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.



  1. Dorothy Cox said,

    March 29, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Sigh…. beautiful. Please remember me sometime on walk. Talking to Sarah about Easter- maybe at my house????? Sarah is talking to Amaris (Maciel wants to spend Easter seeing them.) Talk at you later.

    • billnoble said,

      March 29, 2010 at 1:49 pm

      Next non-rainy day, let’s do a hike in the Valley! And we’re open to Easter either in Woodacre or Winters.

      See you soon!

  2. Tom Cadieux said,

    May 20, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    My son pointed out what I believe to be a Spotted Coral Root Orchid and I took a picture of it and would love someone to varify for me. I took pictures today and it is in a forest along the Harrison River leading to Harrison Lake.

    • Bill Noble said,

      May 27, 2010 at 6:22 pm

      Hi, Tom – Email me the pic. I’d be delighted to take a look. Where is Harrison Lake?

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