A brown golf ball is dressed in a short yellow skirt. Well not really, but that’s what this funny flower looks like: a big round ball, fringed at its very lower edge with dangling petals. I found this patch of Helenium puberulum perched alongside Highway One just south of Stinson Beach.
There are several different kinds of sneezeweed (a.k.a. Helenium) and they all look like variations on this theme. The “classic” sneezeweed shown here has many flowers per plant, noticeably short petals – they almost look like an afterthought! – and leaves that attach to the stem (the botanical term is decurrent). This combination of traits lets you know you’re looking at plain ‘ol sneezeweed instead of Bigelow’s sneezeweed or yellow sneezeweed. Actually as far as I can tell you don’t even need to look at the leaves or number of flowers – the other sneezeweeds both seem to have larger petals. But it’s always good to ID a plant using more than one feature, since individuals of the same species can show a LOT of variation in its shape, color, size and so on.
The sneezeweeds are in the enormous Asteraceae family, and if you look close you’ll see that the brown ball is made up of hundreds of individual “disc” flowers, and the yellow skirt is the showier “ray” petals.