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.
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.
With distinctive arrow-shaped leaves, trail plant is a common sight while hiking. The tiny white flower is much easier to miss – I mostly notice the leaves without blooms. When it does flower, this perennial herb shoots up a long, mostly bare stalk from the low cluster of leaves.
The small flowers initially appear in a series of tiny heads, each on their own branch off the central stalk. But as the plant ages and the seed pods elongate, one flower will stay perched on the end of each seed/ovary as it matures. This gives the head an interesting multi-storied look, with some flowers still clustered in the center and some perched above them atop their green pedestals.
Adenocaulon bicolor seeds get sticky and cling to socks, pants, and fur – a handy way to disperse but a pain in the neck to walk through. Still, I’ve always been fond of this unassuming plant. The leaves are a cheerful green (with a cottony white coating underneath) and the flowers are quirky. Good enough for me!
Growing across a rocky bed of serpentine is a field of low white flowers. Look close, and you see that the leaves and stems are sticky and thick with white hairs. Nestled among the hairs are little dark dots that are actually glands. This is what makes it sticky – and also the source of the name, Calycadenia multiglandulosa.
You’ll usually see this little plant on serpentine, and only in California.
Bedstraw – a.k.a goose grass, cleavers, or stickywilly
If you walk through a patch of bedstraw, you’ll know it right away. The stalks grow long and sprawling, and will wrap around your ankles. But they also are sticky! And the leaves are studded with tiny hook-like bristles! They don’t hurt to brush up against, but they certainly do cling. Its other names include goose grass, cleavers – and stickywilly.
The flowers of Galium aparine are tiny, white, four-petalled stars. But the plant’s most distinctive feature is its leaves: they stick out all around the stem like the spokes on a wagon wheel. Bristly, green, tongue-shaped spokes.
Bedstraw is widespread – not only across California, but throughout the US and southern South America, as well as Europe. A Scottish friend was just telling me that kids will grab handfuls and stick it on one another as a game. It’s listed as a native both in California and in Europe, but is described as an invasive/non-native in other states (like Arizona), so it is clearly aggressive. Bedstraw is used as a medicinal plant, taken as a tincture, juice or tea to treat maladies such as adenoids, nodules, kidney stones, roseola, and cough. It’s also been used on the skin to treat psoriasis, and eczema.
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.
A flash of white against the frog-colored palette of a wet meadow. A loose cluster of white flowers atop a long, smooth stem. Each flower is an open bowl with the petals fused at the base, then tapering into six delicate points. This is wild hyacinth, or Triteleia hyacinthina. It grows in wetlands and along creeksides, as well as in grasslands and forests throughout much of the state.
The six stamens alternate in height, and flatten out so their bases nearly meet, making what looks like a crown set inside the bowl of petals. Green ribs run up the middle of each fleshy white petal.
There is another pale-colored Triteleia in the area (marsh triteleia, which can be whitish but is purple tinged – at least at the midrib if not elsewhere). You can tell the two apart because the wild hyacinth is bowl-shaped when seen from the side, while the marsh triteleia is narrower, shaped more like a funnel or a horn and the stamens are harder to see, hidden deep inside this vessel.
This is one of the most beautiful flowers of the Bay Area. It’s aptly named, with its complex blossom looking like a delicately wrought lantern nodding on a slender stem. The three upper sepals curve upward like a pagoda roof, while the fringed petals below curl inwards as if to protect a flame. It’s not hard to imagine them as fixtures in a tiny magical kingdom. Keep your eye out for these little plants, and when you find one, look close!
The fairy lantern (Calochortus amabalis) is endemic to northern California, and is pretty much restricted to the coast range north of San Francisco bay. As such, Marin County is toward the southern-most end of the species’ range, and it is a rare sight here. These photos were taken in Sonoma county, where it is much more common.
Because all the parts are in threes, you can tell it is in the lily family, like the irises and blue-eyed grass.
This is sunny little flower almost always grows in wetlands or creeksides, though it can be found elsewhere. The photo shown here was taken on a seemingly-dry trailside, but because it was on a hill I wouldn’t be surprised if it is wetter than it appeared. Potentilla anserina is the most common cinquefoil in the area. In general, cinquefoils have a very distinctive “look,” with five spreading petals and surrounding a central mound of many stamens. The leaves are composed of crinkly, jagged-edged leaflets. Often the leaflets are arranged in many pairs along the stem (as with this silverweed here), but sometimes they are in threes or in a fan shape. Once you’ve seen a few different species the similarities start to jump out at you!
Like a handful of precious jewels scattered on a rocky slope, this flower is easily missed but well worth a closer look. With single flowers spread out on a long, leafless stalk they can blend into the background. Each blossom is gathered at the base into a balloon that reminds me of the bell-shaped skirts at an old-fashioned ball. At the mouth, the four petals crinkle and flare outwards from a purple-tinged mouth. This is Streptanthus glandulosus ssp. Secundus. The ssp means “subspecies” – a lot of times this designation refers to very subtle differences within a species that a casual botanist isn’t interested in. But in this case, it means this flower is white while the others are dark purple. There are several different jewelflowers in the area, distinguished by their distinctive pouchlike shape, but this is the only white one listed in the Marin Flora.
Jewelflowers are in the same family (Brassicaceae) as the common wild mustards and radish weeds that grow all over, but their signature blossoms are different from most members of this group, which have simple four-petalled flowers. Milkmaids are a good example of a classic brassica.