A flash of pale yellow underneath a coyote bush. Growing up under the gray branches of the shrub is a stalk holding several pretty, broad-faced flowers. The five petals surround a hairy, reddish-pink cluster of stamens. The stamens and pistil are flamboyant: the three upper stamens are clustered together, while the lower ones–and the pistil–scoop outward, presumably an invitation to insects.
This unusually striking flower is moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria), and unfortunately it’s not a native to California. It was introduced from Eurasia and has spread across much of the United States. Other species of mullein share the distinctive hairy-ness and the unusual stamen-and-pistil pattern, but otherwise look quite different.
Like dried flowers in a storebought display, California everlasting has crispy, white, straw-like petals. But actually these petals are bracts – you have to look close, and at the right time, to see the real (yellow) petals peeking through from the flower inside. When done flowering, the bracts open wide around a dandelion-like puff of seeds.
Pseudognaphalium californicum is a native that’s found in most parts of North America. It’s in the Asteraceae family, along with dandelion, chamomile, burdock and daisy. It dries out as nicely as its name suggests!
There are several similar-looking species to this one, including others in the Pseudognaphalium family. But I first mistook this plant for the very similar lookalike: pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritaceae – thanks to Doreen for setting me straight!). I’m still trying to figure out a good way to tell the two apart – in the key, the main difference is that California everlasting has a taproot while the roots of pearly everlasting are fibrous. I think that the flowers of the first are either bisexual (a typical flower, with both male and female parts) or only female, while the latter has separate male and female flowers. But since they are in the aster family, with little teeny tiny flowers, this is a hard difference to spot.
Just from looking at the photos, it seems that California everlasting has a much sleeker, smoother look to the shape of the bracts, while pearly everlasting seems to have a spiky look to each flower head, with the many pointy tips of the bracts bent backwards a little bit.
I’ll offer more tips on how to tell these two apart, as I come up with them!
On a barren, rocky slope is a tremendously delicate little plant. Five tissue-thin petals veined with tiny lines surround a cluster of delicate yellow stamen. The reddish stems are threat-thin and sparsely decorated with green needlelike leaves.
Douglas’ sandwort (Minuartia douglasii) is fairly common, but it’s so small you might never have noticed it before. It is strongly associated with serpentine, which is where I saw it. The paired leaves clasp around the stem, and if you look close you’ll see that this joint (or “node”) is swollen slightly—it bulges out from the rest of the stem. If you’re keying plants, this is an excellent hint that what you are looking at is in the Caryophyllaceae, or pink, family. The common store-bought carnation is a common example of this family; so is the garden flower rose campion. Look at their stems to see how they all have the swollen nodes in common!
There are several other species of sandwort in the San Francisco Bay Area, but though they seem really similar in the key, they don’t look at all similar to this one in their actual growth form. At least not as far as I can tell. But I might have to wait until a while to keep looking for different growth forms – I took these photos of the sandwort about a month ago, and they are now pretty much done blooming. We might not be seeing any more until next spring.
True to its name, this flower prefers to grow in wet places. Triteleia peduncularis is a graceful beauty, growing up to three feet tall, and is often found near serpentine. The flowers are whitish with a striking purple midvein. Six stamen are tucked away inside the trumpet- or funnel-shaped mouth of the flower.
There are two other triteleia species in the area: wild hyacinth and wally basket. They all are unique looking, as the hyacinth is white but bowl-shaped and the wally basket is purple throughout. Neither have the sleek elegance of the marsh triteleia.
In grassy meadows and along open hillsides, these low-growing flowers open their purple petals to the sun. Each plant has one or two medium-sized flowers that have the classic lily family form. Six gracefully pointed petals fade to white towards the center. Three flat, white, tongue-like spurs (which are actually sterile stamen called staminodia) sit at the base of alternating petals. These staminodia in turn alternate with an interior cluster of flat, fertile stamen dusted with yellow pollen, which at first look like a stout, three-sided pistil. To see the actual pistil, you have to gently tug on the petals to draw the stamens apart.
The easiest way to tell this from similar species is that it is so low to the ground, with the flower only rising a few inches off the ground. It truly is Brodiaea terrestris.
There are so many clovers around that they can be daunting to identify. But this little one has long caught my eye—partly because of the pretty pink color of its petals, combined with the many long green teeth of the calyx. But mostly I just like how it invariably has one little leaf coming directly off the flower. It may be strange but I find that adorable. Of course it turns out that botanically speaking the leaf isn’t actually part of the flower, it just appears to be so. In science-speak, the “heads are sessile above the uppermost leaves and stipules”. But that is good enough for me.
Rose clover (Trifolium hirtum) is native to Europe, not California. But it is now so ubiquitous as to be described by the authorities as “one of the most common” of the European species that have naturalized here.
You can pretty much tell rose clover from other species of clover because it has all of the following features: (a) It is hairy but doesn’t get cottony when it goes to seed; (b) Its showy, rosy flowers; (c) It’s an annual not a perennial; (e) That cute little leaf.
Masses of delicate easter-colored flowers fill fields and hillsides, standing as tall as your waist or even shoulder. These pale yellow, purple, and white flowers are wild radish, or Raphanus sativus. You can see a fantastic showing of them along the first part of the Pierce Point trail on the Point Reyes Penninsula.
These flowers also taste good—take a trailside nibble or add flowers and pods to a salad for a spicy radish taste. And there are those four simple petals again! That’s right, the wild radish is in the Brassicaceae, or mustard, family that I wrote about last week.
According to the Marin Flora, the local wild radish is actually a hybrid between R. sativus and its cousin, R. raphanistrum.
Collinsia heterophylla, or Chinese houses, is a pretty little flower with multicolored purple flowers stacked in whorls. Each flower has two bright purple bottom petals that sandwich a third spurlike petal that points toward the ground like the keel on a ship. This petal is actually a pouch, and the reproductive organs (stamens and pistil) are stowed away inside. The two upper petals are a pale lavendar, decorated with a burgandy pattern of dots. On my specimen those formed a line, arching over the mouth of an inner chamber that – when pried open – proved to be lined with pale hairs.
Collinsia is in the Plantaginaceae family, which didn’t exist back when I was learning my plants. That’s the thing about botany – as science progresses, names are changed to indicate our changing understanding of different species’ relationship to one another. So what now is Plantaginaceae once was Scrophulariaceae, which still exists but just with fewer members. Anyway many of the species found in the Plantaginaceae family are assymmetrical, like this one. Snapdragons are also notable members of the Plantaginaceae, but I’m getting a bit off-topic here.
Chinese houses tend to like open, brushy or wooded slopes in partial shade, according to the guidebook, but I saw it growing on a hot, rocky landslide face that the trail cut across.
I took my dogsitting charges and headed out into the hottest day of the year so far, out onto the Cascade Canyon Open Space preserve in Fairfax. There were lots of flowers in bloom, most of them very common. My list that I came home with had 34 plants on it, and I could only provide full Latin names for three – three! Pepperwood (Umbellularia californica), madrone (Arbutus mensiezii) and Douglas iris (Iris douglasii). It’s true that for many others I could at least come up with the genus name – but still, this is worse than I thought it would be.
There was one plant that I couldn’t identify at all until I keyed it out, and so that is my plant of the day. It turned out to be Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla). Read all about it in the next post.
From the time I was a kid, I’ve been a casual botanist. I couldn’t help it really – my parents were always keying flowers and quizzing me to see if I remembered their names. After a time dabbling in art, I went to college where I earned an undergraduate degree in botany – a decade ago, in a different state. For a while I even used my degree professionally, but then life took a different course. Since moving home to California I’ve been frustrated by how hard it is to learn the local flora without the discipline of work or school to help me out. But this spring, I’ve decided to get serious. I’ll learn one new plant a day, that’s the goal. And if you like, you can come along on the ride with me.
My method will surely change, but for now the plan consists of two steps. First, pick a plant every day and learn its common and scientific name. Second, take a notebook with me when I go out hiking. In it I will identify as many plants as I can, by whatever name I can. If I can learn a new plant or two while I’m out, even better. The idea is that I will see the number and detail of my identifications go up as time goes on.