Monthly Archives: January 2013

Plant of the day: sea lettuce

Small succulents with pointy, gray-dusted leaves cling to a rocky bluff above the ocean. This is sea lettuce, or Dudleya farinosa. Also known as powdery dudleya, its leaves can be green or a floured grayish color and often are tinted with red. The blooming flower stalks are also red, while the flowers are a bright yellow.

Various other species of Dudleya were regularly eaten raw by indigenous Californians–but so far I haven’t found any specific references about the edibility of  D. farinosa

Sea lettuce is one of the north coast’s few succulent species.  Dudleya and Sedum are the two main succulent genera around here; Dudleya species are distinguished by generally being unbranched, and by having tubular flowers and larger leaves (<3cm).

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Plant of the day: Awned haircap moss

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Haircap moss with small Polypody ferns

Awned haircap moss (Polytrichum piliferum) grows in spiky-looking cushions in dry areas such as sandy slopes, gravel, or on exposed rock faces. Look for small leaves tipped with a long clear point in order to tell it from other species of Polytrichum.

 

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Plant of the day: licorice fern

Notice the long, tapering tips on the fronds

Notice the long, tapering tips on the fronds

A fallen log is decked with soft green ferns. This is licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza)–a confusingly close relative of the much more common California polypody. Licorice fern can be identified by the tapering, pointy tips on its fronds and–at least according to one guide, Plants of the San Francisco Bay Region–the veins on the fronds are translucent (while California polypody veins are opaque and the leaf tips are rounded). As far as I can tell, both of these two polypody species have rhizomes that taste like a tart licorice–but I’ve only done my taste-tests haphazardly, and so might be wrong.

Native Americans chewed the tasty rhizomes for flavor, and also used it to treat colds and coughs, and venereal disease. Polypodium_glycyrrhiza1

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Plant of the day: Sitka willow

One of the early, sweet signs of spring is when the pussy willow buds start to emerge. This fuzzy little nubs pop out on all types of willow branches–look for them in the shrubby thickets of trees that grow along streams.

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Sitka willow (Salix sitchensis) has broad leaves that are green and leathery on top, netted with a complex tracery of tiny veins. Below they are covered with a fine white fur. Willows are abundant and versatile, and were used extensively by native tribes. Limbs were made into baskets, and bark into string. Willow bark has the same compounds as aspirin, and it was used as a painkiller–both eaten and applied topically as well. Various parts of the tree were used in many ways for cooking, such as  making a fire hearth from willow roots, drying salmon on branches, and wiping up fish slime with leaves. Shredded bark was used in baby diapers. Sitka willow was also a talisman–boughs were tied to boats for safe crossing when river water was high, and the plants were beaten with sticks to call for wind on hot days.

This willow grows throughout the west, north into Alaska and along the California coast as far south as Santa Barbara. It’s one of seven species of willow found in Marin county.

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Plant of the day: bigleaf periwinkle

You know those moments where you think you know something–until suddenly you realize you don’t? Well this happened to me recently with periwinkle. I’ve seen this shrubby, large-flowered vine my entire life, but it wasn’t until I went to key it out that I realized I didn’t know its name. And when I finally came to periwinkle I couldn’t have been more surprised. This familiar plant is periwinkle? The periwinkle of literature, of blues and eyes and dresses? I always thought it would be some delicate British daisy; instead, it’s this coarse and common invasive!Vinca_major1

The bigleaf periwinkle of real life is Vinca major, a dark-leaved vine with a milky, sticky sap. This  invasive ground cover escaped from garden plantings and now is creeping across the U.S. In California you can see it in coastal areas, foothill woodlands, the Central Valley, and even in the desert. It forms dense mats, crowding out natives, and can resprout from bits of broken stem or root–a particular problem because it likes to grow on stream banks, where it regularly gets washed away in high water, taking root wherever the broken piece lands.

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“Plant” of the day: lipstick cladonia

I’ve always been entranced with the tiny gardens–lush yet austere–that grow on fallen logs. Ferns, lichens, fungi, tree seedlings and more all fall on stumps and fallen trees. On the edge of a redwood forest is a log hosting a minute forest of lichens. Small, dusty gray-green leaves cling to the wood, while tiny upright spires rise into the sunshine. At the tip of each little trunk is a red dot: a saucy salute to the world, if one looks close enough.

This is lipstick cladonia (Cladonia macilenta), one of my all-time favorite plants. Though of course, being a lichen, it is actually a symbiotic growth of fungi and algae–and not a plant at all. It is found on dead wood, the base of trees, and sometimes on rocks. It grows on every continent in the world (with the possible exception of Antarctica); mainly in temperate to boreal regions.

 

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Plant of the day: scouring-rush horsetail

A tangle of plants like tall, green soda straws stick out of the ground on the same stream bank where yesterday’s wild ginger grows. This is scouring rush horsetail, Equisetum hyemale. It’s a cousin of the more common giant horsetail, which looks like an oversized bottle brush with wiry arms that stick straight out from a slim central stalk. But instead of looking brushlike, scouring-rush horsetail is unbranched; it consists solely of a tall, single, hollow stalk. It can grow up to nearly 7 feet tall, always in a dense cluster, spreading throughout the area by slim black rhizome.

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The stems of scouring rush are remarkably tough–if you try to break one off you’ll find it unexpectedly hard to do. Equisetum’s flexible strength is due to silicon dioxide, and native Americans used it to polish wood such as canoes, bone tools, soapstone pipes, arrow shafts, and fingernails, or to make mats and baskets; later, settlers and 49’ers used it to scrub their pots and pans. Kids used it as a whistle, and the strawlike stem was used as a straw, particularly to give medicine to infants and others.

Scouring rush tea had a large number of medicinal uses, including for irregular menses, poison ivy, bleeding, infection, kidney problems, backache, lumbago, gonorrhea, and to treat lice. It’s described by Plants for a Future as “anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, febrifuge, haemostatic, hypotensive and styptic…with an appetite-stimulating effect.”

The roots and young spring shoots were sometimes eaten; but large quantities are toxic due to the silica.

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Plant of the day: wild ginger

PAsarum_caudatum2alm-sized, heart-shaped leaves grow in a thick patch under a grove of alders on the river bank. This is wild ginger, or Asarum caudatum. The leaves and root, when crushed, release a sweet spicy smell; to me it’s not quite ginger-like but others disagree. In the old days the root was used as a substitute when ginger couldn’t be found.

Wild ginger root can be harvested year-round, but is supposedly best in the fall. The leaves can be made into a tea. Leaf and root were used both internally and externally  to treat headache, joint pain, indigestion and head colds. It was also used as a laxative, and a poultice of warmed leaves was applied to toothaches and boils.

Though these little plants are low-growing and seem fragile, they are actually an evergreen. They spread by rhizome in moist areas, forming clonal patches that are actually all one plant. This dense growth makes wild ginger a good groundcover for shady, moist native gardens–but it spread slowly, so is only for those with patience.

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Plucked wild ginger leaves showing a chunk of underground stem, or rhizome

There are several other species of wild ginger,  all in this genus, that grow elsewhere in California, but this is the only one in the greater Bay Area. It also goes by the common names of longtail wild ginger and creeping wild ginger. It can be distinguished from its cousins in several ways, such as its small reddish-brown flower whose three petals have a long, dramatic taper like a showman’s waxed moustache.

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Pepperwood in bloom!!

Though a lot of flowers are blooming right now, most of them are non-natives; of the few native blooms you might see, many are understated and easy to miss–so keep your eyes peeled! Umbellularia_californica1

Recently tiny yellow-green flowers have started to pop out on pepperwood (bay) trees, which I wrote about back in October. You have to look close to see them: six petals cupped around a cluster of stubby yellow stamens–by fall these will swell and ripen into purple, yellow, and green globes.

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Plant of the day: red flowering currant

Ribes_sanguineum1Pink cascades of flowers dangle from the nearly-bare branches of a tall shrub. This is red flowering currant, or Ribes sanguineum, an early bloomer that usually blossoms from January on throughout the spring. Up to 20 small flowers unfurl from each raceme, varying shades of pink near the end of each branch where last year’s brown twig has given rise to a new shoot of green.

The blue-black berries of this shrub are edible but not particularly tasty.

 

 

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