A couple weeks ago, I went on an amazing hike last weekend to Snow Mountain–the highest point in Lake and Colusa counties.

The rocky slope on the way to the summit was covered with an beautiful lily that I had not met before, Fritillaria glauca.

Fritillary lilies are just the type of plant I love–many of them are both beautiful and rare. Fritillaria glauca is only found on serpentine talus slopes at relatively high elevations in Northwestern California and Southwestern Oregon.

Because they are a favorite, I have gone on numerous trips over the past several years to find and photograph them. In fact, I’ve seen 13 of the 19 species found in California. I know because I’ve been using some quarantine time to organize my photos. That got me to thinking. It would be fun to bring back my blog to highlight some of my favorite plant genera. So here we are.

This is the first in hopefully a series of 10 or so genera posts. For each, I’ll give a brief overview and some cool facts to help you understand my obsession. Then, rather than dump in all my photos, I’m going to choose ten of my favorite pics that highlight some of the diversity and interesting features of the group. Okay, let’s go!

Fritillaria is a genus of about 115 species distributed across Northern Europe, Asia, and North America. So California is home something like 15% of the species–not bad, but nothing like the percentages in groups I’ll highlight later. They are closely related to true lilies in the genus Lilium, and like true lilies they have 6 identical tepals (petals + sepals). The easiest way to tell the two genera apart is to look for a nectary–an often oval-shaped glandular depression in the bottom half of the inside of the tepal. Fritillaria petals have them and Lilium petals don’t. Here, I’ll show you using Fritillaria glauca again.

The nectaries are the yellow spots. They’re not always that obvious to humans, but spending time staring at the inside of a lily is always a good idea. They definitely are obvious to pollinators–the nectar that’s produced there likely attracts a variety of bees, beetles and flies.

Fritillaries also tend to be smaller and bloom earlier than other lillies–in fact, they can be some of the first flowers to bloom in an area. One reason they may be able to get an early start is their genome size. Fritillaries (and actually, lilies in general) have some of the largest genomes of any organisms–orders of magnitude bigger than humans. They are perennials and spend the fall and winter underground as a bulb. While they appear to be dormant, they are actually doing a bunch of splicing and dicing of their genome, allowing them to pre-form a lot of next year’s structures. Having so much raw genetic material makes this process much easier. Pre-forming everything early is really important in California’s short spring growing season–the time of year when there’s both plenty of moisture and sunlight. In fact, a recent paper on Lilium found species from the coldest, driest locations (places with very short growing seasons) tended to have the largest genomes. I bet the same pattern occurs in Frittillaria.

The name Fritillaria means checkered (it’s a name shared with a genus of checkerspot butterflies), and refers to the cool mottled petals of many of the species, as exemplified below by Fritillaria atropurpurea.

This guy, one of the two common Sierra species, has many of the features of your basic Fritillary. Along with the brownish checkered pattern, the nodding flowers are widely spaced on a tall stem. Its habitat is also pretty typical–relatively dry, open woods or scrub. The most common coast range species, Fritillaria affinis also fits the mold.

In addition to these common woodland species, there are some much rarer ones. This includes two species that took me multiple trips to find. Fritillaria brandegeei from the forests of the Greenhorn Mountains in the Southern Sierras.

and Fritillaria pinetorum from, yes, pine forests in SoCal’s transverse ranges.

Both of these are specialists on granitic soils. In fact, many Fritillaries in the state are soil specialists. For unknown reasons, these specialists tend to be shorter with more clustered flowers than the more common generalists.

If you’re looking for rare plants in California, your first task is often to find serpentine soil. Fritillaries have their share of serpentine specialists including Fritillaria glauca and Fritillaria purdyi, an adorable species from the North Coast Ranges.

Maybe the showiest species in California, Fritillaria recurva also occurs on serpentine, although it can be found in other soils with scrubby vegetation throughout the Northern part of the state.

Its red color means hummingbirds are also likely frequent floral visitors in addition to the usual insect crowd. It also tends to be a fire follower, bringing amazing bursts of red in otherwise blackened landscapes.

There’s another type of soil that seems to bring out the weird in fritillaries. Heavy clay soils have tiny particles that hold onto water and nutrients, making it hard for plant roots to extract. They also tend to form extremely hard clumps covered in salt during the dry season. As with many edaphically extreme conditions, some plants have figured out how to deal with heavy clay, evolving to specialize on the stuff. Fritillaries seem to be pretty good at adapting to heavy clays, particularly in the low elevation grasslands of the state whey they often occur in huge populations. Fritillaria biflora of the coastal grasslands is a great example.

Some of the clay specialists have another unique feature–smell. Fritillaria agrestis has a common name that says it all–stinkbells!

The stink is likely a trick to bring in scat-seeking flies. But rather than an off-putting scent, my favorite fritillary flower Fritillaria striata has a fantastic fragrance.

The sweet smell and white color make hawkmoths a likely candidate for the main pollinator of this very rare plant of the Southern Sierran foothills. However, as with all the species of California fritillaries, we’re not sure. As far as I know, despite the amazing variety of color, shape, and orientation of these amazing lilies, their pollination biology has never been studied.

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.

The Greenhorn Mountains

At this time of year in California, the flowering season is practically over in the valleys and lower foothils, but it hasn’t even started high in the mountains. That means the best place to go for flowers are the mid-elevations (~3,000-6,000 feet). Yesterday I day-tripped to a couple nearby mid-elevation spots. Piute peak to the south of Lake Isabella and the Greenhorns, West of the lake. Below is a shot from the former, looking north at the later.2017-05-05 09.44.58

The tree on the left of the image is the rare Hesperocyparis nevadensis (Piute Cypress, Cupressaceae). There are only a few thousand of this fire-dependent conifer in the world, most of which occur in this one giant grove. Here are a few more shots, the last one showing the extremely resinous (sticky) foliage

In the shade of these impressive trees was another rare plant that was just beginning to flower, Streptanthus cordatus piutensis (Piute Mountain Jewel Flower, Brassicaceae). I said it before about the related genus Caulanthus–these guys just don’t photograph well because their cool features are too far apart. So here’s a montage showing the urn-shaped flower, the glaucous, heart-shaped leaves, and a deconstructed flower.

I unsuccessful looked for a rare pink species Delphinium in the area, instead finding a different species with interesting hairy leaves–Delphinium hansenii kernensis (Hansen’s Larkspur, Ranunculaceae)

The rest of my trip was focused on finding some rare lilies. Along the way, I encountered a few other goodies, mostly in genera of which I have recently posted photos: a Clarkia, Clarkia xiantiana (Gunsight Clarkia, Onagraceae, the common name refers to the notch between the two petal lobes),


a couple small, pink monkey flowers: Mimulus constrictus (Dense-fruited Monkey flower) and Mimulus palmeri (Palmer’s Monkeyflower, Phrymaceae), the later occurring in dense colonies in burned area,

and Phacelia congdonii (Congdon’s Phacelia, Boraginaceae).


Here are a couple plants in genera that weren’t previously represented on this blog: Pediomelum californicum (California Indian Breadroot, Fabaceae) with its purple and white flowers almost hidden among long hairs,


and Violia sheltonii (Fan Violet, Violaceae). I think this is my favorite species of violet.


As for those lilies… I struck out on the two rare species of Fritillaries for which I was looking, and now have gone 0-4 this spring in trying to find targets in this genus. I don’t know what’s going on here. I did, however, find my Calochortus targets. This amazing genus has three looks– Mariposa Lilies are tall plants with large, fan-shaped petals. The Calochortus striatus from my last post is an example. Star-tulips have smaller flowers with pointed petals that grow closer to the ground. During this trip, I found a large population of the very rare Calochortus westonii (Shirley Meadows Star-Tulip). I love the beautiful fringed edges to the petals.


And finally, fairy-lanterns have pendant, globe-shaped flowers. Calochortus amoenus (Purple Fairy-Lantern) is a lovely example.

The inside of all three of these groups have a nectary at the base of the petals which attracts all manner of pollinators. The Crab Spider in the left picture is lying in wait, hoping to make a meal out of one of them. The petals of all three types can also be quite hairy. I opened up one of the flowers in the right image to show off the dark pink nectary and the long petal hairs.

I am really enjoying my trips into the Greenhorns, which are practically in my backyard. But there are a few more mid-elevation locations I need to visit before going back. In a month or so, it will be time to head up to their highest peaks.

The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains

I saved the best for last on my spring break botany trip. I spent a day in one of the coolest places in California you’ve (probably) never heard of–The Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument in Riverside County. Although parts of it had been previously preserved, the park was created by Congress in 2000, back when Congress did that nice sort of thing. The slightly taller San Jacintos sit to the north of the Santa Rosas. From them, the Peninsular Ranges head south for 900 miles, forming entire spine of Baja California. These mountains have a split personality. Hiking on their eastern slopes you are clearly in the desert.

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And the flora on this drier side reflects that. Here are some species that are also found in higher elevations in the Mojave or Sonoran Deserts

Allium fimbriatum (Fringed Onion, Alliaceae)


Phacelia curvipes (Washoe Phacelia, Boraginaceae)


A couple plants with close relatives in my last post, Loeseliastrum schottii (Schott’s Calico, Polemoniaceae)


and Porophyllum gracile (Odora, Asteraceae)


And, of course, a cactus–Echinocerus engelmanii (Calico Hedgehog Cactus)


On the western side, however, rather than desert scrub, these mountains are covered in good old California chaparral.

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Here, many of the species also occur in the Peninsular Ranges to north and west of here. For instance, Phacelia minor (California Bluebell, Boraginaceae)


Mimulus brevicaulis (Wide-throated Monkeyflower, Phyrmaceae)


Linanthus californicus (California Phlox, Polemoniaceae)


and Antirrhinum coulterianum (Coulter’s Snapdragon, Plantaginaceae)


But I really came for all the plants found in the Peninsular Ranges and nowhere else. And I found several of them. I’ll start with a couple of mustards–Caulanthus hallii

And C. simulans

Why do two closely related species of rare mustards both choose to grow in the same section of trail? I have no idea. But I do know they are both way cooler in person–it’s really hard to capture their lanky shape well in a picture.

Shrubs, such as this Ceanothus perplexans (Cupped-leaf Ceanothus, Rhamnaceae) are a bit easier to photograph.


As I frequently do, I’ve saved my favorites for last. Monardella nana (Little Coyote Mint, Lamiaceae), is definitely the most interesting-looking member of its genus that I’ve met. I didn’t even recognize it at first, as this group of plants usually has tight clusters of purple flowers (see Monardella sinuata from a couple posts ago). I just love the fuzzy white bracts and pink anthers.

And finally, the ridiculously bright pink Penstemon clevelandii (San Jacinto Beardtongue) seen here in its preferred rocky perch.

Thus concludes my spring break flower report. I haven’t yet made up my mind as to where I’m headed this weekend, but rest assured that there will be flowers involved.

The Mohave Grand Tour

I just spent a good portion of last week driving around Southern California chasing flowers. My last stop in at Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument had enough beautiful and unique things to warrant its own post–I’ll add that in a couple days. But first I want to show off some of the highlights from the rest of the trip, in which I looped around the Western, Northern, and Central Mohave. My first stop was the Kelso Valley, where the western Mohave meets the Southern Sierras. I had stopped here a few weeks ago, but not much was blooming then. This time I got the timing right, and found the rare monkeyflower for which I was looking, Mimulus shevockii (Kelso Valley Monkeyflower, Phrymaceae)


The spot also had another uncommon and extremely tiny plant, Canbya candida (Pygmy Poppy, Papaveraceae). I was there early in the morning so the flowers are still closed from the night before. For a sense of scale, the “pebbles” around the plant are actually grains of sand.


I then headed over Walker Pass toward the desert floor, stopping to look for a rare species of Astragalus which was not yet in bloom. I did get a consolation prize of a more common species in the same genus, Astragalus purshii (Woolypod Milkvetch, Fabaceae).


I hit the desert floor around Red Rock State Park, and fairly quickly found large numbers of a rare species of Blazing Star, Mentzelia eremophila (Pinyon Blazing Star, Loasaceae).

Also in the area were some nice patches of Linanthus parryae (Sand Blossoms, Polemonaceae). Individuals either have white or purple flowers, sometimes in the same population, as you can see from the second photo.

Further to the southeast at lower elevations, I made a quick stop in some Saltbrush Flats and found the uncommon Goodmania luteola (Yellow Spinecape, Polygonaceae). I know it doesn’t look like much, but it’s the only species in its genus, and to a plant nerd like me, that makes it pretty interesting.


From the Western Mohave, I made the long drive to Death Valley National Park, where I had hoped to find a few beautiful and rare species that only occur on limestone cliffs in the Northern part of the park. Unfortunately, I got the timing wrong, and I was too late to catch these short-lived annuals. That’s not to say the trip wasn’t worth it though. On the way in, I found a couple common, but interesting species

Cleomella obtusifolia (Blunt-leaf Stinkweed, Cleomaceae), a small plant found around salty lakes.


Eucnide urens (Desert Rocknettle, Loasaceae), a shrub with extremely sharp hairs that I know now not to touch.


Despite striking out on the limestone specialists, I did find a couple of rare plants. Salvia funerea (Death Valley Sage, Lamiaceae) is a unique, incredibly woolly shrub with a funky smell found in the mountains around the valley.


The clear prize of the Death Valley leg of the trip was Enceliopsis covillei (Panamint Daisy, Asteraceae). This beautiful sunflower is only found in gypsum soils in a few canyons on the western side of the Panamint mountains. It’s the logo for the California Native Plant Society:


When I got to the area, I was dismayed to find the only road that goes through the range of the species was closed. I quickly formulated a back-up plan, driving as close as I could to the mountains, picking what looked like an interesting canyon with gypsum (the white rock below), and walking in.

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About a mile up the canyon, I found one individual growing completely by itself on the side of the canyon. I shouted pretty loud when I saw it.

After leaving death valley, I spent an evening and morning botanizing around the Barstow area in the Central Mohave. There were a number of interesting plants in the area, including a couple more species from the extremely diverse sunflower family (Asteraceae), Nicolletia occidentalis (Hole-in-the-Sand Plant) and Adenophyllum cooperi (Cooper’s Dogweed, shown with a sleeping bee-fly, Bombylius sp.).

But another plant family, Polemoniaceae, led the highlight reel here. A pink patch of Leptosiphon breviculus (Mohave Linanthus) looked lovely in the evening light



Loeseliastrum matthewsii (Desert Calico, Polemoniaceae) was just beginning to bloom in the area.


And another tiny prickly annual with intricately patterned petals Langloisia setosissima (Lilac Sunbonnet) was surprisingly common.


From Barstow, I made the long drive south to the Santa Rosa Mountains. I’ll detail those highlights in my next post.







Central Sierra Foothills

I’m about to head out to the desert, but before I do, here’s a quick post about the overnight trip I just took up to Tuolumne County. I stopped along the South Fork of the Stanislaus River and at a nice outcrop of iron-rich serpentine soil called the Red Hills. Both spots have a bunch of uncommon or rare plants, but I was too early or too late for most of them. The couple I did manage to scrounge up definitely fall under the category of “plants only a botanist would love”.

Lomatium congdonii (Congdon’s Lomatium, Apiaceae). A rare plant only found in serpentine in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties


Leptosyne stillmanii (Stillman’s Coreopsis, Asteraceae), also a serpentine specialist.


The botanical highlights of the trip were actually three beautiful species that are common in the Sierras, but new to me (as far as I remember).

Lathyrus sulphureus (Snub Pea, Fabaceae)


Nemophila maculata (Fivespot, Boraginaceae)


and Calochortus monophyllus (Yellow Star Tulip, Liliaceae)


I’m feeling generous, so I’ll even throw in a couple plants that range widely across the Western US and Canada:

Phlox speciosa (Showy Phlox, Polemoniaceae)


Lewisia redivia (Bitter Root, Portulacaeae)


I’ll be hitting the road tomorrow with an ambitious itinerary wherein I will attempt to find many plants that are both rare AND beautiful.