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.
Pink, poppy-sized flowers show up with a flamboyant burst of color on the browning hillsides. Each of the four delicate petals are dotted with a dark red splotch. This is farewell to spring, or Clarkia amoena.
There are several species of Clarkia in Marin that differ slightly from one another; this species can be either white or pink. You can distinguish it from the other similar species because it has red splotches instead of a red ring on the petals, and the buds don’t droop. These flowers seem to thrive on dry road cuts – I’ve seen them growing along Highway One in several different places (these photos were taken just south of Tomales).
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.
A purple crown of flowers above dusty gray-green leaves: here is a coyote mint in bloom. In the center of the exuberant lilac ring of flowers, a round green bulge of unopened buds looks like a clown’s pate peeking through. Each flower is tube-shaped, its sprawling petals accented by many long stamens. The entire flower head approaches two inches across, and the plant grows one to two feet high, slightly sprawling.
One very charming thing about this coyote mint (Monardella villosa) is that it sports a twin pair of tiny leaves at the base of each pair of larger leaves.
This flower grows only in Oregon and California, and is a great addition to a well-drained garden since it attracts bees and butterflies. You can tell it’s in the mint family by taking a look at the square, four-sided stem. Every time I’ve seen it I’ve forgotten to take a sniff, but I hear that it has a characteristic toothpaste-like aroma as well… It was used by the Spanish as a cure for sore throats.
This graceful shrub has soft scalloped leaves and creamy white sprays of flowers. It is happily in bloom right now, and a fun one for drive-by botanizing since it thrives on roadside banks. Usually oceanspray (or cream bush, aka Holodiscus discolor) is a medium-sized shrub, but on exposed hills it can become a low-growing mat, according to the Marin Flora.
This is a good one for gardens since it can grow in a wide range of soils from wetlands to dry and well-drained. The beautiful flowers with their many long stamens are typical of its family, the Rosaceae or rose family. This big clan contains a wide spectrum of species from cherries and plums to roses to silverweed. It’s one of the biggest plant families there is.
Like dried flowers in a storebought display, California everlasting has crispy, white, straw-like petals. But actually these petals are bracts – you have to look close, and at the right time, to see the real (yellow) petals peeking through from the flower inside. When done flowering, the bracts open wide around a dandelion-like puff of seeds.
Pseudognaphalium californicum is a native that’s found in most parts of North America. It’s in the Asteraceae family, along with dandelion, chamomile, burdock and daisy. It dries out as nicely as its name suggests!
There are several similar-looking species to this one, including others in the Pseudognaphalium family. But I first mistook this plant for the very similar lookalike: pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritaceae – thanks to Doreen for setting me straight!). I’m still trying to figure out a good way to tell the two apart – in the key, the main difference is that California everlasting has a taproot while the roots of pearly everlasting are fibrous. I think that the flowers of the first are either bisexual (a typical flower, with both male and female parts) or only female, while the latter has separate male and female flowers. But since they are in the aster family, with little teeny tiny flowers, this is a hard difference to spot.
Just from looking at the photos, it seems that California everlasting has a much sleeker, smoother look to the shape of the bracts, while pearly everlasting seems to have a spiky look to each flower head, with the many pointy tips of the bracts bent backwards a little bit.
I’ll offer more tips on how to tell these two apart, as I come up with them!
A bough of pink flowers droops down at me from the nearby tree. But I’m not looking at a blooming branch; the narrow, twining stem is tough but not woody enough to stand this high on its own. Here is a pink honeysuckle, or Lonicera hispidula. The whorled cluster of flowers perches at the end of the vine, right at eye-height. They don’t always grow this way (I’ve seen them at ankle level alongside trails) but I got lucky this time with an easy view of the pretty flowers.
The upper petal is a soft, rosy pink and is dramatically rolled back. Five stamens are on prominent display, waiting for a passing bumble bee or hummingbird. Each stamen is T-shaped, with the brown bar of the anther dusted in pollen and delicately balanced on the greenish-yellow filament. This vine is often recommended for native plant gardens because it is so attractive to birds. Hummers love the sweet nectar, and other birds feast on the berries.
Honeysuckle is easy to recognize even when it isn’t blooming because the pattern of leaves is distinctive. The oval leaves are paired, and often fuse together into a disc around the stem when they are young. More mature leaves are separate, but often have a small leaflet at their base that is fused to the stem.