A blanket of color is draped across a bare cliff face above the beach. Gray-green succulent leaves–shaped like tiny sausages–form a dense mat that in turn is covered with bright pink flowers. Though the blooms look like daisies at first glance, they are actually in a totally different family (the yellow centers really are many stamens, not individual flowers). This is rosy iceplant or Drosanthemum floribundum.
Rosy iceplant has a very different look from the much more common (and invasive) iceplant, Carpobrotus, though it is in the same family. Common iceplant has large wedge-shaped leaves the size of crisp green french-fries, and the flowers are much larger. The little leaves of rosy iceplant are only about 1cm long.
This native to South Africa was originally planted to control erosion, according to the Marin Flora. It spreads easily, rooting at the stem nodes, and has expanded from large patches near Duxbury Reef in Bolinas into many other parts of Marin.
It is also known as showy dewflower
It’s easy to miss this teeny-tiny little forget-me-not (Myosotis discolor). Its flowers look just like those of its larger cousin–but they are just a millimeter across (sometimes as large as 3mm). They unfurl in a tiny, fuzzy curl and you have to look close to even see the color at all. They aren’t native–their homeland is Europe–but they aren’t particularly invasive either, and for some reason I find them delightful.
Once you train your eye to spot them they are surprisingly common, thriving in moist coastal grasslands (though from the map, their range seems to include mountains as well). Look for this little plant in all coastal states on both the east and west coast.
A single, brilliantly pink flower blooms atop a long slim stem. Each little petal is the color and shape of a valentines-day heart, with a second heart traced upon it in a line of dark fuschisa. Even more unusual, each flower looks like it’s emerging from a bulbous cocoon of papery bracts beneath.
This is wild carnation (Petrorhagia dubia), also known as windmill pink. Just like storebought carnations, this flower is in the Caryophyllaceae–or carnation–family. A good trick to tell that you’re looking at a species in this family is that the stem swells noticeably at the node where it joins the paired, linear leaves. Knowing the key diagnostic features of families, like this, is a good trick to have up your sleeve when you’re trying to key out a new plant! Some, like this one, are much easier than others.
Sadly, this striking plant isn’t native–you’ll see it growing in fields, roadsides and other disturbed habitats.
This little vetch is in full bloom right now; you can see it everywhere. Low twining vines sport one to three magenta flowers, nestled among feathery leaves.
Spring vetch (Vicia sativa) is a nitrogen fixer in the pea family that was introduced to the US from Europe and North Africa. The leaves, seeds, shoots and pods are all edible; according to Wikipedia, evidence from Neolithic sites in the Middle East suggest it was a part of the local diet of the time. It has also been reported from predynastic sites of ancient Egypt and several Bronze Age sites in Turkmenia and Slovakia. However, definite evidence for later vetch cultivation is available only for Roman times. If you trust Wikipedia, that is.
It is also known as garden vetch and common vetch.
This little plant stands along the trail like a tiny, tiered pagoda. The upper leaves are a deep purple, but despite its name, purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum, also known as henbit) doesn’t look at all dead.
The square stem and the shape of its leaves and flowers give it away as a member of the mint family. Purple deadnettle is native to Europe and Asia but has naturalized in California and many parts of the US. The young leaves are edible and used in salads and stir-fries.
Small yellow flowers spring up from a patch of strawberry-like leaves. Each bloom has five rounded petals, widely spaced around a central mound of many stamens. This is mock strawberry, or Duchesnea indica. It is native to India, and is now found scattered occasionally throughout Marin and a few other parts of California where it has escaped from garden cultivation.
The small red strawberry-like fruits are edible but not particularly delicious. The collected reviews are uninspiring, particularly when taken all together. Mock strawberry is, variously: “dry and insipid”, “certainly rather tasteless, but it is not dry”, “flavor somewhat like a water melon according to some people, but this is possibly the product of a strained imagination”, “the fruit contains about 3.4% sugar, 1.5% protein, 1.6% ash.” Ash?! Delicious. Let’s have a pie.
Romulea rosea growing among other leafy plants.
A flash of pink is nestled at ground level, surrounded by long grass-like leaves. This is rosy sandcrocus, or Romulea rosea, a South African native that is in the iris family. And though superficially it doesn’t look at all like an iris, there are certain similarities if you know what to look for.
Rosy sandcrocus has six pointed pink petals, and long linear leaves with parallel veins running all the way to the end. Beneath each flower is a slight bulge in the stem, which is actually the ovary where seeds will develop (many flowers have “superior” ovaries, which means they are snuggled in among the petals rather than below them. The “inferior” ovary is a characteristic of the iris family). Six petals, and leaves as described above, are also key characteristics of Iridaceae.
The rosy sandcrocus was first collected in Marin in 1979, and probably was accidentally brought to the area in a load of clover seed from Australia, according to the Marin Flora. In places, it takes over entire areas–looking a lot like a field of grass, except for when the pink flowers are blooming. Overall it isn’t abundant in California, and the places you do find it tend to be weedy, disturbed areas–often with dry, sandy, or compacted soils.
This little perennial sprouts from a pale, bulb-like corm.
An art-deco spire of flame colored flowers rises from a mound of leaves beside the trail. Each flower is dramatically flattened, hooded and flared. This is African cornflag, or Chasmanthe floribunda, an escapee of ornamental garden plantings. It’s not a common sight in the wild, but it is established in patches, usually on the edges of residential areas, so that it could be mistaken for a native.
This flamboyant bulb is a member of the iris family, and can superficially be mistaken for the similar-looking non-natve, montbretia (aka crocosmia). But though the color and growth pattern are similar, the flowers themselves are completely different–montbretia has open, symmetrical petals while African cornflag blossoms are narrow, curving horns that open at the mouth like a hummingbird feeder.
Swaths of yellow seem spray-painted on the landscape as I drive across Mt. Tam on Pantoll Road. This is green wattle, or Acacia decurrens, yet ANOTHER naturalized acacia.
As I keep writing about this genus, the more it seems like a game of mix-and-match. All the species look superficially similar, yet all have distinct combinations of leaf shape and flower type that make it easy to tell one from another.
The pom-pom-like flowers of green wattle remind me of those fiber optic table lamps that were popular back in the 80s: the ones where shafts of light dance up a spray of delicate filaments. There is something space-agey about these little blooms. They make a lovely sight, especially when they are fresh and surrounded by the tree’s dusky-green, feathery leaves. Each leaf is bipinnately compound, meaning the blade is divided then divided again into myriad tiny leaflets. This also is the only local acacia to have true leaves, not simply overblown, leaf-like petioles called phyllodes.
Green wattle is not native, but not listed as invasive by CalFlora. As with the other acacias, it is native to Australia. It also goes by the names wattle and black wattle–a wacky Aussie name if I’ve ever heard one!
I never knew there were so many different types of acacia! But there are, and it seems like they are all in bloom at once. Today’s plant is everblooming acacia (Acacia retinoides). This is in the pom-pom tribe–whereas the others that I’ve written about so far are in the bottle brush tribe. The flowers of everblooming acacia are tiny yellow balls of fluff. But be warned–it has cousins with very similar-looking flowers, so you need to look at the leaves to be sure which species you are seeing. Everblooming acacia has blade-shaped leaves with one prominent central vein. Except, just to confuse you, the “leaves” of almost all acacia trees are actually phyllodes–modified petioles (usually just the leaf stem) that have morphed to look like full-blown leaves. For this reason, in the key the central vein is actually called a “nerve”, which is its technically correct name.
Like the other acacias, this species is native to Australia and has naturalized into the semi-wild places near town. Unlike some species, it isn’t highly invasive and doesn’t spread far from where a parent plant once was planted–but it can be weedy on a local scale.