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In biology, it is often the exceptions to the rules we teach that are the most interesting organisms. For example, every child knows that the sky is blue and the grass is green. With a few leading questions you can get a child to generalize that all plants are green. We all know this, right? Plants are green because they have chlorophyll, which allows them to perform the magic of photosynthesis. And yes, it really is magic. Harvesting the power of the sun to build complex molecules out of CO2 and H2O? Yeah, photoautotrophs are freakin' amazing.

But what about the plants that aren't green? How do they make a living?

I've already written about dodder, a parasitic plant that is commonly seen growing on pickleweed at Elkhorn Slough. A few weeks ago when I was at Lake Tahoe I encountered another plant that has a parasitic lifestyle: snow plant.

Snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea) near Carson Pass in the Sierra Nevada
26 July 2017
© Alex Johnson

Snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea) is a non-photosynthetic plant that has zero chlorophyll and thus zero green color, and is instead a rich blood-red color hinted at by its species epithet. It lives on the forest floor in close proximity to coniferous trees. The blood-red inflorescences shoot up from the ground, apparently out of nothing; the rest of the plant lives underground. If you break an angiosperm into its basic anatomical components you have: leaves, stems, roots, and flowers. Snow plant isn't photosynthetic, so it doesn't need or have leaves. And since stems are essentially support structures to hold leaves up to the light it doesn't have those, either. The roots and vegetative parts (rhizomes?) of snow plant are underground and for most of the year there's no indication that it's there at all, until it sends up an inflorescence in the late spring as the winter snow is melting.

Snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea) near Carson Pass in the Sierra Nevada
26 July 2017
© Alex Johnson

Since snow plant isn't autotrophic and doesn't fix its own carbon, it has to obtain fixed carbon from elsewhere. Snow plant lives under conifers, but is not a parasite on the trees the way that dodder is a parasite on pickleweed. The relationship is much more complex and involves a third player. And all of the action happens underground.

Enter the third player, a mycorrhizal fungus. This fungus's mycelium spreads through the roots of the conifers with which it has a mutualistic relationship. The tree shares photosynthate (i.e., fixed carbon) to the fungus, which in turn provides minerals to and enhances water uptake for the tree. These mycorrhizal symbioses are very common in Nature, but most often go unnoticed because they occur in the soil.

Snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea) near Carson Pass in the Sierra Nevada
26 July 2017
© Alex Johnson

Sarcodes sanguinea, the third partner in this unusual plant-plant-fungus ménage à trois, takes advantage of the intimacy between the conifer and the fungus. Instead of parasitizing the tree it targets the fungus, siphoning off part of the fungus's share of photosynthate. I suppose this makes snow plant an indirect parasite of the tree. The tree is doing all the work, as it is the only autotrophic member of the trio. It shares photosynthate with the fungus and gets something vital in return. Snow plant, on the other hand, doesn't contribute anything to either the fungus or the tree. Rather, it takes directly from the fungus and only secondarily from the tree.

It would be interesting to investigate the energetics of this three-way relationship. How do the fungus and tree react to parasitism by snow plant? On which of the mycorrhizal partners does snow plant have the strongest effect? The fungus, because its share of fixed carbon is being drained directly? Or the tree, which suffers because feeding the snow plant via the fungal intermediary means less photosynthate available to support its own metabolic activities? Does the tree have any way to stop the flow of fixed carbon to an area of the fungal mycelium that is being parasitized by the snow plant?

One last note. Many of the snow plants that we saw on the trail out of Carson Pass to Big Meadow had been surrounded by stones. We never saw any signs so aren't sure why, but I think hikers want to keep the snow plants from getting trampled. The species isn't endangered or threatened, although it is restricted to higher altitudes in California's mountain ranges.

Distribution of Sarcodes sanguinea in California

I think the stone rings were put there both to point out and protect the S. sanguinea inflorescences, although it would be hard to miss them. Nothing else is that bloody shade of red, and it really does stand out. Even small plants are very conspicuous.

Small snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea)
26 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

What a bizarre plant. It challenges our preconceived notions of what plants are all about. Ain't Nature grand, and weird?

Day 3 (Saturday 25 March 2017): Highway 25

We spent our second night on the coast in Morro Bay and came home via Highway 25. I would have enjoyed a drive up the coast, but given the road closures in Big Sur that wasn't a possibility. Highway 25, however, proved to be a very pretty drive. It was nice to see wildflowers closer to home, too.

Almost all of the hills sported bright yellow patches, some denser than others. At first I thought they were goldfields, but as we got closer I could see that the color was too bright and lemony to be goldfields, and the plants proved to be wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis). Mustard is widely considered a weed in California. Its native habitat is the Mediterranean basin, and one hypothesis is that it arrived in California with the Franciscan friars who established missions up and down the state. Mustard is one of the first plants to bloom every spring, and it covers hillsides, agriculture fields, and the side of the road.

Scenery along Highway 25
25 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Scenery along Highway 25
25 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Highway 25
25 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

For the first time in several years the oak trees appear to be flourishing this spring. There was a lot of rain this past rainy season, and it's such a relief to see the trees coming back to life. I'd forgotten what it is like to see so much green in a California landscape. I mean, just look!

Oak trees along Highway 25
25 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Unfortunately for us, most of the land through which Highway 25 winds is private owned, which means we couldn't just wander off on some back road to get closer to the wildflowers. We did happen upon some lupines which were growing conveniently along the side of the road. These were the big purple bush-type lupines. They were not growing in any kind of park or protected area, so I tossed a couple of sprigs into the plant press.

Lupine (Lupinus sp.) along Highway 25
25 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
25 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

By this time the light was fading as the sun began to set behind the western hills, so we headed home. I made it through three days of riding in the car without having a panic attack, which is much better than my concussed brain could have managed a few months ago. All in all it was a great trip, made even better because we got to spend some time with friends and family. These superblooms don't occur every year, and I'm very glad that I was able to see some of this one.

If you're considering making a trip to see the wildflowers in the desert areas of southern California, stop thinking about it and just go! If you can spare even a single night away, you will see some awesome displays of Nature's majesty. And it won't last much longer, so go now. Don't worry so much about actual destinations; just keep your eyes open for blooms wherever you can see them and be prepared to travel off the beaten path, because the flowers could be anywhere.

Day 2 (24 March 2017): Tehachapi, Antelope Valley, and Wind Wolves

We spent the night in Bakersfield and the next morning (24 March 2017) headed up over Tehachapi Pass and headed into Antelope Valley.

It had been many years since I'd driven over Tehachapi Pass, and I didn't remember ever having seen Joshua trees before. Maybe I was always sleeping on that part of the trip. Once we got past the windmills at the top of the pass--most definitely Not Good for my concussed brain--and started descending into the valley there were Joshua trees all over the place! So cool! And with this year being the 30th anniversary of U2's best (in my opinion) album, how appropriate.

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) in the Tehachapi Mountains
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

To my admittedly inexperienced eye, Joshua trees are the symbols of the Mojave Desert, as the saguaro is the symbol of the Sonoran Desert. None of the Joshua trees that we saw at Tehachapi were blooming, although I heard from a friend that they were in bloom slightly farther south at Lancaster.


Continuing on, we drove through the desert scrubbiness and eventually could see orange splashed onto the distant hills. We stopped to pick up sandwiches at a corner market and then headed towards the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. And bang! all of a sudden we were in the poppy fields.

California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in Antelope Valley
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

California's state flower grows as either a perennial or an annual, depending on how much water it receives. In desert areas in the south it behaves like an annual, whereas in moister areas along the coast and in gardens it can come back as a perennial. There are several subspecies of E. californica, each adapted to a particular habitat within the state. Blossom color varies from a golden yellow (very similar to that of fiddlenecks, actually) to a deep intense orange.

California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in Antelope Valley
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Our intent was to stop at the visitor center of the park and pick up a trail map, but we never got there. We arrived at early mid-day on a Friday, when everybody from Los Angeles showed up, and the line of cars trying to get into the park was backed up almost to the road. Um, no thanks. Besides, we saw all these poppies from the road, and could find places sort of off the beaten track with fewer people tromping around with selfie sticks than would be inside the actual park. Now I'm not one to discourage people from visiting our state parks, but if you decide to go here, try to arrive earlier in the morning on a midweek day. And time your visit for a sunny day, when the poppies will be open.

Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) and goldfields (Lasthenia californica) near the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Field of poppies (Eschscholzia californica)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And looking up towards the hills we saw pastel paintings. The orange flowers are poppies, I'm guessing that the yellow is goldfields, and the purple is lupines.

And in terms of lupines, Antelope Valley was the best place we visited. When we made plans to come here I had grandiose ideas of capturing that perfect iconic photograph of purple lupines and orange poppies together. You know the one. Unfortunately I think we arrive a week or two early to catch the peak of the lupine bloom. I never did see nice full lush poppies and blooming lupines in the same spot.

We did, however, see several nice lupine bushes in the various washes around the poppy reserve. Honeybees were glad to see them, too.

A deep purple lupine (Lupinus sp.) in Antelope Valley
24 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong
A foraging honeybee checks out the lupine blossom
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

As glorious as the poppies were, we needed to keep moving in order to meet up with friends on the coast. Working our way westward we stopped at the Wind Wolves Preserve, an ecological reserve managed by the Wildlands Conservancy. I had never heard of the place and wasn't sure what to expect. What I got was a lovely surprise.

There are, of course, no wolves in this part of California. So then, why the name? According to a sign at the head of the wildflower trail, the name refers to the Preserve's long grasses, which undulate like running animals when the wind blows through them. I wasn't carrying the tripod with me so I didn't try to take any video. However, on our way from Antelope Valley we stopped at Tejon Pass, where the wind was blowing pretty well. I took this video there.

It does look like one of those aerial views of a herd of galloping ungulates, doesn't it? Perhaps not wind wolves, exactly, but at the Preserve it was easy to imagine how the place got its name. The wildflower walk, a bit less than a mile long, winds through rolling hills covered with grasses and dotted here and there with flowers. There were several small groups of people hiking the trail, and it wasn't uncommon to have them disappear completely from the landscape when they got lost in the grasses as the trail dipped into a small depression.

Wind Wolves Preserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Wind Wolves Preserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

No doubt the resemblance to running wolves will be stronger when the grasses are a bit taller.

We were perhaps two weeks ahead of the bloom and most of the flowers were just starting to open up. The overall effect was a cool wash of green dotted here and there with bright splashes of color. There were lupines, of a smaller ground-growing type rather than the bush lupines we had seen in Antelope Valley, and a plant that we had first seen a lot of on the Carrizo Plain, another whimsically named flower called purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta). As its scientific name implies, owl's clover is a member of the paintbrush family of plants.

Purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta) and a small, dark lupine (Lupinus bicolor, perhaps) among the grasses at Wind Wolves Preserve
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And this might well be my favorite photo of the entire trip:

Purple owl's clover (Castilleja exserta)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Horned lark (Eremophila alpestris)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

We had already seen many familiar and not-so-familiar birds on the trip, and it was at Wind Wolves that I saw my first ever horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). This individual wasn't very shy at all; it let us approach within 2 meters on the trail before running off ahead to wait for us again. It had such expressive postures, and a curious look on its face. If there hadn't been a family with small kids behind us on the trail, I could have watched this bird for a long time. But we couldn't block the trail just because there was an interesting (to us) bird standing in it, so we let the family pass and the lark flew off into the grasses. They are social birds so no doubt it had friends and family of its own to join.

We saw lizards, too, most notably the western side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana ssp. elegans). These lizards have very interesting gender expression, depending on color morph: there are three male morphs (orange-throat, yellow-stripe, and blue-throat) and two female morphs (orange-throat and yellow-throat). Sounds crazy, doesn't it? The female morphs differ in egg-laying strategy. Orange-throat females lay many small eggs and defend territories, while yellow-throat females lay fewer larger eggs and are less territorial.

Western side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana ssp.elegans)
24 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Work by Barry Sinervo's group at UC Santa Cruz showed that the three male color morphs also have different reproductive strategies. They are locked in an evolutionary game of rock-paper-scissors: each color can dominate one (but not both) of the other colors. Note that in this context 'dominate' doesn't necessarily mean that one lizard beats up the other, but rather has greater reproductive success than the other. Orange-throats are the most typically testosterone-driven males; they are more aggressive towards other males and control territories containing several females. Yellow-stripe "sneaker" males hang around the edges of an orange-throated male's territory and sneak copulations with females while the territory holder's attention is elsewhere. Blue-throats have an intermediate level of aggression; they can defend a single female from other blue-throats and yellow-stripes, but not against an orange-throat. In a nutshell:

  • Orange beats Blue but loses (sometimes) to Yellow
  • Blue beats Yellow but loses to Orange
  • Yellow beats Orange (sneakily) but loses to Blue

Pretty dang cool, isn't it?

Next installment: The voyage home

Day 1 (Thursday 23 March 2017) cont'd.: Carrizo Plain National Monument

The Carrizo Plain is an enclosed grassy plain in the southernmost "toe" of San Luis Obispo County, lying between the Temblor Range to the northeast and the Caliente Range to the southwest. Its average elevation is about 700 meters (2200 feet). The main geological features of the plain are a seasonal lake that receives water from both mountain ranges, and the San Andreas Fault, which runs along the northeast edge of the plain up against the aptly named Temblor Range.

Topo map of the Carrizo Plain

For most of the year the Carrizo Plain is hot, dry, and dusty. For a few weeks in the spring, especially if a decent amount of winter rain has fallen, the Plain explodes with color. As in most of the state the dominant color of the flowers is yellow, and the goldfields (Lasthenia californica) grow in huge swaths. Although it is always fun to focus on individual flowers, which I will do later, at the Carrizo Plain the focus is on the landscape.

Soda Lake Road bisects the Carrizo Plain and passes through so many stunning vistas that it is hard to decide where to look. The eye travels from the side of the road, across Soda Lake, and up against the Temblor Range hills and sees amazing splotches of color. It's quite a spectacular display of natural beauty. Well, there's also the humongous solar farm at the northwest corner of the lake, but let's pretend we don't see it, shall we?

View across Soda Lake Road to the Temblor Range hills
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

In only a few weeks the entire landscape will have transformed from this lush green and yellow to unrelenting dusty brown.

Carrizo Plain
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Panoramic view of Soda Lake
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Reflection on Soda Lake 
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And now let's get up close and personal with some of the flowers. As mentioned above the goldfields were very common. I did not see any tidy tips on the Plain, although of course that doesn't mean they weren't there. One of the most abundant flowers on the Plain is fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii), which was just beginning to bloom.

Fields of fiddlenecks (Amsinckia menziesii) on the Carrizo Plain
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Young fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii) blossoms
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

In a couple of weeks the inflorescences will be longer and curled into the shape that gives them their common name, and the overall color of the landscape will shift from the brighter yellow of goldfields to a softer golden shade. Wherever the fiddlenecks occur they are extremely abundant. According to what I've read about this plant, later in the season its seeds will be a major food source for seed-eating birds such as finches and sparrows. I don't remember seeing any finches when we were there, but we did see several white-crowned sparrows flitting about on the tops of the sagebrush.

Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii)
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Fortunately for the retinas of human visitors, the flowers were not all yellow. Along Shell Creek Road and at the Carrizo Plain there were two types of blue or purple flowers. The bluer of the two, baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) occurred both in small patches on the flats and in big carpets on the hillsides. The bluish patch in the photo of fiddlenecks on the hills (up the page a bit) are all baby blue eyes.

 

The Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata) is a delicate, periwinkle-colored flower that contrasts beautifully with the golden orange of fiddlenecks. We saw it scattered here and there, and while it wasn't uncommon it never seemed to occur in large patches in the Soda Lake area.

Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata) and fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii)
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Continuing along past Soda Lake we passed hillsides covered with brilliant yellow and purple flowers. In this area of the Carrizo Plain the phacelia did form larger patches, although they were still not as dense as either the fiddlenecks or the goldfields.

Goldfields (Lasthenia californica, background) and Great Valley phacelia (Phacelia ciliata, foreground)
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

And in case you think there might not have been enough yellow in the landscape: BAM!

Goldfields (Lasthenia californica)
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Next installment: Antelope Valley and the Wind Wolves Preserve.

RAIN + SUN = WILDFLOWERS

That's one of the truisms of life in a Mediterranean climate such as ours. The official water year as measured by NOAA runs from 1 October through 30 September, and along the central/northern California coast most of the rain falls from December through March. The rest of the year, April through the summer and most of the fall, is the long dry season.

Plants that have evolved to live in Mediterranean climates respond quickly to water when it is available. For many annual plants, this means rapid growth in the spring when the soil begins to warm up and the days are getting longer, followed by a burst of flowering as the plants complete their life cycles. Once the rain stops falling there is no water except what is stored in the ground, out of reach for most shallow-rooted plants. The annuals take advantage of the short window between the end of the heaviest rains and the onset of yearly drought to bloom and have sex (i.e., set seed). From 2011-2015 there was moderate to severe drought through most of the state and spring wildflower blooms were anemic and less-than-spectacular. In April 2016, after the El Niño rains of the previous season, some friends and I went down to southern California to check out the bloom. We had made a day trip of it, and it was a very long day that didn't allow for much meandering or poking around. This year we had read from several sources that the heavy winter/early spring rains followed by sunshine would result in a very strong superbloom and managed to squeeze in a 3-day trip, which allowed us to visit more places and change our plans at the last minute if we heard about something interesting to see.


Day 1 (Thursday 23 March 2017): Shell Creek Road 

Shell Creek road is the little road that runs north-south from the hamlet of Shandon to the northwest corner of the Carrizo Plain. The roadbed runs along a little creek that meanders through rolling hills dotted with oak trees. It is really pretty when covered with grasses and wildflowers in the spring, although it will be hot, dusty, and brown for half the year. This is where we caught our first glimpses of the superbloom in action.

Wildflower bloom along Shell Creek Road in San Luis Obispo County
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong
Wildflower bloom along Shell Creek Road in San Luis Obispo County
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

The dominant color of the landscape is yellow. A quick thumb-through of any western wildflowers field guide will confirm this. We do have a plethora of yellow flowers in California. In fact, one of the hypothesized reasons California is referred to as "the golden state" is the flood of yellow that carpets hills and valleys in the springtime. The other hypothesis I've heard is that "golden" refers to the color of the hills during the long dry season. Both of these seem feasible to me.

So who's responsible for all this yellow?

The main culprit is the aptly named goldfields (Lasthenia californica). They are very common members of the daisy family, the Asteraceae, and are found in most regions of the state except at higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada.

Goldfields (Lasthenia californica) along Shell Creek Road in San Luis Obispo County
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Another goldfield look-alike is a flower with the strange common name of Bigelow's tickseed. Its real name is Leptosyne bigelovii. It's a California endemic, found only in the southern half of the state. I looked at a lot of photos, mine and others', trying to learn how to distinguish between the tickseed and goldfields, and hope I have it right.

This is Bigelow's tickseed:

Bigelow's tickseed (Leptosyne bigelovii) along Shell Creek Road in San Luis Obispo County
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

See the differences in flower morphology? I've got samples of each species (I hope!) drying in the plant press, and should be able either to confirm or refute my identifications once I can take a look at them. It's always a good idea to calibrate my intuition whenever I can.

A third yellow flower, which occurs throughout the coastal mountains but we saw only at Shell Creek Road, is the delightfully named coastal tidy tips (Layia platyglossa). This is the kind of common name that makes me smile. You'll see why.

Coastal tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) along Shell Creek Road in San Luis Obispo County
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

Perhaps the tidy tips form large dense patches more readily at other locations, but this year we saw them mostly interspersed among the goldfields. They are conspicuous enough that I think I would have noticed them if I'd seen them last year. From a macro perspective the white petal tips lend a more creamy yellow color to the landscape, compared to the unrelenting blinding yellow of the goldfields. I had never seen them before, and there's something about those white tips that just tickles my fancy. How could I not be enchanted?

Goldfields (Lasthenia californica) and coastal tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) along Shell Creek Road in San Luis Obispo County
23 March 2017
© Allison J. Gong

As lovely as it was, Shell Creek Road was only the first location we wanted to visit that day. Our ultimate destination was the Carrizo Plain National Monument, in southeastern San Luis Obispo County. More about that shortly.

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