Sweet little phantoms

Cephalanthera_austiniae - 1It’s blooming season for phantom orchids (Cephalanthera austiniae), a lovely denizen of mixed conifer forest. If you stop to admire some, be sure to give them a sniff–they have a mild but very sweet fragrance, reminiscent of vanilla.

The lack of chlorophyll indicates that these little beauties don’t photosynthesize. Instead they are “mycoheterotrophic”, meaning they absorb nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi, which in turn gain their nutrients from nearby trees. They have earned their ghostly designation – they can remain dormant for up to 17 years, and reproduce sparingly in the wild and not at all in cultivation. The patch that grows in this location appears most years, under an open redwood/Doug fir/pepperwood canopy. Cephalanthera_austiniae - 2

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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: 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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