Ready for more Rambles

Last winter, after half a decade of drought, the rains fell early and often across the state of California. By March, the deserts and grasslands were alive in a glorious riot of wildflowers–a genuine, bona fide Super Bloom. I joined the birds and bees, moths and mammals to greet those colorful fields of corollas. This March…well…it’s shaping up to be firmly less floral. The past few days, however, hope in the form of charcoal clouds and chilly rain showers. Will we have a miracle this March? Will my army of amazing annuals be delayed, but not dormant? Will I decide I’ve already used ample alliteration and alter my approach? I’m ready to ramble on regardless!

A couple weeks ago I met some friends in Anza Borrego State Park in Colorado Desert.

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I had every intention of ditching them to look for blog content (a.k.a. rare plants), but it was as dry as a desert out there! I wasn’t completely skunked, but it was close. All and all, I saw maybe 10 species in bloom. While there were no annuals in sight, desert shrubs are a tough bunch. Their deep taproots and water storage abilities mean that some of them can bloom on schedule, even in the driest years. The toughest among them don’t even bother with leaves while they flower. Case and point, Asclepias albicans (White-stemmed Milkweed, Asclepiaceae).

This is definitely the most hard-core milkweed I’ve ever met (and, incidentally, the tallest). It was happily blooming away on a bone-dry hillside in the Carrizo Badlands, basically just some chalky sticks and wonky flowers.

Another leafless wonder is Psorothamnus spinosus (Smoke Tree, Fabaceae), with its orange gland-dotted calyx. It’s quite a large shrub that commonly grows in dry washes.


I only have one other plant to post from the trip. This one does have leaves and more normal flowers, but I think it’s pretty great anyway, as it’s rare–only found on the western edge of the Colorado Desert. Xylorhiza orcuttii (Orcutt’s Woody Aster, Asteraceae).

I also get to add this species to my growing collection of “plants seen with crab spiders” (check out the right picture).

I wish I had more to offer up (and better photos, the light was consistently terrible!), but this trio will have to serve as an tiny appetizer until next time. My current plan is to see if thing are bloom-ier in Death Valley next weekend. If not, my best bet will be to ramble much further North!


Eclipse Trip

Last week I drove a long ways to the to watch the coolest thing I ever will see in the sky–a total solar eclipse. To get there, I travelled through the Mojave Desert, onto the spectacularly scenic Colorado Plateau, and through the Great Basin Desert, before winding up in the Sawtooth Wilderness in the Western Rocky Mountains. If you’re into geopolitical boundaries, that’s California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and Idaho. As I drove east through the desert, I went from basically completely flowerless areas to places with a bunch of things in bloom. That’s because while summer rains are basically non-existent in the Western Mojave, more eastern American deserts have a summer monsoon season, and a group of late-blooming species have evolved to take advantage. Unfortunately (for this blog), many of the summer bloomers–especially the annuals–have tiny, boring flowers. Here are a couple late-blooming desert species that are showy enough to post.

Oenothera pallida (Pale Evening Primrose, Onagraceae)


Mentzelia laevicaulis (Smoothstem Blazingstar, Loasaceae)


Moving further Northeast, I started to run into more permanent sources of water, with more summer flowers. Around Utah Lake, I found Geranium viscosissimum (Sticky Geranium, Geraniaceae) and Cleome serrulata (Rocky Mountain Beeplant, Cleomaceae).


And in some depressions near Magic Reservoir in Idaho, I ran into Camissonia tanacetifolia (Tansy-leafed Evening Primrose, Onagraceae) and Downingia laeta (Great Basin Calicoflower, Campanulaceae)


The best botany, however was up in the mountains, where many montane and alpine meadows were still in glorious full bloom. Anticlea elegans (Mountain Deathcamas, Melianthaceae) formed large displays in marshy areas,


while Epilobium orbicordum (Rock Fringe, Onagraceae) grew among the boulders


Calochortus eurycarpus (White Mariposa Lily, Liliaceae) was amazingly common throughout the four day hike. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Calochortus I haven’t liked.


I was particularly excited to find two late season wildflowers that were rocking the fringed look– Parnassia fimbriata (Fringed Grass of Parnassus, Parnassiaceae) and Swertia perennis (Star Gentian, Gentianaceae).

Gentians, in particular, scream “end of summer” to me, and thus this post will likely wrap up the rambles for the year. I’ll be back following the winter rains next year.

Southern Oregon and the Trinity Alps

As the summer has gone on and flowers have become harder to find, I’ve slacked off on my botanizing. The past week, I took a trip way up North to the Trinity Alps in North-West California, even sneaking into Oregon. While these are great places for weird and rare plants (see post from a year ago), this time, the late season and complete lack of botanical planning did me in. To be fair, plants weren’t my top priority this time. I did, however, scrounge up 10 post-worthy plants that I hadn’t previously photographed. First, here’s a picture of the beautiful and under-visited Trinities from near the Boulder Lakes with one of my favorite plants from my last trip here–Darlingtonia california (California pitcher plant, Sarraceniaceae), in the foreground.

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Okay, flowers in in no particular order: Calochortus tolmiei (Hairy Star Tulip, Liliaceae)


Nothochelone nemorosa (False Turtlehead, Plantaginaceae)


Another large, pink, bee pollinated flower Mimulus lewisii (Lewis’s Monkeyflower, Phyrmaceae)


Gentianopsis simplex (Hiker’s Fringed Gentian, Gentianaceae), a species actually more common in the Sierras than in Northwestern California



Rudbeckia occidentalis (Western Coneflower, Asteraceae). This species, unlike some others in the genus doesn’t have showy yellow ray flowers surrounding the brown disk flowers, but pollinators seem to find it just fine, anyway.


Pedicularis racemosa (Leafy Lousewort, Orobanchaceae), one of the few species with asymmetric flowers.


Cordylanthus tenuis (Slender Birdsbeak, Orobanchaceae)


Goodyera oblongifolia (Western Rattlesnake Plantain, Orchidaceae)

Kopsiopsis strobilacea (California Groundcone, Orobanchaceae). This completely parasitic plant really does look like a pine cone sitting on the ground when it’s in flower. This individual is fruiting.


Another plant with a great common name is Vancouveria hexandra (Northern Inside Out Flower, Berberidaceae). This is the first picture I’ve posted of this family, which also includes Oregon Grape (Berberis)


And finally, Trichostema simulatum (Siskiyou Bluecurls). Last post I talked about looking for the rare pink-flowered morph of the related Trichostema laxum. I found a whole pink-flowered population of this, more northern species.


I’ll probably squeeze in one more post this year before going dormant for the fall and winter. I’m going to completely leave California behind to do it.

Botany on the Side

I’ve just returned from a week-long road trip into the North Coast Ranges (Sonoma, Lake, and Napa Counties) where the goals were to 1) visit friends and 2) do a little field research at McLaughlin Research Station. The focus of the latter was Trichostema laxum (Turpentine Weed, Lamiaceae), which normally looks like this:


This plant usually occurs in large patches of plants (hundreds to many thousands of plants) in serpentine seeps (see previous blog posts for a description of this cool habitat). In many populations, 1 to a few individuals are pink instead of purple:


This color is the result of a recessive mutation, and plants with pink flowers seem to be otherwise just as healthy and have otherwise the same traits as purple-flowered plants. Pollinators don’t really seem to notice the color difference, and will freely visit these mutants. The goal of this research is to take advantage of the mutation by finding, marking, and measuring pink-flowered plants, and then collecting their seeds. Because this is a super rare recessive trait, if the offspring are pink, it is very likely they are the result of self-pollination. Conversely, any purple-flowered progeny must be the result of out-crossing with another plant. Therefore if we can find a bunch of pink individuals, we can ask interesting questions about how things like the number of flowers, the flower shape, and the environment (such as whether the area has recently burned) affect outcrossing rates.

While the focus of this week was not at all recreational botany, of course I found and photographed a few plants.

First some relatively broadly distributed species that have not yet made an appearance on this blog. Clarkia amoena (Farewell-to-spring, Onagraceae)–a beautiful annual that is readily available as a garden ornamental.


Lilium pardalinum (Leopard Lily, Lilaceae)–I actually have photographed and posted this one before, but it was a few years ago on Facebook, and it’s enough of a show-stopper that I’m re-posting.


and Mimulus bolanderi (Bolander’s Monkeyflower, Phrymaceae)–while this species is relatively common, especially in the central Sierras, plants in the inner North Coast Ranges such as this one are much smaller-flowered than elsewhere and may represent a distinct subspecies (or even a different species).


As I’ve blogged about previously, McLaughlin is a hotbed for rare flowers because it has large outcrops of harsh serpentine soils. While I’ve previously found and photographed many of these, I managed to add a few new ones this trip:

Collinsia greenei (Green’s Blue-eyed Mary, Plantaginaceae), the only all-purple member of the genus


Streptanthus morrisonii (Morrison’s Jewelflower, Brassicaceae). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you really have to meet plants in this genus in person for full appreciation. The yellow things sticking out of the flower are two sterile stamens than are fused together–function unknown.


And two plants that are in fruit, rather than in flower: Lomatium repostum (Napa Biscuitroot, Apiaceae)


and Asclepias solanoana (Serpentine Milkweed, Apocynaceae)


The former species has pretty boring flowers, so the fruiting stage is actually more photogenic. I’m a bit sad I missed the flowers on the latter, however, as it has beautiful purple and white flowers. It was still neat to see the typical milkweed pod on this weird prostrate plant. This plant may be from the southernmost population of this species.

I’m still debating, but I think my itinerary for next week will involve more rare serpentine plants from even further north. Who knows, maybe I’ll even find a flowering Serpentine Milkweed.

Transverse Range Traverse

This past weekend I headed south again, looping through the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains. This was my third trip to the San Bernardinos this spring. I had some unfinished business in the Holcomb Valley, as some of my target plants had not yet begun to flower when I was last here in late May. Besides having just a ridiculous number of rare plants, this valley is also notable for being the site of the largest gold strike in Southern California.

On the way, I found two tall plants with cream-colored flowers.  Asclepias erosa (Desert Milkweed, Apocynaceae) was the only thing blooming on the Mohave Desert floor.


Caulanthus major (Slender Wild Cabbage, Brassicaceae) was lining the highway on the way up into the mountains


In the Holcomb Valley, the highlights included three of the smaller representatives of their respective genera. Abronia nana (Dwarf Sand Verbena, Nyctaginaceae) with its nice compact habit,


Trichostema micranthum (Smallflower Bluecurls, Lamiaceae), which smells just as strongly as its larger cousins, Vinegarweed and Turpentine Weed,


and Navarretia peninsularis (Baja Pincushionplant, Polemoniaceae). This later is in one of my favorite genera, with each species having differently shaped spiky bracts (modified leaves below each flower) and sepals.


Another target in the Holcomb Valley was Packera bernardina (San Bernardino Ragweed), a rare Aster with cool spoon-shaped leaves


The San Bernardinos are quickly becoming my favorite mountains in Southern California. While I’m pretty much done exploring the Holcomb Valley for the year, I might try to squeeze a last trip to their highest elevations later this summer.

From the Holcomb Valley, I headed west into the San Gabriels, north of Los Angeles. Along the way, I stopped at a large population of the poorly-named Phacelia mohavensis (Mohave Phacelia, Boraginaceae). This beautiful species does not occur in the Mohave.


The drive through the San Gabriels along the Angeles Crest Highway is absolutely beautiful, but unfortunately, not currently open to through traffic. A large sinkhole apparently opened under the road, blocking access to some of the areas that I wanted to botanize. Nevertheless, I still found a few great plants here, including the large showy shrub, Keckiella ternata (Blue-stemmed Keckiella, Plantaginaceae),


Mimulus johnstonii (Johnston’s Monkeflower, Phrymaceae), one of the less common of the 16 or so species in this genus I found on this trip,


And a second uncommon Ragwort species, Packera ionophylla (Tehachapi Ragwort, Asteraceae). While the flowers look very similar to the Packera bernardina, this one has pinnately-lobed leaves.


That’s all for now. In a few days I’ll be heading up to Northern California, and I’m pretty sure there are a few rare plants up there, too.

Western Transverse Ranges

I took an overnight trip into the beautiful mountains of Ventura County (with a brief detour back into San Luis Obispo County). Throughout most of California, Mountain Ranges run north to south, along faults formed by the collision of the Pacific and North American Plates (in Northern California, a third, more ancient plate, the Juan de Fuca, gets involved as it slowly submerges beneath the other two). In Southern California, from roughly the cities of Santa Barbara to Palm Springs, the edges of the plates jog east. Here, they “transverse” the state and form the east-west running San Bernardinos, the San Gabriels, and a jumble of ridges known as the Western Transverse Ranges. The botany in all three is great. I’ll return to the former two next week. This weekend I took a couple hikes in the later–one North of Ojai in the Southern edge of these ranges, and another in the Sespe Wilderness, pretty much smack in their heart. Both hikes included beautiful scenery and excellent, well-maintained trails. And both were surprisingly devoid of other hikers for a lovely weekend in early summer, especially considering their nearness to population centers.

Okay, onto the flowers. I’m starting to amass quite a collection of photos on this site. In fact, I’ve already posted photos of congeners (species in the same genus) for all ten of the following. I thought it would be fun to order these flowers from least to most commonly posted, as well as give a sense for how many species I have left to find.

Acanthomintha obovata cordata (Heart-leaved Thornmint, Lamiaceae). 1 previous species posted on this blog, 4 total species in California, none anywhere else. All four thornmints are uncommon or rare globally, but they can form huge populations. The patch of plants were I took this photo had hundreds of thousands of individuals, carpeting an entire hillside. Check out the amazing spiky bracts (modified leaf below each flower).


Frasera neglecta (Pine Green-Gentian, Gentinaceae). 1 previous, 6 total in CA, 15 globally (all in temperate North America). Many species in this genus have green nectaries bordered by hairs in the center of the petals.

Keckiella cordifolia (Climbing Penstemon, Plantaginaceae), 1 previous, 7 in CA and globally. This genus is closely related to the much more diverse Penstemon (total 250 species, several of which I have also photographed). This plant was common around Ojai, growing vine-like over the shrubs in the chapparal.


Abronia pogonantha (Mohave Sand-verbena, Nyctaginaceae), 2 previously posted (and I posted two others to Facebook before starting this blog),  8 in CA, 25 total, all in Western North America.

Abronia pogonantha

Eriogonum kennedyi (Kennedy’s Buckwheat, Polygonaceae). 3 previous, 119! species in California (and that’s not even getting into the numerous named varieties for many of the species), 250 total, all in North America. This is one of the largest genera in California and percentage-wise, clearly a group I’m biased against photographing. Many species simply aren’t that showy and they are often quite difficult to identify. This species, however, has a unique mat-forming habit (way of growing). Some of the plants were much larger, forming large splotches of gray-green over flat, pebbly areas in the Sespe Wilderness

Leptosiphon liniflorus (Line-flowered Leptosiphon, Polemoniaceae). 8 previously posted, 29 in CA, and only 1 species from elsewhere. This is one of the more widely distributed species. Conversely to the previous, I’m definitely biased toward this genus (and in fact this whole, beautiful family), explicitly seeking out species on my rambles.


Allium howellii clokeyi (Mount Pinos Onion, Alliaceae). 11 previous, 53 in CA (including some non-native species), 700 species throughout the North Temperate regions of the globe. This plant is only found in the Northern part of the Western Transverse Ranges, but it was abundant in the area. Check out the mating Midges (Chironomidae) at the top of the picture.

Allium howellii_clokeyi

Finally, lets get to species in two genera that are clearly obsessions. Calochortus palmeri (Palmer’s Mariposa Lily, Liliaceae). 16 previous, 45 in CA, 67 total, with almost all in Western North America.


And two more Phacelias: Phacelia grandiflora (Largeflowered Phacelia) and Phacelia viscida albiflora (White-flowered Sticky Phacelia, Boraginaceae). These are the 23rd and 24th species out of 95 in California and 175 total that I have posted.

Even for these camera-hogging genera, I’ve only posted about a third of the species found in California. It will take many more rambles before I run out of new beauties!

The Garfield Trail

My latest ramble was an overnight backpacking trip with one species as the main target–Erythronium pusaterii (Hockett Lakes Glacier Lily, Lilaceae). This species checks a number of boxes for me. It has large, beautiful flowers. It’s rare–only occurring in about 10 locations in Tulare County. And you have to work to see it, because all of those locations are in the backcountry, far from any roads. The genus Erythronium has about 30 species, occurring in northern North America and Eurasia. Some species–the fawn lilies–have leaves that are mottled with brown spots like the coat of a baby deer. These species tend to occur in mid-elevation forests. Here’s a repost of E. californicum (California Fawn Lily) from last spring:


Others have all-green leaves and occur at higher elevations, blooming as the snow melts from rocky, treeless areas. These are glacier lilies, of which Erythronium pusaterii is the southernmost representative. In addition to being beautiful, all species are entirely edible, from their bulb to the flowers. Two populations of E. pusaterii occur along the Garfield Trail in the Southwestern corner of Sequoia National Park, so that’s where I headed. Along the drive there, I stopped for two other plants. Ceonothus pinetorum (Kern Ceanothus) is a beautiful low-growing bush with a crazy distribution. It’s only found on the Kern Plateau in the Southern Sierras and then way up in the Trinity Mountains in Northern California.


A few plants of the super rare Brodiaea insignis (Kaweah Bodiaea) were still blooming along the entrance road to the hike. This genus is characterized by modified stamens (staminodes) that presumably help orient pollinators when they visit the flower. A few posts ago, I showed off B santarosae, which had tiny staminodes for the genus. B. insignis is at the other extreme–its huge staminodes with inrolled edges stick straight up above the rest of the flower.


The hike itself was beautiful, but intense, starting under 4,000 feet in elevation, and ending at over 8,000. The first record of Erythronium pusaterii was a few miles in. The location description was for a spot along a creek upstream of where it crossed the trail. I arrived at the creek and looked up at steep ravine filled with boulders and waterfalls–beautiful, but not exactly the most inviting place for a walk. I figured I was here, so I might as well go for it. I set down my pack and started rock climbing. After about 45 minutes of progressively more challenging scrambles, I made it to an absolutely massive population! Unfortunately, almost all of the plants were already at their fruiting stage, but I did find a few still-open flowers. There were enough plants that I felt okay to snack on a couple leaves–delicious!

After the (slightly harrowing) decent, I continued up the trail, setting up camp for the night in a grove of Sequoiadendron giganteum (Giant Sequoia, Cupressaceae). It’s pretty amazing to sleep in the shade of the largest living thing on the planet!


The next day, I continued up the trail  for a few more miles before finding my way blocked by massive snow drifts and a raging river engorged from snowmelt. It’s after Memorial Day, but winter has not yet ended in the high Sierra. I wasn’t getting to that second population. It turned out that going for the first population when I did was a great decision. On the way back, it started to rain, and there was no way I would have attempted that scramble over slippery, wet rocks.

The hike, particularly at lower elevations, had plenty of wildflowers to keep me entertained. The most dramatic was Cornus nuttallii (Pacific Dogwood, Cornaceae) which was locally abundant. The white petal-y looking things on dogwoods are actually bracts–modified leaves that surround a cluster of small, non-showy flowers


Clarkia heterandra (Mountain Clarkia, Onagraceae) was also more numerous here than I’ve seen before. This is the only member of the genus (of ~40 species) with a nut-like fruit, rather than a long skinny capsule (a fruit that splits open). You can see the developing fruits as the bump below the petals.


Here are a couple common species in weird plant families and slightly embarrassing common names: Comandra umbellata (Bastard Toadflax, Comandraceae) and the inflated fruits of Staphylea bolanderi (Sierra Bladdernut, Staphyleaceae). It’s not often I don’t at least recognize the family to which a plant belongs, but my ignorance on these two makes sense. They are the only members of their families in California, and both only have one other species in North America.

I actually managed to find another couple rare plants on the hike. The first, the adorable Mimulus inconspicuus or M. acutidens (Kings River Monkeyflower, Phyrmaceae), I was somewhat expecting. I’m giving two scientific names here, because it keyed to the former species in the reference book I use, but I believe the southern populations, including this one, have been more recently split off into the latter taxa.


Finally, I found the rare Allium abramsii (Abrams’ Onion, Alliaceae) in the same spot as the Erythronium. This species wasn’t on my radar, as there wasn’t a known population in the area. I only snapped a couple (not particularly great) photos, because I was paying way more attention to the lily and I assumed it was Allium crispum, a much more common species. Both these species have cool wavy margins on their inner petals. When I got home, I realized not only does it look fairly different from A. crispum, that species doesn’t even occur in the Sierras. What a great bonus find!