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Plant of the day: explorer’s gentian

Beautiful deep-blue flowers top tufts of green on an alpine slope. The vase-shaped blossom spreads into five gracefully rounded petals at the mouth; each petal is dotted with pale yellow spots that fade into green deeper in the throat of the flower.

This is explorer’s gentian, or Gentiana calycosaanother high-elevation beauty (also called the Ranier gentian, or the Ranier pleated gentian). It likes cold climates and wet soil near streams or in low meadows (although I saw it outside this typical range, growing on an exposed and rocky slope, so this can happen as well). Bees and other insects love to rummage in it’s deep flowers, and it has been cultivated as an ornamental. In the Bay Area, you can keep your eye out for the similar-looking pleated gentian (Gentiana affinis), a cousin that prefers low elevation.

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Plant of the day: ranger’s button

Woolly beige tufts rest on umbels of stout stalks. This is ranger’s button (Sphenosciadium capitellatum), a common mountain plant with flowers are clustered into dense and symmetrical heads. Each round and wooly heads is then clustered into an umbel, at the end of a branching stalk. The umbel stalks also are woolly, and the overall effect is highly stylized and geometric.

Ranger’s button likes to grow in the wet soil of meadows, or near lakes and streams. It grows at 3,000 to 10,400 feet in elevation. This plant is in the celery family (Apiaceae) along with poison hemlock and angelica, which it somewhat resembles. It’s toxic to livestock, and an infusion made from the root was used by the Paiute tribe to treat lice… and venereal sores.

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Plant of the day: giant blazing star

This yellow-flowered plant grows everywhere on the east side of the Sierras, like a weed. But how can any weed be this beautiful? The pale yellow blossom is as big as my palm, with long delicate petals, and a spreading bouquet of yellow stamens rises from the center. Five skinny “petals” that alternate with the wider ones are actually modified stamens that don’t produce any pollen. This extravagant bloom is surrounded by long green sepals  that peek out from between the petals. With a pale stem and scalloped green leaves, the entire package looks like a carefully wrought floral display. Yet nature did all of the arranging.

Giant blazing star (Mentzelia laevicaulis) can be found across much of California and across all of western North America. Despite its delicate looks, this beauty loves high heat and rocky habitats. It was also used by many native tribes for everything from skin wash to gravy. Roots were used to treat arthritis, earaches, bruises and fever. An infusion made from the leaves was used for stomachaches and skin disease. The gravy was made from fried seeds and water.

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Plant of the day: prickly poppy

Flamboyant white flowers are scattered across a sagebrush plain. Prickly poppy, or Argemone munita, has the large papery-thin petals–stark white around a brilliant yellow center. Insects flock and feed among the many yellow stamens. The whole plant has abundant gray-green leaves that are prickly to the touch, and stands as tall as my knee. It is truly a beauty! But you won’t see it in the Bay Area; it grows across the west but only between 4,000 and 8,500 feet. If you see a similar flower at low elevation, you’re probably looking at one of this bloom’s lovely cousins, such as the Matilja poppy.

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