March Week 3: Bathed in Gold

The Bay Ridge Trail, which is planned to circumnavigate San Francisco Bay, winds its way south from Big Rock toward Loma Alta

The sun has fought its way back to sunny California. This week, daytime high temperatures held steady around a balmy 70 degrees. We’re as happy as the flowers.

3-15-10 Blue-Eyed Grass at the top of the Oakwood Valley Trail

Blue-Eyed Grass isn’t a grass at all (though later in the spring we’ll have more shots of our lovely native grasses — the California Fescue is already tasseling) but a diminutive iris. I went hunting on Sunday for a particular, rare, white-flowered plant of this species I’ve sought out every spring for years, but it hadn’t yet bloomed. But on Monday, on the southern ridge of Tennessee Valley, where the Oakwood Valley Trail climbs up to glorious 360-degree views, I found the first few azure eyes peering at me.

If you like natives in your garden, watch the nurseries for Blue-Eyed Grass, Sisyrinchium. It naturally has a long blooming season, and it’s a compact and thrifty plant that will produce dozens of flowers over many months.

3-15-10 Red Elderberry, Oakwood Valley

Before sunrise, at Big Rock at the head of Lucas Valley, I met my old friend Mike Day. We climbed the Bay Ridge Trail northward above the Lucasfilms complex as the light brightened and the sun finally shouldered over the horizon in the East Bay. Before we found a single flower, we spotted this:

3-17-10 A bobcat headed north, a dog headed south, and multiple mountain bike tracks on the multi-use Bay Ridge Trail

But then, surrounded in every direction by hills so green they made the soul ache, we turned one more corner to find this, perched in a rock cleft next to a tiny rivulet:

3-17-10 Green Mule Ears below Big Rock Ridge

3-17-10 Coast Live Oak tasseled with bloom on Big Rock Ridge. Sometimes we ignore the flowers of our wind-pollinated trees, but they have their own magic. In a few days these red masses of pollen-producing male flowers will hang vertically and turn a lovely brown-gold

After you finish admiring the oaks, look underneath them at the Lilliputian world of mosses and lichens, which are also at their most beautiful at the warming end of the rainy season. Here on 3-17-10 is the humble Liverwort, Asterella on Big Rock. The visible plant of a liverwort has just a single set of chromosomes--as if our eggs and sperms grew into their own kind of creatures. Inside these curious apple-green structures grow the double-chromosomed generation which never get to lead independent lives. They come into existence during the rains, when sperm swim through the water film from plant to plant to unite with the eggs.

3-19-10 Lupine Sp Lucas Vy Rd

3-19-10 Woodland Star along Lucas Valley Road

Here’s another of my favorite spring flowers, worth getting down to its level for a close look at its delicate beauty. Its generic name hints at unlikely abilities (or the caprice of some long-ago botantist): Lithophragma, which means “rock breaker.” Go figure.

3-20-10 Blue Buckbrush on Greens Hill

Tina, Brendan and I set out just minutes after the Vernal Equinox for a gray day shower-and-little-bits-of-sun hike along the top of San Geronimo Ridge. Three kinds of Ceanothus were blooming and the air was filled with their earthy perfume.

We hiked up Creamery Canyon, through the dark redwood grove at the old Hunt Camp, and over the top of Greens Hill. From there we ambled eastward through a mile of miniature forest composed of Sargent Cypress growing on serpentine. Then we dropped down across the high Woodacre Meadow, a grassland because its ‘montmorillonitic’ soils that expand and contract hugely with changes in moisture, and thus sever the roots of large woody plants — this is one Marin grassland that’s always been a grassland. From there, we descended again into forest about the head of Evans Canyon to discover a brand-new (for us) stand of Calypso Orchids and lots of trilliums!

3-20-10 Bear-Grass not in bloom on Greens Hill

This sometimes spectacular lily (at it apogee in Montana or British Columbia) rarely blooms in Marin, here at the southern limit of its range. It takes a fire and the huge flush of nutrients that frees up to make it blossom on our hills, but then, if conditions are right, its bottlebrush flower stalk, bristling with hundreds of small lilies, can reach several feet higher than your head.

3-20-10 Wake-Robin Trilliums in Evans Canyon

Evans Canyon and its first-class trail were named for long-time San Geronimo Valley resident, biologist and passionate conservationist Willis Evans. Evans was a lifelong cohort of famed herpetologist and artist Bob Stebbins, and the two of them never lost their boyish enthusiasm for nature. Willis worked indefatigably on fisheries and forest conservation issues for decades until his death a few years ago from Alzheimers.

One of my favorite memories of Willis is his lecturing, straight-faced, on salmon biology at the Annual Picnic of Marin Conservation League while I illustrated his talk by squirming appropriately upstream, wearing a wet suit and a three-foot-long salmon headpiece.

3-20-10 Spotted Coral Root, Creamery Canyon

Another of our native orchids, commoner than Calypsos, Spotted Coral Root is what used to be called a saprophyte (harvesting its food as we thought not from sun but from decaying organic material in the soil) and thus had no need for chlorophyll and the hard work of photosynthesis. These days, we have a new name for the Ungreen: We call them myco-heterotrophs because we now know that they make their living in an amazing way — they’ve become parasites of the soil fungi that are the intimate partners of almost all flowering plants. Did you know that, say, a Douglas fir can have as many as 2000 species of mycorhizal fungi in symbiotic association with its roots? The tree makes food for itself and its partners through photosynthesis; the fungi, with their tiny, threadlike hyphae that can go places in the soil that the bigger, clumsier plant roots cannot, capture water and mineral nutrients. These orchids and their relatives, along with a scattering of other flowering plants (ever seen snow plants in the Sierra?), have figured out a way to cheat. They invite connection with the mycorhizal fungi, most often, apparently, the Honey Mushroom, Armillaria, but don’t keep their end of the bargain. No free lunch? There is for Coral Root.

Our Spring Calendar

3-21-10 A rocky meadow with thousands of Goldfields

A SPRING LANDBIRD CALENDAR

Our local birds–including some that winter as far south as the Amazon Basin and make the trek back to Marin each year–travel thousands of miles on a clock that’s far more precise than the bursting of flowers. Flowering varies with local climate, sun exposure and the vagaries of weather. Birds transcend those.

Based on observations collected over a century, here are first-of-season (FOS) dates for some of our familiar nesting birds. The data is from Dave Shuford’s Marin County Breeding Bird Atlas, but I found it on Daniel Edelstein’s wonderful bird-oriented website: http://www.warblerwatch.com/CABirdArrivalTimes.htm. This is fun information to put in your yearly calendar or print on a card for your wallet. You might even make a scientific contribution by watching FOS dates drift earlier under the impact of climate change.

Feb  5     Allen’s Hummingbird
Feb 13    Tree Swallow
Feb 21    Violet-green Swallow
Mar  4     Orange-crowned Warbler
Mar  7     Rough-winged Swallow
Mar 11    Barn Swallow
Mar 18    Cliff Swallow
Mar 24    American Goldfinch
Mar 25    Pacific-slope Flycatcher
.                 Warbling Vireo
.                 Wilson’s Warbler
Mar 28    Brown-headed Cowbird
Mar 29    Hooded Oriole
Apr   3    Bullock’s Oriole
Apr   5    Western Kingbird
Apr   7    Purple Martin
Apr 13    Western Tanager
.                Black-headed Grosbeak
Apr 14    Black-throated Gray Warbler
.                 Chipping Sparrow
Apr 17    Olive-sided Flycatcher
Apr 18    Yellow Warbler
.                 MacGillivray’s Warbler
Apr 21    Grasshopper Sparrow
Apr 26    Swainson’s Thrush
.                Ash-throated Flycatcher
Apr 28    Lazuli Bunting
May15   Western Wood Pewee

As this is written, our year-round residents are full of seasonal change too. Quail are paired up and have left their coveys. The little winter flocks of chickdees are breaking up, most often with the resident pair that provided its nucleus last fall starting to set up housekeeping and the wandering young of the year who joined them for the rainy season setting out to find their own mates. And for a month or more now, the skies have rung with the exuberant kee-eer, kee-eer of courting Red-shouldered Hawks.

Blister Beetlemania: Lytta magister

We’ve identified the giant beetle in our Anza-Borrego post.

The brilliantly colored, inch-and-a-half long Desert Blister Beetle is the largest of all its brethren in the American deserts. According to my friend Mike Day, bugman extraordinaire, blister beetles exude an extreme skin irritant from their leg joints, which explains both their bright (warning) colors and their blithely undefensive public presence. Curious creatures: the adults eat mostly brittlebush, a plant loaded with its own warding-off chemicals that protect it from most grazers, but their larvae have an even odder niche. They predate the nests of solitary bees. They eat the food the female bees have stored for their larvae — and along the way, munch up the larvae too.

New to me — blister beetles are hypermetamorphic: they develop through several quite distinct larval phases. Kinda like our kids.

We’re unlikely to run short of blister beetles. There are about 7,500 kinds of them worldwide. As JBS Haldane once said, “God must be inordinately fond of beetles. He created so many of them.” Indeed, about 40% of all known insect species are beetles — about 350,000 forms of creaturehood.

Blister beetles, and this species in particular, zap us with cantharidin. We harvest it from this genus as a wart remover — and as the infamous Spanish fly, which is a violent, poisonous irritant of the urinary track.

So, dear Member of the Chain of Being, here’s how one tiny, tiny piece of the world works: With vast industy, bees harvest the male sex products of flowers (pollen) to feed themselves and their larvae, then with great labor, one stage of blister beetle larvae seeks out the underground lairs of the bees to steal their food and eat their babies, and then we send gimlet-eyed folk into the desert to collect beetles and steal their cantharidin . . . which we buy from another vartiety of human specialist, the pharmacist, to kill our warts, which are caused by a virus that only pretends to be alive.

Where’s Paul Hawken and his disintermediation when we need him? Wouldn’t it be simpler to try to remove warts with bees?

I have my own views about Nature’s methods, though I feel that it is rather like a beetle giving his opinions upon the Milky Way.

.                                                                           –Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

March Week 2: Redwoods, Badgers & Bluebirds . . . Oh Yes, and Trilliums

3-14-10 A Western Bluebird in Roys Redwoods Open Space Preserve

To give us patience in a changeable season, here are two familiar stanzas from Robert Frost’s poem “Two Tramps in Mud Time.”

The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.

A bluebird comes tenderly up to alight
And turns to the wind to unruffle a plume,
His song is pitched as not to excite
A single flower as yet to bloom.
It is snowing a flake; and he half knew
Winter was only playing possum.
Except in color he isn’t blue,
But he wouldn’t advise a thing to blossom.

This week was shortened by our desert trip and by a favorite 9-mile hike I took on a day that rained so hard I had to keep my camera and phone hidden safely away. But Tina and I got to romp at Roys Redwoods (this enchanted corner of the world, San Geronimo Valley’s plein air cathedral — and not Muir Woods — is the home of Marin’s biggest redwood tree), stick our noses in a fresh badger dig, and spend about 10 minutes in the midst of a group of 6 helicoptering bluebirds.

3-14-10 A glimpse of the several acres of Stream Violet on the redwood flats at Roys

 You’re Not Cleistogamous, Are You?

Violets have a secret. To uncover it, lie down on the ground next to a violet that’s almost finished blooming. Ignore the yummy edible flowers the plant’s waving at you in some shade of blue, purple, yellow or white  (this is about science, not lunch). Look underneath the charming, heart-shaped leaves. Sprawled on the ground or even burrowing colorless in the duff, you’ll find 3- or 4-inch long “stalks” with little, sometimes recurved bumps at the end.

The bumps are the violet’s backup reproductive strategy: its hidden cleistogamous flowers. They’re flowers that never open, secret and self-pollinating. The plant makes them at a mere third the cost of its showy, often fragrant, pollinator-seducing flowers high above.

When Utah’s first delegates were sent to the US Senate, there was a move to refuse to seat them because of anger and ill-will over polygamy. Hiram Bingham of New York, one of the powers of the Senate, stood to make the first speech. “I know these gentlemen, and their wives, of whom they each have one, and to whom they cleave.  I cannot speak for others in this august chamber, but for myself, I would rather consort with polygamists who don’t polyg than with monogamists who don’t monog.”

They were seated without further discussion.

But what if they’d been accused of cleistogamy?

3-12-10 Red Delphinium in the rain along the Yolanda Trail

When I worked at College of Marin, I ran nearly every day, and a long loop that included the Yolanda Trail from Phoenix Lake was among my favorites. Around this time of year, I ran it often, in large part ot try to catch the first Red Delphiniums as they opened on one particular beetle-browed, sun-soaked cliff. The Yolanda was also one of my favorite places for the Douglas Iris show. Alas, that’s rapidly being lost as invasive broom overgrows the entire ridge that was one a splendor of multicolored iris blossoms. (There are still surviving iris, and I’ll be back to shoot them when they’re at their peak, for my promised second gallery of native iris.)

Tina perched hobbit-like in the lap of a stately Ent.

And now for our second trillium species, Trillium ovatum, Wake Robin, demurely showing some of its lovely variation to hikers near the Natalie Coffin Greene Picnic Area in Ross:

3-14-10 And finally, just because they're lovely and familiar, and because they give us some of our best close-to-home wildflower displays, the California Buttercup, here on Thorner Ridge Open Space Preserve.

Lebkuchen

Lebkuchen much like our family's own, appropriated from the website whatscookingamerica.com with grave appreciation

Reading a novel today for a few minutes as I ate lunch, I stumbled across the quote that compelled me to sit down and write this (first draft of a) poem and then send it off to my kids. It’s about as out-of-season as I could possibly manage, and it means I may not get the laundry done. My only imaginable defense might be to mutter darkly about the creative process.

Merry Christmas!

Lebkuchen

. Macaroon Hats, Hazelnut Fingers, Vanilla Paisleys:
. c
ookies listed in a bachelor shepherd’s cookbook,
. f
rom James D. Doss’s novel The Shaman Laughs

She was my first wife’s Oma, grandmother, a quiet angular
twinkling kitchen presence, heart and hands dispensing
sustenance she’d brought within her all the way from Berne.

The greatest of her cookies, the sturdy redolent foundation
of every Christmas of my grown-up life, the file card
with its hallowed recipe now dog-eared and yellow with age,

were her Berner lebkuchen: citron, honey, coffee,
cinnamon and cloves, the rinds of orange and lemon,
all worked into a stiff dough that was pounded in a crock

and set covered at the back of a closet for a month or two.
Roll it out half an inch thick to bake slow and long,
then glaze it, barely, with egg white and powdered sugar.

She’s gone, of course, with most of her recipes. Her daughter,
too. And this next generation of us are already marching away.
But every winter solstice, two of our daughters bring a tin

of lebkuchen to the family Christmas. When I google its name,
I get stuffy etymologies alleging its connection to Egyptians,
or the word ‘loaf,’ or something about crystallized honey.

My family has no time for that. Some say it’s leben, life,
but others of us tsk: It’s obvious! It nourishes the body, leib.
No good at all at sweise Deutsch, and far too academic

in far too much of my life, I let them enjoy their argument,
one of the ways we tribes of primates practice bonding.
Bring your tins of cookies, daughters. The word means love.

Berner Lebkuchen: The Recipe

2 lb sugar
2 lb flour
5 eggs
1/2 lb shelled nuts
1/2 lb citron
5 T honey
3 T milk
1 tsp baking soda, dissolved in a little cooled coffee
4 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground cloves
grated rinds of 1 orange and 1 lemon
juice of one lemon

Mix the ingredients then knead vigorously on a floured board. Pound into a ceramic crock and let rest in a cool place for 3 weeks or more. Then roll out 1/2 inch thick on a heavily floured board. Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Let the finished cookies cool.

Glaze: 1 egg white with as much powdered sugar as can be worked in. Brush on lightly and flash in a hot oven for about 1 minute. When the glazed cookies have cooled again, cut them into 3/4 x 3 inch bars. Potentially, they’ll keep for months in a covered tin, but you won’t have the will power to let that happen.

Anza-Borrego Desert

3-9-10 A canyon palm oasis

As you read in an earlier post, our desert trip was aborted by unanticipated health problems. We harvested two long days of driving, and three exploring the Colorado Desert in Anza-Borrego State Park. One of those days brought numbing cold and rain; the other two were boisterous and sunny — perfect desert springtime. These pictures are a glimpse of our glimpse, no more, of a rich, exotic environment that is often more Baja Californian than Californian.

We rockhopped our way up two palm canyons in the San Ysidro Mountains, explored another under rainy Ghost Mountain, and camped (besides indulging in the main park campground, steamy showers, and a restaurant in Borrego Springs) in two quite different places: the broad wash and rocky cactus hills around Yaqui Wells, and the chaotic Santa Rosa Badlands.

3-7-10 Barrel Cactus caucus above Yaqui Wells

It had been a winter of early and heavy rains in Anza-Borrego, so we anticipated a spectacular flower show. We were, alas, early for the main flowering, but that’s not the primary reason we aren’t posting pictures of flower-painted plains: the desert has been invaded.

Everywhere, the exotic weed Saharan Mustard has seized the land. On the bajadas, all possibility of mass displays of native flowers has been lost; the valley bottoms are a thatch of mustard, smothering everything. On the alluvial fans, the mountain slopes and the canyons, mustard sprouts under every bush, claiming space from natives. Our pictures show what’s left. This desert is still magnificent, but gravely imperiled.

3-8-10 Bigelow Monkeyflower, a close relative of our familiar yellow monkeyflower, graces the sandy wash in Hellhole Canyon

3-8-10 A bright composite in Palm Canyon

3-8-10 The rare, fragrant Desert Lily erupting from the sand at Arroyo Saluda

My bad. My friend, naturalist Michael Ellis (noted for his terse emails) sent me a note just now, saying, “That looked like african fountain grass a nasty pest!!”

It didn’t just look like it. After a little googling, I realize it is. And this in a pretty remote canyon, far from any direct exposure. Sigh.

Here’s what the Center for Invasive Species Research (CISR) has to say (condensed): African fountain grass, Pennisetum setaceum is invasive outside its native range in Northern Africa and has been damaging native ecosystems in Hawaii. It is now an increasingly problematic weed in California. As a common landscape ornamental, it is widely planted in southwestern states. Fountain grass seeds may disperse readily from existing populations via wind, animals, and automobiles. It is a state-listed noxious weed in Hawaii, and has been listed as a Moderate threat by the California Invasive Plant Council.

In Hawaii it has been shown that fountain grass alters fire cycles and microhabitats. After invasion, due to increased fire and other effects, fountain grass may cause a forest community to be converted into grassland. After fire, it has shown the ability to rapidly colonize burned areas and prevent other plants from establishing. Native communities like coastal sage scrub in southern California have already been impacted extensively by the combined effects of changes in fire cycle as well as invasion by exotic grasses.

3-8-10 Desert Phacelia

Many shrubs were in full bloom, too, often wrapped in particolored skirts of annual flowers growing in the sheltered, enriched soil where rodents have burrowed and fertilized and organic debris has been able to accumulate.

3-7-10 An Ocotillo flower cluster at Yaqui Wells. Later the same day, we got to watch a just-arrived black-and-chrome-yellow Scott's oriole in another ocotillo, singing its loud, brilliant song and sipping the ocotillo's nectar.

3-9-10 Incienso (Brittlebush)

3-9-10 Incienso & the brilliant red Chuparosa, the springtime staple of Costa's hummingbird

3-8-10 Ocotillo coming into bloom by the Hellhole Canyon Trail

3-7-10 Agave blossoms, pollinated in the night by lesser long-nosed bats and long-tongued bats. Yaqui Wells

3-7-10 After a 20 to 40-year gestation, an Agave begins to push up its towering flower stalk

And finally, here are a few pictures that need no rationale or categorization. They’re just intriguing . . . or beautiful.

3-6-10 Bright, ripe Mistletoe berries on an ironwood tree at Yaqui Wells. We watched phainopeplas and mockingbirds battle each other over them.

3-8-10 These inch-and-three-quarter long beetles were abundant on the way up the one peak we climbed. I'm going to have to identify them!

3-8-10 A view of a Desert Lilly from the top. Arroyo Saluda

3-9-10 A Sycamore tree in bloom near the oasis in Borrego Palm Canyon

3-9-10 Mohavea or Ghost Flower

3-9-10 Isn't there a legal requirement to end with a sunset? As it turned out, though, this wasn't the end. Just downcanyon from this palm oasis, we were privileged to spend half an hour watching two full-curl Peninsular Desert Bighorn males just above us on the rocky canyon walls -- two of only some 400 left in existence.

Brendan & the Desert

On March 2nd, Tina and I picked up our son Brendan at San Francisco Airport after he’d spent 30 hours traveling home from New Zealand. At 5 AM on the 5th, after unpacking, packing and provisioning, he and I set out on an 8-day trek in the Anza-Borrego Desert.

But best laid plans . . . On the 9th, in the midst of a sunrise sandstorm with wind gusting to 60 miles an hour, Brendan woke with a severe, painful ear infection. We drove 80 miles to a doctor, then steamed straight for home, arriving goggle-eyed and gritty at 9 that night. With a strategic mix of drugs and TLC, Brendan is recovering — and gearing up to launch himself on the next major challenges of his 19-year-old life.

We’ll post a selection of pictures tomorrow from the three days of exploration we wrangled from the desert, but right now, I want to honor Brendan’s homecoming and our time together in rock-strewn, flower-bedecked solitude with a poem scratched out for him one much less windy morning long, long ago:

Gog and Burr

Six-thirty in the morning
the twenty-eighth of February.
Frost last night,
blue sky this morning
glowing above the mist that floats among our trees.
I am fifty-four
and you, my son, are two.
We are in a cave
that anyone else might mistake for bedclothes
tented up by knees.
I am growling
and looking at least a little stranger than usual,
shaggy, big-pawed, ponderous.
You have let your tongue
wander almost completely free of your mouth.
Your face has a deliberate look, attentive
but superbly stupid.
You are a gog
a spaniel, a basset —
and I, with a rumbly growl, am a burr,
as anyone with half a brain could see.

Reading this some long time from now
you will remember nothing
except perhaps that you have read this once or twice before,
but it is a fact
that this particular day
began in this particular way.

Love is not a declaration.
It is an accumulation of acts.

Off to the Desert!

At 5:00 am tomorrow, my son Brendan and I set off on an 8-day backcountry odyssey in Anza-Borrego State Park, near the border with Baja California del Norte. We arrive at the absolute peak of bloom, and given the extraordinary rainfall this winter, we expect it to be at least a once-in-50-years display.

So, no posts until sometime shortly after March 13, but then, in addition to my usual Marin explorations, I should have a backlog of hundreds of spectacular pictures, taken with an actual camera instead of my iPhone — countless thousands of massed flowers in every color of the rainbow, carpeting the desert, along with palm oases, wilderness canyons, desert bighorn sheep, and more. Anza-Borrego is the only US park with four species of rattlesnake! And we’re bringing a powerful blacklight along to photograph fluourescing scorpions! (A swirl on the Wurlitzer! A roll of drums!)

Stay tuned!

The Fourth of March

3-1-10 Fairy Bells: yet another lily on the Miwok Trail in Franks Valley

The Fourth of March

Just an ordinary day, the milkmaids
holding up their blank white signs
(they’re in full support of Spring),
the trilliums half open, barely pink enough
to tease: a California day that begs
apology to rubber-booted mittened souls
inhabiting the more refrigerated states.

I head up grinning toward the woods
thinking cold air, warm sun, hearing
all three noisy clans of tipsy nuthatch,
beenters, tootlers and yankers,
and two sex-crazed ravens’ firtop mumble.

There’s sun all right, but better bet on rain:
the lichen and the moss, the coral fungi,
those spit-shined, shocking-orange toadstools
look about as happy as cryptogams can be.

I put my ear against a wood-rat’s
twiggy palace just to hear him gnawing.

Each and every spilling creek acts about
half-drunk. Buckeyes wave hands stuffed full
of leaves, salads stolen from a three-fork diner.

Right here, shameless on the mudded track,
I find a scrape. I sniff and stand and brush
my knees: Bobcat! (And I bet he’s up there
lying along one of those meadows
spilled over the ridge, eyes blinked
almost shut, one paw curled under.)

So, what the hell.

I perch myself in a little tree-walled bald
grown up to rock and manzanita
and give up all control to sun and spring.

I let the sunshine tickle with her tongue
that place between my shoulder blades,
I suck the syrup from a little manzanita
bell and commence to contemplate my life,
my half-laced boots clunked upon a rock.

I contemplate. I suck. And then, by God,
I spare the time I need to suck another.

The Realm of the Giant Trillium

3-1-10 Giant Trillium on the Redwood Creek Trail near Muir Woods

On Monday, another MRI in San Francisco. On the way back to Marin we drove up (and up) Highway One to Diaz Ridge in GGNRA, hiked out the ridge to vast views of Tam and the Pacific, then down the Miwok Trail to Redwood Creek in Frank’s Valley, where it began to rain.  We stuck out our thumb(s), and the first of not-so-very-many cars stopped and offered a ride all the way back to our vehicle. The driver was a beautiful German woman with her young son, here on a visit from Anchorage. They had just come from a hike with friends in Muir Woods and were, alas, on their way to SFO to return to the snow.

My son and I are preparing for a backcountry trip (no flowerblogging posts for about 8 days), so this will be a brief entry, except for talking about Trilliums.

Marin’s Giant Trillium, Trillium chloropetalum — Marin’s because it was first described scientifically on an early collecting expedition here in the county — is a botanical spectacular: huge, beautiful, and absolutely reeking of facinating biology.

If you chose anything in the Universe to represent “three,” it would probably be trilliums. Their broad platform of exactly three leaves is surmounted by a flower with three of every part.

Trilliums are prized garden plants, but are slow-growing and difficult to propagate, so the vast majority of them in commerce have been collected, legally or more often illegally, from the wild, wiping out or endangering whole populations.

Here in Marin, we have three trilliums: our Giant; the smaller, delicate Wake-Robin; and a third rarish form in the coast grasslands at Point Reyes that may or may not be distinct from the Giant Trillium.

Smell the Giant. Very few of the 40 or 50 trillium species have a scent, but this one will tickle your schnozz with a spicy old-rose fragrance.

Its flowers, even within one stand, can be the red of old blood, clear pink, parfait green, pale yellow or white. No one I’ve ever talked to seems to know why this variability exists.

We don’t know much about trillium pollination — bumblebees may carry a lot of the freight — but we know tons about seed dispersal. The trillium’s three-parted fruit decays in place. Ants shred them and dissect out the seeds. Attached to the seeds are fatty bodies called elaiosomes, created especially to induce ants to harvest. Dragged back to the ant colony, the elaiosomes are stripped off and eaten, and the seeds discarded in the ants’ garbage pile. Sneaky sleeping trillium babies, they benefit from (a) being safely buried; and (b) the rich nutrients of the garbage pile. They may take several leisurely years to break dormancy and germinate. Other seed dispersers we know about are deer (better than ants at moving the seed over distance) and yellow jackets.

3-1-10 Wild Ginger on the Redwood Creek Trail

More fat bodies! Another victim of the American obesity epidemic? A moist-forest plant like  trillium, Wild Ginger uses elaiosomes to get ants to disperse its seed.

This flower belongs, like the pipevine we found two weeks ago, to the mostly tropical, mostly elaborate-flowered Birthwort family.

The leaves and roots of Wild Ginger have a distinct ginger taste, though of course authentic ginger is a tropical orchid. Wild Ginger contains a compound that is, at least for rodents, a potent carcinogen, so it’s probably not a good idea to eat.

Wild Ginger spreads vegetatively with its stem-like rhizomes. Its pollination is something of a puzzle; we think mostly it’s self-pollinated, but is occasionally aided by crawling forest-floor insects.

3-1-10 The lower Miwok Trail in Franks Valley has masses of our lovely native lily, Twisted Stalk, just coming into bloom

3-1-10 Up on Diaz Ridge, Service Berry is just coming into bloom too, head and shoulders above the chaparral

3-1-10 A close-up of another ridge flower, Pearly Everlasting, with its countless shining white bracts embracing each little bundle of flowers

3-1-10 Just because I haven't posted iris lately: a lovely white Douglas Iris in Franks Valley, nestled against the Muir Woods boundary

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