While a few enterprising flowers get an early start in January, the second month of the year is the true kickoff of the botanical season in California. February is my favorite time of year to look for plants in two fairly different plant communities: Redwood forest and maritime chaparral. Wildflowers bloom early in these two habitats for very different reasons. We’ll start with Redwoods. I spent a lovely February day traipsing around Nicene Marks State Park. Here’s a view of one of the streams running though the park with Adiantum aleuticum (Five-Fingered Fern) in the foreground. Redwood forests, despite their beauty and iconic stature, are fairly low in total species. The many branches and needles of Sequoia sempervirens (Redwood) prevent most light from making it to the forest floor. Additionally, fallen needles are quite acidic and form a thick layer of plant debris or “duff” that make it hard for other plants to germinate. Nevertheless, a few understory wildflowers still make a go of it, and many of these plants bloom early in the year. Why is blooming early beneficial? Well, maybe it really isn’t in this habitat. Most of the Redwood wildflowers have “Northern Affinities”–their close relatives occur in deciduous forests in the Eastern US and across Canada to the Pacific Northwest. In these habitats, light levels are much higher in early spring before the trees have leafed out. While Redwoods keep their leaves all year round, the timing of flowering could be an evolutionary holdover from these more seasonal environments. I’ll prove my case with a few flowers that should look familiar to Eastern and Northern botanists.
The adorable Viola sempervirens (Redwood Violet)
The plucky Cardamine californica (Milkmaids)
The unusual Petasites frigidus (Western Coltsfoot). I know, it doesn’t look like the foot of a Colt now. It’s named for it’s leaf shape. The leaves emerge later in the year, after the plant has finished flowering.
And a plant in one of my favorite genera, Trilium ovatum (Western Wakerobin)
PS, you can click on all the pictures for larger images.
Redwood forests couldn’t be more different from another habitat that I visited this month–Maritime Chaparral. Chaparral is a habitat that is unique to California and a few other places in the world with mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. Chaparral is dominated by hardy shrubs, and has a proportion of annual plants only rivaled by desert habitats. Additionally, unlike Redwood Forests, California chaparral is replete with plant genera and even entire families with their center of diversity right here in the state. No East Coast transplants here; these guys are Californian, through and through! Maybe that’s why this East Coast transplant loves to explore chaparral. Maritime chaparral in particular occurs far enough away from the ocean to avoid the problems with coastal living (salty air, wind), but close enough to receive all the benefits (fog and moderate temperatures in the summer). Therefore maritime chaparral, like patch I visited at Fort Ord UC Reserve, (shown here with the range-restricted Ceanothus rigidus (Monterey Ceanothus) in the forground) is particularly botanically interesting. There will actually be more species in flower here in the coming months, but this time of year, I get to indulge in the rewarding pastime of “belly botanizing”–so named because the plants are so small, you need to get down on your belly to see them! Examples are below (you can use the grains of sand and occasional ant for scale).
Acmispon strigosus (Strigose Lotus)
Minuartia californica (California Sandwort)
Phacelia douglasii (Douglas’ Phacelia)
Camissoniopsis micrantha (Miniature Suncup, yellow) and a friend in either Cryptantha or Plagiobothrys (white, sorry, you need fruits to tell these guys apart and there were none to be found)These tiny, early-blooming plants are taking advantage of the wet conditions during and just after the winter rains to germinate, grow, flower, and set seed in just a few weeks. Many of them, rather than relying on a pollinator, just pollinate themselves. Flowers that primarily self-pollinate tend to have smaller, less showy flowers and male and female parts that are closer together in time and space. Compare the Camissoniopsis above with two related February-blooming species, Tetrapteron graciliflorum (Hill Suncups)
and Taraxia ovata (Sun Cup).
The larger flowers may attract more pollinators and lead to higher rates of outcrossing, where mom and dad are different plants. However, these plants may still have mixed-mating systems, where some seeds are the result of self-pollination and others from outcrossing. About half of all plant species self-pollinate, at least occasionally. One last note on the three above species. They are in the evening primrose family (Onagraceae), which is an easy family to learn by recognizing the combination of four petals and ovaries (the part of the flower that contains the unripe seeds) that sit way below the rest of the flower. In fact, what looks like the flower stalk in these photos is actually a really long, skinny ovary. These three species don’t produce any stem (although other species in the family do); the leaves, flowers, and roots basically come out of the same spot.
In the waning days of February, I had a chance to botanize a property that will potentially be incorporated into the University of California Natural Reserve System in the near future. I’ll just call it “The Ranch” for now, as the deal is not finalized, but hopefully it will be soon, because it’s a beautiful place. Check out the view from the top! I’m planning on going back there a few more times this spring, so I’ll just post a couple of my favorite shots (the Tetrapteron graciliflorum was also from here).
Platystemon californicus (Cream Cups), with a bonus of Microsters gracilis (Slender Phlox, pink flower in lower right)
Micranthes californica (California Saxifrage)
Here’s a final picture of Sanicula arctopoides (Footsteps of Spring) from a grassier area of Fort Ord. This species and Taraxia ovata (above) are two of the earliest coastal prairie species to bloom, and are portends of great flowers to come from that habitat over the next couple months. Stay tuned!