Beautiful deep-blue flowers top tufts of green on an alpine slope. The vase-shaped blossom spreads into five gracefully rounded petals at the mouth; each petal is dotted with pale yellow spots that fade into green deeper in the throat of the flower.
This is explorer’s gentian, or Gentiana calycosa, another high-elevation beauty (also called the Ranier gentian, or the Ranier pleated gentian). It likes cold climates and wet soil near streams or in low meadows (although I saw it outside this typical range, growing on an exposed and rocky slope, so this can happen as well). Bees and other insects love to rummage in it’s deep flowers, and it has been cultivated as an ornamental. In the Bay Area, you can keep your eye out for the similar-looking pleated gentian (Gentiana affinis), a cousin that prefers low elevation.
This yellow-flowered plant grows everywhere on the east side of the Sierras, like a weed. But how can any weed be this beautiful? The pale yellow blossom is as big as my palm, with long delicate petals, and a spreading bouquet of yellow stamens rises from the center. Five skinny “petals” that alternate with the wider ones are actually modified stamens that don’t produce any pollen. This extravagant bloom is surrounded by long green sepals that peek out from between the petals. With a pale stem and scalloped green leaves, the entire package looks like a carefully wrought floral display. Yet nature did all of the arranging.
Giant blazing star (Mentzelia laevicaulis) can be found across much of California and across all of western North America. Despite its delicate looks, this beauty loves high heat and rocky habitats. It was also used by many native tribes for everything from skin wash to gravy. Roots were used to treat arthritis, earaches, bruises and fever. An infusion made from the leaves was used for stomachaches and skin disease. The gravy was made from fried seeds and water.
Flamboyant white flowers are scattered across a sagebrush plain. Prickly poppy, or Argemone munita, has the large papery-thin petals–stark white around a brilliant yellow center. Insects flock and feed among the many yellow stamens. The whole plant has abundant gray-green leaves that are prickly to the touch, and stands as tall as my knee. It is truly a beauty! But you won’t see it in the Bay Area; it grows across the west but only between 4,000 and 8,500 feet. If you see a similar flower at low elevation, you’re probably looking at one of this bloom’s lovely cousins, such as the Matilja poppy.
White heads of flowers dot the unmowed ball field like cotton balls scattered freely. But look close and the blooms are not at all cottony; this is a clover, each head a cluster of dozens of small pea-type flowers. The leaves are distinctively bisected with a faint crescent line that looks like a watermark, or the pattern left behind on paper that was soaked and then dried.
Everpresent in lawns and weedy berms, white (Trifolium repens) clover is one of the most common (and dare I say overlooked) plants around. Rare, shy, or temperamental flowers are a treat to find and behold–but I also like to take the time to get to know the species that are so common that they are easy to ignore. This little European invader is certainly one of those. But it turns out that not only is it a favorite snack for livestock, but humans can eat it too! Young leaves can be used in salads or soups, or it can be cooked like spinach. Dried flowers and seed pods have been ground into a high-protein flour that can be used on its own or as a garnish. The plant can be boiled for a tea, either just because its tasty or as a traditional Cherokee treatment for fever. Roots can be cooked and eaten, and evidently the leaves give baked goods a vanilla-like flavor. Who knew.
Masses of yellow flowers are blooming beside the lagoon. Bees swarm over the blossoms, rummaging for pollen in their daisy-like centers. Nearby, white goo that looks like Elmer’s glue coats the younger, unopened buds. The green bracts surrounding the petals are fleshy spikes, curved strongly backward.
This is coastal gumweed, or Grindelia stricta. The species is highly variable, growing either upright to about waist height, or prostrate along the ground. You can find it along the Pacific coast from Los Angeles to Washington state. The erect version shown above (Grindelia stricta var. angustifolia) was photographed at the Bolinas Lagoon; it’s usually found in salt marshes. This is the only local species of Grindelia to have woody stems so it is easy to tell apart from other gumweeds. Other names for this species include Oregon gumweed and marsh gum plant.
On the upper edge of a salt marsh, pale purple flowers grow low to the ground. This is sticky sandspurry, or Spergularia macrotheca. There are several different species of spurrys in the area, and all are very similar. To identify S. macrotheca I had to get out my hand lens and look close at the tiny seeds. In this species, each seed is surrounded by a narrow, papery halo (or “wing”).
With its five pale petals surrounding cheery yellow stamens, sticky sandspurry can be found along the Pacific coast states up to Canada and southeast Alaska. The plant earns its name by being covered with short, sticky hairs. Clustered leaves, rising from a swollen spot in the stem, give a clue that it’s in the Caryophyllaceae family.
It prefers to grow in wet places, often near saltwater, but it also can be found by freshwater seeps, springs and vernal pools–and in non-wetlands as well.
Notice the swollen stem at the leaf nodes
Orange-red flowers grow in the dappled shade of a dry stream bed. This is the scarlet monkey flower, or Mimulus cardinalis–one of the most lovely of this group. With bright green leaves and flashy flowers it is a treat in gardens and wild places alike.
Hummingbirds, butterflies and other insects also love this plant, but deer do not. Native plant gardeners rave about the monkey flowers in general for this reason.
Scarlet monkey flower is usually found near water, and so when you see it you have a strong clue that you’re in a wetland or near a stream (and below 8,000 feet, which is the upper limit of its range). You can see them growing in most parts of California from the northern Sierra to San Diego. Outside of the state, it grows north into Washington state and east as far as New Mexico.
In low wet places, a mat of green leaves and yellow flowers grows. The flowers have five glossy, spreading petals and many stamens. Pale green splotches dot the leaves, which are three-parted and ragged at their ends.
This is creeping buttercup, or Ranunculus repens. It’s a mildly invasive plant that is becoming common along trails and roadsides where it can form large patches. Its stem can sprout roots where it touches the ground, enabling it to spread easily.
This flower is a relative of the taller, leggy California buttercup (a native).
It tastes great in salads, but fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is an unfortunate weed in California. It grows avidly along roadsides and in other disturbed places. This plant grows up to ten feet tall, with feathery leaves and yellow umbrella-shaped umbels of flowers.
The leaves and the seeds have a distinctive licorice flavor, which is likely why the plant came to the Americas in the first place. It’s been used as a spice and a medicinal plant for centuries, and is thought to have escaped into the wild time after time.
Fennel is an invasive species, and takes over areas by forming dense stands where nothing else can grow. This isn’t just because the plants are so numerous that there is no room for any others. They also exude chemicals that actually prevent their competitors from growing!
Check out the above video for an musical animated interpretation of why fennel is a problem…