The San Joaquin Valley

The San Joaquin Valley forms the southern half of California’s vast Central Valley (Sacramento Valley sits to the north, with the San Francisco Bay delta being the dividing line). This area used to be an epic expanse of wildflower meadows and wetlands, but unfortunately, almost all of the wetlands have been drained and the meadows invaded by European annual grasses. I spent the weekend traveling to both sides of the valley–the foothills of the Greenhorn Mountains to the East and the Carrizo Plain to the West–in search of remnants of San Joaquin’s past glory. With the exception of a quick trip into the oak woodlands, I didn’t see a native tree all weekend. But I did find a few flowers. I botanized in Atriplex (Saltbush) Scrub, where plants must deal with salty, basic (high pH soils):

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and I climbed into beautiful Temblor Range (that’s Carrizo Plain in the background) :

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But mostly I hung out in the “grasslands”of the valley floor.

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Yep, a few flowers.

The color of the weekend was yellow–hills were covered in various golden members of the Aster family. Asters have flowers in dense clusters with outer “ray” and inner “disk” flowers. When you think of a sunflower or a daisy flower, you are actually thinking of a whole cluster of flowers. Many of the species look somewhat similar, and the family has its own unique set of terminology to tell them apart. You need too look at things like the phyllaries (green scales on the back of the flower cluster) and the pappus (tuft of hairs on top of the seed). Here are some of the less common asters from the weekend:

Deinandra pallida (Kern Tarweed). This species is common in the hills around Bakersfield, but is pretty much only found in Kern County. It’s just beginning to bloom.


Lasthenia ferrisae (Alkali Goldfields) is a specialist on salty depressions in the Central Valley. You can see the characteristic fused phyllaries in the second picture.

Monolopia congdonii (San Joaquin Woolythreads). This species does not have any ray flowers. Because the primary function of these flowers is to attract pollinators, the loss of them (which has evolved a number of times) generally indicates a self-pollinator.


Leptosyne calliopsidea (Leafy-stemmed Coryopsis, large yellow) and Layia sp (Tidy tips, white and yellow smaller species). I messed this one up. I assumed the Layia was the common Layia platyglossa, but it turns out there are records of the very rare Layia munzii at the exact spot where I took this. You need to look at the shape of the disk flower pappus to tell them apart, and I don’t even have a close-up photo, so this will remain a mystery. I guess it still is a pretty picture though, even with unidentified plants.


The weekend wasn’t all asters, though. Some additional highlights were two species of Jewelflower that were new to me–the pleasant Caulanthus anceps (Lemmon’s Mustard)


And the bizarre Desert Candle (Caulanthus inflatus)

Yes, those two species are in the same genus–they are a little easier to tell apart than the Layias or the Lasthenias of the world. The weird main stem of the desert candle is hollow, so it’s a fun plant to squeeze.

Delphinium recurvatum (Byron Larkspur). A beautiful specialist in Central Valley Atriplex scrub. In this larkspur flower, the petals are actually the white parts in the middle. The sepals, which are green in most plants, are lavender here. The pointy thing in the back is the nectar spur, which contains the reward for visiting bees.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, I did briefly make it out of the valley and into the foothills. I was looking for a¬†monkey flower species that specializes on patches of bare soil around granite outcrops. I came back with two monkeyflower species that specialize on patches of bare soil around granite outcrops! I found Mimulus congdonii (Cogndon’s Monkeyflower and Mimulus pictus (Calico Monkeyflower) hanging out right next to each other.

I was looking for the later species, as it’s both amazingly patterned and really rare, and it didn’t disappoint. But for the record, I think Mr. Joseph Congdon, a prominent 19th century Sierra botanist, has himself a very nice monkeyflower as well.

Southwest San Bernardino County

Rather than head east as originally planned, I returned to the Mojave this weekend, spending most of the trip botanizing in San Bernardino County. This is the largest county in the lower 48, just a bit smaller than the whole state of West Virginia. More specifically I looked for a few target species in the areas around the town Barstow and the San Bernardino Mountains. I spent most of the time at the bases of mountains, where many species are in full bloom…

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but heading up into the San Bernardino Mountains to camp where the Joshua Trees meet Pinon Pines and Junipers. I will definitely be back to these mid-elevation forests when they start to bloom.

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It’s fun to plan a trip around picking some interesting rare plants to chase down. Even if you don’t find them, rare species tend to occur in places that have lots of other cool things. I find my target plants using the amazing website, Here you can sort through the thousands of plants found in the state with many useful filters. For this trip I chose herbs with more than 3 records in San Bernardino County that bloom in March and are listed by the native plant society as rare or having a limited distribution. From the couple dozen plants that generated, I then chose four species that seemed super interesting to me, and plotted records on my atlas that were collected relatively recently with clear location information. I went three for four on my main targets:

Mentzelia tridentata (Three-toothed Blazing Star, Loasaceae), only found in the Central Mohave around Barstow. Yes, it looks pretty similar to the much more common Mentzelia invulcrata that I posted a picture of a couple weeks ago, but this species has really interestingly-shaped stamens which you can see in the first picture, and mostly green instead of mostly white floral bracts which you can see in the second.

Astragalus albens (Cushenbury Milkvetch, Fabaceae), a small milkvetch only found on limestone outcrops in one canyon in the entire world. The leaves and stems of this species are canescent–one of my favorite botanical terms that means covered in fine, white hairs giving a grayish appearance.


Linanthus maculata (San Bernardino Mountains Linanthus, Polemoniaceae), the most adorable of all plants ever. Yes that’s a dime, and no, they really don’t get any bigger.


In addition the target species, on a trip like this where I go through several habitats, I looked at a couple hundred species of flowers and photograph many of those that I haven’t seen before. In this case I took pictures of maybe 30 species. A few of the post-worthy species:

Nama pusilla (Small-leafed Nama, Boraginacaea). Another tiny white flower, not much bigger than the Linanthus.


Thamnosoma montana (Turpentine Broom, Rutaceae). A common desert shrub, but one of the few members of the mainly tropical citrus family in California. You can see the essential-oil-producing pellucid glands (dots) on the petals. The same structures give oranges and lemons their smell.


Erodium texicanum (Texas Filaree, Geraniaceae). The only species native to California in a genus of bad invasives. I may be biased, but I’m certain it’s the prettiest as well.


Astragalus coccineus (Scarlet Milkvetch, Fabaceae). A shockingly colored plant of desert foothills, I’m pretty sure this is the only red-flowered species in this diverse genus. I was almost as excited to find this, as I was its much rarer congener (second plant photo). It was also growing in Cushenbury Canyon.


Once again, however, the genus Phacelia (Boraginaceae) won the trip. I’ve already photographed maybe 20 of these species, but with 175 in the genus, the majority of which occur in the state, I definitely won’t run out any time soon. I found 5 new ones this trip. I’ll go from worst to best photo.

Phacelia affinis (Limestone Phacelia). Another tiny white flower with cool spoon-shaped sepals.


Phacelia campanularia (Desert Bells). A poor-mans Phacelia nashiana (My favorite plant from last week), more common and less shockingly blue, but still a very showy plant.


Phacelia pachyphylla (Thick-leafed Phacelia). The only place I saw this one was right next to some Mentzelia tridentata.


Phacelia neglecta (Alkali Phacelia). I’ll do fewer tiny white flowers in next week’s blog, I promise.


Phacelia longipes (Longstalk Phacelia). This is actually not a desert plant-I found it on a gravelly road cut on my way home through some chaparral in the Transverse Ranges. The early-evening lighting was amazing, and the plant is both beautiful and fairly uncommon, making this among my favorite photos I’ve ever taken.


Okay (unless I get rained out) I’m going east next weekend for real this time.






Eastern Kern County

This weekend I drove a large loop east from Bakersfield to search for 5 rare early-bloomers. Without leaving the confines of the county, I made it to the western edge of the Mohave Desert,


over the Southernmost Sierras by Lake Isabella, where Goldfields (Lasthenia gracilis, Asteraceae), but little else, were flowering,


to the foothill woodlands on the Eastern side of the Central Valley.


I went 2-5 on my targets. It was too early in the season for my two Sierra misses, so I’ll try this loop again at the end of April. The other miss, Fritillaria striata, is just ridiculously rare, and I struck out despite 4 hours of searching with the correct timing (based on which other species were flowering) in the correct habitat (oak woodlands with heavy clay soils), in one of only two places in the world it occurs. I did a find few consolation prizes in the form of three foothill woodland species that were new to me: Mentzelia pectinata (San Joaquin Blazing Star, Loasaceae), Caulanthus coulteri (Coulter’s Jewelflower, Brassicaceae), and Lupinus benthamii (Bentham’s Lupine, Fabaceae).



Actually, to be fair, I probably have seen the lupine. I just haven’t identified it before, as there are a ton of similar-looking species in the genus. To tell them apart, you have to pull apart the flower, as I’ve done above, and look for things like hairs on the keel (the structure on the lower left). Lupinus benthamii has a glabrous upper keel margin and a lower keel margin that’s ciliate near the claw.

The Mohave leg of my trip was by far the most successful. There are fewer flowers currently flowering than in the more southerly Sonoran desert, but a few of the earliest species are in full swing. Two of these early bloomers were the reason for timing this trip as I did (As I already mentioned, I’ll definitely be back). The first was Muilla coronata (Crowned Muilla, Themidaceae), a tiny onion-like plant found in large colonies in scattered locations throughout the Mohave. The entire plant is an inch or two tall and has one skinny basal leaf. Each of the six anthers sits on an expanded filament which forms the namesake crown. Adorable.


The other target, Phacelia nashiana¬†(Charlotte’s Phacelia, Boraginaceae) is a true rarity, found only on east-facing slopes with crumbling, granite rocks in the narrow range where the Mohave meets the Southern sierras (Kern and the south-western corner of Inyo Counties). The flowers are large for the (very diverse) genus, and could not be more shockingly bright blue. It also has pleasantly plump leaves and lovely golden, glandular trichomes. Just an absolutely glorious plant.


I did find some other nice Mohave Desert plants. Despite relative proximity and similar climate to the Sonoran desert, my location last weekend, none of these species occur in the Sonoran. In fact, if you’re a wildflower nerd like me, you choose Mohave over Sonoran every time, as the former has about double the species of annuals.

A couple early species that I for sure won’t see again this year: Lepidum flavum (Yellow peppergrass, Brassicaceae) and Lomatium mohavense (Mohave Biscuitroot, Apiaceae).


Okay, I lied, the fuzzy leaves in the first photo are actually the tiny Logfia depressa (Dwarf Cottonrose, Asteraceae), which does occur in the Sonoran Desert. It’s in full bloom in the photo (note the little brownish tips at the ends of some of the “leaves”). The whole plant maxes out at half an inch tall. The Lomatium was fun, as plants have purple flowers in the valleys, yellow flowers in the mountains, and the two color forms co-occured where I camped at the mountain base (pictured).

Here are a couple showy desert perennials: Castilleja chromosa (Desert Paintbrush, Orobanchaceae), and Astragalus layneae (Layne’s Milk Vetch, Fabaceae),


and a couple annuals: Lupinus concinnus (Bajada Lupine, Fabaceae), and Gilia brecciarum neglecta (Nevada Gilia, Polemoniaceae)


All four of those are species in very diverse genera. The Gilia in particular took some fancy keying to figure out. There’s no mistaking this last species, however. Tricardia watsonii (Three-hearts, Boraginaceae) is monospecific–there’s only one species in the genus. The name refers to the oversized, heart-shaped calyx lobes, which you can see better in the side view (second picture).


That’s a wrap. I went east this weekend and south last weekend. That means next weekend I should head west!