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.