Masses of yellow flowers are blooming beside the lagoon. Bees swarm over the blossoms, rummaging for pollen in their daisy-like centers. Nearby, white goo that looks like Elmer’s glue coats the younger, unopened buds. The green bracts surrounding the petals are fleshy spikes, curved strongly backward.
This is coastal gumweed, or Grindelia stricta. The species is highly variable, growing either upright to about waist height, or prostrate along the ground. You can find it along the Pacific coast from Los Angeles to Washington state. The erect version shown above (Grindelia stricta var. angustifolia) was photographed at the Bolinas Lagoon; it’s usually found in salt marshes. This is the only local species of Grindelia to have woody stems so it is easy to tell apart from other gumweeds. Other names for this species include Oregon gumweed and marsh gum plant.
On the upper edge of a salt marsh, pale purple flowers grow low to the ground. This is sticky sandspurry, or Spergularia macrotheca. There are several different species of spurrys in the area, and all are very similar. To identify S. macrotheca I had to get out my hand lens and look close at the tiny seeds. In this species, each seed is surrounded by a narrow, papery halo (or “wing”).
With its five pale petals surrounding cheery yellow stamens, sticky sandspurry can be found along the Pacific coast states up to Canada and southeast Alaska. The plant earns its name by being covered with short, sticky hairs. Clustered leaves, rising from a swollen spot in the stem, give a clue that it’s in the Caryophyllaceae family.
It prefers to grow in wet places, often near saltwater, but it also can be found by freshwater seeps, springs and vernal pools–and in non-wetlands as well.
Notice the swollen stem at the leaf nodes
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 spike of striking purple flowers rises from the tangle of greenery in a low wetland. Here is the coast hedge nettle, or Stachys chamissonis. This is a lovely summer bloomer that grows several feet tall and boast big showy flowers. The Flora of Marin went so far as to call this “one of our most attractive flowering plants.” High praise given the stiff competition.
Check the square stem and pairs of simple leaves for a good guess as to what family it is in!
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.
Here is one of the leggy purple flowers of the grasslands. The funnel-shaped blossom sprawls open as it ages, revealing three pale spatula-like staminoides. The narrow stalk is leafless, and branches into a loose umbel of a few flowers.
Harvest brodiaea (Brodiaea elegans) is one of only two brodiaeas in Marin, but there are several others in the greater bay area – e.g. California brodiaea, Hoover’s brodiaea, and crown brodiaea. Dwarf brodiaea is the other kind that grows in Marin.
In the dormant season, this perennial flower dies back to an underground corm, which is the bulb-like structure pictured above (I say bulb-like because a bulb is actually made of modified leaves, like an onion, whereas a corm is solid all the way through. And as long as I’m getting technical, I may as well point out that a corm is not a root. It’s a modified bit of the plant’s stem that serves to store food and help it survive the winter. The actual roots branch off from the bottom of the corm.)
Knee-high clumps of creamy flowers stand atop a narrow stalk. Each yarrow flower has a sweetly classic daisy shape to it – and like a daisy, it is actually many flowers. If you look close you’ll see the demure inner “disc” petals surrounded by the flashy outer “ray” petals.
In the southwest, yarrow is sometimes called Plumajillo, or little feather, because of its delicate plume-shaped leaves. It is listed as being mildly toxic by the California Poison Control system, but historically has been used as a tea to treat colds, measles and kidney ailments. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) also was used externally to treat cuts, stop nosebleeds, and as a hair wash to prevent baldness!
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.