I spent most of May Studying this plant at the McLaughlin Natural Reserve:

Clarkia concinna (Red Ribbons, Onagraceae)


McLaughlin is located in the Inner Coast Ranges of Northern California at the intersection of Napa, Lake, and Yolo conties. The site is well known for its large areas of serpentinite–a metamorphic rock created as the earth’s mantle is pushed upward at a tectonic plate boundary and transformed by heat and water. Serpentinite is a bluish or greenish rock full of heavy metals including gold–the site was a gold mine until recently. These metals are generally toxic to plants. Combined with a generally high (basic) pH and low availability of Calcium (an important plant macronutrient), the serpentine soils derived from these rocks are a uniquely harsh environment. The plants that do grow on these soils have evolved various ways of dealing with the conditions, and in doing so have often become new species, reproductively isolated from their non-serpentine relatives. Thus in addition to being a literal gold mine, McLaughlin and the surrounding area is a metaphorical gold mine of rare plants. There are actually several serpentine habitats including chaparral, barrens, and grasslands, all of which can be seen in this picture.


Wildflowers are especially diverse in wetter areas of serpintine including seeps (locations on a hillside where the water table reaches the surface) and swales (marshy depressions in grasslands, shown here).


Each of these serpentine habitats has its own set of specialists, although there is some overlap. Not all plant species found on serpentine are restricted to it (serpentine endemics). Some are able to grow both on serpentine and in the surrounding non-serpentine habitat (serpentine tolerators ). Understanding the evolution of serpentine tolerance and endemism is a great evolutionary case study, and one that my labmate is studying for her dissertation.

Okay, onto the plants! When looking at my photos for this month, I noticed I had a bunch of pairs of species in the same genus. Therefore, despite hating that our culture has latched onto the pseudoscience of astrology, I will commemorate our being under the sign of Gemini by presenting some plant twins. It was too good a coincidence to pass up. Besides giving the plant family, I’ll also describe the habitat for each plant and whether it’s a serpentine endemic (only found on serpentine), an indicator (usually found on serpentine) a tolerator (sometimes found on serpentine), or a plant that was not growing on serpentine soils.

Sidalcea diploscypha (Fringed Checkerbloom, indicator, grassland)

Sidalcea oregana (Oregon Checkerbloom, non-serpentine, swales, Malvaceae)


S. diploscypha actually comes in two color morphs that can both be found in the same population. The other morph has white petal bases like in S. oregana. However, both morphs of the former species are hairier, shorter, and fewer-flowered than S. oregana, so telling them apart is not difficult.

Castilleja rubicundula (Cream Sacs, indicator, swales)

Castilleja applegatei (Wavy-leafed Paintbrush, tolerator, chaparral, Orobanchaceae)


C. rubicundula has two subspecies that occur around McLaughlin. This is C. r. lithospermoides. The other subspecies, C. r. rubicundula, has white flowers and is a rare serpentine endemic.¬† C. applegatei is a a more widely distributed (although nowhere common) species that usually has red flowers. This is the first time I’ve ever seen it in yellow, but it still has the sticky, wavy leaves characteristic of the species.

Trifolium fucatum (Sour Clover, tolerator, grasslands)

Trifolium variegatum (White-tipped Clover, non-serpentine, swales, Fabaceae)Trifolium_fucatumTrifolium_variegatum

Both of these clovers are relatively common throughout California, but I really like these shots. Many people think of clovers as non-native lawn/pasture weeds, and we certainly have several of them in California, but there are dozens of native species in the state, some of which are quite rare. Once pollinated, the petals of T. fucatum turn red and inflate, presumably helping to protect the seed pod from predators.

Calochortus vestae (Coast Range Mariposa Lily, indicator, grasslands)

Calochortus luteus (Yellow Mariposa Lily, non-serpentine, grasslands, Liliaceae)


Calachortus is a diverse genus of about 70 species all of which are found in Western North America. They all have showy petals that contain nectar to attract a diverse set of pollinators. The nectar-containing part of the petal, the nectary, varies in shape, size and hairiness among species, and thus is useful for identification. The nectary in in C. vestae is the double crescent or “W shaped” patch of dense brown hairs under the reddish brown spot on the right side of the image. This confirms the identification as this species and not, say, the similiar C. venustus, which has a square nectary.

Leptosiphon bolanderi (Bolander’s Leptosiphon, tolerator, chaparral)

Leptosiphon latisectus (Broad-lobed Leptosiphon, indicator, chaparral, Polemoniaceae)


Both of these species open during the day and are pollinated by long-tongued flies. However other species in the genus have white petals, open in the evening, and are visited by hawkmoths.

Streptanthus breweri (Brewer’s Jewelflower, endemic, barrens)

Streptanthus glandulosus (Bristly Jewelflower, indicator, chaparral, Brassicaceae)


I love Streptanthus. They are bizarre-looking, many of them are rare, and they always seem to be buzzing with native bees.

Pogogne douglasii (Douglas’ Mesamint, tolerator, swales)

Pogogne serpylloides (Thymeleaf Mesamint, non-serpentine, swales, Lamiaceae)


These mints smell amazing.

Downingia concolor (Maroonspot Calicoflower, non-serpentine, swales)

Downingia cuspida (Toothed Calicoflower, non-serpentine, swales, Campanulaceae)


I had never found a calicoflower before this spring, and therefore this beautiful genus was high on my list of targets this month. In low wet depressions in meadows with compacted soil these guys can just carpet the area–quite the sight.

Navarretia leucocephala plieantha (Many-flowered Navarretia, non-serpentine, swales)

Navarretia paradoxinota (Smallflowered Needleleaf Navarretia, endemic, swales, Polemoniaceae)


Including the left picture twice wasn’t a mistake. The purple flower under the Downingia is a super-rare plant that’s only found in Lake and Sonoma Counties. But it’s not the rarest Navarretia I photographed this month. N. paradoxinota is only found in a few serpentine swales in Lake and Napa counties. It’s so rare, it was only recognized as a new species in 2013, when it was found to be quite genetically distinct from the morphologically similiar N. intertexta.

Okay stretching my twins rules a bit,

Campanula griffinii (Griffin’s Bellflower, endemic, chaparral)

Heterocodon rariflorum (Fewflowered Heterocodon, tolerator, seeps, Campanulaceae)


These are in two closely related genera. Despite the dramatically different appearance, they are in the same family as Downingia.

And now for three plants without a twin.

Silene laciniata californica (California Indian Pink, tolerator. chaparral, Caryophyllaceae). This beauty was blooming in great numbers in an area of recently burned chaparral.


Calycantus occidentalis (Spicebush, non-serpentine, streambanks). Calacanthaceae. This bush is widely planted as an ornamental, but it’s only native to foothills in California.


Horkelia bolanderi (Bolander’s Horkelia, non-serpentine, Rosaceae). While this last plant doesn’t grow on serpentine, it is quite rare and has very specific habitat requirements. It only occurs at the border between swales and Pine forest in southern Lake County.


That’s it for May. While I’ll be spending much less time outside during the next couple of months, hopefully I’ll be able to make a few trips into the mountains as the higher elevation species come into bloom.



In April I broke my personal record of flower photos taken in a month (set last month). Flowers continue to bloom a few weeks ahead of schedule due to the abnormally warm winter. I botanized in three general locations this month: Santa Cruz County, including the unique Sandhills habitat, coastal Monterey, and the inner South Coast Ranges. I photographed probably close to 100 plants this month, but I’ve winnowed the list down to my 25 favorites. I’ll start with some some Santa Cruz plants.

Brodiaea terrestris (Dwarf Brodiaea, Themidaceae). This small lily is found in the coastal prairie habitat on campus. The white things around the stamens are called staminodes. They are modified sterile stamens that may help orient a potential pollinator (and are also useful in species identification). As always, click on the picture to enlarge.


Calochortus albus (White Globe Lily, Liliaceae). Another common lily on campus, occuring along forest edges. The bulge in the petal is the nectary.


Polygala californica (California Milkwort). Another common campus plant. People often mistake it for something in the Pea Family, but it’s actually in a closely related small family of its own (Polygalaceae).


Limnanthes douglasii (Common Meadowfoam, Limnaceae). This plant occurs in wet depressions or seeps in fields, often totally blanketing an area. Some populations have yellow at the base of the petals. It’s actually rare in the county, this population is on private property in the mountains near Ben Lomond.


The last three photos from Santa Cruz this month were taken in the Zayante Sandhills. Sandhills are the most unique habitat in the county. They are the remains of an ancient seabed that was pushed upwards as the Santa Cruz mountains formed.

Hesperomecon linearis (Carnival Poppy, Papaveraceae). This little poppy is restricted to the Sandhills in the county, but it occurs in other habitats elsewhere in California


Chorizanthe pungens hartwegiana (Ben Lomond Spineflower, Polygonaceae). One of three varieties of the Monterey Spineflower, all of which are rare. This variety is only found in the Sandhills, where it carpets the ground in places.


Erysimum teretifolium (Santa Cruz Wallflower, Brassicaceae). An endangered mustard that’s also only found in the Sandhills.


In early April, I took a trip down to the Monterey Peninsula to botanize in the coastal sand dunes and the Monterey Pine Forest. Monterey county has one of the most diverse floras of any county in the US. There are over 2000 species of plants recorded in the county–roughly the same number as all of Pennsylvania. The Monterey Peninsula is a particularly diverse region, with a ton of range-restricted plants, and I had never botanized it before. It was not a disappointing trip. I started in the dunes, which look like this:


The highlights included two endangered plants, Lupinus tidestromii (Tidestrom’s Lupine, Fabaceae)


and Erysimum menziesii (Menzies’ Wallflower, Brassicaceae).Erysimum_menziesii_2

Yes, that is two endangered Wallflower photos this month. They are both related to the more common Erisymum capitatum which is found throughout the western states. I also took pictures of that species, which locally has orange flowers, but it didn’t make the cut under my strict 25 photo limit.

Also along the coast was this cool pea plant, Astragalus nuttallii (Ocean Bluff Milkvetch, Fabaceae). The weird things in the lower left of the photo are the inflated pea pods.


I also found several range-restricted plants in the Monterey Pine forest which looks like this:


Pinus radiata (Monterey Pine) is only native to a few groves on the central coast of California, but it is one of the most widely planted trees in the world. Because it grows very quickly, its soft wood is one of the most common sources of both lumber and pulp. It’s also invasive in some places. The understory of native Monterey Pine forest is dominated by Vaccinium ovatum (California Huckleberry), and the rare Hesperocyparis goveniana (Gowen’s Cypress). Here are two plants I found in the Monterey Pine forest understory that are restricted to the Central Coast of California:

Acmispon cytisoides (Bentham’s Broom, Fabaceae)


Lomatium parvifolium (Coastal Biscuitroot, Apiaceae)


And here are two more common plants from my Monterrey trip:

Muilla maratima (Sea Muilla, Themidaceae)


Pholistoma auritum (Fiesta Flower, Boraginaceae)


The last group of this month’s photos come from the South Inner Coast Ranges, where I was doing pollinator work on Clarkia breweri (Fairy Fans, Onagraceae)


We are comparing at the quality and quantity of pollen that is deposited on the stigma (the white four-lobed thing at the bottom of the flower) after one visit by either a hawkmoth or a bee. This species grows on steep rocky slopes in chaparral, sometimes on harsh serpentine soils. Conveniently, this habitat has a lot of other interesting wildflower, so I could take photos during breaks in the action. The first location was along Del Puerto Canyon Road, which had these cool plants:

Acanthomintha lanceolata (Santa Clara Thornmint, Lamiaceae). This genus of spiny mints has only four species, all of which grow on harsh soils, and have very small ranges in southern California.


Eremothera boothii decorticans (Shredding Evening Primrose, Onagraceae). Zoom in on a flower  to check out the cool contrast between the yellow pollen (with the sticky threads characteristic of the Onagraceae family) and red stigma.


Mentzelia lindleyi (Lindley’s Blazing Star, Loasaceae). This range-restricted showstopper occurs in dense patches on hillsides and has flowers that are a good 3 inches across.


And my favorite plant of the trip, Nemacladus montanus (Mountain Threadplant, Campanulaceae), a tiny, uncommon serpentine endemic.


I also found Hesperolinon disjunctum (Coast Range Dwarf Flax, Linaceae) at our camp.


We also worked at Pinnacles National Park. In some chaparral on the drive there, I found two of my favorite non-serpentine chaparral plants. Both are in the mint family.

Salvia carduacea (Thistle Sage, Lamiaceae)


and Trichostema lanatum (Wooly Blue Curls, Lamiaceae).Trichlostema_lanatum

Co-occuring with Clarkia breweri at Pinnicles were two other species in the genus, including this beautiful Clarkia cylindrica (Speckled Clarkia, Onagraceae). This species has 8 anthers in two groups of four. The inner anthers have yellow pollen and the outer ones have purple pollen. No one knows why. The photo is of a newly opened flower, so the anthers are just starting to split apart, but you can still see the color difference.


Also present was Lewisia rediviva (Bitter Root, Montiaceae). The genus Clarkia was named after the explorer William Clark, while Lewisia was named after his partner Meriwether Lewis, so that whole expedition was well represented here.


I’ll end with a plant that’s not very showy, but it’s both adorable and rare, found only in Northern Monterey and San Benito county. Eriogonum nortonii (Pinnacles Buckwheat). The whole plant is only a few inches across. It was growing in the shade of its shrubby and super common cousin Eriogonum fasciculatum California Buckwheat), and immediately set my rare plant sense to tingling.Eriogonum_nortonii

Hopefully more tingles are in store next month as I head up to the endemic-rich McLaughlin Bio Station for a month of fieldwork. Stay Tuned…


I took a lot of plant photos this month. California had its warmest winter on record, and the rains we did get started relatively early. Therefore plants that don’t normally bloom until April or even May were already out in full force. I spent time in March botanizing at four places. I took my first trip of the year up to my field site at McLaughlin Reserve in eastern Napa county. The harsh serpentine soils there make for an abundance of rare and interesting flowers. It’s still early in the season up there. The plants around Santa Cruz are really getting going, so I’ve been taking breaks from my dissertation to wander around campus. I also made it to two locations in the Southern Inner Coast Ranges. The first was a return visit to a ranch that UCSC is acquiring for which I am building the plant species list. That site was in peak bloom. Finally I camped for a night in the Panoche Hills BLM land. I was really excited about the potential for cool wildflowers on the unusual shale soils down there, but I was about 3 weeks too late. It’s not even April, and most of the hillsides were already brown and crispy.

Rather than group plants by location, I’m going to organize this post taxonomically, putting more closely related plants closer together. There are around 400,000 plant species on the planet, and around 6,000 of those occur in California (1,000 of which are introduced non-natives). That’s an overwhelming number of species to learn. Therefore, rather than recognizing individual species, a beginning botanist focuses on learning his or her plant families. There are 620 families of plants, and only 185 in California. Each plant family is comprised of one or more genera (singular–genus), which in turn are made up of one or more species (species is singular or plural). Luckily, because species in a family share a long evolutionary history, they often have a unique combination of features in the stem, leaves, flowers, and fruits. By recognizing these traits, I can usually guess the family of an unknown plant. From there, I work through a taxonomic key to identify the species. All plant families end in the suffix -aceae. I’ll present my photos in roughly the order that they would most commonly be arranged in a plant collection. I’ll also give you the plant family, location, and whether it’s particularly rare. Almost all of these species are only found in California.

One more thing before I stop rambling. I took a ton of pictures this month, but I’m limiting this post to my favorite 20. My selection process included a combination of the picture quality, the beauty of the flower, and, to borrow from Immanuel Kant, the plant’s sublimity (No, I haven’t actually read Kant, this is cut-rate, secondhand philosophy). To me, something is the most sublime if it is globally uncommon, there is nothing else similar to it, and it has unique interactions with other things. Incidentally, this definition works for any thing–say, a book. Unlike beauty, which is immediate, sublimity can only be gauged by understanding the history and context of a thing. I’m drawn to sublimity over beauty, especially in nature, which I think is one of the main reasons I study ecology and evolution. Okay, enough already. On with the flowers! Click on the photos to expand them to full size.

Clarkia tembloriensis (Temblor Clarkia). Onagraceae. Panoche Hills. Limited species range.


Eremalche parryi (Parry’s Mallow). Malvaceae. Panoche Hills. Limited species range.


Astragalus breweri (Brewer’s Milkvetch). Fabaceae. McLaughlin. Rare plant.


Hosackia gracilis (Witches Teeth). Fabaceae. UCSC. Rare plant.


Horkelia cuneata (Wedgeleaf Horkelia). Rosaceae. UCSC. Limited species range.


Eriogonum angulosum (Anglestem Buckwheat). Polygonaceae. Panoche Hills.


Collomia diversifolia (Serpentine Collomia). Polomoniaceae. McLaughlin. Rare plant.


Sanicula bipinnatifida (Purple Sanicle). Apiaceae. UCSC.


Amsinkia intermedia (Common Fiddleneck). Boraginaceae. McLaughlin.


Phacelia tanacetifolia (Tansy-leafed Phacelia). Boraginaceae. Panoche Hills.


Asclepias californica (California Milkweed). Apocynaceae. The Ranch.


Orobanche uniflora (One-flowered Broomrape). Orobanchaceae. The Ranch.


Triphysaria versicolor (Yellow-beaked Owl’s Clover). Orobanchaceae. UCSC. Limited species range.


Mimulus douglasii (Purple Mouse Ears). Phrymaceae. McLaughlin.


Allium falcifolium (Sickle-leafed Onion). Alliaceae. McLaughlin.


Allium hyalinum (Glassy Onion). Alliaceae. The Ranch.


Fritillaria affinis (Checker Lily). Liliaceae. UCSC.


Fritillaria recurva (Scarlet Fritillary). Liliaceae. Near McLaughlin.


Fritillaria purdyi (Purdy’s Fritillary). Liliaceae. McLaughlin. Rare plant.


Erythronium helena (St. Helena Fawn Lily). Liliaceae. Near McLaughlin. Rare plant.



While a few enterprising flowers get an early start in January, the second month of the year is the true kickoff of the botanical season in California. February is my favorite time of year to look for plants in two fairly different plant communities: Redwood forest and maritime Adiantum_aleuticumchaparral. Wildflowers bloom early in these two habitats for very different reasons. We’ll start with Redwoods. I spent a lovely February day traipsing around Nicene Marks State Park. Here’s a view of one of the streams running though the park with Adiantum aleuticum (Five-Fingered Fern) in the foreground. Redwood forests, despite their beauty and iconic stature, are fairly low in total species. The many branches and needles of Sequoia sempervirens (Redwood) prevent most light from making it to the forest floor. Additionally, fallen needles are quite acidic and form a thick layer of plant debris or “duff” that make it hard for other plants to germinate. Nevertheless, a few understory wildflowers still make a go of it, and many of these plants bloom early in the year. Why is blooming early beneficial? Well, maybe it really isn’t in this habitat. Most of the Redwood wildflowers have “Northern Affinities”–their close relatives occur in deciduous forests in the Eastern US and across Canada to the Pacific Northwest. In these habitats, light levels are much higher in early spring before the trees have leafed out. While Redwoods keep their leaves all year round, the timing of flowering could be an evolutionary holdover from these more seasonal environments. I’ll prove my case with a few flowers that should look familiar to Eastern and Northern botanists.

The dainty Anemone oregana (Western Wood Anemone)Anemone_oregana

The adorable Viola sempervirens (Redwood Violet)


The plucky Cardamine californica (Milkmaids)


The unusual Petasites frigidus (Western Coltsfoot). I know, it doesn’t look like the foot of a Colt now. It’s named for it’s leaf shape. The leaves emerge later in the year, after the plant has finished flowering.


And a plant in one of my favorite genera, Trilium ovatum (Western Wakerobin)


PS, you can click on all the pictures for larger images.

Redwood forests couldn’t be more different from another habitat that I visited this month–Maritime Chaparral. Chaparral is a habitat that is unique to California and a few other places in the world with mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers. Chaparral is dominated by hardy shrubs, and has a proportion of annual plants only rivaled by desert habitats. Additionally, unlike Redwood Forests, California chaparral is replete with plant genera and even entire families with their center of diversity right here in the state. No East Coast transplants here; these guys are Californian, through and through! Maybe that’s why this East Coast transplant loves to explore chaparral. Maritime chaparral in particular occurs far enough away from the ocean to avoid the problems with coastal living (salty air, wind), but close enough to receive all the benefits (fog and Ceanothus_rigidusmoderate temperatures in the summer). Therefore maritime chaparral, like patch I visited at Fort Ord UC Reserve, (shown here with the range-restricted Ceanothus rigidus (Monterey Ceanothus) in the forground) is particularly botanically interesting. There will actually be more species in flower here in the coming months, but this time of year, I get to indulge in the rewarding pastime of “belly botanizing”–so named because the plants are so small, you need to get down on your belly to see them! Examples are below (you can use the grains of sand and occasional ant for scale).

Acmispon strigosus (Strigose Lotus)


Minuartia californica (California Sandwort)


Phacelia douglasii (Douglas’ Phacelia)


Camissoniopsis micrantha (Miniature Suncup, yellow) and a friend in either Cryptantha or Plagiobothrys (white, sorry, you need fruits to tell these guys apart and there were none to be found)Camissoniopsis_micrantha_and_Plagiobothrys_spThese tiny, early-blooming plants are taking advantage of the wet conditions during and just after the winter rains to germinate, grow, flower, and set seed in just a few weeks. Many of them, rather than relying on a pollinator, just pollinate themselves. Flowers that primarily self-pollinate tend to have smaller, less showy flowers and male and female parts that are closer together in time and space. Compare the Camissoniopsis above with two related February-blooming species, Tetrapteron graciliflorum (Hill Suncups)


and Taraxia ovata (Sun Cup).

Taraxia_ovataThe larger flowers may attract more pollinators and lead to higher rates of outcrossing, where mom and dad are different plants. However, these plants may still have mixed-mating systems, where some seeds are the result of self-pollination and others from outcrossing. About half of all plant species self-pollinate, at least occasionally. One last note on the three above species. They are in the evening primrose family (Onagraceae), which is an easy family to learn by recognizing the combination of four petals and ovaries (the part of the flower that contains the unripe seeds) that sit way below the rest of the flower. In fact, what looks like the flower stalk in these photos is actually a really long, skinny ovary. These three species don’t produce any stem (although other species in the family do); the leaves, flowers, and roots basically come out of the same spot.

In the waning days of February, I had a chance to botanize a property that will potentially be incorporated into the University of 2015-02-25 15.10.42California Natural Reserve System in the near future. I’ll just call it “The Ranch” for now, as the deal is not finalized, but hopefully it will be soon, because it’s a beautiful place. Check out the view from the top! I’m planning on going back there a few more times this spring, so I’ll just post a couple of my favorite shots (the Tetrapteron graciliflorum¬†was also from here).

Platystemon californicus (Cream Cups), with a bonus of Microsters gracilis (Slender Phlox, pink flower in lower right)


Micranthes californica (California Saxifrage)


Here’s a final picture of Sanicula arctopoides (Footsteps of Spring) from a grassier area of Fort Ord. This species and Taraxia ovata (above) are two ofSanicula_arctopoides the earliest coastal prairie species to bloom, and are portends of great flowers to come from that habitat over the next couple months. Stay tuned!


Rather than bombarding Facebook with flower photos, I’ve decided to lump them all in one place. This format will also allow me to share some natural history tidbits. Currently, my plan is to post my pictures at the end of each month–a floral calendar, if you will. I reserve the right to change my mind on the frequency and objectives of these

While most of the country is under snow in January, the first month of the year is actually the beginning of the growing season in coastal California. “The greening,” as some prefer to call it, begins in late fall with the onset of the rains, as seedlings begin to sprout. By late January, a few eager species have already started to flower, hoping to beat the rush and lure some hungry freshly-emerged insects. One of the earliest is Scoliopus bigelovii (fetid adder’s tongue).


This lily of the damp redwood understory doesn’t rely on beauty to attract a pollinator as much as it does scent. Scoliopus really earns its common name “fetid” by producing a noxious odor that flies seeking rotting flesh can’t resist. Female flies on the hunt for a place to lay eggs land on the brown, meaty-looking petals. Unfortunately for the visiting Dipteran, a flower is not as great of a place to raise a family as she might have hoped. This sort of flower that attracts a visitor, but doesn’t provide any reward is conducting deceptive pollination–a corruption of the normally mutualistic plant-pollinator interaction. After its act of deceit, Scoliopus earns its other common name, “slinkpod.” As its seeds ripen, the flower stalk continues to grow, eventually curving over and planting the seeds into the ground. I guess the idea behind this strange adaptation is if the location was good enough for Big Stinky, it should be good enough for Stinky Jr.

At the other end of the pollination spectrum is Toxicoscordion freemontii var. minor (coastal death camas)


This flower is also a January-blooming lily, but otherwise, it’s doesn’t have many similarities to Scoliopus. For one, it occurs in sunny, coastal meadows–about as different a habitat as you can find from the redwood understory. More interestingly, as its name suggests, it is super poisonous. That includes its nectar and pollen, which contain a toxin that can paralyze insect larvae. Tricking a pollinator is mean, but it still makes sense. But what possible reason would a plant have to poison its pollinators? Well, the poison only works on most pollinators. There are species of bees that specialize visiting Toxicoscordion, whose larvae grow just fine on a diet of poison pollen. Other insects learn to avoid these flowers. Maybe they taste bad. By only letting one species of specialist insect visit its flowers, it becomes much more likely that a visit will move pollen between individuals of the same species. In other words, poison pollen keeps out the riffraff of generalist pollinators. This particular variety of Toxicoscordion is endemic (only found) in coastal meadows in a few counties in central California. It’s actually the coast form of a more widely distributed species that blooms in the woods around Santa Cruz a little later in the year. It’s somewhat common for plants to look different when they are found near the coast. One of the features typical of coastal forms shown well by this plant is a shorter stature–the inland variety is maybe four times the size.

Another narrow endemic that blooms early is Arctostaphylos andersonii (Santa Cruz Manzanita).


This shrub is only found in the Santa Cruz Mountains, although it is relatively common here. Manzanitas are a group of plants that are iconic of California chaparral. There are about 60 species in California, and only a handful anywhere else. Often, more than one species will occur at the same location. This is true on the UC campus, where Arctostaphylos crustacea is also common. You can tell the two apart by the clasping, heart-shaped leaves of A. andersonii. When two similar species co-occur, they usually have to do something subtly different. This divvying up of resources is called “niche partitioning. In the case of these Manzanitas, A. andersonii blooms earlier and grows in slightly more shaded locations.

I’ll round out January with a much more common plant, Umbellularia californica (California Bay Laurel)


It’s representative of the many trees around here that get a nice and early start. Oaks, alders, and maples are among the many early flowering local trees. I’d show pictures, but many of these are wind-pollinated, and therefore there wouldn’t be much to show. The flowers of Umbellularia may not seem like much either, but they have a long history. This species is in the Laurales, a group of plants that have relatively primitive traits such as thick, white, oil-containing petals, unfused carpals (the part of the flower containing the unripe seeds), and variable numbers of floral parts such as anthers. Flowers looking very similar to this have been around since the time of T-Rex in the late Cretaceous. Its fruits are also quite tasty when toasted.