It’s only June, but we are already nearing the end of wildflower season here in central California. The fields are brown, the afternoons are hot and sunny, and the mornings foggy. Rather than rambling too far this month, I mostly botanized along the Santa Cruz coast. This was for a couple of reasons. First, the growing season is a bit longer in coastal habitats because the ocean does a great job keeping things cool and moist. Second, I’m stuck in town writing my dissertation, and therefore can only take quick breaks to snap some pics. In fact, with the exception of one trip, I biked to all these flowers.

Don’t get the impression that I didn’t find anything cool this month, however. The immediate coast has an amazing variety of unique habitats, each with a different suite of species. This month I visited coastal prairie, coastal chaparral, coastal marsh, and coastal bluffs. The latter habitat has an especially high percentage of endemism–taxa that found in there and nowhere else. That’s because plants growing on cliffs above the ocean have a unique problem–salt spray. Salt is toxic to plants and can quickly dry them out. To avoid dessication, coastal plants often have more succulent leaves or are hairier than inland plants. They also tend to be lower-growing, with stems that trail along the ground rather than standing upright. Here’s a picture of a coastal bluff covered in low-growing plants:


Interestingly, while bluff plants look different from relatives found further inland, often they can still cross fertilize and make healthy hybrid offspring. Because true species need to be (at least somewhat) reproductively isolated, these coastal forms are often considered subspecies or varieties of more widely distributed taxa. Latin subspecies names are written in lowercase after the genus and species name. I’ll give them below, where appropriate. I’ll also give the habitat in which I found each plant.

Before we get to the plants, I have a confession to make. I play favorites. Some genera or families are far more likely to have their picture taken by me than others. For instance, I’ll stop, identify, and photograph basically anything in the phlox family (Polemoniaceae). Here are the three members of that family that caught my eye this month:

Collomia heterophylla (Variable-Leaved Collomia, chaparral)


Navarretia mellita (Honey-Scented Pincushion plant, chaparral)


Navarretia squarrosa (Skunkweed, chaparral)


I know, the last two don’t even look that different! They do smell very different though. Both are covered in sticky, glandular hairs, and as the names suggest, the former smells pleasantly sweet and the later smells skunky.

I also can’t seem to resist photographing lilies.

Triteleia hyacintha (Wild Hyacinth, Themidaceae, prairie)


Triteleia ixioides (Prettyface, Themidaceae, prairie)


These are both super common plants found in many habitats over large portions of the state. But who doesn’t love a prettyface?

On the other end of the spectrum, there are types of plants I tend to just walk on by. Perhaps my biggest bias is against the sunflower family (Asteraceae). It’s the plant family with the most species both worldwide and in California. The family has hit on a unique and very successful tightly-clustered arrangement of flowers called a “capitulum” (Latin for head). Many species have two types of flowers in the cluster. An outer whorl of showy “ray” flowers that attract pollinators and inner “disk” flowers where the main business of plant sex happens. These plants are visited by a ton of cool pollinators and many are rare or have otherwise interesting ecology. Yet so far I’ve posted exactly one Asteraceae picture to this blog (way back in February). What gives? Well, Asters are hard to identify! While they can come in many colors, a lot of them are yellow, with the same basic design. Because the flowers are so specialized, there are a ton of unique botanical terms for their parts. You need a hand lens and a lot of patience to measure and count the paleae that subtend the disk flowers. Or are you just looking at the pappus? Making matters worse, many species hybridize and a high proportion are non-native weeds. After spending 45 minutes keying out a plant, it’s not fun to realize that instead of a cool narrowly-endmic native, you have some weedy hybrid. This is why for hundreds of years, lazy botanists have been writing the whole group off as DYCs–Damn Yellow Composites (Compositae was the old family name). This month, I turned over a new leaf (pun intended) and took the time to appreciate the Asteraceae. Here are my favorite DYC pics from this month:

Helenium puberelum (Sneezeweed, marsh)


Deinandra corymbosa (Coast Tarweed, chaparral)


Heterotheca sessiliflora bolanderi (Bolander’s Goldenaster, bluffs)


Grindelia stricta platyphylla (Pacific Gumweed, bluffs)


That was fun. Okay, I’ll group the rest of the photos more or less by habitat.

Sparganium eurycarpum (Broadfruit Burreed, Typhaceae, marsh)


Burreeds are related to Cattails and often co-occur with them. The plants are monoecious (separate male and female flowers on the same plant. In the above picture, the left two flower clusters are open female flowers that will turn into spiky green balls as they ripen. The smaller flower clusters are unopened male flowers.

Hoita orbicularis (Creeping Leather Root, Fabaceae, marsh)


This plant produces many stolons (above ground creeping stems), carpeting an area with large trifoliate (clover-shaped) leaves and big glandular inflorescences.

Zeltnera davyi (Davy’s Centaury, Gentianaceae, chaparral)


An adorable late-blooming annual found in wetter openings in chaparral and other plant communities.

Epilobium ciliatum watsonii (Watson’s Willowherb, Onagraceae, bluffs)


Monardella villosa franciscana  (San Francisco Coyote Mint, Lamiaceae, bluffs)


These two plants fit the pattern of coastal bluff-specialist subspecies of much more widely distributed species. I did find one coastal bluff specialist that is reproductively isolated enough to be its own species:

Lupinus variicolor (Many Colored Lupine, Fabaceae)


I’ll rap up this month with three species from the coastal prairies on the UCSC campus. These will likely be my last photos this year from this habitat, as most plants occurring here have finished flowering. These late-blooming species occur in wetter depressions.

Prunella vulgaris laneolata (Lance-leaf Selfheal, Lamiaceae)


Spiranthes romanzoffiana (Hooded Ladies Tresses, Orchidaceae)


Eryngium armatum (Coastal Coyote Thistle, Apiaceae)


The first two are widely-distributed species, but this Coyote Thistle is only found in coastal prairies in central California. It’s crazy spiky inflorescence makes it one of my favorite campus plants.

Hopefully I’ll have many mountain wildflower pictures to share in the next couple months.


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