This twining, white-flowered plant seems unobtrusive but it is also very distinct. When I first saw it, I knew that I had never seen it before – and it turns out that isn’t surprising. White ramping fumatory (Fumaria capreolata) is a mildly invasive species that is slowly spreading throughout the state. I first saw it in Sutro Forest, and since have seen it regularly in Bolinas. Right now it’s only found in a handful of counties up and down California. The only other states it is found in are New York and Florida.
Its diminutive white blossoms are tipped with a dark brownish red, and delicate three-parted leaves are spread sparsely along twining stems. Despite somewhat pea-like flowers, fumatory is actually in the Papaveraceae family – a diverse group that also hold both poppies and bleeding hearts!
Collinsia heterophylla, or Chinese houses, is a pretty little flower with multicolored purple flowers stacked in whorls. Each flower has two bright purple bottom petals that sandwich a third spurlike petal that points toward the ground like the keel on a ship. This petal is actually a pouch, and the reproductive organs (stamens and pistil) are stowed away inside. The two upper petals are a pale lavendar, decorated with a burgandy pattern of dots. On my specimen those formed a line, arching over the mouth of an inner chamber that – when pried open – proved to be lined with pale hairs.
Collinsia is in the Plantaginaceae family, which didn’t exist back when I was learning my plants. That’s the thing about botany – as science progresses, names are changed to indicate our changing understanding of different species’ relationship to one another. So what now is Plantaginaceae once was Scrophulariaceae, which still exists but just with fewer members. Anyway many of the species found in the Plantaginaceae family are assymmetrical, like this one. Snapdragons are also notable members of the Plantaginaceae, but I’m getting a bit off-topic here.
Chinese houses tend to like open, brushy or wooded slopes in partial shade, according to the guidebook, but I saw it growing on a hot, rocky landslide face that the trail cut across.
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.
From the time I was a kid, I’ve been a casual botanist. I couldn’t help it really – my parents were always keying flowers and quizzing me to see if I remembered their names. After a time dabbling in art, I went to college where I earned an undergraduate degree in botany – a decade ago, in a different state. For a while I even used my degree professionally, but then life took a different course. Since moving home to California I’ve been frustrated by how hard it is to learn the local flora without the discipline of work or school to help me out. But this spring, I’ve decided to get serious. I’ll learn one new plant a day, that’s the goal. And if you like, you can come along on the ride with me.
My method will surely change, but for now the plan consists of two steps. First, pick a plant every day and learn its common and scientific name. Second, take a notebook with me when I go out hiking. In it I will identify as many plants as I can, by whatever name I can. If I can learn a new plant or two while I’m out, even better. The idea is that I will see the number and detail of my identifications go up as time goes on.