Alert hikers might first notice California hoptree (Ptelea crenulata) because of its sweet fragrance drifting across the trail. Both the leaves and the blossoms exude a sweet scent. This makes it a good garden plant not just for its own sake, but also because ants and other insects love the flowers, and in turn attract jays, flycatchers and other birds. Each blossom is very pretty, with 4 or 5 narrow white petals, and stamens tipped with bright yellow pollen. Look for ants happily roaming across the sprays of small white flowers.
This California endemic grows in canyons and woodlands; the distribution loosely circles the Central Valley (as you can see on this map).
California hoptree have distinctive deep green, shiny leaves divided into three leaflets. But be careful–it can easily be mistaken for another three-leafleted native: poison oak!! Both also have small white flowers, so be sure to be cautious.
Here you can see the winged achene-type fruit developing
Shiny leaves with three leaflets can superficially look like poison oak
As sunbeams filter through the redwood canopy, the understory lights up with flares of pink. This is Sonoma county’s Kruse Rhododendron State Park, and I was lucky enough to find myself there last week with the rhododendrons (Rhododendron macrophyllum) in full bloom. It’s a surprisingly beautiful sight to be in a forest of these tall shrubs when they are heavy with their large pink flowers. The effect is lovely and somehow festive–as if the woods had been decorated for a girl’s birthday party.
Pacific rhododendron can grow to 12 feet tall, and are found from British Columbia to Monterey; they are the state flower of Washington. They usually grow in under conifer forests, but you can also sometimes find them in the chaparral, according to the Marin Flora.
This plant is not edible, but it was used ceremonially by west coast tribes. The Karok used it in a sweathouse ceremony designed to bring luck; the Kashaya and Pomo people use the flowers to make dance wreaths.
Bushes of beautiful blue-purple snapdragon flowers thrive on a dry, rocky cliff. Inside are four pale stamens, two of which curl charmingly against the tube of petals. This is foothill penstemon (Penstemon heterophyllus).
This California endemic is popular for gardens as it is deer resistant, drought tolerant, hardy, and attracts butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators. The narrow, opposite leaves are quite attractive too. Plus, one source says that these plants can live up to thirty years! Amazing.
It is also known as bunchleaf penstemon.
Long stems bearing balls of pale blue flowers grow on a hot, rocky hillside. Narrow, fernlike leaves grow up each stalk. This is bluehead gilia (Gilia capitata), a hardy native to California and most other western states.
Bluehead gilia is good for sunny native plant gardens, where it self-sows and attracts bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. A member of the phlox (Polemoniaceae) family, it is also known as blue field gilia, globe gilia, and blue thimble flower.
Bush poppy was a stunning sight in a fog-soaked hike atop Mt. Tamalpais today. The brilliant yellow flowers adorn the chaparral like jewels. Each blossom can be a few inches across, with four delicate petals surrounding a slightly orange mound of stamens. The leathery, gray-green leaves also are attractive.
Bush poppy (Dendromecon rigida, also known as tree poppy) can grow up to nine feet tall, though all the ones I have seen have been much smaller. You can find it in coastal chaparral, and also in the foothills of the coast ranges and the Sierras up to 6,000 feet. It thrives in well-drained, rocky soil; I saw it along the red-dirt cut banks of the Rock Spring trail on the east side of the mountain.
The photo above, which only shows the blossom, doesn’t do this plant justice–it really is a striking shrub, especially as a splash of color in the muted tones of the chaparral.
This inconspicuous, trailing plant is one of the most prized herbs of the west coast. It has a strongly sweet, slightly minty flavor that made it valuable for both cooking and medicine. The city of San Francisco was named Yerba Buena until 1847; in Spanish, the phrase literally means “good herb”.
Yerba buena (Clinopodium douglasii) is a dainty little plant. It is widespread in the area, growing in the coastal scrub and deep under the redwoods. You can find it from Alaska to Los Angeles county. The paired leaves are a light spring green but often are tough and slightly sandpapery to the touch–though in sheltered, shaded places they can be quite delicate. In the spring, tiny white flowers appear along the stem, at the base of the leaves. It spreads from woody rhizome, but the prostrate stems also can grow roots, which is why you’ll often see it growing as a sparse, leggy mat.
The plant was used to season food, as a tea, and as a perfume; hunters would rub the leaves on their skin to disguise their odor from game. Yerba buena was taken medicinally to treat colds, fevers, pinworms, insomnia, kidney problems, toothaches, colic, upset stomach, thinness, and to become thin. It was also used as an aphrodisiac.
A mass of pale flowers grows down the center of an old ranch road like a long narrow carpet. Walk onto this carpet and you see mound after mound of white flowers with yellow centers, growing atop a heap of pale, frilly leaves. This is Douglas’ meadowfoam (Limnanthes douglasii ssp. douglasii); other subspecies are entirely white or entirely yellow.
Douglas’ meadowfoam is native to California and Oregon, where it likes to grow in vernal pools, moist fields and meadows, or along the edges of seep springs. Often you can find it growing in great masses, such as in Chileno Valley or (according to the Marin Flora) near Phoenix Lake.
Notice the carrot-like leaves
The yellow-and-white subspecies is by far the most common, and grows widely throughout northern and central California. The yellow is mainly found along the road to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, and only grows in Marin and San Mateo; the white is more widespread but still not as common. Also, keep your eyes peeled for the many other similar-looking species of meadowfoam that grow elsewhere in the state!
Broad-faced, freckled little flowers are scattered across the grassland. These are baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii), a sweet sight of spring. Each showy blossom can be up to 4 cm across, and when they grow en masse they are even more striking. In Marin, these flowers usually are a pale blue, but they can also be white–or a dark blue that fades toward white at the center.
Nemophila menziesii var. menziesii
Baby blue eyes are in the waterleaf family, along with Phacelia and yerba santa, but unlike both those species it has only one showy flower per stalk. They can grow scattered or in dense clusters, with the long-stalked blooms rising above pinnately compound leaves. Look for this bloom from southern Oregon to northern California.
Gardeners love this little annual because it can self-sow, seeding a new batch each year.
A 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.
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.
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.