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

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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.

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.

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

February Week 4: Point Reyes & Annadel

2-24-10 Creamery Creek in San Geronimo after a massive storm overnight

Our first outdoor day of the week began with a rainy but successful Calypso orchid hunt in San Geronimo Valley (see our post on the orchids). Afterward, we headed west, watching the weather open more and more; by the time we reached Outer Point Reyes we were reveling in a splendid mid-60s spring day.

2-24-10 Massed Wallflowers show off at Chimney Rock above Drakes Bay

After that, our week got busy. Our next flowerblogging didn’t happen till Sunday, when we headed for Sonoma County to welcome a dear friend back from climbing Mount Kilimanjaro; it was a perfect excuse to get gloriously muddy for a few hours beforehand, slipping and sliding on steep rocky trails in the 5000-acre Annadel State Park in the Valley of the Moon.

2-28-10 Native California: Garry Oak & California Fescue woodland on the Cobblestone Trail, Annadel State Park, Sonoma County

Annadel was one of many state parks threatened with closure this year, but ultimately rescued at the last minute–its peril another consequence of California’s paralyzed political system and the pernicious, 30-year-old Tax Revolt. As the professionally cynical HL Mencken said, Democracy will end when the common people discover they can vote themselves money.

Here, in some sort of order, are some pictures from our week’s explorations.

2-24-10 Its candied root made a favorite Victorian sweet, but its scientific name implies something far grander: Meet what sober botanists call Angelica archangelica, just beginning its yearly cycle

2-24-10 Like many flowers of our foggy coasts, Coastal California Poppies are pale, but keep their brilliant golden center. Outer Point Reyes

2-24-10 Inky Cap mushrooms stand like diminutive penguin ghosts in the grass at Chimney Rock. As soon as their spores mature, the caps will auto-digest themselves into runny, inky-black ectoplasm

2-24-10 My first Red Maids of the season on Outer Point Reyes

2-24-10 Beach Strawberry, Outer Point Reyes

A plant with an odd distribution and some considerable importance to us humans, Beach Strawberry has a ‘disjunct’ range: They’re found along our coast and thousands of miles away in the cool Mediterranean climate of southern Chile. In fact, their scientific name, Fragaria chiloensis, tells us they were first discovered on Chiloe Island off the Chilean coast.

Interesting, you say, but why are you telling me this? Beach Strawberry and the Virginia Strawberry were planted together in the 1700s in an English hobbyist’s garden. Quite on their own (helped by some promiscuous pollinators), they hybridized, producing large, vigorous volunteer progeny with huge fruit — and thus the modern cultivated strawberry come unintentionally into existence.

The California Coast is under huge development pressure. Many of the hundreds of small, local Beach Strawberry populations whose genes are the  irreplaceable source of disease resistance and future crop improvements are threatened or have already vanished.

2-24-10 First-of-the-season Seaside Daisy at Chimney Rock

2-24-10 Kneel and nuzzle your nose in to experience the intense fragrance of Coast Wallflower , blooming here at Chimney Rock

Notice the absence of iris pictures? I’m hoarding them until I have enough for our promised coastal iris special in a few weeks.

And now, Annadel. In the Valley of the Moon, it’s the centerpiece of Sonoma County’s saved, accessible public lands. Sunday we hiked a circle of colorfully named trails: The Channel, the rocky, stream-bordered North Burma, the Rough Go (I like that name a lot), the Orchard and the Cobblestone. Flowers were a bit of a disappointment — we were two weeks too early for this inland site. But we did find a few beauties, and lots of other treasures provided more than adequate solace.

2-28-10 A delectable Chanterelle begging to be cooked, emerging beside the Channel Trail. But, alas, only one!

2-28-10 An ancient Manzanita trunk along the Channel Trail at Annadel

Throughout the first half of our hike we encountered a scatter of hulking, venerable manzanitas, one of which, with ‘birds-eye’ or ‘honeycomb’ growth, was unique in my experience.

2-28-10 An old Manzanita that arches over the North Burma Trail. Note the lovely snow its fallen blossoms have made overlying a carpet of deciduous, winter-sodden Garry Oak leaves.

2-28-10 Birds-eye Manzanita beside the North Burma Trail at Annadel.

And before we go on to some of the few but lovely flowers of the day . . .

Could you really expect me not to include something called JELLY EARS? 2-28-10 Jelly Ear Fungus, Cobblestone Trail, Annadel

“Jelly Ears” is the perfect but inelegant name for what Asian cooks treasure as “Black Fungus” or “Black Mushroom.” It’s valued mostly for its ineradicable slight crunchiness rather than spectacular taste. Try it the next time you dine Chinese.

2-28-10 Garry Oak bloom

2-28-10 Poison Oak in bud on the Cobblestone Trail

2-28-10 Hounds Tongue actually being bumbled by a bumblebee, Cobblestone Trail, Annadel

Calypso Orchids: February’s Treasure

Beginning in mid to late February each year, this tiny, vanilla-scented beauty makes an all-too-brief appearance in our forests. I’ve made pilgrimage for over twenty years to my favorite Calypso ‘grove,’ hidden away on steep, trailless land above San Geronimo. In most years, I suspect there are 150 to 200 plants here, with as many as 40 or 50 in bloom at once.

Yesterday, in delightfully damp weather, we found just eight. Notice the rain drips on most of the flowers.

Despite its intricate flower, each plant is just 5 or 6 inches high, with a single ribbed leaf laid flat on the duff. Like many orchids, it’s a trickster: it has elaborate fake nectaries, but no nectar. It specializes in the victimization of ignorant, newly hatched bumblebees, who fumble their way through a few bright, foodless Calypsos, pollinating them,  before learning better.

Calypsos are a single worldwide species in their own genus. They’re circumpolar, found in undisturbed and usually old forest from California and Arizona to Newfoundland in the New World, and from Scandinavia to Japan in the Old, but are nowhere abundant. They’re extremely vulnerable to habitat disturbance, and they’re part of the vast illegal international trade in orchids. The IUCN considers them “globally vulnerable to extinction.”

Do you remember the explosion of hunter-introduced feral pigs in Marin a few decades ago? Part of the motivation for the huge effort that was launched to eliminate them was that Calypsos were a favorite food.

These orchids, also called Fairy Slippers, grow from fingernail-size, bulblike corms, and a corm apparently lives only for about 5 years. Beginning in January, twin roots sprout from the corm, each root housing perhaps a dozen species of mycorrhizal fungi that mobilize mineral nutrients symbiotically for the plant (and probably, in the case of this orchid, also connect to the roots of trees and supply the flower directly with nutrients).

Don’t pick Calypsos: it almost invariably kills the plant. And don’t try to transplant them. Because they need their fungal symbionts to survive, you’re doomed to failure. Instead, find your own sacred grove. What could be better than a contemplative wander through the woods at the very greenest moment of the year?

Here and there, a few people are trying to learn to grow Fairy Slippers from their dust-sized seed. To explore that, here’s a fun link from the Pacific Northwest: http://calypsoorchid.com/

February Week 3: Triangulating Marin

This week took us on an odyssey north, then west, and finally, on Friday, south: Mount Burdell in Novato, Inverness Ridge and Muddy Hollow in Point Reyes Seashore, and Gerbode Valley in the Marin Headlands. The bloom is accelerating, everywhere, but it’s still merely hinting at what’s to come.

Mount Burdell is Novato’s Tamalpais, with a huge Open Space preserve and, on its Bayside, Olompali State Park. Biologically, culturally and politically, Novato represents a transition toward Sonoma County. Land saving came late and imperfectly here, without the assistance of the vast Federal landholdings that bulwarked preservation in Southern Marin, and the community is more conservative and a bit less environmentally inclined, with a contentious city council that flips unproductively left and right decade after decade. But Burdell has been saved, and it is a treasure.

2-16-10 The first Mission Bells, or Checker Lilies, next to the Dwarf Oak Trail below Mt Burdell.

2-16-10 Hedge Nettles coming into bloom on Mt Burdell. Not a nettle (it doesn't sting), but a typically square-stemmed mint, alas with a quite unattractive scent.

One of our misty mornings this week, I slipped out of bed at first light and headed to Point Reyes. I parked at the top of the Limantour Road, ambled down the Bayview trail, poked around Muddy Hollow, and hiked back up the road to my car. I was back home a little after nine for breakfast with Tina. A couple of hours of stolen solitude in the midst of beauty is worth a month in church.

Much of my hike took me through the aftermath of the Mount Vision fire–impenetrable thickets of young, fire-spawned Bishop Pine, massed Ceanothus (Blueblossom) that will flood the air with its sweet musk in a few weeks. We should trust ourselves to life more than we ordinarily do: its capacity for self-renewal and healing is (almost) infinite.

On the way home, a burly male bobcat was taking a dignified stroll beside Sir Francis Drake Boulevard on the Olema Hill. He didn’t so much as give me a glance.

2-17-10 Flowering Currant in the soft chaparral along the Bayview Trail, with Red Elderberry leafing out right behind it

2-17-10 Salmonberry, named for its berries that are the bright orange-red of salmon roe. Great thickets of it adorn Muddy Hollow

2-17-10 The inconspicuous flowers and dark bronzy leaves of Coffeeberry beside Limantour Road

Friday was a complicated day. We crossed the Golden Gate to one of Tina’s regular appointments for an Alzheimer’s vaccine study she’s volunteered for. The drug has the gloriously indigestible name of bapineuzimab. This appointment was primarily for an MRI, so she spent 45 minutes motionless in a claustrophobic metal tube, having her brain imaged.

After that thoroughly urban experience, we did what any normal human beings would do: we fled to the Headlands for a contemplative 10-mile hike, up and all the way round the rim of the vast bowl of Gerbode Valley. Up on the ridge, two territorial ravens nipped and screamed at an unfortunate young redtail twenty feet above our heads. Slaty-black storms threatened to swallow Mt Tam, but pale-gold sun angled in to fill our valley.

2-19-10 A Rough-Skinned Newt clambers up the clear rill beside the Bobcat Trail. Newts can afford to be so clumsy and public because they carry in their skin the same powerful toxin that protects pufferfish. What a convenience to be inedible!

2-19-10 Wind-shorn Oregon Grape in a rocky crevice near Hawk Camp

2-19-10 Twinberry flowering in a willow thicket by the Bobcat Trail

2-19-10 If you like chewy names for flowers, it's hard to beat Sticky Monkeyflower. And if you like tough, beautiful plants, ditto. Bobcat Trail

2-19-10 We tramped 10 miles and saw perhaps a thousand gigantic Cow Parsnips heaving themselves up from the earth, but this was the only one in bloom. Hawk Camp

In the cool, foggy climate of the Headlands, forest denizens creep out onto the open hillsides. We usually associate Salal with the shady understory of redwoods and bishop pines

2-19-10 Two tangled Grass Iris in a remnant native grassland on the hillsides near the Miwok Trail

Douglas Iris: Gallery One

Here is the first of two or three iris galleries I’ll post through the spring, this for Inverness Ridge. Later, I may do a purely coastal one, and in a few weeks another, for the resplendent variety of color and form that will be exploding inland.

2-16-10 Grass Iris on the Dwarf Oak Trail at Mt Burdell. Not Douglas Iris at all, but a relative that's contributed its genes to Marin's hybrid swarm. Grass Iris has slender leaves, blossoms snuggled close to the ground, and an ineffable scent, worth getting on hands and knees for: 'orris,' a fragrance unique to a handful of iris species.

Iris is Greek for rainbow. Of the 300 kinds of iris in Old World and New, none is more a rainbow than Iris douglasiana—every color in the genus displays itself in this single species. Even better, Marin’s inland populations of Douglas Iris are by far the most rainbow-like of any from its range, Santa Barbara northward to central Oregon. The Douglas Iris of the Marin Peninsula (not including Point Reyes) have even been honored with their own name: Marin Iris.

Why the rainbow locally? Until suburbanization, Marin’s forests and woodlands were a biological island, cut off northward by broad grasslands that stretched into Sonoma. (Did you know we even had our own unique subspecies of chickadee, now swamped and lost in just a few decades as chickadees from the north colonized tree plantings southward?)

Botanists think Marin Iris are a ‘hybrid swarm,’ mostly Doug Iris, like the ones in this gallery from Inverness Ridge, but with abundant genes from Grass Iris (Iris macrosiphon), and, in central Marin, from another species now, curiously, found only far north and east of us, Iris fernaldii. Not much influenced genetically by the swarm, Douglas Iris on the headlands and the Point Reyes coastal plain are nearly uniform deep purples and blues.

Iris terminology: The three upright petals, called the standards, are actually the flower’s three petals. The three falls—usually marked with lovely white or black venation as a signal to pollinators—are the flower’s sepals, and not petals at all.

A dewy Douglas Iris on Point Reyes' Bayview Trail, showing standards and falls.

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