Category Archives: Plant of the day

Buckeye bonanza

Resized_20170528_164017Look quick, the buckeye trees are putting on a fantastic show this year! Along creeks, roadsides and rocky outcrops, masses of creamy flowers are on dramatic display against a backdop of vibrant green leaves. In drier areas the flowers are already fading, though, so be sure to look for them soon–a drive through the back roads of West Marin is an easy way to spot some.

This species (Aesculus californica) is probably our most eye-catching flowering tree, with its pinkish-white spires of blooms that are popular with butterflies. I also love its gnarled limbs and graceful umbrella-like canopy, as well as the large, shiny brown nuts that ripen and drop in the fall.


Buckeyes, aka California horse chestnut, in bloom at Rancho Nicasio

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Exuberance of oaks

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Coast live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) seem to be delighting in the rainy spring–everywhere I go, trees are drenched in blossoms, a green-on-green superbloom that is just as exuberant as the wildflower displays (though much more subtle). If you start to notice them, like I have, what you are seeing are the showy male catkins. These start out pale when young and age to an olive-yellowish color; the female flowers are tiny, and hard to see even up close.

This vigorous bloom doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be a heavy acorn crop come fall, however–too much rain can suppress pollination if it comes at the wrong time.

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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: pineapple weed

Matricaria_discoideaPineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea) is an unobtrusive plant; it grows up through cracks in the sidewalk, or along hard-packed roadsides. In general the small plants are between 4 and 11 inches tall, with feathered leaves. The composite flower heads look like small yellow-green pincushions, earning the name.

This is a native to both northwestern North America and northeastern Asia.


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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: sand pygmy weed

Crassula1Here is a tiny, innocuous plant that is widespread throughout California but is verrrry easy to overlook. Diminutive sand pygmy weed (Crassula connata) only grows a few centimeters tall; usually 2-6 cm, and 10 at the most. It’s in the same family with larger succulents such as dudleya–just much smaller. Its leaves are tiny fleshy nubs that can be either green or red, and rounded or acute. The innocuous flowers are shorter than the surrounding sepals, which can be hard to distinguish from the leaves. True to its name, look for this little succulent growing in loose, sandy, or gravelly soils–often where not much else is growing.

According to the Marin Flora, this is one of many species that are native to both the western US and south America . The native sand pygmy weed is one of many similar-looking other species of pygmy weed, all of which look somewhat similar–such as water pygmy weed (Crassula aquatica) and the non-native moss pygmy weed (Crassula tillaea).Crassula2

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Plant of the day: muilla

Muilla_maritima3Delicate muilla is famous for being allium (the Latin name for the onion family) spelled backwards. And it’s true that superficially Muilla maritima (sea muilla) does look like an onion. Flowers have six dark-tipped stamens aligned tidily with six pale, tongue-shaped petals. From 4 to 70 flowers grow in open umbels on each plant. Leaves are long, narrowly strap-like. One easy way to tell that you’re looking at a muilla, not an allium, is the lack of an onion odor. Also, muilla has small bracts as opposed to the large bracts which enclose the entire umbel of flowers on young allium.

Sea muilla grows in the coast ranges and Central Valley, and down into southern California. It can be found in chaparral, coastal sage scrub, grassland, woodland, and has a loose affinity with serpentine soil. The photos here were taken at the Jepson prairie.

It is in the Themidaceae (Brodiaea family).


Sea muilla (Muilla maritima)

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Evolution: a poem

TadpolesIt’s not exactly flora, but I recently came across this sweet poem that is sure to appeal to many a naturalist. It was written by Langdon Smith, who was born in 1858: the year before Darwin published On The Origin of Species. During his life, Smith was known as a journalist and war correspondent rather than a poet–as far as anyone knows Evolution is the only poem that came out of all the many words he penned in his career. It was published not long before he died young, at age 50. Though it is a product of its time (I’m not crazy about the nod to religion at the end–and the science is either figurative, badly outdated, or both) this is still a lyrical and charming piece.

By Langdon Smith (1858-1908)

When you were a tadpole and I was a fish
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side on the ebbing tide
We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
Or skittered with many a caudal flip
Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,
My heart was rife with the joy of life,
For I loved you even then.

Mindless we lived and mindless we loved
And mindless at last we died;
And deep in the rift of the Caradoc drift
We slumbered side by side.
The world turned on in the lathe of time,
The hot lands heaved amain,
Till we caught our breath from the womb of death
And crept into life again.

We were amphibians, scaled and tailed,
And drab as a dead man’s hand;
We coiled at ease ‘neath the dripping trees
Or trailed through the mud and sand.
Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet
Writing a language dumb,
With never a spark in the empty dark
To hint at a life to come.

Yet happy we lived and happy we loved,
And happy we died once more;
Our forms were rolled in the clinging mold
Of a Neocomian shore.
The eons came and the eons fled
And the sleep that wrapped us fast
Was riven away in a newer day
And the night of death was passed.

Then light and swift through the jungle trees
We swung in our airy flights,
Or breathed in the balms of the fronded palms
In the hush of the moonless nights;
And oh! what beautiful years were there
When our hearts clung each to each;
When life was filled and our senses thrilled
In the first faint dawn of speech.

Thus life by life and love by love
We passed through the cycles strange,
And breath by breath and death by death
We followed the chain of change.
Till there came a time in the law of life
When over the nursing sod
The shadows broke and the soul awoke
In a strange, dim dream of God.

I was thewed like an Auroch bull
And tusked like the great cave bear;
And you, my sweet, from head to feet
Were gowned in your glorious hair.
Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,
When the night fell o’er the plain
And the moon hung red o’er the river bed
We mumbled the bones of the slain.

I flaked a flint to a cutting edge
And shaped it with brutish craft;
I broke a shank from the woodland lank
And fitted it, head and haft;
Than I hid me close to the reedy tarn,
Where the mammoth came to drink;
Through the brawn and bone I drove the stone
And slew him upon the brink.

Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,
Loud answered our kith and kin;
From west to east to the crimson feast
The clan came tramping in.
O’er joint and gristle and padded hoof
We fought and clawed and tore,
And cheek by jowl with many a growl
We talked the marvel o’er.

I carved that fight on a reindeer bone
With rude and hairy hand;
I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
That men might understand.
For we lived by blood and the right of might
Ere human laws were drawn,
And the age of sin did not begin
Til our brutal tusks were gone.

And that was a million years ago
In a time that no man knows;
Yet here tonight in the mellow light
We sit at Delmonico’s.
Your eyes are deep as the Devon springs,
Your hair is dark as jet,
Your years are few, your life is new,
Your soul untried, and yet —

Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay
And the scarp of the Purbeck flags;
We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones
And deep in the Coralline crags;
Our love is old, our lives are old,
And death shall come amain;
Should it come today, what man may say
We shall not live again?

God wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds
And furnish’d them wings to fly;
He sowed our spawn in the world’s dim dawn,
And I know that it shall not die,
Though cities have sprung above the graves
Where the crook-bone men made war
And the ox-wain creaks o’er the buried caves
Where the mummied mammoths are.

Then as we linger at luncheon here
O’er many a dainty dish,
Let us drink anew to the time when you
Were a tadpole and I was a fish.


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