A tall, sprawling bush grows in a rocky creek bed, decorated with cone-shaped heads of purple pea flowers. Plain, broadly pointed leaves are arranged in threes. Often the leaves are folded slightly towards their central vein, and also bent at a sharp angle to the stem so they look upraised, like a hand cocked at the wrist.
This is California hemp (Hoita macrostachya). This leggy plant has hollow stems and likes to live in moist places and is a good indicator of wetlands. It is found almost exclusively in California, as are the other two species in the Hoita tribe. All have purple flowers and similar leaves, but one is a creeping, low-growing plant and the other is found in serpentine chaparral, not in wetlands.
The name California hemp likely derives from this plants historic use as a textile. The fibers of its stem are strong enough that they reputedly have been used for sewing, as well as been woven into ropes or bags. A yellow dye can be made from its roots.
On the upper edge of a salt marsh, pale purple flowers grow low to the ground. This is sticky sandspurry, or Spergularia macrotheca. There are several different species of spurrys in the area, and all are very similar. To identify S. macrotheca I had to get out my hand lens and look close at the tiny seeds. In this species, each seed is surrounded by a narrow, papery halo (or “wing”).
With its five pale petals surrounding cheery yellow stamens, sticky sandspurry can be found along the Pacific coast states up to Canada and southeast Alaska. The plant earns its name by being covered with short, sticky hairs. Clustered leaves, rising from a swollen spot in the stem, give a clue that it’s in the Caryophyllaceae family.
It prefers to grow in wet places, often near saltwater, but it also can be found by freshwater seeps, springs and vernal pools–and in non-wetlands as well.
Notice the swollen stem at the leaf nodes
It tastes great in salads, but fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is an unfortunate weed in California. It grows avidly along roadsides and in other disturbed places. This plant grows up to ten feet tall, with feathery leaves and yellow umbrella-shaped umbels of flowers.
The leaves and the seeds have a distinctive licorice flavor, which is likely why the plant came to the Americas in the first place. It’s been used as a spice and a medicinal plant for centuries, and is thought to have escaped into the wild time after time.
Fennel is an invasive species, and takes over areas by forming dense stands where nothing else can grow. This isn’t just because the plants are so numerous that there is no room for any others. They also exude chemicals that actually prevent their competitors from growing!
Check out the above video for an musical animated interpretation of why fennel is a problem…
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.
A spike of striking purple flowers rises from the tangle of greenery in a low wetland. Here is the coast hedge nettle, or Stachys chamissonis. This is a lovely summer bloomer that grows several feet tall and boast big showy flowers. The Flora of Marin went so far as to call this “one of our most attractive flowering plants.” High praise given the stiff competition.
Check the square stem and pairs of simple leaves for a good guess as to what family it is in!
Here is one of the leggy purple flowers of the grasslands. The funnel-shaped blossom sprawls open as it ages, revealing three pale spatula-like staminoides. The narrow stalk is leafless, and branches into a loose umbel of a few flowers.
Harvest brodiaea (Brodiaea elegans) is one of only two brodiaeas in Marin, but there are several others in the greater bay area – e.g. California brodiaea, Hoover’s brodiaea, and crown brodiaea. Dwarf brodiaea is the other kind that grows in Marin.
In the dormant season, this perennial flower dies back to an underground corm, which is the bulb-like structure pictured above (I say bulb-like because a bulb is actually made of modified leaves, like an onion, whereas a corm is solid all the way through. And as long as I’m getting technical, I may as well point out that a corm is not a root. It’s a modified bit of the plant’s stem that serves to store food and help it survive the winter. The actual roots branch off from the bottom of the corm.)
Mt. Tamalpais jewelflower
On a bare serpentine outcrop high above the Pacific ocean is a low leafless stalk with a few small purple flowers. This is the Mt. Tamalpais jewelflower, a sub-species of Streptanthus glandulosus which is found only in Marin County. Though the plant is unassuming, when you look close the flowers have earned their name. Narrow, crinkled petals flare out above a colorful pouch that is faceted and luminous like a gem.
The jewelflower is in the same family as radish and milkmaid. The long, narrow, fleshy seed pods that are pictured below are typical of the family, though the unusual flowers are not! I saw this beauty, S. glandulosus ssp. pulchellus, near Rock Springs on Mt. Tam during the MMWD/Cal Academy Bioblitz last weekend, and owe thanks for the ID to Terry Gosliner. I wrote about secund jewelflower back in May – which is also a sub-species of S. glandulosus, and the only jewelflower in Marin that isn’t listed as either rare or endangered.
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!
At first glance, the chaparral pea looks like a French broom… with bright pinkish-purple flowers. But this pretty bush is a California native. Pickeringia montana has medium-sized flowers and three-leaftleted leaves that are a shiny, vivid green. It can grow to more than six feet tall, and sprawls a little – just like broom does. But if the color and the shiny leaves weren’t enough to convince you that this isn’t a broom, then the thorns might do the trick! So watch out for it when you’re hiking.
It’s often found (as the name suggest) in the chaparral. Black-tailed deer love to browse on it, delicately nibbling their way around the thorns. This pretty shrub doesn’t reproduce well by seed in this area, but it does spread by rhizomes (spreading underground stems) or from its own roots. It comes back strongly after a fire has burned through.
A stark white stalk of flowers catches a beam of sunlight in the woods of Sonoma’s coast range. This dense cone of blooms is completely white; the only color is a pale yellow smudge on each flower’s bottom lip. Phantom orchid, or Cephalanthera austiniae, is the only orchid in North America that has no chlorophyll at all.
No chlorophyll means it can’t make its own food, so the phantom orchid has to steal all of its nutrients from other plants. There are a variety of different ways that plants do this, but the phantom orchid uses fungi as go-betweens! There’s no direct contact between the orchid and its host plant (in this case, actually, the dead plants rotting on the forest floor). Instead, the tiny fibers of the fungus enter the roots of the host plant and pass nutrients along to them. I’m not yet sure what they get out of the deal, but it’s pretty nifty. The technical term for this is “mycoheterotrophic”.
As far as I know this striking orchid doesn’t grow in Marin, but you may see it when you’re hiking in Sonoma and the northern counties, or down in areas around Monterey as well.