Tag Archives: ecology

Plant of the day: scouring-rush horsetail

A tangle of plants like tall, green soda straws stick out of the ground on the same stream bank where yesterday’s wild ginger grows. This is scouring rush horsetail, Equisetum hyemale. It’s a cousin of the more common giant horsetail, which looks like an oversized bottle brush with wiry arms that stick straight out from a slim central stalk. But instead of looking brushlike, scouring-rush horsetail is unbranched; it consists solely of a tall, single, hollow stalk. It can grow up to nearly 7 feet tall, always in a dense cluster, spreading throughout the area by slim black rhizome.

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The stems of scouring rush are remarkably tough–if you try to break one off you’ll find it unexpectedly hard to do. Equisetum’s flexible strength is due to silicon dioxide, and native Americans used it to polish wood such as canoes, bone tools, soapstone pipes, arrow shafts, and fingernails, or to make mats and baskets; later, settlers and 49’ers used it to scrub their pots and pans. Kids used it as a whistle, and the strawlike stem was used as a straw, particularly to give medicine to infants and others.

Scouring rush tea had a large number of medicinal uses, including for irregular menses, poison ivy, bleeding, infection, kidney problems, backache, lumbago, gonorrhea, and to treat lice. It’s described by Plants for a Future as “anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, febrifuge, haemostatic, hypotensive and styptic…with an appetite-stimulating effect.”

The roots and young spring shoots were sometimes eaten; but large quantities are toxic due to the silica.

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Plant of the day: coyote brush

Small white flowers are beginning to bud and bloom on a sweet-smelling bush of the chaparral. This is coyote brush, or Baccharis pilularis. For some reason that I can’t put my finger on, I find this a particularly charming plant. Its small leaves are scalloped at the edges and rough (and sometimes sticky) to the touch. On hot days, you can tell it’s nearby just from the resinous, pleasant smell.

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Coyote brush blooms in late summer and early fall, and bears its male and female flowers on separate plants (the botanical word for this is “dioecious”, as opposed to most plants which are “monoecious” and have their male and female parts on the same plant, usually in the same flower).

You can find coyote brush growing from Baja California to Tillamook County, Oregon; from coastal scrub to foothill forests. Generally its an upright shrub, but along the coast it can also grow in a prostrate form that once was (but no longer is) considered a different species.

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Plant of the day: salal

Gaultheria shallon

Salal is a familiar companion of the forest underbrush from Alaska to Santa Barbara. It is unadorned for most of the year, a simple shrub with largish (~4 inch) leathery leaves that dance up alternate sides of a slightly zig-zagged stem. In between the large veins, the leaves are traced with an intricate lacey pattern somewhat like the crease on the palm of a hand.

Small bell-shaped flowers of pinkish white appear at the tips of the stems in the early summer, and by now the dark purple fruit has ripened. Each berry is lightly hairy, and they are fairly sparse on the plant. Though edible, I have found them to be bland the few times I’ve tasted them. The leaves can be made into “a pleasant tea“, and poultices made of the leaves were traditionally applied to cuts, burns and sores. The fruit or leaves were also used to make dyes (of purple or yellow).

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Plant of the day: California hemp

A tall, sprawling bush grows in a rocky creek bed, decorated with cone-shaped heads of purple pea flowers. Plain, broadly pointed leaves are arranged in threes. Often the leaves are folded slightly towards their central vein, and also bent at a sharp angle to the stem so they look upraised, like a hand cocked at the wrist.

This is California hemp (Hoita macrostachya). This leggy plant has hollow stems and likes to live in moist places and is a good indicator of wetlands. It is found almost exclusively in California, as are the other two species in the Hoita tribe. All have purple flowers and similar leaves, but one is a creeping, low-growing plant and the other is found in serpentine chaparral, not in wetlands.

The name California hemp likely derives from this plants historic use as a textile. The fibers of its stem are strong enough that they reputedly have been used for sewing, as well as been woven into ropes or bags. A yellow dye can be made from its roots.

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Plant of the day: saltmarsh dodder

Bright orange patches dot the green swath of a salt marsh. Look close and you will see what looks like a mat of fishing line or straw. Hundreds–thousands–of narrow orange threads are wrapped tightly around bright green pickleweed stems. Copious white flowers often bloom off the threads. This is saltmarsh dodder (Cuscuta salina), a parasitic native plant that mooches nutrients off its host plant. Instead of photosynthesizing its own food, it sinks tiny root-like organs (called haustoria) into the flesh of the plant. Once it taps into the vascular system it can suck out all the water, minerals and carbohydrates that it needs.

Dodder seeds are scattered by wind, tides and animals so there is no guarantee that they will germinate near a suitable host plant. But they die if they can’t find one quickly. It sounds impossible for a  brainless, eyeless, noseless  plant to do, right? Nope–not if a host is anywhere close. They can detect the volatile compounds emitted by the host (basically, its smell) and then they grow towards it.

There are a lot of species of dodder in the US, and some of them are parasitic to some of our favorite crops like alfalfa, potatoes and petunias. Though the group is much maligned as a result, some ecologists make a case for the role that parasitic plants can play in the natural environment. Species like dodder or mistletoe don’t decimate their hosts’ population, but they do create patchiness. And in ecology, patchiness tends to lead to diversity, which is a good thing!

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Plant of the day: Indian teasel

Dipsacus sativus

The distinctive silhouette of teasel (Dipsacus sativus) is a familiar sight in the coastal parts of California. Thick, pointed bracts jut out, like splayed arms beneath the cone-shaped flower head. This structure stays standing long after the small white flowers have faded; people collect the dried stems for decoration. The spiny flower heads are so stiff they were used to card wool before metal carding combs were created!

Sadly this odd-looking plant is also a fairly nasty invasive. It can form dense chest-high thickets that are impassable to both people and animals. This European invasive likes to grow in disturbed areas: along roadways, in ditches and on grasslands. Another species, wild teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) is less common locally but more widespread throughout North America. It has pink-to-purple flowers and sharply upcurved bracts. Just to confuse things, both species also go by the common name of  Fuller’s teasel.

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Plant of the day: yellow star-thistle

A wash of prickly, pale green stems is scattered across a dry field. Yellow flowers are surrounded by a mean halo of long narrow thorns. Here is yellow star-thistle (Centaurea solistalis) one of the nastiest invasive plants around. It’s a big problem on farmland and in wild places along the west coast. It interferes with grazing, and eventually leads to permanent brain damage in horses that eat it.

Introduced in the 1850s, this thistle is now the most widespread invasive plant in California, infesting between 10 and 15 million acres in the state. A native to southern Europe, it probably first came to the US indirectly, along with alfalfa seed imported from Chile. By the early 1900s it was a serious weed in the Sacramento Valley and was spreading quickly along roads, railways, trails and streams, according to the CalIPC. “It is a thousand times as common as ten years ago, and perhaps even six years ago,” observed Willis Jepson in 1919.

Things have only gone downhill from there! And it’s not surprising why. This deeply taprooted annual invades summer-dry grasslands across most of the US. A single large plant can produce nearly 75,000 seeds, and blooms from late spring through fall. It’s largely pollinated by honeybees but doesn’t have much in the way of predators, and so it continues to spread.


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Plant of the day: moth mullein

A flash of pale yellow underneath a coyote bush. Growing up under the gray branches of the shrub is a stalk holding several pretty, broad-faced flowers. The five petals surround a hairy, reddish-pink cluster of stamens. The stamens and pistil are flamboyant: the three upper stamens are clustered together, while the lower ones–and the pistil–scoop outward, presumably an invitation to insects.

This unusually striking flower is moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria), and unfortunately it’s not a native to California. It was introduced from Eurasia and has spread across much of the United States. Other species of mullein share the distinctive hairy-ness and the unusual stamen-and-pistil pattern, but otherwise look quite different.

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Plant of the day: Himalayan blackberry

In ditches and along river banks, the berries are beginning to ripen. Great green mounds of shrubs – all leaves and thorny branches – are speckled with dark purple fruit. Younger berries are still green or red, and most bushes still have flowers on them as well.

This is the Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus), one of the most common berries around. It is also one of the only non-native invasive berries in the area. Though it’s delicious in pies, smoothies and endless other treats, this shrub can be a nasty problem for native habitats: I’ve seen it smother entire fields, leaving no space for native plants and the animals that depend on them. Usually you’ll see it in disturbed places and on poor soils. Despite the name, the bush originally came from western Europe and there is “no evidence” that it came from the Himalayas.

One nifty thing about this “fruit” is that it’s actually a bunch of small fruits – each little nub on the berry is called a “drupelet” in botany-speak.

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Plant of the day: coast hedge nettle

A spike of striking purple flowers rises from the tangle of greenery in a low wetland. Here is the coast hedge nettle, or Stachys chamissonis. This is a lovely summer bloomer that grows several feet tall and boast big showy flowers. The Flora of Marin went so far as to call this “one of our most attractive flowering plants.” High praise given the stiff competition.

Check the square stem and pairs of simple leaves for a good guess as to what family it is in!

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