Tag Archives: California

Plant of the day: mist maidens

Romanzoffia_californicaIf it looks like a saxifrage and it grows like a saxifrage, then it’s a saxifrage… right? Well, no. Not in the case of mist maidens (Romanzoffia californica). The delicate spray of white flowers rises on long bare stalks from a rosette of scalloped leaves… which is the characteristic growth pattern of the Saxifragaceae. But this little moisture-loving plant is actually in the Boraginaceae family, along with forget-me-nots and fiddlenecks.

Mist maidens are found in shaded forests and moist, rocky slopes in Oregon and northern California. You’ll almost always see them in wetlands (or wet-hills?); the Marin Flora reports that they are especially spectacular on the Tomales Bluffs, where great masses of them grow. Romanzoffia_californica2

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Plant of the day: sea lettuce

Small succulents with pointy, gray-dusted leaves cling to a rocky bluff above the ocean. This is sea lettuce, or Dudleya farinosa. Also known as powdery dudleya, its leaves can be green or a floured grayish color and often are tinted with red. The blooming flower stalks are also red, while the flowers are a bright yellow.

Various other species of Dudleya were regularly eaten raw by indigenous Californians–but so far I haven’t found any specific references about the edibility of  D. farinosa

Sea lettuce is one of the north coast’s few succulent species.  Dudleya and Sedum are the two main succulent genera around here; Dudleya species are distinguished by generally being unbranched, and by having tubular flowers and larger leaves (<3cm).

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Plant of the day: oak mistletoe

It is Christmas Eve, and bundles of yellowish-green leaves hang over the doorway–an invitation for lovers and friends to stop and smooch. According to legend, it was actually an obligation to kiss if you met under the mistletoe. A pale white berry would be plucked for each kiss that happened, until the berries were gone and the obligation was ended. Nowadays there seems to be no limit on kisses though–the berry plucking tradition has faded away.

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Of course, these bundles are mistletoe, a classic holiday ornament. There is no single species of mistletoe–it’s a general name for a group of parasitic plants that grow on trees. In Europe, the smooching mistletoe is generally Viscum album. Here in the California, the native oak mistletoe (Phoradendron villosum) is the most common holiday decoration. You can see it growing on oaks, pepperwoods and other trees throughout California. Look for a round clump of foliage on a tree limb, looking like a nest or a shadow or a strange stuck balloon. If you go closer you’ll see the leather, oval leaves and the pale greenish-white berries. The roots of the plant go straight into the branch of its host tree; the two often seem to be indistinguishable, one merging into the other rather like lovers enjoying a holiday kiss…

HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVE!!! I hope everyone is having a great holiday.

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Plant of the day: sea lettuce

Sea lettuce looks exactly like its name: ruffled, brilliant green leaves that grow in tufts from shallow rocks. It’s usually found in calm waters. There are many species of sea lettuce in the Ulva genus, and as of right now I have no idea how to tell them apart–but from what I’ve read, that’s because they are all quite similar in looks and habit.

Sea lettuce is a green alga, and is edible though sometimes a little tough and bland. Some enjoy it for salads. One warning if you are planning to eat some Ulva is that it grows particularly profusely in water that’s been “enriched” by sewage or other pollution. So if you see a dense patch of the stuff, take a close & skeptical look at the nearby landscape before you harvest it…

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“Plant” of the day: witch’s butter


In a deep dark forest, fallen and rotting logs litter the damp forest floor. Everything is still and silent. No birds sing; no deer trot across the path. The only sound is a weak wind that rustles high in the leaves. The branches are so dense that you can’t catch a glimpse of the sky; the only patch of color is a brilliant autumn leaf that has fallen on a nearby log. But wait! What is that? It’s no leaf. It glistens. It jiggles. It looks like a tiny orange brain clinging to the decaying wood.

This is witch’s butter, or Tremella aurantia. It’s a parasitic fungus–but it’s actually not feeding on the wood of the log, but on another fungus (Stereum hirsutumor false turkey tail) which in turn is feeding on the dead tan oak. The legend behind the name is that witch’s butter will grow on your gate if a witch has put a hex on you… in order to break the hex, you have to kill the fungus by poking it with pins. It is described as edible but without flavor–the kind of thing a tasteless witch might eat?

There are a few other kinds of witch’s butter that also grow in the area. The best way to tell them apart is by host and where they grow. The one featured here is found on hardwoods (like tanoak), and feeds on false turkey tails–so you’ll see some of these little fan-shaped fungi nearby on the log. It’s cousin, Tremella mesenterica, also grows on hardwoods but feeds on a spreading mold-like fungus called Peniphora. The third (Dacrymyces palmatus) grows only on wood of conifers.

Usually I’ve seen witch’s butter growing in moist forests; the one described above is a stretch of the International trail, and birds actually sing there quite often… Though you can find a silent moment if you try.

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Plant of the day: California fuchsia

It’s a treat to see a whole cliff-full of flowers blooming at this time of year–but that’s just what I found on Mt. Tam the other day. California fuchsia (Epilobium canum) is a late bloomer that you can see in scattered spots throughout the bay area.

Hummingbirds pollinate this flower, attracted by the scarlet, trumpet-shaped blooms. Other common names include hummingbird flower or hummingbird trumpet. It sports these flowers at the end of long stalks densely covered with small, slightly wooly leaves. This perennial plant can be woody at the base (the technical term for this is suffrutescent) but it is usually fairly low growing, with several sprawling stems that are around one foot long. California fuchsia is in the Onagraceae family along with other showy blooms like fireweed, clarkia, and evening primrose.

I saw it growing on a hot, southwest-facing road cut as Pantoll climbs up towards Rock Springs.


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Plant of the day: pepperwood

Scrappy and graceful, the pepperwood (Umbellularia californica, or California bay laurel) is often overlooked and underappreciated, but it’s one of my favorite trees. It can take on all sorts of forms, from skinny trunks packed close together in the understory to stoic ancient giants. Near the coast they can become windswept, so an entire stand of trees melds together into a single undulating canopy of green. They host many other species–from birds and beetles to the moss and ferns that grow on their trunks. Pepperwood often are full of cavities where critters roost or nest, and if you climb them often–as I did as a kid–you quickly learn to check the crooks of the branches for racoon scat.

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Right now the nuts of the pepperwood are beginning to ripen; inch-long orbs of green or purple or yellow peek out from among the leaves. In the early winter, tiny pale yellow flowers will begin to bloom. They are easy to miss, but worth looking for: each tiny blossom is an intricate display (see the photos above). I particularly love the decorative dots of pollen arranged on spatula-shaped stamens. The leaves are wonderful too, both to look at and eat: the distinctive peppery aroma adds a nice flavor to beans or tomato sauce.

Recently pepperwood has gotten a bad rap because it’s a vector for sudden oak death but doesn’t die from it. Some people advocate cutting down pepperwoods to protect their oaks. Perhaps this method might slow the spread of the disease–but it won’t stop it. Personally I’d rather keep the mature pepperwoods around then have to start a forest over from scratch.

I should note that pepperwood is the less-used name for this tree; but personally I think it’s much better than the staid and unevocative bay laurel. I also like the heritage of the word–it’s what my grandfather always called it, and those who use it nowadays tend to be old-time Californians. A tribe I’m happy to be in.


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Plant of the day: San Francisco gum plant

Its easy to tell if you’re looking at a gum plant. All the different species have big yellow daisy-like flowers perched atop a green nub that is studded with fleshy hooks. Before the young buds bloom they ooze a white sap that looks exactly like fresh Elmer’s glue.

San Francisco gum plant (Grindelia hirsutula var. maritima) only grows near the coast, on hills and bluffs from Marin to Monterey. I spotted these specimens on a recent hike to Chimney Rock on Point Reyes. Distinguish this plant from its cousin, coastal gumplant, because it grows on the hills instead of the salt marshes–but mainly because it doesn’t have perennial woody stems. San Francisco gum plant can vary dramatically in size, from 8 inches to nearly 5 feet. The plants I saw had hairy leaves, but according to the Marin Flora the leaves are usually hairless (aka “glabrous” in botany-speak).

Surprisingly, the Elmer’s glue doesn’t seem to have had any historical uses (that I’ve been able to unearth). But the dried leaves and buds were used to treat bronchial conditions including asthma.

Though there are three different species listed in the Marin Flora, it’s worth noting that some experts think that they all are actually part of the same species, Grindelia hirsutula.

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Plant of the day: Queen Anne’s lace

A delicate parasol of tiny white flowers is punctuated at the center with one that is dark purple. This is Queen Anne’s lace, or Daucus carota.

Though the plant looks a lot like poison hemlock, Queen Anne’s lace is actually edible–its other name is wild carrot. The roots are eaten cooked, or roasted for a coffee substitute, while the seeds are used as a flavoring. I personally have been too squeamish to try it, though the subtle details of the two plants are very different. First there is the central purple bloom. Second, wild carrot has a green stem stippled with hairs (while poison hemlock has a mottled and whitish stem).

This non-native plant is native to Europe and Asia.

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Plant of the day: coastal sagebrush

The haunting smell of sagebrush is iconic for anyone who has spent time outdoors in the west. There are many different species, and though they go by different names (sagebrush, sagewort, wormwood) the smells are all similar. It’s a pungent, spicy fragrance that speaks of campfires and starry nights and open spaces.

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Coastal sagebrush (Artemisia californica) is the only shrubby sagebrush in Marin; the species grows only in California and Baja. You can usually find it along the coast or in chaparral communities. It has narrow, linear leaves that sometimes branch like the tines of a pitchfork. The flowers are unobtrusive–small yellowish-green or reddish-green discs. The smell is classic sagebrush.

Historically, some tribes used a tea made from Coastal sagebrush as a female tonic. It was used to induce menstruation, as well as to ease and recover from childbirth. Women drank the tea at the start of their cycle, and it was fed to one-day-old newborns to cleanse their system. It was also used to treat colds, headaches, and to desensitize those suffering from hay fever. Dried leaves were smoked in a mix with tobacco, and used in sweathouses. Bundles of sagebrush branches were hung along trails leading to shrines. The wood was also used for arrows, fire sticks and windbreaks.

Dusky-footed woodrats love to eat it.

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