Monthly Archives: February 2013

Plant of the day: mock strawberry

Duchesnea_indica1Small yellow flowers spring up from a patch of strawberry-like leaves. Each bloom has five rounded petals, widely spaced around a central mound of many stamens. This is mock strawberry, or Duchesnea indica. It is native to India, and is now found scattered occasionally throughout Marin and a few other parts of California where it has escaped from garden cultivation.

The small red strawberry-like fruits are edible but not particularly delicious. The collected reviews are uninspiring, particularly when taken all together. Mock strawberry is, variously: “dry and insipid”, “certainly rather tasteless, but it is not dry”,  “flavor somewhat like a water melon according to some people, but this is possibly the product of a strained imagination”, “the fruit contains about 3.4% sugar, 1.5% protein, 1.6% ash.” Ash?! Delicious. Let’s have a pie. Duchesnea_indica2

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Plant of the day: common spikerush

A tough, grasslike plant grows in a wet marshy area. Many round stems of shiny dark green are clustered together; some are topped with a pointy little brown spike that is actually a head of unobtrusive flowers.

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This is common spikerush, or Eleocharis macrostachya. Get out a hand lens and look at the flower heads–they are really quite spectacular. Feathery white styles  and nodding tongue-shaped stamens cover the little blooming spike in a complex tangle. There are no petals on this plant: the reproductive bits simply peek from behind a diminutive brown scale (see the close-up photo above). This is characteristic of the spikerushes, and other rushes, sedges, and grasses in general.

All the spikerushes (which are actually in the sedge family, Cyperaceae) have photosynthetic stems and no leaves to speak of. Unlike most sedges, the perennial common spikerush has a stem that can be either flat or round. A thin green sheath, several centimeters long, that is around the base of the stem is actually a modified leaf. Common spikerush has two feathery styles peeking from each brown scale, which has a green midrib running its middle. The flower spikes are more than 7 mm long, and often up to 25 mm long. The plant sometimes grows up to 9 feet tall (though the plants I saw were only a few feet tall).

This species is found in wetlands across most of the United States.Eleocharis_macrostachya4

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Plant of the day: rosy sandcrocus

Romulea rosea growing among other leafy plants.

Romulea rosea growing among other leafy plants.

A flash of pink is nestled at ground level, surrounded by long grass-like leaves. This is rosy sandcrocus, or Romulea rosea, a South African native that is in the iris family. And though superficially it doesn’t look at all like an iris, there are certain similarities if you know what to look for.

Rosy sandcrocus has six pointed pink petals, and long linear leaves with parallel veins running all the way to the end. Beneath each flower is a slight bulge in the stem, which is actually the ovary where seeds will develop (many flowers have “superior” ovaries, which means they are snuggled in among the petals rather than below them. The “inferior” ovary is a characteristic of the iris family). Six petals, and leaves as described above, are also key characteristics of Iridaceae.

The rosy sandcrocus was first collected in Marin in 1979, and probably was accidentally brought to the area in a load of clover seed from Australia, according to the Marin Flora. In places, it takes over entire areas–looking a lot like a field of grass, except for when the pink flowers are blooming. Overall it isn’t abundant in California, and the places you do find it tend to be weedy, disturbed areas–often with dry, sandy, or compacted soils.

This little perennial sprouts from a pale, bulb-like corm. Romulea_rosea1

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Plant of the day: field mustard

Brassica_rapa1A pasture is swamped in a sea of yellow. Millions upon millions of flowers cover the hills and flatlands, and straggle over the fenceline into neighboring fields and roadside ditches. This is field mustard–Brassica rapa, also known as common mustard or rape mustard. I have no idea if it is planted deliberately, or if it appears in certain pastures as a result of fertilization, compost, or some other agricultural technique. Whatever the source, it is a striking and dramatic part of the spring landscape throughout coastal California!Brassica_rapa2Brassica_rapa3

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Plant of the day: blackwood acacia

IMG_2230I’ve been regularly seeing yet another acacia on my strolls in and near town–on the mesa above Brighton Beach, along the Palomarin trail, on the back streets of Inverness. I first noticed this plant for its flamboyant seeds. When the pealike seed pods split open later in the year, they will reveal a shiny black seed surrounded by a wild curlicue of orange ribbon. I hate to love an invasive, but I think they are just beautiful.

At this time of year, the blackwood acacia (Acacia melanoxylon) can easily be identified by a quick look at its leaves and flowers. It has occurred to me that identifying acacia species is sort of like winning a game of Clue: but instead of people, rooms and weapons you mix and match flower and leaf type until you come to the only possible answer. So: if you’re looking at a small tree that has yellow pom-pom-like flowers as well as blade-like leaves that each have four prominent veins on them, then you are looking at a blackwood acacia. But walk down the street and it’s time for another round! A different species of acacia I saw around the bend from the Blackwood acacia had  blade-like leaves with bottle-brush-like flowers–so clearly it is golden wattle and Miss Scarlett didn’t do it. IMG_2237

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Plant of the day: redmaids

Tiny magenta blossoms are scattered on stalks of narrow, straplike leaves that blend in with the coarse grasses of a pasture. In the afternoon, five fragile petals are spread wide around a handful of little yellow pollen-dusted stamens and a dainty three-parted pistil. Later, as dusk closes in, each bloom folds closed inside a clamshell pair of sepals, fringed with small hairs.

These are redmaids, or Calandrinia ciliata, a tremendously variable little native. The flowers range from the magenta shown here to violet to white, sometimes in the same patch of blooms. There are usually five petals but the size can vary widely (from 4 to 15mm);  the number of stamens is also variable (from 3 to 15). The leaves can be linear or more paddle-shaped, and both leaves and sepals may be hairy or hairless.

So how do you know you’re looking at redmaids? The sepals are a solid clue–there aren’t many flowers with this feature. The three-parted ovary helps. But you also have to just mix-and-match the characteristics until you are confident that this is what you’re looking at!

Redmaids are common across the west, from New Mexico to BC. Indigenous people would eat the  tender greens and make pinole and other foods from the oily seeds.

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Plant of the day: footsteps of spring

This is one of my favorite-named plants. Footsteps of spring (Sanicula arctopoides) is a colorful, low-growing little plant that begins to bloom quite early in the season. As its brilliant yellow-and-green mounds spread across the warming landscape, it is easy to whimsically imagine them as footsteps left by this gracious season. Sanicula_arctopoides

The entire plant is saturated in color, with the leaves ranging from brilliant green at the edges  into yellow toward the center. The buttonlike pad of yellow flowers is surrounded by a long fringe of yellow bracts. The whole thing has the look of a lovely, wild, painterly creation. Hurray for spring!

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Plant of the day: California buttercup

Ranunculus_californicusThe shiny, sunny blooms of buttercups are starting to show up–a sure sign that spring is coming. California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus) is a common sight in much of California. Look for the bright flowers with many petals (between 7 and 22 of them) atop slim, straight stems with deeply divided leaves.

Buttercups were one of my favorite flowers as a kid, mostly because of a silly game my parents would play. If a buttercup placed beneath your chin made your skin looked yellow, then you liked butter. I loved butter, and thought the game was great fun–though now it seems that was the point, since the trick would work on everyone. It turns out that this game goes back a long ways, as it is listed as a traditional use of the plant by the Kashaya, Pomo and other native tribes in this part of the world. Indigenous people made bread and porridge from a flour of dried, pounded seeds of California buttercup.

This flower can grow in low moist fields and streambanks, in forest understory, and on shrub-covered hillsides. It likes meadows and wetlands, and is equally likely to grow in wetlands and non-wetlands. Unlike some types of buttercup, this one is happily lacking in stickery, spine-covered seeds.

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Plant of the day: Pacific pea

Lathyrus_vestitusA banner of pink flowers flies above a coastal sage bush. This is Pacific pea (Lathyrus vestitus), which has clambered to this high perch using twining, curling green tendrils.

Pacific pea is a California native that can be pink, white or lavender and often appears yellowish as it ages. The stem is sharply angled but not actually winged as many species in the Lathyrus genus are. The roots, seeds and leaves of this plant are edible, and tincture made from the roots was used by Native Americans as a general healing remedy and to treat internal injuries.

You can tell Lathyrus species from the often similar looking vetch species most easily because the flowers are generally larger–greater than one centimeter. But also tug on the petals; if the upper (wing) petals are partly joined to the lower (keel) petals then you have one of the large vetch species, not a pea.

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Plant of the day: hairy woodsorrel

Oxalis_albicans2A stroll along the coastal bluff reveals little yellow flowers peeking from beneath the sagebrush and scattered across the grassland. Each handful of blossoms is scattered across a mounded patch of three-parted (cloverlike) leaves. This is hairy woodsorrel, or Oxalis albicans. The lemon-yellow petals splay outward around a hub of stamens like stout spokes on a cart wheel. If you nibble a leaf you’ll find the refreshing tartness that is characteristic of the sorrels.

Even the petals of hairy woodsorrel have a few minute hairs, and the leaves are distinctly hairy. This little flower is a native that is found only in coastal California–but it has a similar-looking cousin (O. corniculata) which is non-native and invasive; a common garden weed. Recognize the native hairy woodsorrel, which likes to grow near the coast, because it has slightly large petals  (8-12mm long). O. albicans also does not grow roots at the leafy nodes of its stems, and its taproot is woody instead of fleshy (another name for our native is radishroot woodsorrel). Oxalis_albicans1

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