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: 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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Leathery polypody

Polypodium_scouleriIt’s nothing personal, but this fern is giving you the finger.

The best way to tell leathery polypody (Polypodium scouleri) from its polypody cousins is by its thick, leathery leaves. But the second-best way is by this fern’s long central frond–shaped rather like an expressive finger. The leaf is highly variable in size, usually growing from 6 to 18 cm but sometimes as much as 50 cm long, according to Jepson. As with all Polypodium, the underside of the leaves are decorated with the velvety brown spots of fertile, spore-producing sori. The fern blades sprout from underground rhizomes are white, and not licorice flavored

I haven’t seen this fern often–this one was spotted on the Steep Ravine trail on Mt. Tamalpais. Leathery polypody (also known as leather fern or leather leaf fern) can grow in a variety of habitats, including coastal strand, coastal meadows, and redwood forest. According to Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, it’s rarely found far from salt spray.

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Bay Bloom Time Again

It doesn’t feel like winter since the days are balmy and dry, but the pepperwoods (a.k.a. California Bay Laurel) are blooming  just like usual. Pepperwood-1



Pepperwood-2Of course, I can’t help but wonder if the phenology is different at all; maybe they are blooming a few days earlier in 2013 than they did a decade ago?

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Plant of the day: tinker’s penny

Hypericum_anagalloidesI was surprised to learn that this tiny, unassuming flower is a Hypericum–which is typically a showy and large-flowered genus. And though it has a lot of stamens (15-25 per flower) compared to most flowers,  they still are comparatively sparse–some species have up to 120. Tinker’s penny (Hypericum anagalloides, or creeping St. John’s Wort) is common in wet meadows and marshes. I generally have spotted it in the gaps between clumps of rushes.

Superficially this plant reminds me of the non-native scarlet pimpernel, and the two names are similar: Anagallis arvensis and Hypericum anagalloides. I don’t know much (ok, any) Latin but I wonder if anyone out there has an idea as to why?

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Plant of the day: Sierra bog orchid

A spike of white flowers rises from the coastal grassland like a pale torch, attended by narrow green leaves. The lower lip of each small, fleshy bloom tapers into a protruding, tonguelike point.

This is Sierra bog orchid (Platanthera dilatata), which can be found from the Point Reyes Peninsula to 11,000 feet up in the Sierra. True to its name, it’s generally found in wetlands. You can distinguish it from other white orchids because it does have leaves that grow up its green stem, as well as the spurred lower lip petal. Sierra bog orchid isn’t rare in the state, but it is fairly uncommon in Marin; look for it on Point Reyes and in Potrero Meadows.

The genus Platanthera is one of the largest orchid genera in North America, with a total of 33 different species.

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Plant of the day: coast lily


A flare of orange rises above a marshy thicket. This is coast lily (Lilium maritimum), a secretive yet spectacular flower. Large orange flowers are spotted with dark brown, and each petal curves dramatically backward to the stem. Each plant can grow up to 8 feet tall, and have up to 13 flowers. Look for this Northern California endemic in wet, coastal areas.  In Marin, it is only found in a handful of places on the Point Reyes Peninsula. It’s a perennial, sprouting from a bulb-like rhizome, so once you find one you can go back and visit it each year.

Coast lily can potentially be confused with the more common tiger lily (which it hybridizes with) but you can easily tell the two apart because the first has short stamens tucked well inside the flower, while the second has long stamens that dangle prominently below the bloom.


Coast lily in the coastal scrub


Detail of recessed stamens

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Plant of the day: sticky navarretia

Navarretia_viscidula2-2 Small purple flowers sprout from hairy, spiny tufts of green–a splash of color on a dry hillside. This is sticky navarrettia (Navarretia viscidula), a California endemic.

There are many species of navarretia, which are generally white, pink or purple. While many can be found in wetlands, this species is one of those that tends to prefer dry habitat.

This is a member of the Polemoniaceae family, along with the similar-looking linanthus species. Navarretia seeds were used by indigenous Californians for food.Navarretia_viscidula

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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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