Friday, April 4, 2014

Coastal Agave

One of my favorite books from my younger days has a poem with the line, “All that is gold does not glitter”. I would turn that around for Coastal, or Shaw’s, Agave and say, all that is drab is not as dull as it seems. Sometimes one just has to wander around until they see things in the proper light.

Coastal agave, i.e., Agave shawii is a succulent with closely spaced, overlapping sword-shaped leaves that measure up to 8 inches wide and about 18 inches long. They diverge from the center of the plant in a spiral making for a rounded shape. The deep green leaves are edged with spines.

These spines nominally appear as brown or gray and don't offer much in the way of a visual display. However, in early morning or late afternoon, when the the sunlight comes in from behind the plant, they light up and glow red and/or orange, rivaling any neon sign on the Las Vegas Strip. 
Coastal Agave
Shaw's Agave by Cliff Hutson
The leaves are also notable for bearing the imprint of the spines of the leaves that were in front and back of them when they were clasped together. I find this to be a charming visual element to the plant.

The flowering plant is also attractive. It may take 20 to 40 years before it flowers. But, then yellow blooms, looking much like  a hand of very small bananas, burst out on the top of an 8 to 12 foot stalk resembling an asparagus spear. The flowers attract hummingbirds, bats and bees. When a single plant flowers it dies, but its “pups” or clones will live on.

Bats are a key pollinator of this agave and probably the primary reason for the tallness of the flowering stalk. Bats, save for the few species of vampire bats, can not launch into flight by flapping their wings. they, instead, take off by dropping from a height be it the roof of a cave, bridge, or tall plant with sturdy flowers.

Coastal Agave is found in Baja California. Also native to California, it occurs naturally only in San Diego County, near Border Field State Park. Most of the plants that were there were bulldozed into oblivion by your government while building the boundary wall between the USA and Mexico. However, a few seem to have survived. Other populations exist elsewhere in Southern California, but they were probably planted out in an effort to preserve the plant. I, for one, certainly hope it stays with us.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A First!

The Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden chose my Tidy Tips photo for the cover of their magazine.

Exploring the Arborretum
Wildflowering LA

It illustrates the article "Wildflowering LA". I have to say I think that is pretty cool. 

The kicker is that there is also an article on Julius Shulman. This is an added plus for me. He was a photographer whose work I have admired for decades. Little could I have dreamed when I was in my teens that something I shot would ever appear in such close proximity to his photographs. (Not that I am in his league.)

Even so, here is my latest attempt at architectural photography:

A back room at Walter's Restaurant in Claremont.
A Bar at Walter's

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Fairy Duster

As a naturalist, I like to have a theme in mind when I lead an interpretive walk. I see this as a means of engaging the audience’s interest, as opposed to just wandering around identifying plants until their eyes start to glaze over. One of the themes I use is “does the common name of this plant make sense”.  A favorite plant for this discussion is the Fairy Duster, Calliandra eriophylla. It takes little imagination to see that the fluffy pink blossoms do resemble feather dusters scaled down to fairy size, assuming we are thinking of Tinker Bell instead of Titania.

The flowers appear between late winter and late spring. They have dense clusters of pale to deep pink stamens and are about two inches wide. I think that they are quite attractive; and, in fact, Calliandra is derived from the Greek kallos, "beautiful," and andra, "stamen”. The leaves are also interesting being twice pinnately compound with each division bearing five to ten pairs of leaflets.

The plant, also known as False Mesquite, is a densely branched shrub, about two feet tall and twice as wide, native to western North America. A member of the Pea Family (Fabaceae), it belongs to a group of primarily tropical plants that include Acacias and Mimosas. However, Fairy Duster grows in sandy washes and on slopes in the arid desert and grasslands of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas; and Mexico.

But, to say it occurs in California is a bit misleading as it is found only in the Creosote Brush Scrub community and then seemingly limited to Imperial and San Diego Counties. Due to this geographic circumscription , it is included in the California Native Plant Society Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants on list 2.3 (rare, threatened, or endangered in California; common elsewhere). In the interest of full disclosure, I would like to point out that one specimen was collected by Dr. Robert F. Thorne (of RSABG) on April 12, 1964, in Riverside County and that there is also a questionable 1881 accession from Kern County. I, myself, first encountered Fairy Duster while hiking in Riverside County. It was on land that was starting to be developed somewhere outside of Palm Springs, so it may not have been a natural occurrence.

Wherever we find it, I think it offers people an opportunity to ask people to look more carefully at nature and by observing this one flower they might go to focus on other aspects of nature rather than passively walk though it.

Monday, January 20, 2014


Peritoma arborea

There is a video which posits that taxonomists, having no new plants to name, have begun to rename all of the plants with which we are familiar.  That obviously overstates the matter. But, as a non-botanist observer of the plant kingdom, I understand what they are saying. Bladderpod plant is a case in point. 

When I first came upon the plant, in the late 1970s, it had the scientific name of Isomeris arborea (Nutt.). Then about December 1989 the name was changed to Cleome isomeris (Greene). Next, in July 2010, it became Peritoma arborea (Nutt.). Furthermore, it was moved from the Capparaceae (which includes capers) to a family named Cleomaceae (spiderflowers). Lastly, it has been divided into three varieties based on the shape of the fruit, with var. angustata having fusiform fruits, var. arborea having obovoid fruits, and var. globosa having spherical fruits. 

It is endemic to California occurring in varied habitats: Coastal Sage Scrub, Creosote Bush Scrub, and Joshua Tree Woodland. Which is to say, it ranges from the deserts to the Channel Islands. The plant is a branched shrub that can up to six feet in height. It has thin, evergreen leaves about half an inch to an inch long. Bladderpod will flower in any month of the year. This is not very common in California natives. The flowers, appearing as abundant inflorescences at the ends of the stem branches, are yellow with long stamens. The inflated bladder-like fruits give the plant its common name. Some say that the epithet “Isomeris” was a nod to the equal halves of these pods.

Bladderpod is generally described as ill-smelling. However, in my experience, rubbing a pod produces a scent much like that of bell pepper which I think is not bad at all.

Monday, December 2, 2013

California Dodder

One of the sites I refer to when preparing to write about a plant I encounter in my rambles is maintained by the Consortium of California Herbaria  which provides information about California vascular plant specimens that are housed in participant herbaria. One can search on just about any plant and obtain a list of accessions from around the state.

California Dodder (Cuscuta californica), hits close to home as it has records dating from 1897 to 2009 for specimens found in and around Claremont. Two of these are housed in the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden herbarium. One was collected from the Bernard Field Station, just to the east. The other was found along Thompson Creek, where Holly and I often pass by the plant.

California Dodder

Cuscuta californica, also called Chaparral Dodder, is an annual parasitic herb or vine that is native to California. It is also found outside of California, but is confined to western North America. Dodder is readily identified by its threadlike, hairless, yellow, orange, or red shoots which twine around host plants eventually creating a tangled mat. One notable feature is that it does not usually have roots that reach the ground. Instead, knoblike organs along the shoot (haustoria) penetrate the host stem. Shoots either lack leaves or have very tiny red, yellow, or orange scalelike leaves pressed close to the stem. It tends to bloom from May through October. The white flowers are tiny, only about 3 to 6 millimeters wide. The fruits are even smaller.

Dodder once had its own family, but it is now consigned to CONVOLVULACEAE, the Morning Glory Family. The epithet Cuscuta seemingly comes from Cuscu'ta a name of Arabic derivation meaning "dodder”. The common name, Chaparral Dodder, tips us to one of its habitats. It is also found through out the state in many other plant communities such as forests and grasslands. And, of course, “the City of Trees and PhDs”.