My last couple blog entries have been about very “Californian” taxa, with their centers of diversity in the Golden State. With over 2500 species spread across all 6 of the continents worth botanizing, Astragalus is much more cosmopolitan. Still, California has its fair share, with nearly 100 species (and many more varities). I’ve collected photos of 18.

Astragalus is in the Fabaceae, or pea, family, which is one of the most easily recognizable. Flowers (at least in the subfamily Paplionoidae) have a characteristic bilateral shape, with a large banner petal on the top, two wing petals off to the sides, and two bottom petals fused into a shape resembling the keel of a boat. This close up of Astragalus purshii, a common mountain species shows the flowers well.

Fabaceae is even more recognizable by their pod-shaped fruits called legumes. In many members of Astragalus, these pods are inflated into fun, pop-able pouches. Here they are in Astragalus lentiginosus–in this species, they also happen to be freckled

Finally, this family tends to have compound leaves–in the case of Astragalus they are pinnately compound with leaflets arranged across from each other along a central axis. Look in the background of this lovely Astragalus lanyeae from the Mohave desert.

You can refer to plants in this genus by two different common names. The first, milkvetch, works for all species. But a number of species such as the A. lentiginosus shown above and this Astragalus nuttallii from coastal bluffs in along the central coast, produce a toxic compound called swainsonine.

This compound apparently tastes fine to livestock who will preferentially munch on Astragalus plants. If animals eat to much of it, it causes vacuolation and subsequent destruction of neurons. The resulting abnormal behaviors of poisoned livestock were noticed by ranchers in the 1800’s. They dubbed the plants “locoweed”. Unfortunately for the plant, knowledgeable ranchers will remove Astragalus from their pastures threatening the survival of some of the rarer grassland species.

Most Astragalus (and actually Fabacaeous plants in general) are bee pollinated. The stigma and stamens are enclosed in the keel. When a bee lands on the flower, its weight pushes the keel downward exposing the reproductive parts and allowing for pollination. Butterflies and flies just aren’t heavy enough to trip the keel. Here’s Bombus vosnesenskii pollinating Astragalus oxyphysus, one of the aforementioned threatened locoweeds from San Joaquin valley

The glorious exception to bee pollination in the genus is Astragalus coccineus, found in pinyon pine woodlands in desert mountains. This species makes use of hummingbirds that presumably press down the keel with their chin.

Even more than most taxa in California, Astragalus is a genus of extreme endemism. Many, many species are restricted to a very specific habitat in a very specific area. Even more widely distributed species, such as the A. lentiginosus and A. purshii are further subdivided geographically into varieties. Wherever you are, there’s likely a rare Astragalus near you. Here are just four of my favorite rare Astragalus:

Astragalus tener, a cute little annual specializing on vernal pools in the Bay delta.

Astragalus pycnostachyus, a stout perennial found in a few coastal saltmarshes in San Mateo, Marin, and Humboldt counties (unlike the east coast, there’s just not very much coastal saltmarsh habitat in California, so the few California endemics that specialize in them tend to be very rare).

Astragalus albens, from only the limestone soils of Cushenbury Canyon in the San Bernardinos. I love the strigose (short, appressed) hairs on the leaves, stem, and sepals of this one.

And finally Astragalus ertterae, found only in a approximately one square mile area just west of Walker Pass in the very southernmost Sierras (you have to hike down the Pacific Crest Trail to see it).

I highly recommend playing around on to find the rare Astragalus near you!



I’d now like to properly introduce everyone to the phacelias! This time, I definitely won’t need to cheat by using a whole family–with around 175 described species, almost 100 of which occur in the state, and 34 of which I’ve photograph there are plenty to choose from. Phacelias (that’s both the scientific and the common name) are in the borage family (Boraginaceae). This family has flower parts in fives, which, being fairly common across dicots, isn’t that useful for identification. The easiest way to know you’re looking at a borage is to see that flowers are arranged in a one-sided cyme. Basically, the next flower along the flowering stalk forms from the lateral bud of the previous flower. The result looks like the curled tail of a scorpion. Here’s a side view of Phacelia minor to showing a scorpioid cyme:

This southern California chaparral species has some of the biggest flowers in the genus, I have no idea why it’s called minor! Telling Phacelia from the other genera in Boraginaceae is a bit trickier, but flower color can help. Many phacelias have blue, purple, or pink flowers, whereas other common borage genera tend to have white or orange flowers. But color certainly isn’t a hard and fast rule. For example, here’s an adorable little white-flowered species, Phacelia neglecta, found in alkaline soils throughout the southwest US.

This genus really runs the gamut in size, from beefy perennials, such as Phacelia california, a Bay Area native,

To the tiniest of annuals, such as this rare Phacelia leonis from serpentine soils high in the Klamath Ranges.

With exceptions such as that last one, most species of phacelia are fairly showy and can bloom in large numbers along trails or other accessable open areas. They really seem like tempting targets for identification by amateur botanists. However, fair warning, keying out Phacelia is definitely not for the faint of heart. Many species are extremely similar, and can integrate where species ranges overlap producing plants with intermediate traits. You need both flowers and fruits to work the key, and a hand lens and millimeter ruler in order to see things like furrows on the seeds or to measure bits like the style. Even seemingly straightforward questions, such as “are the leaves compound?” become minefields of uncertainty. Making it all worse, many species have stiff, sharp hairs that cause handling the plant to be a painful experience. Phacelia brachiloba is an example of a common species that takes quite an effort to identify, despite its showy display.

So why bother? Well, identifying your local Phecelia can be extremely rewarding, because there’s a chance the plant you’re looking at is quite range restricted. Especially in Southern California, it seems like every little mountain range has its own species. Thirty-two taxa are listed as rare by the California Native Plant Society. Additionally few California taxa are new to science within the last 20 or so years, so with this group, it’s possible you’re looking at an unsubscribed species! Plus, many of them are quite beautiful, so you’ll probably want to photograph them and post about it. And there’s nothing more embarrassing than misidentifying a plant in a post, am I right?…. No….I’m the only one that feels that way? Huh. Well anyway, I’ve saved my 5 favorite phacelia photos until now. In no particular order,

Phacelia longipes, a large-flowered species from gravelly slopes in the Transverse Ranges

Phacelia pedicellata, my favorite of the widely-distributed desert species, has the great common name of Spider Phacelia

Phacelia mohavensis, the second really poorly named species of this post. It doesn’t occur in the Mojave (although it does inhabit nearby mountains)! I love the transparent windows in the petals of this one.

Phacelia sericea. This photo’s actually from Colorado (although the species does occur in far Northeastern CA). It was loved by the bumble bees I was studying while out there.

And finally the rare Phacelia nashiana, found only in decomposing granitic soils in the transition zone between the Southern Sierras and the desert. The flowers of this beauty make you question whether you’ve even seen blue before.

Piute Peak

I’m leaving Bakersfield for a new job in a few days. Before I depart, I wanted to get in one last Kern County botany trip. For my final act, I chose a return to Piute Peak. This little-known mountain is the Southernmost in the Sierras, and its slopes have an interesting mix of plants combined with amazing views.

Photo Jun 14, 5 04 21 PM

Last year, I botanized the lower part of Piute Mountain Road on foot and found a couple interesting endemics, including the Piute Cypress (see my “Greenhorn Mountains” post on last May 6th).  Because the road was closed, I wasn’t able to access the higher elevations. This time around, the road was open and I could drive the 15 miles into the Pine forests at the top. I’ll present my seven post-worthy plants in order of encounter, from the lowest to highest elevations.

Chorizanthe xanti (Xantus’ Spineflower, Polygonaceae)


Monardella linoides (Narrow-leaved Coyote Mint, Lamiaceae)


Perideria pringlei (Adobe Yampah, Apiaceae)


Aphyllon (formerly Orobanche) californicum. (California Broomrape, Orobanchaceae) This is a root parasite on plants in the Aster family that I have been wanting to meet for a long time. The flowers are tightly clustered together around a very thick, underground stem.


Sidalcea sp. (Unknown Checker Mallow, Malvaceae). I’m very intrigued by this plant. It was abundant in a recently burned area about halfway up the mountain. I’m positive of the genus, but the only two checker mallows that are confirmed to occur in Kern county are clearly not this plant. The whole genus is a bit of a taxonomic mess, and there is a strong possibility this is an undescribed taxa. My current best guess is that it’s an undescribed subspecies of Sidalcea hickmanii. But, unfortunately, I didn’t grab a specimen, so for now it will remain unknown!


Leptosiphon pachyphllus (Sierra Linanthus, Polemoniaceae).


Near the top of Piute peak are some really pretty outcrops of the metamorphic rock Quartzite. These outcrops are the only place in the world where Eriogonum breedlovei breedlovei (Piute Buckwheat, Polygonaceae) occurs. The white flowers of this rarity blend in to the white Quarzite rock on which they grow.


Cleaning up in Kern County

I spent last Friday looking for some rare plants in the Southern Sierras with a fellow plant nerd. Out of our five target species, we managed a clean sweep!

Our first stop was at a pull-off on highway 178 in the lower Kern River Canyon. I’ve looked for rare plants here several times, but always came up short. This time, however, my luck changed. There, on a rocky cliff, a cluster of pink flowers! It was Delphinium purpusii (Rose-flowered Larkspur, Ranunculaceae). I’ve seen blue larkspurs, and purple ones, white larkspurs, and red, but this was my first pink Delphinium. This species, endemic to western Kern and Tulare Counties, is the only pink larkspur in North America. So of course I scrambled 50 feet up through thickets of poison oak to get a closer look!


Amazingly, this wasn’t the only rare plant of the stop. Hiding just blow the larkspur, was another very local endemic, Clarkia exilis (Slender Clarkia, Onagraceae).


Yes, its pink flowers are showy, but nevertheless it is tricky to pick out among its globally much more common, and much hairier cousin Clarkia unguiculata (Woodland Clarkia).


Our next stop was the granite gravel plains of Kelso Creek and surrounds. Here we ran into two plants that I met (and posted about) last year. However I managed to get better pictures this time around. Canbya candida (Pygmy Poppy, Papaveraceae)


and Mimulus shevockii (Kelso Creek Monkeyflower, Phrymaceae)


The former is found in scattered occurrences throught the western Mojave, while the latter is only found here. Both extremely small and extremely adorable annuals.

Finally, we headed into the Greehorn Mountains north of Lake Isabella, with one prize in mind. A short hike and a long search revealed exactly one flowering Fritillaria brandegeei (Greenhorn Mountains Fritillary, Liliaceae).


I’ve looked for this rarity about 5 times now, so it was sweet to finally track it down.

I had a very successful botanical hike this weekend, so I will post about that soon.