Category Archives: Native

Plant of the day: cardinal catchfly

Cardinal catchfly

Cardinal catchfly

Crimson flares from the underbrush. Cardinal catchfly (Silene laciniata) is such a bright red that it messes with the eye a little bit; the flowers pictured here seemed especially bright when spotted in the serpentine chaparral on a foggy Mt. Tamalpais hike.

This glorious little native is in the Caryophyllaceae family, which also houses the classic carnation. But the intense color and extravagant petals that are lobed into a fine fringe put the tame storebought blooms to shame. It grows throughout California, and ranges south as far as Texas. Native Americans used it medicinally as a poultice for burns and ant bites (as well as a treatment for mad dog or coyote bites).  Silene_laciniata-2 Silene_laciniata-3 Silene_laciniata-4 Silene_laciniata

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Plant of the day: California hoptree

Ptelea-4Alert 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





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Plant of the day: California ponysfoot

Dichondra_donelliana2California ponysfoot is a low, mat-like plant that is a common sight on lawns and meadows–but you might not have noticed it. The round, slightly fuzzy leaves of this ponysfoot (Dichondra donelliana) are about the size of a quarter, and are easily overlooked as they blend in with clover and grass. In fact, its lookalike cousin Dichondra carolinensis is sometimes planted as a lawnlike groundcover in southern states. The creeping stems root easily at the leaf nodes and help them spread.

If you find yourself in a patch of ponysfoot, part the leaves and look close to the ground. You may be rewarded with the sight of the diminutive, pale-petalled flowers with pretty purple anthers. I took these pictures a few weeks ago, but we’re nearing the end of the season: they mainly bloom in winter months, January through March.

California ponysfoot is endemic to the state of California. There are two other species of Dichondra listed in the state; however California ponysfoot is the only one that is common in the northern and central parts of the state.Dichondra_donelliana3 Dichondra_donelliana1Dichondra_donelliana1
(This is an updated version of a post I first wrote in January 2013, since I finally got some good photos of the ponysfoot flowers).

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Plant of the day: common fiddleneck

From a distance, certain pastures have a tinge of orange atop the green of spring grass. If you stop for a closer look, you’ll see millions of small orange flowers unfolding on coiling stalks. This is most likely common fiddleneck (Amsinckia intermedia), also known as rancher’s fireweed, which can be found growing across much of the state.

This is a gorgeous flower en masse; there is something particularly beautiful about the way it captures the sunlight. Part of this effect might be because each coiled stem is densely covered with bristly white hairs that give the plant the appearance of a halo when the light is right. I saw this particular display on the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road in Marin, around the intersection with Hick’s Valley Road.

Common fiddleneck is in the Boraginaceae family, along with common borage, popcorn flower, houndstongue, and forget-me-not. There are numerous species of fiddleneck–orange and otherwise–so you have to look close & use a key to know which is in front of you. This species has sepals that are NOT partly conjoined; it also often has small darker orange or red dots on its five petals.





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Plant of the day: Johnny jump-up

Viola_pedunculata2Bright bunches of pansies grow in a grassy meadow. They sport classic yellow flowers, decorated with blackish-purple lines. This is Johnny jump-up (Viola pedunculata), a large native violet also known as California golden violet or yellow pansy. Johnny jump-ups are mostly found in the grasslands of western central and southern California, as well as in woodlands and coastal scrub. Unlike many violets, their leaves are ovate rather than classically cordate or heart-shaped.

Johnny jump-ups can often be confused with the much more widespread goosefoot violet (Viola purpurea)–but it has larger flowers (generally 1 to 2 cm), more uniformly ovate leaves, and the expert eye will note that it also lacks the cleistogamous* flowers of the goosefoot.




*Cleistogamous flowers never open, and pollinate themselves. The opposite–a “normal” flower–is chasmogamous; hence, opening (like… a chasm?). There’s a good description and some photos of cleistogamy in violets on this web page.

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Plant of the day: lizard tail

Eriophyllum_staechadifolium-2A low, mounded bush clings to a rocky seaside hill–covered in yellow flowers. This is lizard tail (Eriophyllum staechadifolium). Abundant flowers grow in dense clusters. Each daisylike bloom sports 6-9 “petals” or ray flowers–or else no ray flowers at all. The whole bush seems tinted gray by a wooly coating of small hairs; perhaps the color lends the name since the shape of the narrow, forked leaves don’t resemble a lizard’s tail at all.

This California endemic is rewarding because it some plants put out a few flowers even in the off-season, adding a splash of color to fall or winter hikes (though its main blooming season is in the spring). Look for it along the coast throughout most of the state. It has a few close cousins in our area, namely wooly daisy and golden yarrow–but the first grows each yellow daisy on a single stalk, while the second is mainly found inland (and has fewer petals).Eriophyllum_staechadifolium


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Plant of the day: serpentine monardella

Did you ever have a toy troll as a kid? Probably not, but for some reason blooming monardella remind me of those little plastic creatures with a fantastic tuft of colorful hair. If only they came in green, the image would be complete!

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All mondardella species look very much alike at first glance: a crown-like tuft of small purple flowers perches atop a mounded head of buds. The leaves are the easiest way to distinguish serpentine monardella (Monardella purpurea) from its more common cousin, coyote mint. Serpentine monardella has hairless, glossy leaves with shallow veins. The veins of coyote mint are stamped deeply into the flesh of the slightly- to very-hairy leaf, as if by a heavy weight.Monardella_purpurea-4

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Plant of the day: reddened Clarkia

Clarkia_rubicundaClarkia are a lovely and varied group of flowers–there are seven different species that are listed for Marin alone. These four-petalled beauties are almost always pink, and often look very similar to one another. They are often generically simply dubbed Clarkia, or Farewell to Spring.

If you look close, reddened Clarkia (Clarkia rubicunda) are distinguished from their cousins by having ordinary petals that aren’t dramatically narrowed. The flowers are either solid pink or have a red splotch at their base (but not elsewhere). Their unopened buds are erect, not drooping, and the young, long seed pods are notched with four distinct ribs. Luckily, each stalk bears several flowers that open consecutively, so in a patch it is often realistically feasible to find both these diagnostic traits at the same time.


Reddened Clarkia has flower buds that don’t droop


Four-ribbed seed pod

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Plant of the day: alum root

Heuchera_micrantha-3Tall, delicate sprays of tiny white flowers bloom from a shaded crevice of rock. Large scalloped leaves grow abundantly around the base of each stem. This is alum root (Heuchera micrantha), a member of the saxifrage family that was used for a wide variety of medicines by native Californians.

The minute flowers are lovely and intricate, with thin narrow petals that curl backwards around the white sepals like ribbons on a gift. Long white stamens are tipped with rust-red anthers.

The root of alum root was taken for sore throats, boils and liver troubles. Roots and leaves were chewed up and spat onto the skin, or mixed into a poultice along with Douglas fir sap, as a topical treatment for wounds. Leaves and stems were pounded and rubbed on the scalp to make hair grow, and also eaten for food–either boiled or steamed.  Heuchera_micrantha-2Heuchera_micrantha

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Plant of the day: pitted onion

Allium_lacunosumPitted onion (Allium lacunosum) is a small wild onion.  Flowers can be white or pale pink, and have dark veins running down the center of each petal. low-growing, reaching just over one foot at its highest. It generally has two long slim leaves, either cylindrical or flat, that often are longer than the stem; sometimes these die by the time the flower is in bloom, so it can appear virtually leafless.

Marin County is the northern limit of this California endemic; it ranges from the coast to the mountains and can be found across much of the southern part of the state. All parts of it were sometimes eaten for food by indigenous Californians. Allium_lacunosum-2

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