Category Archives: Botany basics

Seaweed primer

Green and brown leaves coat the exposed rocks at low tide, or wash up on the shore in great tangles. This is seaweed—renowned delicacy, condiment, and seaside plaything. One nice thing about the seaweeds for the amateur botanist is that none are toxic; some may be tasteless, and others may lead to mild stomach upset, but none are poisonous (though keep in mind that when it washes up on the beach it is dead—and not that good to eat as it has probably started to rot). But in general seaweeds are touted as being packed with vitamins and highly nutritious. And if you ever get stranded on a deserted island, feel free to munch away.

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Though most seaweeds look very plant-like, things aren’t at all that simple. There are three main types of seaweed and they all are considered algae–green algae, red algae, and brown algae. But though they all seem to have a lot in common, they are actually three very separate groups. The green algae are in the plant kingdom, but the brown algae (such as kelp) are actually in the Chromista kingdom, along with the seemingly not-at-all-similar microscopic diatoms. Red algae are in yet a third kingdom, the Protista (along with amoebas and slime molds). All seaweeds have chlorophyll and photosynthesize sunlight, but brown and red algae also have extra pigmentation. Red algae has a compound called phycoerythrin, which lets it absorb blue light waves and hence live deeper in the water than the other algae types.


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Subtle signs of fall

You have to look close to catch the changing seasons here in coastal California. With no snow and a mild climate, each plant dances to its own tempo. So if you aren’t paying attention, you could miss the fact that fall is heavily upon us. The hillsides are still a patchwork of green and brown, like they have been all summer. Plenty of flowers are still blooming in yards and on hillsides.

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But if you look close, the signs are everywhere. Our deciduous trees are putting on their subtle show, genteelly turning color as leaves drift and pile on the ground. Maple, oak, alder, box elder, Oregon ash, and hazlenut are all going yellow and brown. Poison oak leaves are crimson and yellow, limbs thick with pale berries.  Acorns are heavy on the oaks, and Christmas-ornament sized nuts decorate the naked branches of the buckeye trees. Birds are having feeding frenzies on the sweet, purple coffeeberry fruits, or the orange and red feasts offered up by toyon and madrone.  A few summer blackberries and huckleberries are even hanging on–I ate some the other day and they were delicious.

Even our many evergreens are sporting more spots of color in their lush pelts of green. Red leaves peek from the deep green of toyon, and pepperwoods are speckled with yellow leaves.

In the fields and meadows, the grasses and weeds that grew tall throughout the summer have collapsed under their own weight, dying back into straw-colored heaps. Here the world seems painted from a palette of brown: brown grass, brown thistle heads, brown bracken fern. But California autumn is a confused beast: even here, flowers are blooming, defiant flares of color. Morning glory, Indian paintbrush, nasturtium, wild radish, and more.

In just a few short months, the “early” bloomers will start to flower and the cycle will start all over again.

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Plant of the day: water buttercup

Petite cream-colored flowers peek above the still surface of a pond. Small white petals are banded with yellow at the center, surrounding a buttery cluster of yellow stamens. The flower has a glossy shine, akin to that of its land-locked buttercup cousins. Look close and you’ll see the flowers are rising from a mat of yellowish-green leaves just below the surface. Water buttercup (Ranunculus aquatilis) is also called whitewater crowfoot, likely because the narrow twiggy leaves look like the bony feet of a bird.

You can see this plant all over California and throughout much of the west. The photos shown here were taken in the high Sierra, where a spring had made a small pond in an otherwise very dry landscape of sagebrush and juniper; the seeds must have been deposited by a bird that stopped there for water.

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Flower petals and false petals

So if you are actually trying to key a flower there are a bunch of words you need to know. The colorful flower itself typically is made up of petals, surrounding the reproductive organs and in turn surrounded at the base by a sheath of sepals that are usually green and look sort of like leaves. All the petals taken together are called the corrolla and all the sepals taken together are called the calyx.

This seems pretty straightforward, and usually it is, but sometimes it can get complicated. So don’t take anything for granted! For example, sometimes other parts of can look exactly like petals—colorful and showy. Irises are an example of this. They only have three petals but it looks like they have six, three that are less showy than the others. The smaller ones are actually stamen. A lot of plants can also have sepals or leaves that look like petals. Examples of this are dogwood “flowers” or the crimson leaves of the poinsettia. In both cases, those showy displays are false petals, and the diminutive nubs in the center are the actual flowers.

Modified stamens on a Douglas iris

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Brodiaeas, wally baskets and blue dicks

Triteleia has standard stamens


There are a bunch of beautiful flowers in bloom right now, with clusters of white or purple blossoms atop long leafless stems. These are the brodiaeas, blue dicks and wally baskets, and even though they are quite distinct it can be oddly difficult to remember which is which. So I’m going to give an overview of their similarities and differences here, and then focus on some specific species in these groups throughout the week.

This group of cousins all belong to the Liliaceae family, which you can tell because their petals and stamens come in multiples of three.

Dichelostemma has short pedicels and a twisty stalk


Because they are all so similar, botanists once thought they were all in the same genus as well, but now genetic and other work has determined they are actually different genera (but if you have an old guidebook, you’ll find them all under Brodiaea). All three have flowers that appear in a umbel at the top of the (usually long) leafless stalk.  The flower petals are united at the base, and are always purple or white.

But their differences are not hard to see. You can easily tell a wally basket (Triteleia, shown at top and below) because it has six stamens that alternate in heights so three are distinctly taller than the others. The stamens are fairly typical looking, with a stalk (“filament”) topped by a pollen-dusted anther.

Both blue dicks (Dichelostemma) and brodiaeas (you guessed it: Brodiaea) have three stamens, and they are less typical looking – flat and tongue-like, arranged equally so they face each other like the three sides of a triangle; see the photo at the bottom of the page for a close-up.


Brodiaea has a long pedicel

Within this group, you can tell the two apart because blue dicks have short flower stalks (“pedicels”), so the head of flowers appears dense and crowded together. Also their stalk is twisted, whereas the brodiaea stalk is straight. Brodieas also have longer pedicels, so the head of flowers looks more like a loose bouquet (though this example only has two flowers, you can still see how the two pedicels between the flowers and the stem is quite long).

Et voila! Enjoy your botanizing!


Close-up of the “standard” stamens of Tritileia (being enjoyed here by a moth)


Notice the flat, tongue-like stamens (found in both Brodiaea, shown here, and Dichelostemma)

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Plant of the day: mule ears

Like stubby sunflowers, these cheerful yellow blossoms have large, open faces. They can be seen ornamenting grassy hillsides as well as woods and brushy areas. Mule ears (Wyethia glabra) is a California endemic that is widespread throughout much of the western part of the state. Each yellow flower head is backed by a large collection of leaves that can be seen peeking out from behind the inflorescence. Narrow-leaved mule ears (Wyethia angustifolia, not endemic) are also common in Marin, but are easy to tell from regular mule ears because they lack these backing “broad and foliacious” bracts.

This is the first member of the Ateraceae family – also known as a “composite” – to appear on this blog, so a note on this type of plant. What looks like a single flower is actually hundreds of smaller flowers grouped together. This amalgamation is easier to mistake for a single bloom than other headlike arrangements because often the outer flowers look like petals, while the inner flowers are smaller and less showy and can look a lot like pistils or stamens. The outer, petal-like flowers are the “ray” flowers and the inner ones are the “disc” flowers. Each is truly an independent flower in and  of itself, each with its own petals and reproductive parts. The entire arrangement is called a “pseudanthia.”

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Plant of the day: poison oak

How about an easy one for a Monday! Common and important, unless you want to itch. Poison oak is easy/hard to identify, depending on how experienced you are in looking at plants. The leaves can range in color from dark green to light green to reddish, but they always have a glossy shine and another quality as well, one that’s distinct but hard to define. The leaves look… slightly luminous. Tender. As if, were you crazy enough to nibble on one, it would have a pleasant delicate texture.

The flowers of poison oak are small, inconspicuous, and not usually in bloom, so the leaves are what to look out for. These always come in groups of three, and they have a smooth surface, the veins only showing lightly and the surface not haired or spined. The edges are gently lobed or scalloped – to varying degrees, but they are neither straight nor serrated (like the edge of a bread knife). This helps you rule out other common plants, like blackberry, that some people confuse for poison oak. Once you get all those features down, really the only thing that looks similar are the leaves of a young true oak tree before it has grown tall.

The Latin name is easy to remember as well (even though I had forgotten it). Toxicodendron diversilobum. Intuitive, right? Toxic leaf with diverse lobes. Thanks John Torrey, Asa Gray, and Edward Greene who did the naming. Torrey produced the Flora of North America in the 1800s, and Gray helped him out. And how do I know they named our toxic friend, a newbie may ask? It says so right on all the official listings of the species. Check the names after the italicized species name on the above link: you’ll see Torr. and A. Gray, who did the original naming, along with Greene, who came along later and made some change – I’m not sure but maybe he is responsible for the “Toxicodendron”, since I seem to remember poison oak was a “Rhus” when I first learned it. Anyway this convention is called an author citation, with the namers being the “taxon authors“.

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The key to it all

So I was telling a friend about this blog, and I mentioned that I had keyed out one of the plants that I didn’t know – and she asked me what it means to “key”. So if you’re a veteran botanist, forgive me. But if you are a newbie, here it is: a plant key is a book of all the plants in an area, and it consists of a very long set of either-or questions. If you patiently (and correctly) follow the trail of questions along, eventually it will lead you to the only plant that has all of the characteristics that your plant has. A key is full of all sorts of obscure terminology like awn, bract, fusiform, and stolon. You also will stumble across common words that, in the context of the key, have specific meanings  – like scale, or ray – which don’t mean at all what they do in the rest of the world. Back when I was in college, my botany-student friends and I would get together at parties, and as the beers went by we would have increasingly passionate conversations about some class or another. My roomate always loved hanging out with us, because he could make jokes later about how we were speaking an incomprehensible language. But that’s botany – you have to learn the language, and then it’s loads of fun.

Here in Marin, the two keys that are most important are the Jepson Manual – which is the definitive key for the state – and the Marin Flora, which narrows down the number of choices by a lot, since you are only having to consider plants that are actually found in this county. Also handy is the Peterson Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers, which is a guidebook, not a key, but has a lot of the more common plants which you can look them up according to color and flower type.

To key a flower, you’ll need a good hand lens (high powered magnifying glass) and maybe a pair of tweezers.

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A note on capitalization

So if you’re going to be a botanist, one thing to pay attention to is capitalization. For common names, the first letter in a list or sentence is capitalized, but otherwise only proper names are capitalized. Like so: California poppy, rattlesnake grass, and spinster’s blue-eyed Mary. Madrone would be capitalized only at the start of a sentence.

For scientific or Latin names, the species name always consists of two words – the genus name and the species name. The genus is always capitalized, and the species (and subspecies, if there is one) never are. Also, both are often italicized. So the above list would read like so: Eschscholzia californica, Briza maxima, and Collinsia sparsiflora.

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