On a barren, rocky slope is a tremendously delicate little plant. Five tissue-thin petals veined with tiny lines surround a cluster of delicate yellow stamen. The reddish stems are threat-thin and sparsely decorated with green needlelike leaves.
Douglas’ sandwort (Minuartia douglasii) is fairly common, but it’s so small you might never have noticed it before. It is strongly associated with serpentine, which is where I saw it. The paired leaves clasp around the stem, and if you look close you’ll see that this joint (or “node”) is swollen slightly—it bulges out from the rest of the stem. If you’re keying plants, this is an excellent hint that what you are looking at is in the Caryophyllaceae, or pink, family. The common store-bought carnation is a common example of this family; so is the garden flower rose campion. Look at their stems to see how they all have the swollen nodes in common!
There are several other species of sandwort in the San Francisco Bay Area, but though they seem really similar in the key, they don’t look at all similar to this one in their actual growth form. At least not as far as I can tell. But I might have to wait until a while to keep looking for different growth forms – I took these photos of the sandwort about a month ago, and they are now pretty much done blooming. We might not be seeing any more until next spring.