This gooseberry is a prickly delight. From its elegant branches to its troublesome little berries, Ribes menziesii has a lot of character. The berries are edible–and yummy!–but you have to get past the spines to enjoy them. There’s no easy way to do this; you can try peeling with a pocket knife or just chewing carefully. I’ve also tried popping them with my teeth first, before chomping down. This seems to work the best, but you’re still bound to get prickled a few times.
Overall this plant is better for looking at than for eating, especially in spring and summer. The thorny branches sport scalloped green leaves on gracefully arching branches, and in the spring it puts out masses of small lantern-shaped flowers that bees love.
Gooseberries are a type of currant, and some of the local wild species (spreading gooseberry, flowering currant) are spineless–as are their store-bought cousins. In addition to the canyon gooseberry featured here, there are some other spiny species around as well (California gooseberry and Victor’s gooseberry). You can tell them apart because the first has smooth, hairless leaves and the second has shorter spines on the fruit that are all about the same length.
Long beaked stork’s bill is a ubiquitous sight in the fields of the bay area. This invasive little weed and its cousins, other types of stork’s bills, have naturalized across most of California. The long beaked stork’s bill (Erodium botrys) is distinctive because of the particularly long, beak-like seed pod, but also because of its leaf – it is the only one with a long narrow leaf that isn’t actually dissected into separate leaflets.
There are several species of wild geraniums with flowers that look quite a bit like those of stork’s bills – small, pinkish-purple. Again, look to the leaf to know what plant it is. The geraniums (sometimes called crane’s bills) have deeply dissected leaves that are overall roundish in shape. In other words, if you drew a line around the outside of the leaf, ignoring the details, you’d come up with a circle as opposed to the overall tongue-shaped leaves of the stork’s bills. The wild geranium petals are usually notched at the end, giving them a toothed look. Almost all of the wild geraniums are also invasive, with a few exceptions.
Like a handful of precious jewels scattered on a rocky slope, this flower is easily missed but well worth a closer look. With single flowers spread out on a long, leafless stalk they can blend into the background. Each blossom is gathered at the base into a balloon that reminds me of the bell-shaped skirts at an old-fashioned ball. At the mouth, the four petals crinkle and flare outwards from a purple-tinged mouth. This is Streptanthus glandulosus ssp. Secundus. The ssp means “subspecies” – a lot of times this designation refers to very subtle differences within a species that a casual botanist isn’t interested in. But in this case, it means this flower is white while the others are dark purple. There are several different jewelflowers in the area, distinguished by their distinctive pouchlike shape, but this is the only white one listed in the Marin Flora.
Jewelflowers are in the same family (Brassicaceae) as the common wild mustards and radish weeds that grow all over, but their signature blossoms are different from most members of this group, which have simple four-petalled flowers. Milkmaids are a good example of a classic brassica.
The views are amazing on this high rocky ridge, and so are the plants. Dense stands of chaparral suddenly open onto stony serpentine outcrops supporting those hardy plants that can survive on such nutrient-poor soils. Right now ceanothus and manzanita are in bloom, and there are scattered meadows filled with wildflowers – goldfields, poppies, lupine, falselupine, and many more.
Get to Pine Mountain by driving up Bolinas-Fairfax road. The ridge runs northwest from a big turnout – you can walk all the way in to the San Geronimo Valley from here, on a wonderful network of trails and through a lovely rare forest of dwarfed Sargent cypress. There are no roads or houses in this area, and so as you walk often all you see is a tangle of forested ridges and valleys. And when you turn around and head home, you get sweeping views of the bay, the Richmond bridge, and Mt. Tam!
If you’re an outdoorsy type who somehow has not been up on the Marin Municipal Water District lands yet, I can’t recommend it enough. If you’ve been to Phoenix Lake or the back side of Mt. Tam, you’ve been on part of their 18,000 acres of watershed land without realizing it. I like to go in the Sky Oaks entrance, where you have the choice of walking by one of the many reservoir lakes, heading down a sociable fire road, or cutting off onto one of the many small trails to be (mostly) alone with some spectacular nature. There are 130 miles of trails and fire roads on MMWD land, so you can spend a LOT of time there. Today I went out the Pumpkin Ridge Trail, which passes in and out of live oak forest that is interspersed with meadows. The forest is in sad shape these days because of Sudden Oak Death, so dead branches litter the
ground. But the understory was still vibrant, with lots of iris and houndstongue. And the meadows are lovely – filled with wildflowers at this time of year. Along the way I embarrassed myself by not being able to remember the Latin names of miniature lupine, blue-eyed grass, or California poppy (which I even wrote about yesterday!). Those are Lupinus bicolor, Sisyrinchium bellum, and Eschscholtzia californica, by the way.
I took my dogsitting charges and headed out into the hottest day of the year so far, out onto the Cascade Canyon Open Space preserve in Fairfax. There were lots of flowers in bloom, most of them very common. My list that I came home with had 34 plants on it, and I could only provide full Latin names for three – three! Pepperwood (Umbellularia californica), madrone (Arbutus mensiezii) and Douglas iris (Iris douglasii). It’s true that for many others I could at least come up with the genus name – but still, this is worse than I thought it would be.
There was one plant that I couldn’t identify at all until I keyed it out, and so that is my plant of the day. It turned out to be Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla). Read all about it in the next post.