Monthly Archives: March 2013

Plant of the day: Eastwood manzanita

A hillside is covered in a thick tangle of shrubs with slim red-barked trunks. These trunks are gorgeous, often growing close together and brilliant in the shadow of the dense foliage above. The deep red bark is so smooth that it looks like an artist has carved it from red clay; the curves and lines somehow remind me of strong human arms.

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There are nearly a dozen species of manzanita growing in Marin County alone–and superficially they all look very similar, with red trunks; clusters of small lantern-shaped white flowers; and rounded and leathery leaves. They are a critically important part of California’s chaparral ecosystem.

Eastwood manzanita (Arctostaphylos glandulosa) has little, leaflike bracts that grow interspersed with the flowers of each cluster. This species resprouts after fire (which historically was very common in the chaparral) and at ground level it forms a flattened, platform-like burl which grows as it ages. Though sometimes this feature can be hidden under the duff. And lastly, the leaves have flat margins and look the same on both upper and lower surfaces. If a manzanita has all of these characteristics then you’re looking at an Eastwood. They often are hairy, but the species is very variable and as far as I know this isn’t a diagnostic feature.

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Plant of the day: English daisy

Bellis_perennisYou’ve seen them everywhere. Small white daisies that dot lawns and meadows; many narrow white petals surrounding a bright yellow center. Sometimes the petals–each actually a separate ray flower–take on a purplish hue. They grow low to the ground and are perfect for daisy chains.

This is English daisy (Bellis perennis), a widely naturalized species that was originally from Europe. It tends to grow in moist, grassy areas.

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Plant of the day: cretan brake

Pteris_cretica1“What fern is that?” I thought to myself while hiking on the Steep Ravine trail. It looked sort of like a five finger fern… but without the leaflets. I couldn’t find it in any of my books, so I turned to a botany geek friend–and a day later got an email identifying it as the non-native fern Cretan brake (Pteris cretica) and referring me to the Marin Flora. Which does, indeed, have a reference to one collection of this fern–in 1985, on the Steep Ravine trail.

I guess it’s happy there.

Though this isn’t a plant you’re likely to see often while out hiking, it is an example of how fun sleuthing out plants can be. For tricky species it’s helpful to have a good, diverse collection of field guides (since each gives a slightly different description)–but having other people to consult with is invaluable.

Incidentally, a Cretan is from the Isle of Crete–which this fern may or may not be; the flora says its usual distribution is pan-tropical, and widely cultivated, but that its original range is uncertain.  It is not to be confused with the cretin brake, which isn’t from Crete but is just somewhat ill-behaved.

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Plant of the day: California sword fern

Polystichum_californicum2This elusive little fern is a rare sight in this area, unlike its common cousin, western sword fern. I’ve been looking for it for a while and was delighted to spot it recently, growing in a canyon among many other species of ferns.

California sword fern (Polystichum californicum) has leaflets that are deeply serrated but not cleft all the way to the midvein. The leaves have a slightly leathery, tough feel to the touch when compared with more frail wood ferns, lady ferns, bracken ferns, and the like. They also lack the prominent thumb or hilt that points dramatically towards the tip of some other sword ferns (though the upper lobe closest to the central stem is somewhat enlarged).

California sword ferns are endemic to California, and grow in the shade of deep canyons, as well as wet places near cascades and streams, according to the Marin Flora. The plant photographed here was seen along the Steep Ravine trail on Mt. Tamalpais.

For many years I didn’t know that there were other species of sword fern other than the abundant and lovely western sword fern. But there actually are four species in the Bay Area. In addition to California sword fern, the others are: western sword fern, whose leaves are only very slightly serrated; its smaller but quite similar cousin, rock sword fern; and Dudley’s sword fern, which resembles California sword fern but has pinnae that are so deeply serrate that they become separate leaflets–or fully tripinnate–at the base (or, as the key puts it, “pinnae pinnate; pinnules stalked”).

According to the key, California sword fern is a species resulting from an original hybridization between western sword fern and Dudley’s sword fern. Polystichum_californicum1

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Plant of the day: redwood violet

Viola_sempervirensA mat of green, heart-shaped leaves march along the side of a steep hillside, punctuated here and there with bright yellow blossoms that seem to glow in the shade of the forest. These are redwood violets (Viola sempervirens). These little flower grow from a creeping stem that sends out rooting stolons, which then grow a new rosette of leaves.

There are a couple of other species of yellow violets in the Bay Area so be sure to check a key before deciding which you’re looking at. Only one other species has heart-shaped (cordate) leaves, but it can easily be distinguished from redwood violet because the stems are upright (not creeping) and the leaves are located on the stem, right below the flower.

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Plant of the day: Pacific trillium

Three green leaves surround three white petals surround a cream-colored, three-parted pistil–each part offset from the other to form a lovely pattern. The whole thing sits perched atop a slim stalk like an elaborate parasol. This large, striking flower is Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum, also known as wake robin). Ankle-high groves of it are in bloom along the steep ravine trail on Mt. Tamalpais; a stunning sight beneath the towering redwoods: beauty above and beauty below.

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This low-growing perennial thrives on shady hillsides and other places that stay moist but are well drained. Trillium is a member of the Melanthiaceae (the false hellebore family, which is a close relative of the lily family) and like lilies it has all of its parts in sets of three, including six yellow stamens. The white flowers turn purple as they age. Each year a fresh stalk sprouts from an underground rhizome.

The plant was used medicinally by various Native American tribes, but only externally–as far as I can tell. An infusion made from the roots was used as a wash for sore eyes, and to treat boils. The Skagit considered it poisonous.

Trillium has also been used as a love potion–the Makah tribe would apply a poultice made of pounded roots as a love medicine; unfortunately my reference doesn’t say what the desired result is, or where the poultice is applied.

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Plant of the day: large-flowered fairy bells

Cream-colored flowers dangle from a stalk of broad leaves. These are large-flowered fairy bells (Prosartes smithii).

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The plants were used as a love medicine.

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Spectacular salmonberry

Flamboyant pink blossoms decorate the berry canes growing alongside a shady creek. This is salmonberry–a plant graced with both tasty fruit and beautiful flowers. The open-faced blooms have five delicately crinkled petals surrounding a pale cluster of stamens and pistils.

The berries ripen in the fall, and can be eaten raw or in pies or jellies (they are considered too seedy for jam). These attractive plants are nice in a garden, though should be placed carefully as they can get spindly and are also favored by deer.

While researching this plant I was delighted to learn that there are ailments brought on specifically by excess salmon consumption! I don’t know what these ailments are, but indigenous tribes considered the bark of salmonberry to be an excellent treatment for them. The bark was also used to disinfect wounds and (brewed, powdered or poulticed) to relieve pain, headaches, burns, toothaches, labor pain, and sores. The Kwakiutl tribe also encouraged childrens’ growth by applying chewed salmonberry sprouts to the top of the kids heads.

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