January

Rather than bombarding Facebook with flower photos, I’ve decided to lump them all in one place. This format will also allow me to share some natural history tidbits. Currently, my plan is to post my pictures at the end of each month–a floral calendar, if you will. I reserve the right to change my mind on the frequency and objectives of these

While most of the country is under snow in January, the first month of the year is actually the beginning of the growing season in coastal California. “The greening,” as some prefer to call it, begins in late fall with the onset of the rains, as seedlings begin to sprout. By late January, a few eager species have already started to flower, hoping to beat the rush and lure some hungry freshly-emerged insects. One of the earliest is Scoliopus bigelovii (fetid adder’s tongue).

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This lily of the damp redwood understory doesn’t rely on beauty to attract a pollinator as much as it does scent. Scoliopus really earns its common name “fetid” by producing a noxious odor that flies seeking rotting flesh can’t resist. Female flies on the hunt for a place to lay eggs land on the brown, meaty-looking petals. Unfortunately for the visiting Dipteran, a flower is not as great of a place to raise a family as she might have hoped. This sort of flower that attracts a visitor, but doesn’t provide any reward is conducting deceptive pollination–a corruption of the normally mutualistic plant-pollinator interaction. After its act of deceit, Scoliopus earns its other common name, “slinkpod.” As its seeds ripen, the flower stalk continues to grow, eventually curving over and planting the seeds into the ground. I guess the idea behind this strange adaptation is if the location was good enough for Big Stinky, it should be good enough for Stinky Jr.

At the other end of the pollination spectrum is Toxicoscordion freemontii var. minor (coastal death camas)

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This flower is also a January-blooming lily, but otherwise, it’s doesn’t have many similarities to Scoliopus. For one, it occurs in sunny, coastal meadows–about as different a habitat as you can find from the redwood understory. More interestingly, as its name suggests, it is super poisonous. That includes its nectar and pollen, which contain a toxin that can paralyze insect larvae. Tricking a pollinator is mean, but it still makes sense. But what possible reason would a plant have to poison its pollinators? Well, the poison only works on most pollinators. There are species of bees that specialize visiting Toxicoscordion, whose larvae grow just fine on a diet of poison pollen. Other insects learn to avoid these flowers. Maybe they taste bad. By only letting one species of specialist insect visit its flowers, it becomes much more likely that a visit will move pollen between individuals of the same species. In other words, poison pollen keeps out the riffraff of generalist pollinators. This particular variety of Toxicoscordion is endemic (only found) in coastal meadows in a few counties in central California. It’s actually the coast form of a more widely distributed species that blooms in the woods around Santa Cruz a little later in the year. It’s somewhat common for plants to look different when they are found near the coast. One of the features typical of coastal forms shown well by this plant is a shorter stature–the inland variety is maybe four times the size.

Another narrow endemic that blooms early is Arctostaphylos andersonii (Santa Cruz Manzanita).

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This shrub is only found in the Santa Cruz Mountains, although it is relatively common here. Manzanitas are a group of plants that are iconic of California chaparral. There are about 60 species in California, and only a handful anywhere else. Often, more than one species will occur at the same location. This is true on the UC campus, where Arctostaphylos crustacea is also common. You can tell the two apart by the clasping, heart-shaped leaves of A. andersonii. When two similar species co-occur, they usually have to do something subtly different. This divvying up of resources is called “niche partitioning. In the case of these Manzanitas, A. andersonii blooms earlier and grows in slightly more shaded locations.

I’ll round out January with a much more common plant, Umbellularia californica (California Bay Laurel)

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It’s representative of the many trees around here that get a nice and early start. Oaks, alders, and maples are among the many early flowering local trees. I’d show pictures, but many of these are wind-pollinated, and therefore there wouldn’t be much to show. The flowers of Umbellularia may not seem like much either, but they have a long history. This species is in the Laurales, a group of plants that have relatively primitive traits such as thick, white, oil-containing petals, unfused carpals (the part of the flower containing the unripe seeds), and variable numbers of floral parts such as anthers. Flowers looking very similar to this have been around since the time of T-Rex in the late Cretaceous. Its fruits are also quite tasty when toasted.

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