUN, for joyful nerds of all sizes! From Arizona State University’s “Ask A Biologist” program.
  • Pollinators of Alaska coloring book, here, from Glacier Bay National Park.
  • California rare animals coloring book, here, from California State Parks.
  • A variety of National Park scenes, here, from USA Printables (the interface is a little clunky, but the selection is good)
  • John Muir Laws’ website is an absolute wealth of free drawing instructions – adults and older kids might want to check out the “how to draw birds,” “how to draw mammals,” and “how to draw plants” pages; (be sure to check out the sidebars on the right for tons of related videos, tutorials, and other links!). There are a lot of resources for teachers too–which we all are at the moment. However, for my little one I just selected some of the non-colored images and printed those for her to color in (for example, this one from the “how to draw a bewicks wren” tutorial, or this one from the “simplifying bird plumage” tutorial).
  • Wildflowers of the Colorado Mountain tops, here, by the US Forest Service, is nice because it includes some extra sciency detail if you want it.
  • A selection of animals, plants, culture, and history, here, from Texas Parks and Wildlife.
  • Coloring and games from New Jersey parks, here – bark identification! Word search! word scramble!
  • How cool is this Color Our Collections project, with free, colorable images from all sorts of museums?? There are all sorts of subject, but most are nature/science/history related.
  • Still need more? Here are some free single coloring pages, sorted by category – birds, mammals, reptiles, molluscs, etc. Go to town!

What kind of nature art are you all doing while in quarantine? I’d love to hear about it!



1 Comment

Filed under Plant of the day

A poem for this morning

Some times a poem comes along that perfectly reflects the moment. This morning, as I’ve been watching the tule fog clear over an unkempt garden, here is sun silvering on the twigs. Here are the tangled briars, the misted orchard, just as they did for David Whyte, one easter in Wales.


Easter Morning in Wales

(by David Whyte)

A garden inside me, unknown, secret,
Neglected for years,
The layers of its soil deep and thick.
Trees in the corners with branching arms
And the tangled briars like broken nets.

Sunrise through the misted orchard,
Morning sun turns silver on the pointed twigs.
I have woken from the sleep of ages and I am not sure
If I am really seeing, or dreaming,
Or simply astonished
Walking toward sunrise
To have stumbled into the garden
Where the stone was rolled from the tomb of longing.

If I have a religion, it is one of soil and season. If I have a church, it is forest and field. Because of this, I have always felt conflicted about the churchy claims to this holiday. However, it seems deeply appropriate that there should be a celebration right about now, as nature is gloriously, celebratorily unfurling into spring splendor all around us. And I am grateful that we have a holiday that glorifies nature – the flowers, the eggs, the bunnies – however cartoonified. It is better than nothing. If I had my druthers, our en masse ritual would be more akin to the pagan Eostre, and fall on the actual equinox (this year, recently passed on March 28th). But I also feel there is power in collective celebrations, and so this morning, while I watched the banners of fog retreat from the pasture, my daughter gleefully rummaged for eggs in the basket a magical bunny brought. Later, we will go look for calypso orchids, and watch the bluebirds recently returned to their favorite fenceline, and allow ourselves to remain – as Whyte says – simply astonished.


Filed under Plant of the day

Along an empty coast

It feels unsettling to drive north along nearly empty roads. Other cars are few. Puddles stand in empty pullouts, blocked by a ragtag assembly of orange cones, sandwich boards, sagging yellow caution tape.


Over the last month I have watched the activity along this stretch of coast drop off nearly inconceivably. I make this drive weekly, driving north along Highway 1, bringing essentials to a relative with COPD. Three weekends ago, the beaches were packed to the gills. By last weekend the pullouts had blocked off—yet I still lost count of the cars parked in pullouts, and people down on the beaches, flouting the closures. This Sunday beaches were deserted, the pullouts empty. Not a single car parked, and few on the move. People have finally gotten the message—stay home.

Yet the gulls still wheeled. The cormorants still perched, sentinels, on their rocky islands. Below the bluffs, the sand was unmarred by footsteps. The brilliant orange spires of Indian paintbrush are in full bloom, waving from the shelter of the coyote brush As I waited at a stoplight, looking out to sea for passing whales, I could feel to my bones how most life on this planet is untroubled by the human crisis that has come to seem all consuming.

In a flash, a dream I had years ago tumbles vividly into mind. I was approaching the Golden Gate Bridge on foot. The road was quiet—two-lane tarmac with a sunny yellow line down the middle; bright green grass grew in tufts on the verge. No cars passed. There was no plot to the dream; no climax. It was a moment, and I was happy, at ease.

It is hard to find ease in this moment in time. The emotional weight of a world anxious, suffering, and grieving simultaneously is unprecedented, and most are feeling it keenly. The last weeks have been grown harder for those of us who gain our grounding and solace from being in nature, as our access has—necessarily—been restricted. These days I am finding solace in the most unexpected places: a crow feather under the neighborhood oaks, the joy with which my daughter shows me treasures: lichen, a mushroom, a handful of grass.

And so, behind the wheel, I’m grateful for a sweet moment of understanding that the web of life keeps unspooling its grace throughout all.


Filed under Plant of the day

Mushroom Season

Fabulous Fungi - 1Mushrooms are delightful but all-too-often-unsung blooms of the winter, and this has been a great year for them. I highly recommend that you put on a raincoat right now and head for the woods, even if–maybe especially if–you haven’t paid much attention to the fungal kingdom before. Scuff around in the leaves. Look for flashes of color. Be ready to get your knees muddy. Though easy to overlook, mushrooms (and other fungi) are pretty dazzling when once you begin to notice them. There is no need to ID what you are looking at to delight in their myriad patterns, shapes, colors, and sizes–though keying can be really fun too.

Fabulous Fungi - 7This year, some of the memorable mushrooms I have seen include a tiny white parasol growing from the very tip of a cut-off branch, as if the still living tree were holding it up. There have been toadstools broader than my hand, and an orange-headed crowd gathered on a cow pie (yes, I made a political joke when I saw that one; how could I resist?). At Christmas, the woods near my house were carpeted with little delicate white mushrooms as dense as a field of spring flowers; in many places you couldn’t walk without stepping on them.

If for some reason you aren’t rushing out the door right now to go mushroom hunting, you might be interested in a field trip that the Marin Mycological Society is co-hosting on Point Reyes next weekend, along with the Marin chapter of the California Native Plant Society. Check the CNPS web page for more details. And have fun out there!Fabulous Fungi - 9Fabulous Fungi - 10Fabulous Fungi - 11Fabulous Fungi - 12Fabulous Fungi - 13Fabulous Fungi - 3Fabulous Fungi - 2


Fabulous Fungi - 5Fabulous Fungi - 6Fabulous Fungi - 14

Leave a comment

Filed under Plant of the day

Glossyleaf manzanita

arctostaphylos_nummularia 2Glossyleaf manzanita (Arctostaphylos nummularia) is a bit unassuming at first glance; not as tall or graceful as common manzanita, which I posted about a few days ago. But it still caught my eye, nestled in the scrub on a flank of Mt. Tam. The shiny, roundish leaves are often rimmed with red; the twigs look notably furred with long white hairs. And of course, there are the flowers–the classic manzanita lantern shape, though when keying note it has only four petals unlike the five-petalled type more common in this area. glossyleaf manzanita is mainly found from Santa Cruz to Mendocino counties.

I found myself reflecting today about the nuance necessary for appreciating our scrublands. I love them, but I know to many they can look like a mass of grayish green. For me, keying species–or doing nature drawings, or photography; any discipline that helps me take the time to look closely–is really helpful for starting to see the richness of this landscape. The sea of bushes is often a riot of different species, intermingled. Here is the shiny roundness of glossyleaf manzanita, there are the jagged blades of Yerba Santa, here are the fine leaves of chamise, and so on. Walking through the scrub begins to feel more like walking into a room full of old friends; each with their own personality, but still mingling comfortably.arctostaphylos_nummularia 1



Filed under Plant of the day

Common manzanita

On a hillside above the bay, the ground is covered with tiny, bell-shaped flowers so thick they look like a January snow fell here. Overhead, bees and hummingbirds are busy among the myriad blooms covering the arching, red-limbed shrubs, growing in places into low trees. This is a beautiful patch of common manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita) alongside the Turtleback Nature Trail at China Camp State Park, but is prime bloom time for this and many species of manzanita that occur throughout the area, so get out and enjoy them if you can!

This fantastic genus can be daunting to key, as the different species appear very similar at first, but the Marin Flora breaks them down so the local ones are not actually difficult (though when you go farther afield, it can get much more daunting). And even if you don’t want to key them – still go see them. Maybe bring a companion, a book, or a picnic. They are a delight, and worth spending a bit of time with. Common manzanita has a graceful, tall growth form that is particularly inviting. If you happen to be accompanied by a toddler, as I was, then you can likely spend an easy hour in the “castles” beneath their branches.

The name “manzanita” means “little apple”, and like apples, the fruits of these shrubs were once a cherished staple among local tribes. The fruit of the small berries has a mealy texture, but a lovely sweet flavor–go ahead and take a nibble next time you see some. The edible seeds were ground to make pinole, and the fruit can be crushed and soaked to make manzanita cider or jelly.

arctostaphylos_manzanita2arctostaphylos_manzanita3 arctostaphylos_manzanita4



Filed under Plant of the day

Late bloomers at Pinnacles

These were spotted during a visit in late June, so they aren’t as late as they would be if I had just seen them now. But despite my tardiness, they were too lovely not to post –

Pinnacles - 3

Wooly bluecurls (Trichostema lanatum)

Pinnacles - 4

Pinnacles - 7

Heliotrope/Chinese parseley (Heliotropium curassavicum)



Pinnacles - 5

Jimsonweed/sacred thorn apple (Datura wrightii)

Pinnacles - 6

Jimsonweed unfolding



Leave a comment

Filed under Plant of the day

Vicious little buttons

Coastal button celery - 3Coastal button celery. Sounds harmless, right? But no. Another common name–prickly coyote thistle–is much more appropriate for this diminutive but sharply armored little plant. Found on bluffs and in coastal prairie, it can spread into dense mats that are impassible to dogs and even humans. It is common on my family’s land in northern Sonoma county, and many a hike has been hampered by sandals or forlorn dogs standing motionless, an afflicted paw held up in the Coastal button celery - 5air. Once the sharp bracts have dried and hardened, it can pierce through tennis shoe fabric, and you really don’t want to fall over in the stuff. Or sit down in it. Or bring it home in the treads of your shoes, and find it later with a bare foot.

But it is a pretty little plant, and a native. Latin name Eryngium armatum, it has several cousins, many also types of “celery” with varying degrees of prickliness to them spread across California and beyond. Some of these other Eryingium look extremely similar, some notsomuch. A few of the leggier species look much more like culinary celergy does, and make the name seem less like a cruel joke. I was unable to find any references to it being edible in any way.Coastal button celery - 1

1 Comment

Filed under Plant of the day