Monthly Archives: June 2012

Plant of the day: ramping fumatory

This twining, white-flowered plant seems unobtrusive but it is also very distinct. When I first saw it, I knew that I had never seen it before – and it turns out that isn’t surprising. White ramping fumatory (Fumaria capreolata) is a mildly invasive species that is slowly spreading throughout the state. I first saw it in Sutro Forest, and since have seen it regularly in Bolinas. Right now it’s only found in a handful of counties up and down California. The only other states it is found in are New York and Florida.

Its diminutive white blossoms are tipped with a dark brownish red, and delicate three-parted leaves are spread sparsely along twining stems. Despite somewhat pea-like flowers, fumatory is actually in the Papaveraceae family – a diverse group that also hold both poppies and bleeding hearts!

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Plant of the day: California spikenard

Here is a big, tall plant of the shadows. Smallish, round tufts of flowers are surrounded by large jagged-edged leaves. The unopened flowers are particularly beautiful – they look like a sculptor’s version of the childhood game of Jacks.

Usually this plant, which grows up to nine feet tall, is found in deep shady woods. I saw it deep in the Mt. Tam watershed, growing on a hillside among redwoods and tanoaks. California spikenard (Aralia californica) is in the ginseng family, and is used by herbalists as a tonic. The roots (and sometimes other parts of the plant) were used extensively by various Native American tribes to treat a wide variety of ailments from cancer to fainting to stopping periods. Most commonly it seems it was used to prevent skin infection, or as a tonic for colds. It has also been called elk’s clover or prairie sagewort.

Spikenard in fruit (September)


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Plant of the day: soaproot

For most of the year, soaproot is an innocuous plant. A tuft of narrow leaves grows straight from the ground like a bouquet of wavy, pale green ribbons. But in bloom they’re a spectacular sight! A long, branched stalk shoots up from the center of the leaves, with white flowers scattered along it like stars. Six long but very narrow petals bend backwards, with six long sepals rising surrounding a long slender pistil. The flowers are delicate but large, and striking enough that I saw them while driving and pulled over for a closer look.

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One reason that I haven’t seen this little agave-family lily in bloom more often is that it only opens in the early evening, and closes again in the morning. The flower stalk can grow up to seven feet long, but is delicate enough that it’s easy to miss when the flashy flowers are closed.

Chlorogalum pomeridianum, also known as amole, star lily, soap lily, or soap plant contains saponins and was traditionally used as its name suggests. The crushed bulb foams up nicely and was used to wash hair, bodies and anything else. The plant was also used in fishing, since saponins are toxic to ichtyoids. The crushed bulb would be tossed into a stream, and soon the hapless fish could be scooped out.

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Plant of the day: candy flower


Leggy stalks sprawl at the base of an oak tree, or single plants grow scattered under some rushes. Candy flower, or Claytonia siberica, can have several different growth forms depending on where it is – and how old it is. The five petals are white or pale pink, and striped with a darker pink (I wonder if the name candy flower came from the classic uniform of the “candy stripers”?)

You can tell by looking at the fleshy leaves that this is a close relative of miner’s lettuce, though they don’t have the distinctive circular form. Instead, there is usually just one set of paired leaves, and a long stalk of flowers that rises above that. Candy flower prefers to grow in swamps or on moist slopes. Even if the ground doesn’t look wet, it’s a good indicator that there’s moisture around at least part of the time.

Candy Flower

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Plant of the day: phantom orchid

A stark white stalk of flowers catches a beam of sunlight in the woods of Sonoma’s coast range. This dense cone of blooms is completely white; the only color is a pale yellow smudge on each flower’s bottom lip. Phantom orchid, or Cephalanthera austiniae, is the only orchid in North America that has no chlorophyll at all.

No chlorophyll means it can’t make its own food, so the phantom orchid has to steal all of its nutrients from other plants. There are a variety of different ways that plants do this, but the phantom orchid uses fungi as go-betweens! There’s no direct contact between the orchid and its host plant (in this case, actually, the dead plants rotting on the forest floor). Instead, the tiny fibers of the fungus enter the roots of the host plant and pass nutrients along to them. I’m not yet sure what they get out of the deal, but it’s pretty nifty. The technical term for this is “mycoheterotrophic”.

As far as I know this striking orchid doesn’t grow in Marin, but you may see it when you’re hiking in Sonoma and the northern counties, or down in areas around Monterey as well.


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Plant of the day: wintergreen

Under the shade of a redwood grove, slender red stalks rise leafless from the duff. Flowers are scattered sparsely along the stalk, with those toward the bottom opening first. Five pink petals nod toward the ground. If you look underneath, you’ll see an oddly curved pistil surrounded by yellow-dusted stamen.

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This is Pyrola picta, or wintergreen. I saw it in Sonoma County, but it grows in almost all parts of the state – and in all states as far east as South Dakota. There are other types of Pyrola, but none that have been found in the bay area. In many places it has a handful of dark green leaves at its base, but around here it is almost always leafless. It also is often white instead of pink.

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Plant of the day: ice plant

On a trip to the ocean, I wade through a thick reddish-green mat of rubbery plants to get to the beach. The ankle-high leaves are spiky and break off under my feet with a crunch. Large yellow flowers are scattered across this green carpet, each with hundreds of skinny petals surrounding a nest of pollen-dusted stamens. This is Carpobrotus edulis, one of several kinds of iceplant in the area. None are native.

The fruit of Carpobrotus edulis, as its name suggests, was traditionally eaten back in its original territory of South Africa. It was deliberately brought to California, planted to bind coastal soils together and help stop erosion. It does seem to be successful at that job – you can see it growing on beaches and even in colorful tapestries drooping over the edge of cliffs. However, it’s another good intention gone wrong since it has turned out to be highly invasive; an “ecological bulldozer,” along the lines of broom, that wreaks havoc on the delicate dune ecosystem. All the species of ice plant look at least somewhat similar, though not all of them are closely related (there are five species in four different genera, with the two types of Carpobrotus being the most common around here, as far as I can tell).


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Plant of the day: Tangier pea

Lathyrus tingitanus

Showy pink blossoms, delicate fragrance and winding tendrils – it’s sweet pea season. I’ve been seeing them growing along roads and trails, in gardens, and in bouquets on people’s tables or shop counters. This is an invasive species that it’s hard not to love – a guilty botanical pleasure!

As with yesterday’s plant, this is one where I learned more than I bargained for in the identification. I had naively assumed that there was only one type of sweet pea and that every time I saw that distinctive pink blossom it was the same species. Wrong again! There are several different kinds, and also some native species with paler pink blooms, so you have to look close. Tangier pea, or Lathyrus tingitanus, has the winged stem, two-parted leaves and large, deep pink flowers that mark it as one of the non-native species. You can tell Tangier pea from sweet pea because it is an annual, and also because it only has two or three blossoms per stalk.

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Plant of the day: yellow bush lupine

Despite the obvious, these pretty purple-flowered shrubs are indeed a yellow bush lupine. This was news to me! I didn’t even realize the two color types were the same species until I went to look up the Latin name. After all, I was sure I already knew the common name: purple bush lupine, right?

Wrong. No such plant exists, according to the field guide. So I turned to the key—and couldn’t find it! The darn thing kept keying out to yellow bush lupine (Lupinus arboreous). There are other purple, shrubby lupines (silver lupine and dune bush lupine) but both have distinctively hairy upper petals. This one didn’t. I’m embarrassed to admit that it took a long time for me to read through to the second page of the yellow bush lupine species description where I found the explanation: “It is usually yellow, but always yellow-flowered in the dunes and blue-flowered in the coastal scrub, bishop pine forest, and elsewhere.” The species is also sometimes called coastal bush lupine, which I think is a much better name!

Whatever their name and whatever their color, these lush shrubs dish out fragrant towers of  blossoms. They can grow to be as tall as a person, though often are knee height or lower: spreading mounds of silky-haired, fan-shaped leaves. Look for them on sand dunes and hillsides from Washington state to San Diego. They cling to cliffs and roadsides and are very popular among insects—and rodents too! Each plant produces hundreds of seed pods that our furry friends love to munch.

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Plant of the day: coast buckwheat

Like the pink pom-poms of an elfin cheerleader, coast buckwheat tosses little bursts of color alongside the trail. The flower heads range from fuschia to pale pink atop a grayish stem. The buds are the darker pink, and the heads turn pale as they open to reveal the lighter petals and the curious long antenna of stamens. All the leaves are gathered in a cluster at the base of the long stems.

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Coast buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium) can be found all along the coast of California. It prefers to grow along exposed dunes, mesas, bluffs and coastal hills. It’s a member of the buckwheat family, or Polygonaceae. There are 125 different species of Erigonum in California, though only four are listed in the Marin Flora as growing in this county. In general, the group is distinguished by having clustered heads of small flowers atop a long stem that grows out of a basal mound of leaves. The five-petaled flowers generally have obvious stamens, like this species does, but sometimes the heads of flowers are smaller.

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