Saturday, April 8, 2017

Wildflowers Abound at Carrizo Plain!

It's "go time" for wildflower enthusiasts across the southern half of California - and it would seem no wildflower trip would be complete this year without a stop at Carrizo Plain National Monument.  Eric and I spent last weekend camping at Carrizo Plain, just as the wildflower blooms were beginning to peak.  According to the Theodore Payne Wildflower Hotline, peak bloom at Carrizo Plain should continue for another couple of weeks.  (So you still have a chance to see it for yourself!)


To prepare you for this season of wildflower abundance, whether you get out to see the blooms for yourself or are content to admire photos from the comfort of home, I've put together a collection of the most commonly encountered wildflowers at Carrizo Plain.

Common Hillside Daisy (Monolopia lanceolata)

One of the brightest and most ubiquitous flowers you will see is Common Monolopia, or Common Hillside Daisy (Monolopia lanceolata), pictured above.  A member of the aster or sunflower family, Asteraceae, Hillside Daisy is widespread throughout Carrizo Plain as well as the Temblor and Caliente ranges.  It is the plant famously responsible for making the hills surrounding Carrizo Plain look like this:

Hillside Daisies blanket the hills of the Temblor Range in sunshine

You can't miss the Hillside Daisies.  Watch for other cars stopped in the middle of the road; gaping wide-mouthed is a common side effect of such beauty.

Common Goldfields (Lasthenia gracilis)

A second, smaller common yellow composite (member of the family Asteraceae) you are likely to encounter is Common Goldfields (Lasthenia gracilis), above. 

Common Goldfields carpeting the ground near Soda Lake

As might be expected, they turn the ground into fields of gold.  Excellent examples of these golden carpets can be found around the Soda Lake area.  Common Goldfields are also found throughout grassland and vernal pool habitats across the Great Central Valley and foothills.

Munz's Tidy Tips (Layia munzii)

Tidy Tips, lovely yellow composite flowers with white-tipped petals, are also blooming in profusion around Soda Lake.  In addition to the common Coastal Tidy Tips (Layia platyglossa), the more rare but similar-looking Munz's Tidy Tips (Layia munzii) can be found at Carrizo Plain (pictured here, mingling with goldfields).

Fields of Tidy Tips

Another extremely prevalent wildflower at Carrizo Plain is Fiddle Neck (Amsinckia intermedia), in the borage or forget-me-not family, Boraginaceae.  Whole fields have turned orange with their little curled heads of blooms.  And yet, I barely photographed them at all.  It seems that I find Fiddle Neck too common or "boring;" it was one of the very first weed wildflower species I learned to identify as a kid, where it grew thick in the vacant lots by our house.

Fiddle Neck (Amsinckia intermedia)

Nevertheless, it's still a pretty flower, and most people aren't as jaded by Fiddle Neck as I am.  I found it far more interesting to photograph the sparrows that were feasting on the Fiddle Neck seeds.

Savanah Sparrow and Fiddle Neck

A far more exciting discovery was that of little patches of Cream Cups (Platystemon californicus).  These are beautiful, delicate little flowers in the poppy family (Papaveraceae) that are a pretty buttery yellow color.  Eric is learning to understand why some flowers make me giddy (like Cream Cups) while others inspire little more than a cursory glance (Fiddle Neck).

Cream Cups (Platystemon californicus)

Another flower that fills me with delight every time is Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila menziesii), surprisingly also a member of the borage family (Boraginaceae) to which Fiddle Neck belongs.  A lovely patch of these beauties can be found blooming on the side of Overlook Hill at Carrizo Plain.

Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila menziesii)

You can actually see the little "bee runways" on these flowers, dotted paths or landing strips directing bees toward the center of each flower to encourage an exchange of nectar and pollen.

Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila menziesii)

Though yellow is the predominant wildflower color across the hills and plains, a number of contrasting purple flowers can be found as well.  A couple of these species are in the Phacelia genus (in the family Boraginaceae once again, along with our good friends Fiddle Neck and Baby Blue Eyes).  The first is Great Valley Phacelia (Phacelia ciliata), below.

Great Valley Phacelia (Phacelia ciliate)

The second Phacelia you might come across is slightly larger: Tansy Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia).  But those two species are really just the tip of the phacelia ice berg in terms of species found in California, with many growing in arid regions.

Tansy Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia)

Like our two phacelias, there are also two similar larkspur species to be found here: Parry's Larkspur (Delphinium parryi) and Recurved Larkspur (Delphinium recurvatum).  (There are actually three others, but for the sake of simplicity, we'll stick with these two common species.)  Parry's Larkspur, pictured below, is commonly associated with desert and grassland plant communities and is nearly endemic to California, with just a few occurrences outside the state.

Parry's Larkspur (Delphinium parryi)

Recurved Larkspur is associated with alkali sink and saltbush scrub communities, and can be found in the area of Soda Lake.  This species is endemic to California, occurring no where else, and is listed as rare or endangered by the California Native Plant Society.

Recurved Larkspur (Delphinium recurvatum) near Soda Lake

Members of the onion family (Alliaceae), wild onions grow from bulbs and produce clusters of flowers similar to the flowers of familiar chives and garden onions.  The species we ran across on our hike was Purple Wild Onion (Allium peninsulare), though four other species can be found throughout Carrizo Plain.

Purple Wild Onion (Allium peninsulare)

Another plant that grows from a bulb and bears clusters of flowers is Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum).  Blue Dicks can be found across California, from the mountains, to the desert, to the coast, so it's no surprise that it should also be at home in grasslands.  This plant is a member of the family Themidaceae, which has been separated from Liliaceae (the Lily family), along with brodiaeas and triteleias.

Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum)

The flower heads of Blue Dicks appear atop long, leafless stems.  It's always a happy sight to see these pretty purple blooms poking out of the grasses.

Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum)

The lupines are another widespread group of plants, found growing from the Sierra Nevada mountains and foothills, across the valleys of the state, up and down the coast and throughout our deserts.  I've admired lupine species carpeting Giant Sequoia groves, thriving on gravelly desert slopes, and battered by salt spray along the Pacific coast.  Really, there seems to be a lupine for every plant community, and the grasslands are certainly not without their own lupine representatives.   Six species of lupines can be found in Carrizo Plain, but we'll focus on just one, Bush Lupine (Lupinus albifrons), since it's the largest and most obvious. 

Bush Lupine (Lupinus albifrons)

Lupines are legumes, in the pea family (Fabaceae), with the ability to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that is available to other plants.  Symbiotic bacteria living in root nodules of legumes chemically alter atmospheric nitrogen into a form that can be used by plants, storing this nitrogen in the leaves of the legumes.  After vegetative parts of the plant die and fall to the ground as detritus, decomposition releases the stored nitrogen into the ecosystem, essentially fertilizing the soil.  This process is referred to as nitrogen fixation, or "fixing nitrogen," and allows legumes to be among the first colonizers of bare, disturbed or otherwise nutrient deficient ground.

Purple Owl's Clover (Castilleja exserta)

Having basically the opposite effect on its plant neighbors is Purple Owl's Clover (Castilleja exserta), which is not a clover at all (clovers are nitrogen-fixing legumes) but rather a hemi-parasitic member of the broomrape family, Orobanchaceae.  Rather than supplying valuable nitrogen to the plant community through nitrogen fixation like lupines, owl's clovers are partial parasites, deriving some of their nutrients directly from neighboring plants through a network of tiny filaments called hyphae.  The leaves of owl's clovers are very small, since their need to photosynthesize is reduced.   Other familiar members of the Castilleja genus include the widely distributed paintbrushes.

Purple Owl's Clover (Castilleja exserta), up close

Now that you're familiar with a handful of the most common wildflowers, you're ready to venture out on your own!  But if you visit Carrizo Plain this spring, the motto is "Be prepared!" 

Soda Lake Road, the main north-south road through the national monument, is unpaved for much of the way, and side roads are often impassable by regular passenger cars, especially when wet.  There are no services even close to the area.  The nearest gasoline, food, and lodging is 40 or 50 miles away, and there is no cell phone service in the area.  Drinking water is not available at Carrizo Plain.  Make sure you have a full tank of gas, as well as plenty of food and water for your trip.  There are six restrooms scattered throughout the monument, with miles of unpaved road in between; plan accordingly!  The very informative education center is open from December through May. 

Visit the website to learn more: https://www.blm.gov/nlcs_web/sites/ca/st/en/prog/nlcs/Carrizo_Plain_NM.html

Camping at Selby Campground

That being said, don't let limited facilities deter you!  Carrizo Plain is a beautiful place to visit and camp during the winter and spring.  The national monument offers a choice between two established campgrounds, and dispersed camping is also allowed in certain areas.  (Whatever spot you choose, bring your own toilet paper!)  There's really no better way to experience Carrizo Plain than to fully immerse yourself: watch the sun set and the moon rise, listen to the nightlife (we heard a Long-eared Owl, Common Poorwill and quite a few coyotes at night, plus a symphony of crickets).  When morning comes, soak in the sunrise as the first rays light up the valley.  It's an experience not to be missed.

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