Small purple flowers sprout from hairy, spiny tufts of green–a splash of color on a dry hillside. This is sticky navarrettia (Navarretia viscidula), a California endemic.
There are many species of navarretia, which are generally white, pink or purple. While many can be found in wetlands, this species is one of those that tends to prefer dry habitat.
This is a member of the Polemoniaceae family, along with the similar-looking linanthus species. Navarretia seeds were used by indigenous Californians for food.
A low, mounded bush clings to a rocky seaside hill–covered in yellow flowers. This is lizard tail (Eriophyllum staechadifolium). Abundant flowers grow in dense clusters. Each daisylike bloom sports 6-9 “petals” or ray flowers–or else no ray flowers at all. The whole bush seems tinted gray by a wooly coating of small hairs; perhaps the color lends the name since the shape of the narrow, forked leaves don’t resemble a lizard’s tail at all.
This California endemic is rewarding because it some plants put out a few flowers even in the off-season, adding a splash of color to fall or winter hikes (though its main blooming season is in the spring). Look for it along the coast throughout most of the state. It has a few close cousins in our area, namely wooly daisy and golden yarrow–but the first grows each yellow daisy on a single stalk, while the second is mainly found inland (and has fewer petals).
Rock lettuce (Dudleya cymosa) is one of the few native succulents here on the central coast. In the spring and summer the rosettes of fleshy leaves shoot up colorful stalks of flowers. The stalk itself is red, while the many narrow flowers range from orange to yellow. The brilliant blooms are narrow and always appear to be on the verge of opening–but look close and you’ll see six pale pollen-dusted stamens hidden among the flowers’ pointy petals.
Rock lettuce can be distinguished from its cousin, sea lettuce, because it tends to grow inland rather than quite close to the coast. It can be seen throughout most of the state, from the Sierras to the coastal counties. Also even the yellow flowers tend to have a hint of orange in them, while sea lettuce blooms are a chillier, lemony hue.
Did you ever have a toy troll as a kid? Probably not, but for some reason blooming monardella remind me of those little plastic creatures with a fantastic tuft of colorful hair. If only they came in green, the image would be complete!
All mondardella species look very much alike at first glance: a crown-like tuft of small purple flowers perches atop a mounded head of buds. The leaves are the easiest way to distinguish serpentine monardella (Monardella purpurea) from its more common cousin, coyote mint. Serpentine monardella has hairless, glossy leaves with shallow veins. The veins of coyote mint are stamped deeply into the flesh of the slightly- to very-hairy leaf, as if by a heavy weight.
Clarkia are a lovely and varied group of flowers–there are seven different species that are listed for Marin alone. These four-petalled beauties are almost always pink, and often look very similar to one another. They are often generically simply dubbed Clarkia, or Farewell to Spring.
If you look close, reddened Clarkia (Clarkia rubicunda) are distinguished from their cousins by having ordinary petals that aren’t dramatically narrowed. The flowers are either solid pink or have a red splotch at their base (but not elsewhere). Their unopened buds are erect, not drooping, and the young, long seed pods are notched with four distinct ribs. Luckily, each stalk bears several flowers that open consecutively, so in a patch it is often realistically feasible to find both these diagnostic traits at the same time.
Reddened Clarkia has flower buds that don’t droop
Four-ribbed seed pod
Tall, delicate sprays of tiny white flowers bloom from a shaded crevice of rock. Large scalloped leaves grow abundantly around the base of each stem. This is alum root (Heuchera micrantha), a member of the saxifrage family that was used for a wide variety of medicines by native Californians.
The minute flowers are lovely and intricate, with thin narrow petals that curl backwards around the white sepals like ribbons on a gift. Long white stamens are tipped with rust-red anthers.
The root of alum root was taken for sore throats, boils and liver troubles. Roots and leaves were chewed up and spat onto the skin, or mixed into a poultice along with Douglas fir sap, as a topical treatment for wounds. Leaves and stems were pounded and rubbed on the scalp to make hair grow, and also eaten for food–either boiled or steamed.
I found this poem in a collection by Mary Oliver from the 1970s; a sweet tribute to underground ecology. I particularly love… well, all of it. But the way she builds to the close is excellent.
Under the leaves, under
the first loose
levels of earth
they’re there — quick
as beetles, blind
as bats, shy
as hares but seen
less than these —
among the pale girders
of insects and black
pastures of bulbs
peppery and packed full
of the sweetest food:
Field after field
you can see the traceries
of their long
lonely walks, then
the rains blur
even this frail hint of them —
so plush, so willing to continue
generation after generation
but their brief physical lives
as they live and die,
pushing and shoving
with their stubborn muzzles against
the whole earth,
Pitted onion (Allium lacunosum) is a small wild onion. Flowers can be white or pale pink, and have dark veins running down the center of each petal. low-growing, reaching just over one foot at its highest. It generally has two long slim leaves, either cylindrical or flat, that often are longer than the stem; sometimes these die by the time the flower is in bloom, so it can appear virtually leafless.
Marin County is the northern limit of this California endemic; it ranges from the coast to the mountains and can be found across much of the southern part of the state. All parts of it were sometimes eaten for food by indigenous Californians.
Larkspur is always lovely, with its hood-shaped flowers in vivid colors. Western larkspur (Delphinium hesperium) has an affinity to dry, serpentine grassland hillsides.
You can recognize this species by its crowded spikes of blue flowers and slightly furred seed-pods. But look close, because there are many other species of blue larkspur in the area!
Sprays of delicate flowers are dense on a grassy hillsides of Ring Mountain. Pink buds open into slightly disheveled white flowers–the petals are slightly disarranged and appear delicate, as if loosely attached.
This diminutive beauty is Marin dwarf flax (Hesperolinon congestum), which grows only on the Tiburon Penninusla and the San Francisco Peninsula. It is only found on serpentine soils, and can be distinguished from other local types of dwarf flax because the petals are more than 5 mm long, and the sepals are covered with fine hairs. Leaves are small and needlelike.