This wild rose is a favorite sight in spring and summer, as pink blossoms give way to ripe red fruit. This is the California rose (or as it is conversely known in Latin, Rosa californica), which grows in nearly every county in California, as well as in parts of Oregon.
This hardy shrub can look scraggly, but also can be groomed into a good garden plant, with pale green leaves and colorful fruit and flowers. It grows to 8 feet tall but is usually smaller. The tangle of thorny branches make excellent shelter for birds, and I’ve spotted many a nest by peering into a wild rose bush.
Rose hips are a renowned source of Vitamin C, and you can make an immune-boosting tea just by pouring boiling water over the red fruit. The hips can also be eaten fresh, though the inner bit is unappetizing, filled with seeds and strange stiff hairs. But the thin outer layer of flesh is tasty–I usually eat it by splitting the fruit open with a fingernail and scraping out the seeds. But this is labor intensive, and rose hips were never a significant food source for Native Americans. There was some medicinal use, though. A tea of wild rose hips was used to treat fever, sore throats and stomach aches–as well as to wash sores and sooth the pain of babies.
There are several different kinds of wild roses in California, and they all look fairly similar. The California rose (according to the Marin Flora) has the brown remains of its sepals at the tip of its ripe hips, and also tiny hairs visible on the stems of its leaves. It grows in full sun and partial shade, and in both wet and dry areas.
Like a handful of precious jewels scattered on a rocky slope, this flower is easily missed but well worth a closer look. With single flowers spread out on a long, leafless stalk they can blend into the background. Each blossom is gathered at the base into a balloon that reminds me of the bell-shaped skirts at an old-fashioned ball. At the mouth, the four petals crinkle and flare outwards from a purple-tinged mouth. This is Streptanthus glandulosus ssp. Secundus. The ssp means “subspecies” – a lot of times this designation refers to very subtle differences within a species that a casual botanist isn’t interested in. But in this case, it means this flower is white while the others are dark purple. There are several different jewelflowers in the area, distinguished by their distinctive pouchlike shape, but this is the only white one listed in the Marin Flora.
Jewelflowers are in the same family (Brassicaceae) as the common wild mustards and radish weeds that grow all over, but their signature blossoms are different from most members of this group, which have simple four-petalled flowers. Milkmaids are a good example of a classic brassica.
Crimson columbine is a bizarre confection of a flower. With its bright red turrets and awnings, and a dangling bouquet of long yellow stamens, Aquilegia formosa is one of the most sculptural flowers around. It looks like it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright just to grow in the gardens of the Marin Civic Center – though it doesn’t, as far as I know. Believe it or not, this extravagant bloom is in the same family (Ranunculaceae) as the simple buttercup!
These columbine prefer moist spots and stream banks, where you can find their flaming blossoms high above an airy nest of deeply lobed leaves. In general, the plants grow one to three feet tall, and they are found in all the western states. I saw the beauties photographed here on the Concrete Pipe Trail on the Marin Municipal Water District lands. This is an unpaved access road with a steep bank running along one side for much of its length, and it’s a great spot for seeing a diverse collection of spring flowers.
Peeking from the redwood duff, a calypso orchid. Calypso bulbosa, also known as a fairy slipper. This beautiful denizen of the woods is shy but not uncommon. It lifts its nodding head above the forest floor on a smooth purple stem, one or two green leaves lying flat at its base. And what a fearsome-looking flower!
The color can vary from pale pink to deep rose, but around here they are usually lilac-colored. A spikey crown flares upward like a punk-rocker halo. This crown is composed of petals, sepals and bracts all indistinguishable. Beneath, a lilac lobe juts forward, an awning over the burgandy-spotted pouch below. Tucked under the awning are anthers, which are designed to adhere to detach and stick to the backs of foraging insects. It turns out that Calypso orchids are tricksters – their shape suggests to passing insects that they may have nectar, but in fact, they don’t. Yet they depend entirely on this trick for pollination!
A Calypso orchid may live for up to five years (though usually less) and it dies back to its underground corm, or root-like structure, each summer. A new leaf is produced in the fall, and it flowers in the spring. It has a tremendously wide range. You can find it across western and northern United States, Canada, Japan and northern Europe.
The mariposa lilies are a treat, every one. I was happy to come across an Oakland star tulip, also known as Oakland mariposa lily (Calochortus umbellatus) on Pine Mountain the other day. It can be distinguished from its more common cousin, pussy ears (calochortus tomeii) because it’s petals are only hairy on the lower half, not all the way up. The rocky gaps between clumps of chaparral along the Pine Mountain fire road are an ideal place to find this low-growing lily, which likes nutrient-poor serpentine soils and rocky slopes. It’s worth noting that it can also be found growing under the trees or shrub canopy on moist hillsides, though. Oakland mariposa lily is listed as a rare plant in California because of its limited distribution – it’s mostly found in the Bay Area.
Bracken fern is another one of my longtime favorite plants – and not just because the young, furled tips are tasty in salads or while on the trail. This unpretentious plant is both attractive and hardy. You see it in woodsy understories, on dry hot hillsides, and everywhere in between. In the autumn, it’s dry leaves add a particular, pleasant scent to the fragrance of the forest. Wildlife uses it for food and nesting material; sometimes I’ve found beaten-down areas in larger patches, where deer have bedded down to sleep.
Distinct from other ferns, its large (up to 2 feet) fronds are broadly triangular, and often have an airy quality to them, with a lot of space between each sub-frond. Underneath, the fertile spores are found in a line hugging the edge of every leaflet. Even when these sori aren’t brown and ripe, you can see them as a raised green rim – another good diagnostic clue. None of the many other ferns in the area has this combination of obtuse outline, frond type, large size, and brown spore rim. Pteridium aquilinum can be found growing throughout most of North America. In fact (according to the USDA plants database) the only state in the US that it isn’t found in is South Dakota, which is odd enough that one has to wonder if it’s a data glitch. Or… maybe there is a legit ecological reason that this is the only state our fern has shunned!
The views are amazing on this high rocky ridge, and so are the plants. Dense stands of chaparral suddenly open onto stony serpentine outcrops supporting those hardy plants that can survive on such nutrient-poor soils. Right now ceanothus and manzanita are in bloom, and there are scattered meadows filled with wildflowers – goldfields, poppies, lupine, falselupine, and many more.
Get to Pine Mountain by driving up Bolinas-Fairfax road. The ridge runs northwest from a big turnout – you can walk all the way in to the San Geronimo Valley from here, on a wonderful network of trails and through a lovely rare forest of dwarfed Sargent cypress. There are no roads or houses in this area, and so as you walk often all you see is a tangle of forested ridges and valleys. And when you turn around and head home, you get sweeping views of the bay, the Richmond bridge, and Mt. Tam!