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!


Botanizing while birding

The main goal of this weekend was to find some migrating birds, meaning that flowers took a bit of a back seat. The Western Mojave, in addition to having amazing flowers, is one of the better places to find birds traveling from their tropical wintering grounds to the Sierras and points north. Migrants tend to concentrate around places in the desert with trees and water, stopping to recharge during the day and continuing on under the stars. Thus, hanging out at desert oases at dawn in the spring can be pretty fun. Despite the avian focus of the weekend, I did track down some pretty great flowers. I’ll start with the rarest one, Astragalus ertterae (Walker Pass Milkvetch, Fabaceae). This plant is only known from a couple locations around one Mountain pass in the Southern Sierras (which is incidentally also a great place to find some locally uncommon birds such as Pinyon Jay).


I also made it into the San Gabriel Mountains, south of Bakersfield, where I added to my growing collection of Blazing Star photos by finding large fields of Mentzelia gracilenta (Graceful Blazing Star, Loasaceae) mixed in with Gilia capitata abrontanifolia (Ball Gilia, Polemoniaceae)

Besides these two stops, most of the botanizing happened in Eastern Kern County. I’ve already been a couple times this year, but I certainly haven’t run out of flowers. Here are a few relatively common Mojave flowers that were new to me this trip:

Eriogonum nudum westonii (Weston’s Buckwheat, Polygonaceae),


Glyptopleura setulosa (Holy Dandelion, Asteraceae),


and Pensetmon incertus (Mojave Beardtongue, Plantaginaceae).


An uncommon, but somewhat inconspicuous species, Chorizanthe spinosa (Mojave Spineflower, Polygonaceae)


And finally, that great combination of rare and beautiful, Calochortus striatus (Alkali Mariposa Lily, Liliaceae).


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!