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 vine of 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.
Under the shade of a redwood grove, slender red stalks rise leafless from the duff. Flowers are scattered sparsely along the stalk, with those toward the bottom opening first. Five pink petals nod toward the ground. If you look underneath, you’ll see an oddly curved pistil surrounded by yellow-dusted stamen.
This is Pyrola picta, or wintergreen. I saw it in Sonoma County, but it grows in almost all parts of the state – and in all states as far east as South Dakota. There are other types of Pyrola, but none that have been found in the bay area. In many places it has a handful of dark green leaves at its base, but around here it is almost always leafless. It also is often white instead of pink.
Despite the obvious, these pretty purple-flowered shrubs are indeed a yellow bush lupine. This was news to me! I didn’t even realize the two color types were the same species until I went to look up the Latin name. After all, I was sure I already knew the common name: purple bush lupine, right?
Wrong. No such plant exists, according to the field guide. So I turned to the key—and couldn’t find it! The darn thing kept keying out to yellow bush lupine (Lupinus arboreous). There are other purple, shrubby lupines (silver lupine and dune bush lupine) but both have distinctively hairy upper petals. This one didn’t. I’m embarrassed to admit that it took a long time for me to read through to the second page of the yellow bush lupine species description where I found the explanation: “It is usually yellow, but always yellow-flowered in the dunes and blue-flowered in the coastal scrub, bishop pine forest, and elsewhere.” The species is also sometimes called coastal bush lupine, which I think is a much better name!
Whatever their name and whatever their color, these lush shrubs dish out fragrant towers of blossoms. They can grow to be as tall as a person, though often are knee height or lower: spreading mounds of silky-haired, fan-shaped leaves. Look for them on sand dunes and hillsides from Washington state to San Diego. They cling to cliffs and roadsides and are very popular among insects—and rodents too! Each plant produces hundreds of seed pods that our furry friends love to munch.
Like the pink pom-poms of an elfin cheerleader, coast buckwheat tosses little bursts of color alongside the trail. The flower heads range from fuschia to pale pink atop a grayish stem. The buds are the darker pink, and the heads turn pale as they open to reveal the lighter petals and the curious long antenna of stamens. All the leaves are gathered in a cluster at the base of the long stems.
Coast buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium) can be found all along the coast of California. It prefers to grow along exposed dunes, mesas, bluffs and coastal hills. It’s a member of the buckwheat family, or Polygonaceae. There are 125 different species of Erigonum in California, though only four are listed in the Marin Flora as growing in this county. In general, the group is distinguished by having clustered heads of small flowers atop a long stem that grows out of a basal mound of leaves. The five-petaled flowers generally have obvious stamens, like this species does, but sometimes the heads of flowers are smaller.
Here is another one of the lovely leggy lilies that I wrote about last week. Triteleia laxa sports a loose umbel of trumpet-shaped purple flowers. The color is usually the rich royal purple shown here, but it can be paler as well. The way to tell this beauty from the similar species is to look inside and see that it has six classic-looking stamens.
The young plant is spear-shaped when it first emerges from the earth. Evidently the name is (for you literary types!) a reference to Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which the angel Ithuriel finds Satan has approached Eve in the shape of a toad. Ithuriel touched him with her spear and revealed his true form. I think toads are beautiful and charismatic critters, and for me this is the best part of the fable – that a toad is what was chosen to infiltrate the ranks of goodness!
See the six distinct stamens
Rough hedge nettle is widespread in the area, and hedge nettles in general are easy to recognize. Though they don’t have the typical smell, hedge nettles are in the mint family! Mints are often hairy and smelly (like some rugged botanist-types that I know?!) and they have a tubular flower that usually is distinctly two-lipped. For the hedge nettles this is certainly the case. But the real giveaway for this family is that they have a square stem. Just roll it between your fingers to see what this means – all mint stems are distinctly four-sided (see the stem close-up below). There are other families that have square stems, but the many local species in the mint family (Lamiaceae) are by far the most common.
Stachys rigida is usually found in dry places—woods, shrublands, or grasslands. There are other hedge nettles (such as S. chamissonis, with its showy purple flowers) that prefer wetlands but our S. rigida is almost always on slopes, in gravel, clay or rocky soil. And, if you want to get technical, you should know that the Marin Flora lists Stachys rigida var. quercitorum as the local variety.