A stroll along the coastal bluff reveals little yellow flowers peeking from beneath the sagebrush and scattered across the grassland. Each handful of blossoms is scattered across a mounded patch of three-parted (cloverlike) leaves. This is hairy woodsorrel, or Oxalis albicans. The lemon-yellow petals splay outward around a hub of stamens like stout spokes on a cart wheel. If you nibble a leaf you’ll find the refreshing tartness that is characteristic of the sorrels.
Even the petals of hairy woodsorrel have a few minute hairs, and the leaves are distinctly hairy. This little flower is a native that is found only in coastal California–but it has a similar-looking cousin (O. corniculata) which is non-native and invasive; a common garden weed. Recognize the native hairy woodsorrel, which likes to grow near the coast, because it has slightly large petals (8-12mm long). O. albicans also does not grow roots at the leafy nodes of its stems, and its taproot is woody instead of fleshy (another name for our native is radishroot woodsorrel).
Petite cream-colored flowers peek above the still surface of a pond. Small white petals are banded with yellow at the center, surrounding a buttery cluster of yellow stamens. The flower has a glossy shine, akin to that of its land-locked buttercup cousins. Look close and you’ll see the flowers are rising from a mat of yellowish-green leaves just below the surface. Water buttercup (Ranunculus aquatilis) is also called whitewater crowfoot, likely because the narrow twiggy leaves look like the bony feet of a bird.
You can see this plant all over California and throughout much of the west. The photos shown here were taken in the high Sierra, where a spring had made a small pond in an otherwise very dry landscape of sagebrush and juniper; the seeds must have been deposited by a bird that stopped there for water.
So you thought a blackberry was always a blackberry, huh? Well, no. Or rather, there are a few different kinds of blackberry, so you have to look close.
I wrote about the invasive Himalayan blackberry a few weeks ago–but now the native Pacific blackberries (Rubus ursinus) are beginning to ripen, so keep your eyes out for them as well. Superficially, these look similar to their invasive cousins. Both grow in prickly mounds of briars. Both have leaves that generally are in groups of three, and many-segmented berries. But Pacific blackberries are all-around more delicate: their berries and their thorns are both more delicate, and their leaves are a lighter green and a thinner texture. Flip one over, and the Pacific’s leaf will be green below while the Himalayan’s leaf will be white.
If you get a look at the flowers, the distinction gets even easier. Pacific blackberry is the only local member of the Rubus genus to have gender-segregated flowers. What this means is that instead of male stamens and female pistils being in the same bloom, some flowers only pack pistils while others only sport stamens.
And that is why botany is awesome.
A sprawling pale-stemmed bush is decked with dark purple raspberries. Warmed in the sun, they have a mild, rich sweetness. These tasty fruits are smaller, leaner, and much darker than their plump commercial cousins. I’ve always preferred the wild version!
There are many listed names for Rubus leucodermis (western raspberry, white stemmed raspberry and whitebark raspberry) but I’ve always just called this “wild raspberry” since it’s the only native one around. It’s in the same genus as Himalayan blackberry, but though the plants are similar they are easy to tell apart even when not in fruit. Western raspberry is a delicate shrub with slim branches that have a glaucous coating which you can rub off with a finger. The leaves of both species are three parted, but blackberries’ are much thicker and darker.
Western raspberry is one of my very favorite California berries, but you won’t see it growing in Marin. Sonoma County? Yep. Santa Cruz? Yep. Even down to San Diego and up into Alaska. But for some reason it doesn’t like the San Francisco bay – there’s no record of it in SF, Marin, the East Bay, or the Peninsula.
One of my favorite Fourth of July memories is eating my great-aunt Martha’s huckleberry pie when I was a kid. We’d gather at the family campground by a little river, and eat California delicacies like abalone, venison, and this wonderful pie. Huckleberries are a wild-tasting fruit, tart but sweet. They taste of pine forest and long days with picking buckets. The little fruits hold their texture even when cooked, they pop in your mouth with a satisfying burst: perfect when blended with sugar and a flaky crust.
Huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum) grow all along the west coast – from Canada to Alaska – but not many people cook with them often since they are so small that picking enough for a pie takes a long time. Look for them in forests and clearings, often on slopes. The shrubs are attractive, with dense shiny foliage of small oval leaves. White lantern-shaped flowers give rise to small, round, dark purple fruit that looks like a small blueberry.