You’ll see these towering purple spikes looming from road cuts and clifftops. This is pride of Madeira, or Echium candicans. It’s a common sight – especially in more coastal areas. It grows to more than seven feet tall, and is very striking with its gray-green leaves and massive heads of flowers (easily over a foot long).
Sadly, this plant isn’t native to the US. It’s another escaped ornamental species that’s still commonly used in landscaping. Birds and butterflies love it, and deer don’t. In inland areas this isn’t a problem but in the coastal climate it spreads on its own, gradually creeping into wild areas. Because it spreads slowly it is only considered to be moderately invasive, but it’s still not recommended for local gardens.
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.
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
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.
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.