What may have been a dull, boring botany class in school can become a consuming passion out in the fields. Like bird watchers, lovers of wildflowers take great pleasure in the search for an elusive bloom or a dazzling display.
Learning the identity of the profusion of wildflowers in Southern California can be a bewildering experience for a beginner.
Asked how she got started, Jo Kitz, past president of the Santa Monica Mountain branch of the California Native Plant Society, said: “I went out into the field with some wildflower books and tried to identify all the white flowers I could see. Then I did the same thing with each of the colors.”
Others begin their quests by writing careful descriptions of the plants they hope to see--the height of the plant; the arrangement, color and shape of the petals, veins and leaves, and how they are positioned on the stalk--and then go out and search for them.
More scientific investigation would include a closer study of the smallest parts of the flower and each plant’s habitat--woods, fields, wetlands or sandy areas--and whether it grows in the sun or shade.
A name is a name is a name. And knowing the names of the flowers you observe can be a source of pleasure. But, the botanical use of two Latin names for each plant--the generic (like a person’s last name) and the specific (like the first name)--can be confusing; so, common English titles are often used.
To aid you in your pursuit, here are simplified descriptions and some illustrations of a few of the most popular wildflowers in Southern California.
California lilac (Ceanothus spinosus) --Bright to pale blue clusters of tiny, fragrant flowers about three inches long bloom on erect shrubs with one-veined, serrated-edged leaves. Plants are generally found on chaparral-covered slopes.
California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) --California’s state flower is bright orange with four petals on a 12- to 18-inch stem with fine, lacy green leaves and are found throughout Southern California.
Sticky monkeyflower (Diplacus longiflorus) --Flowers are corn-color and red, up to three inches long. Leaves are narrow and long. These plants grow in dry, rocky habitats.
California bush sunflower (Encelia californica) --Single, large, yellow flowers with purple-brown centers. These are strong-scented, spreading plants from two to four feet in height with alternate leaves. They grow in moist environments.
Mariposa lily (Calochortus catalinae) --A tall plant that grows to 40 inches with grass-like leaves. The flowers have three bright yellow petals that form a cup.
Lupine (Lupinus succulentus) --Purple blue, pea-shaped flowers bloom in half-inch clusters on either side of the stem, with palm-shaped leaves.
Phacelia (Phacelia parryi) --Plants are two feet tall. They have purple flowers about 2 1/2 inches tall with oval, toothed leaves. Masses of phacelia are seen in areas after a fire.
Now that you’re acquainted with a few of California’s favorites, perhaps you would like to see them in the great outdoors. You can head for some of the places listed on this page. If you like company, there are groups with qualified naturalist leaders who know the ropes, and they’ll take you to the “bloomingest” sites and add knowledge to the shared joys of discovery.
California Native Plant Society-Santa Monica Mountains Chapter--6223 Lubao St., Woodland Hills, (818) 348-5910 or (213) 479-1942. Individual membership $18. A statewide nonprofit organization of amateurs and professionals interested in California native plants. You’ll get issues of “Fremontia,” a statewide publication, plus newsletters from local chapters that provide updated information about classes, plants, ecological concerns as well as field trips. Local chapters include the San Gabriel Mountain, South Coast, Orange County, Riverside-San Bernardino and Channel Islands branches. Upcoming trips, in conjunction with the Sierra Club, are the free Santa Monica Mountain Wildflower Walks. The next walks leave from the visitor’s section of the parking lot south of the Federal Building, 11000 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood at 8:45 a.m. and from the Taft High School parking lot, 5461 Winnetka Ave. (and Ventura Boulevard), Woodland Hills at 9 a.m. The walks are every other Saturday beginning April 12 through June 7. Groups for every level of interest, including one for camera buffs. Bring lunch and water, wear sturdy shoes. Call for information about other trips.
UCLA--P.O. Box 24901, Los Angeles. Extension class X-424.12--Plants and Wildflowers of Southern California. Includes field trips to Mojave Desert and to chaparral, coastal, sage, riparian and mountain habitats. Fee is $165, which includes air-conditioned private bus for two of the three fields trips. Trips are the Saturdays of April 19, May 3 and May 17. Tuesday lecture series is 7 to 10 p.m. The first was on Tuesday and the remainder are April 8, 15, 29; May 13. Call (213) 825-7093 for more information.
Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens--1212 Mission Canyon Road, Santa Barbara, (805) 682-4726. Membership is $15. April 24 and May 3 field trips to study the wildflower followers of the Wheeler Canyon fire. On May 22, there will be short walks on Figueroa Mountain to observe wildflowers.
Earthside Nature Center at the Girl’s Club of Pasadena, 3160 E. Del Mar Blvd., Pasadena, (818) 796-6120 or 796-6115. Admission to this wildflower display is $2 for adults; under 12 free. Wildflower Walkabouts--April 12, 13, 14; Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. A California native plant garden developed on a 3 1/2-acre landfill. The Open House for spring flowers display has 19 environments and more than 137 species of California wildflowers, including baby blue-eyes, California poppy, lupine, phacelia, tidy tips..
Wilderness Institute--22900 Ventura Blvd., Suite L, Woodland Hills, (818) 887-7831. Mount Gleason Wildflowers trip to the San Gabriel Mountains is 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 13, $16 adults, $8 for children 12 and under. Death Valley Wildflowers trip has a pre-trip class, 7 to 10 p.m.. April 15. The field trip leaves 8 a.m. April 18 and returns at 9 p.m. April 20. Fee of $129 includes transportation, camp fees, instruction and six meals.
Sierra Club of Southern California/Angeles Chapter, 2410 W. Beverly Blvd., (213) 387-4287. Membership $29. Besides the previously mentioned trips with the Native Plant Society, there are others given throughout the season. For example, on April 26 and 27 there’s a 100 Peaks--Los Padres Wildflower Backpack. This is a strenuous backpacking trip for the experienced. Call for more information.
Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery Open House--10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley, (818) 768-1802. Membership is $20. Free lecture by Ysabel Fetterman on “Bee Pastures,” (naturalist’s name for wildflower fields) at 11 a.m. Saturday; and, beginning at 1 p.m., tours to see specimen around the nursery. A great place for beginners to learn about California natives and purchase hard-to-find specimens.
In order to check out your discoveries, you will need some reference books. No collection is complete without some of the following: “Flowering Plants--The Santa Monica Mountains Coastal & Chaparral Regions of Southern California,” by Nancy Dale, Capra Press. A new book on the market with gorgeous photos and helpful descriptions.
“Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains” by Milt McAuley, Canyon Publishing. Detailed descriptions and pictures that will help you in your wildflower hunts.
“A Flora of Southern California” by Philip Munz, California Press. A thick, detailed book for the serious wildflower fan.
“Day Walks in the Santa Monica Mountains” by the Santa Monica Task Force, Sierra Club. For those who want to go it alone, this book tells you how to get there and what you’ll find.
“The Wildflowers of California” by Mary Parsons, Dove Publications, 1966 edition. Though some of the information is outdated, the poetic descriptions are a joy to read.
“Peterson’s Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers” by T. Niehaus/C. Ripper. Like the birder’s bible, this one is for wildflower lovers.
University of California Press--A group of books about plants and flowers you’ll want for your collection.
Now if you’re ready to hit the trail, keep in mind leader Jo Kitz’s advice: “Tuck a wildflower book in your backpack along with food and water. Wear a long-sleeve shirt to protect you from poison oak. (Be sure you know what it looks like.) Never reach or step where you can’t see. And, don’t be a ‘flowernapper.’ This year’s flowers are next year’s seeds.”