Category Archives: Botany Primer

Thysanocarpus curvipes (fringepod)

DSCN1214This small plant has somewhat unremarkable flowers, but fruits that are quite striking.  In early spring, fringepod plants have a raceme of tiny, white, 4-petalled flowers that are easily missed.  In fruit, however, this plant produces delicate, lacy, fruits that are about a quarter inch wide.  Each contains a single seed within.  The scientific name is derived from the Greek for “fringed” (thysanos) + “fruit” (karpos).

Fruits of plants in the mustard family are described as siliques, which have two fused carpels and are in general much longer than they are broad.  In genera such as Thysanocarpus and Lepidium, however, when fruits are as broad as they are long, the fruits are referred to as silicles.  Fringepod has a broad distribution across the California Floristic Province.


  • Species: Thysanocarpus curvipes
  • Plant Family: Brassicaceae (mustard family)
  • Where I saw it: In foothill grassland, High Trestle Trail, Lassen National Forest

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Cercis occidentalis (western redbud)

DSCN1193Cercis occidentalis is a shrub in the pea family.  Like most pea flowers, they are described as papillonaceaous because the broad upper petal is reminiscent of a ‘papillon’ (French for butterfly).  In a pollinator-friendly configuration, this upper petal attracts insects, while the lower petals act as landing pads and protect  the stamens and stigma.

Redbud’s magenta flowers are first to emerge in the spring, followed by broad reniform (kidney-shaped) or cordate (heart-shaped) leaves.  In the photo below, new leaves are just beginning to emerge atop the inflorescence.  When in fruit, this species will produce pods that are several inches long.   

  • Species: Cercis occidentalis
  • Plant Family: Fabaceae (pea family)
  • Where I saw it: In foothill chaparral, High Trestle Trail, Lassen National Forest

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Clematis lasiantha (chaparral clematis)

DSCN1196Clematis lasiantha is a liana, or woody vine.  This species twists and twines around the other shrubs that it uses for support.  In the photo below, it is climbing Cercis occidentalis (western redbud).  While many woody plants invest energy into rigid stems and branches that will thrust their leaves toward the sun, clematis can instead devote more of its energy toward growth and reproduction. Most lianas occur in tropical rainforests, where dense canopies are at great heights, and this twining adaptation is particularly useful to allow plants to snag some sunlight for themselves.  But for Clematis lasiantha, this adaptation has proved beneficial in foothill chaparral as well.  Clematis species twine with their elongated leaf petioles (see below), which will wrap around whatever structure they encounter.

This species is in the buttercup family.  What appear to be four white petals are actually cream-colored sepals.  Clematis lasiantha has opposite leaves (see below), each with three  coarsely toothed leaflets that at first glance, in poison-oak country, can give one pause!


  • Species: Clematis lasiantha
  • Plant Family: Ranunculaceae (buttercup family)
  • Where I saw it: In foothill chaparral, High Trestle Trail, Lassen National Forest

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Brasenia schreberi (watershield)

DSCN0028 Although attempts to relocate Brasenia schreberi at Mountain Meadows during a CNPS treasure hunt event last July were thwarted, there are other known populations in our area.  One is at Round Valley Reservoir, where this aquatic plant covers a good portion of the lake near the eastern shoreline.  And I stumbled across another occurrence last weekend at Last Chance Marsh, the meadows surrounding the northern arm of Lake Almanor.

The more I read about this plant the more interesting tidbits I discover!  Watershield is a type of water lily, but has been split out into a small family, Cabombaceae that it shares with just one other genus worldwide.  Water lilies are among the most primitive plant lineages.  Brasenia schreberi has a global distribution, but can be rare within its range.  Currently, this species has a California Rare Plant Ranking of 2.3.  Watershield are easily identified by their peltate leaves, meaning that the petiole attaches to the underside, not the edge of the leaf.   An additional distinguishing character is that the underside of the leaves and the petioles are covered with a thick, mucilaginous coating.

Watershield has a nifty strategy, called dichogamy,  to discourage self-pollination (per Taylor and Osborn 2006 and Osborn and Schneider 1988).  These plants are the only water lilies that are wind pollinated, and they flower over a two-day period.  On the first day, the stigmas are exposed (as in the photo at left) to receive pollen from other plants.  The flower closes, and the the next day reopens with pollen-bearing anthers exposed (see photo below).

  • Species: Brasenia schreberi
  • Plant Family: Cabombaceae (watershield family)
  • Where I saw it: pond near Last Chance Marsh, Lake Almanor

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Castilleja exserta (purple owl’s clover)

DSCN8454Another show-stopper from North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, and one of the most exuberant of our paintbrushes.  This is purple owl’s clover, a species that is particularly fun to examine under a hand-lens.  Up close, each of the flowers does look a bit like a puffed-up owl (CalPhotos hosts a nice close-up image here), though I am uncertain if this is what the common name is intended to describe.  Like other members of the Orobanchaceae, this species is a hemiparasite that derives part of its nutrition by parasitizing the roots of other plant species.

  • Species: Castilleja exserta
  • Plant Family: Orobanchaceae (broomrape family)
  • Where I saw it: North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve

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Cattail Wands

DSCN8392 Snow still lays a foot or so deep across much of the landscape, but the enough had melted from the edges of Mountain Meadows that we could walk around its perimeter last Sunday.  We never know what will catch the girls’ eyes on a winter walk.   They began with the usual hucking of rocks onto the ice.  Then an expanse of cattails (Typha sp.) at the shoreline caught our eyes.  Did you know that each cattail spike holds roughly a quarter million tiny seeds?  I certainly didn’t.  The dense compression of these seeds creates the brown, solid-looking cattail.  As we waved our cattail wands, seeds billowed out like smoke.  Each tiny achene is attached to minute hairs that allow the seeds to disperse aloft in the air or afloat in  water.

Cattails are monoecious, meaning that its flowers are either male (pollen-producing) or female (seed-producing), but not both.  Each cattail contains both male and female flowers; the male flowers on the upper portion of each cattail (the narrow portion of the spike as seen above) and female flowers on the lower, thicker part of the spike. 

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Brasenia schreberi still at large

Well, we didn’t find any Brasenia schreberi (watershield) out at Mountain Meadows last Saturday on our Rare Plant Treasure Hunt.  The habitat seemed right, and there were a dozen or so intrepid paddlers investigating shallow coves and island perimeters.  But the watershield, last seen here in 1955, eluded us.

It is hard, however, to see a few hours of kayaking on a pristine summer morning as a failure!  In searching for the Brasenia, we got to see other emergent species, plants rooted underwater but protruding above the water’s surface.  We saw Utricularia vulgaris (common bladderwort) in flower, plenty of Nuphar lutea ssp. polysepala (yellow pond-lily) that is a close relative of the Brasenia, Sparganium erectum (erect bur-reed), Sagittaria sp. (arrowhead), Polygonum amphibium (water smartweed), Callitriche sp. (water star-wort), and several Potamogeton species (pondweed).  Hard to photograph, I discovered, as the wind moved me briskly along!

Also a wonderful morning for birds — a white pelican, bald eagle, terns and grebes came into view when we lifted our eyes from the plants.

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Drosera anglica (English sundew)

Sundews are dimunitive, but deadly (at least if you are a small insect).  Here is English sundew (Drosera anglica) as seen at Willow Lake.  This species is considered rare in California and is easy to miss, standing just an inch or two high.  It is a close relative of the roundleaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia, see below), which is also present at Willow Lake and has leaves that are round instead of elongate.  There are over 150 species of Drosera worldwide, but these are the only two native sundew known to California.

Carnivory is a great strategy for survival out on the floating bog mat of Willow Lake.  The acidic environment created by undecomposed organic matter renders nutrients such as nitrogen less available than they would be in mineral soil.  The sundews thus fortify their diets with insects, a great source of protein.  Insects are attracted to the sweet, sticky secretions at the tips of these reddish hairs, and find that once they land they cannot leave.  Eventually, enzymes produced by the plant will break down the insect so that their nutrients can be absorbed into plant tissues.

  • Species:Drosera anglica (English sundew)
  • Plant Family: Droseraceae
  • Where I saw it: Willow Lake, Plumas County
  • Look also: fens and wet meadows of the northern Sierra Nevada, Southern Cascades, and Klamath ranges

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Listing Toward the Sun

Basil and parsley seedlings are up in our windowsill garden, and starting to put out their first true leaves.  We find them leaning toward the sun in the afternoons, straining to maximize their photosynthetic gain.  This is positive phototropism in action, a growth response toward the light.  A plant growth hormone called auxin mediates this response by migrating to the shaded side of the plant.  The presence of auxin causes plant cells on the shaded side of the plant to elongate and grow, while the cells on the sunny side no longer have auxin present to stimulate growth.   This lop-sided growth of cells on the shady side pushes the plant to curve toward the light.

Different parts of a plant may have different responses to the same stimulus.  Plant roots, for example, demonstrate postive gravitropism (growing downward in the same direction as gravity), while plant shoots show negative gravitropism as they grow against the force of gravity.  Turn a potted plant on its side or upside down, and the shoots  will make a u-turn and grow upward.

Our family is certainly responding in kind to external stimulus.  We too are listing toward the sun as the snow melts under a bright blue sky and we can remain in the dark, cold shade not a minute more.

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Beet-Dyed Easter Eggs

We dyed our Easter eggs this weekend, using an easy how-to from Mother Earth News. For our dyestuffs, we chose chopped beets and turmeric powder. They boiled up into vivid magenta and bright saffron yellow.  We then mixed the two to make a midway orange as well.  Our eggs would have colored to deeper tones if we had boiled the eggs in the dye as suggested, but there’s something about the dipping and checking process that’s just so much fun!  Plus, pink is pink in my four-year-old’s book.

Botanically speaking, beet pigments are rather notable.   Most other flowering plant species contain anthocyanins, variously colored pigments that fill a host of different roles.  Anthocyanins may protect plant tissues against ultraviolet radiation, attract pollinators by coloring petals and sepals, or mediate plant interactions with bacteria and pathogens. When deciduous plants stop producing chlorophyll in the fall, green drains from the leaves and anthocyanin pigments are unmasked to give us our brilliant crimson and gold “fall color” displays.

Beets and other related plants (amaranth, chard), however, contain betalain pigments instead, which possess an entirely different chemical structure.  Some are reddish-violet (betacyanins), as we see in beets, and others yellowish-orange (betaxanthins)  In rainbow chard, different leaf mid-ribs may express these different pigment types.  The role of betalain pigments is still poorly understood.  Sure, pigmented petals may help to attract pollinators, but what function do these pigments serve in the blood-red, below-ground root of a beet?  For our immediate purposes, however, what matters about both betalain pigments and anthocyanin pigments is that they are water-soluble, which means they make for pretty darned great Easter egg dyes!

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