Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/April 1888/Californian Dry-Winter Flowers

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By Professor BYRON D. HALSTED.

THE writer spent three months of the winter of 1886-'87 in and around the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara in Southern California. The previous summer had been no exception to the rule, and the whole country received no rain from the last of April until the close of the year. In fact, the long-expected rains did not come until the middle of February, and we left in the midst of the raging floods. The wild plants, therefore, which were in bloom from December until February, had not felt the invigorating influences of water from the clouds for nearly ten months.

It is the purpose of this paper to call attention to the winter-blooming plants found upon the highlands, or at least not growing along the streams or within easy reach of water coming from any natural springs or other perennial sources of moisture. The roadways, for example, during the winter, were deep with dust, and every passing breeze carried the impalpable powder in a fine cloud over all surrounding objects.

The first plant bearing blossoms that attracted our attention was the western bindweed (Convolvulus occidentalis, Gray). This perennial, twining herb seemed to flourish in the driest earth, and hung out its white or purplish flowers to catch the dust as well as the winter sunshine. Unlike its first cousin, the common morning-glory, as we see it in the East, this wild convolvulus keeps its flowers open the whole day through, and, for aught we know, for several days in succession. This would only be in keeping with other living things in that quiet, lazy climate, where there is no real winter, or the activity exhibited among plants in localities where they must prepare for impending frosts. A very common species in flower was Galium angustifolium, Nutt. This is one of the larger "bed-straws," and may be found in almost any thicket climbing to the height of three or more feet over the dusty and leafless branches of the surrounding shrubbery. The flowers are very small and inconspicuous, but are present in large numbers. The fact that this is one of the polygamo-diœcious species adds interest to it. Botanists have puzzled over it to some extent on account of there being male and female plants, which differ somewhat in general appearance. Upon this species it was interesting to observe the long, slender, and apparently lifeless stems from which sprang at frequent intervals the green, leaf-bearing branches with their large clusters of small flowers. There was an adaptation to circumstances, and young shoots were developed where they would do the most good. One species of the "painted cup" {Castilleia parviflora, Bon.) was occasionally met with in the open grounds, but it looked the worse for its winter's wear. This species is covered with a villous pubescence, and this with the accumulation of dust rendered the inflorescence far from a brightly "painted cup." The flowers are, however, not small, as the specific term would suggest. They are well-nigh as large as those of C. coccinia, Spr., of the Middle States. Another member of the same family is the Scrophularia Californica, Cham., or California figwort. This was not abundant, and might be easily mistaken for the Linnæan species S. nodosa, L., of Europe and the Atlantic States. The western species may, however, be distinguished by the coarsely, doubly incised, or sometimes laciniated leaves, and by the sterile stamens being spatulate or pointed near the apex. Like the eastern species, this is a fine illustration of proterogyny in flowers fertilized by means of insects. The pistil first appears upon the lower lip of the flower. After the style has become flabby and reclined upon the corolla, the four stamens take its former place and shed their pollen upon the bodies of nectar seeking insects.

A "four-o'clock," one of the three species within the Golden State, namely, Mirabilis Californica, Gray, was found, with its viscid pubescent, thickish, almost sessile leaves coated with dust, while the small rose-purple flowers were in striking contrast with their surroundings. We found this one of the most difficult of all species to prepare for the herbarium. After weeks of drying, the viscid covering would still remain. At least two species of nettles were found in bloom, but as far as showiness goes they might as well have been in fruit! Around Los Angeles there is a very coarse, tall species (Urtica Breweri, Wat.), which reaches above a person's head, and is loaded with the green panicles of flowers. The leaves are frequently six inches long and finely pubescent. The stems are hispid, and the stinging hairs produce a burning sensation upon the flesh that is akin to numbness, which lasts for several days. One of the ancient natives, observing the writer among these much-dreaded plants, volunteered the information that they were worthless and much to be avoided. He could see no reason why any one would deliberately handle such vile things. The small, slender, stinging nettle of Europe (Urtica urens L.) was also in bloom.

Among the Compositæ we note Centaurea militensis, L., or star-thistle, with its heads armed with a spinose involucre, which includes the pink flowers. This is one of the miserable weeds of waste places that has effected an entrance from the Old World. The Gnaphalium margaritaceum of Linnæus, now placed in the genus Anaphalis, D. C, with its white, woolly, leafy stems, and pearly, scaly involucres, was frequently met with, and sustained its old-time reputation for being one of the beautiful "everlastings." The most showy of all the herbaceous composites was the Solidago Californica, Nutt., which is a strict-stemmed plant, about three feet high, with lanceolate entire leaves, and a pyramidal panicle of racemose beads of yellow flowers. This is the Californian representative of S. nemoralis, Ait. The golden-rods on the Pacific coast are few in number, less than one tenth of the United States species being represented in California. The most striking composite is the Senecio scandena, L., or German ivy, which in many places has escaped from cultivation and grows rampant in the low grounds, where it climbs to the tops of medium-sized trees, and embowers them in a perfect profusion of bright-yellow blossoms. A few specimens of a helianthus, probably H. Californicus, D. C, were found, but a dry winter is not favorable for the sunflowers, especially the annual sorts.

Only one species of the Cucurbitacæe was in bloom—namely, Megarrhiza Californica, Torr. This was running over the dry soil like an aristocratic cucumber-vine, with its white male flowers in slender racemes, while here and there a forming fruit exhibited its green covering of sharp, stout spines. We were anxious to secure some of the large seeds to illustrate the remarkable manner in which the cotyledons find their way to the surface of the soil in germination, but were unsuccessful. This "big root," as its generic term indicates, is probably able to obtain more moisture than most other plants growing in similar situations, and which do not strike their roots so deeply into the soil or utilize them as storehouses for accumulated nourishment. This megarrhiza is exceedingly provident, and is, therefore, able to grow where shallow plants succumb to the drought. In the same soil flourished the Lupinus rivularis, Doug., and the Californian peony (Pæonia Breweri, Doug.). The lupine is a short-stemmed plant, bearing large, palmately compound leaves of seven to ten leaflets, and terminating in a raceme often two feet long, bearing a large number of beautiful purple flowers. The peony is a ternately compound-leaved perennial, with but a few large blossoms, which assert at sight the close alliance of this species with the peonies of the garden. These last three species were objects of rejoicing as the eye wandered over the otherwise almost flowerless tracts in the broad, bowlder-scattered canon. Not far from the above locality it was a surprise to run upon Nicotiana tabacum, L., our common tobacco, growing wild and in full bloom. These plants had escaped from some Mexican garden, or perhaps the old garden had escaped from the slack and profitless culture of the Mexican.

The species that seemed the most at home of all the dust-bloomers was the old vervain (Verbena officinalis, L.) of Europe. This species grows in nearly all parts of the globe, and is very likely naturalized in many countries, including California. From out of the heavy covering of dust which is held by the minute pubescence, the purple corollas are spread along the lengthy spikes. Nearly all of the specimens have the older spikes much swollen and otherwise distorted by infesting insects.

Phacelia is a large genus in California, numbering thirty-five species. A few of these members of the order Hydrophyllaceæ were in bloom, among which the P. ramosissima, Doug., was the most common. It would seem as if earth could not get too dry for this straggling, hispid, or glandular-viscid plant to thrive. The variety hispida, Gray, was the most common form at Santa Barbara, and is a very unpleasant thing to handle. A large quantity of the pinnately divided leaves and prickly stems was gathered, as they were much infested by a cluster-cup (Æcidium) fungus. At least one species of Cuscuta was collected, viz., C. Californica, Choisy; but, as all the dodders are parasitic, it is not strange to find them flourishing even while their hosts were leafless and being robbed, so to speak, in their sleep. The species is quite variable, and the extreme forms have been defined under var. breviflora and var. longiloba; both by Dr. Engelmann, the great and almost life-long student of these sickly parasites.

The dry earth in old stubble-ground was in some places found entirely covered with a carpet of Calendrinia Menziesii, Hook., a fleshy-leaved acaulescent plant of the purslane family, and in habit not unlike its cousin, the obese purslane (Portulaca oleracea, L.), so frequently spreading over eastern fields and gardens with its low, fleshy stems and leaves. Both seem equally well adapted for thriving in hot and dry places. A downy mildew (Percnospora) was, however, making inroads upon this calendrinia, although not, perhaps, as fatal in its work as to Claytonia perfoliata, Down. These two hosts are in adjoining genera, and the peronospora seems to be the same in both cases. The claytonia was in flower, but as this "spring beauty" only thrives in moist places, it does not come within the province of this paper. Occasionally a flower of the popular forage plant of the foothills, the alfileria, or "pin-grass," was seen, but only when there was some chance for moisture. This low, leafy crane's-bill (Erodium cicutarium, L., Her.) grows rapidly when the rains come and clothes the pastures and foot-hills with a rich carpet of green, followed by a profusion of flowers, unless the cattle and sheep keep it closely cropped.

As a transition to the woody plants, mention may be made of a variety of black nightshade (Solanum nigrum, var. Douglasii, Gray) which grows abundantly in all parts of the country. It is, perhaps, most at home along the streams or upon the lower areas, but it may be seen almost everywhere, forming clumps six feet high, and shrubby at the base. It can usually be found bearing blossoms and fruit in all stages of development, and is one of the coarser weeds that is quite sure to find its way into cultivated ground and become thoroughly established if sufficient time is given it. Much more attractive than the above is Solanum umbelliferum, Esch., which forms long, straggling, tomentose stems, that climb over surrounding shrubbery and peep out here and there with small clusters of large, yellow-throated, blue flowers. This forms one of the cheerful surprises as a person pushes his way through the dust-laden underbrush. In the same localities the flower-hunter will encounter tangling masses of a poison-ivy (Rhus diversiloba, T. and G.), called by the natives "yeara" or "poison-oak." The vines grow rapidly, and the shining, newly-developed leaves are in striking contrast with the dust-begrimed stems and foliage over which the treacherous and baneful vines climb. The "poison-oak" differs from the poison-sumac of the East (Rhus toxicodendron, L.), in having sharply-toothed leaflets, nearly sessile panicles, and close clusters of fruit. The writer has been poisoned by both species, and can testify that the sensations of burning and itching of skin of face and fingers are practically the same for both kinds. The leaves of a common composite called "gum-plant" (Grindelia) are bruised and rubbed over any exposed part of the skin as a preventive.

The most attractive flowers, both as to appearance and fragrance, were those of the phlox-like Gilia Californica, Benth. This shrub is two or three feet high, and grows upon the dry hill-sides. The leaves are thickly set and villous, while the stems are terminated by clusters of rose-or lilac-colored flowers an inch or more across the limb. The fragrance is indescribably rich, when not too profuse. The peculiar foliage and the extreme delicacy of tint and fragrance of the flowers place this "mountain pink" at the head of the list of flowering plants during a winter drought. Not far below the Gilia in attractiveness is a member of the large genus Hosackia (H. glabra, Torr.), of the order Leguminosæ. This species has slender, woody stems several feet in length, which bend and become decumbent or rest upon surrounding shrubs. In color the flowers are a mixture of yellow and brown, closely set upon the curved, drooping stems, and are not obscured by the small leaves. The sprays might well serve for making delicate wreaths. This is one of the most common winter-bloomers of the pea family. In the same localities the large vetch Lathyrus vestitus, Nutt., with its rose or violet flowers, was frequently found making an entangled mass of wiry stems several feet in length. It seemed most at home along the rocky sides of cañons, where it could climb to its heart's content.

The wild blackberry (Rubus ursinus, C. and S.) was abundantly in bloom from the lateral branches upon the long canes. There is an absence of any compactness of growth; the main stems trail along for twenty feet, perhaps. The almost impenetrable entanglement made by such a growth, when climbing over and among shrubs, may be more easily experienced than imagined. Two of the shrubby composites were found in bloom—namely, Baccharis piluraris, D. C, and B. viminea, D. C. Both species grow much higher than a man's head, and sometimes the stems attain two or three inches in diameter. Both are badly infested with Coleosporium baccharidis, C. and H.—a rust which attacks all parts of the plant and causes large swellings in the older stems. This is one of the best illustrations of the perennial nature of some of the parasitic fungi when the host is under favorable conditions for indefinite continuous growth.

The Ribes speciosum, Pursh., is an attractive, fuchsia-like gooseberry, and quite distinct from all other Ribes. As the branches hang loaded with the clusters of drooping flowers, like beautiful ear-pendants of rich hues, this is one of the most striking sights among the dust-laden vegetation. No one is, however, much inclined to gather quantities of the canes for home decoration, because they are generously provided with prickles, which stand guard upon all sides, and effectively keep away whatever would bring harm. Sambucus glauca, Nutt., is the elderberry of California. It grows less like a shrub and more like a tree than our old S. Canadensis, L., and the leaves are of a firmer texture. The greenish-white flowers are in large, flat-topped cymes.

The California lilac (Ceanothus thyrsiflora, Esch.) is a showy winter-bloomer, and well merits the attention it receives as an ornamental shrub. The plant attains a height of ten to fifteen feet, and the large lead-or lilac-colored flower-clusters appear before the leaves. These are frequently gathered in abundance by tourists for showy bouquets. Rhamnus Californica, Esch., of the same order, was loaded with its inconspicuous flowers. A wild prunus-was in full bloom, and reminded the writer of spring days in the Atlantic States. The leaves and fruit were not at hand, and the species was not therefore determinable. The mountain-laurel, or "spice-tree" (Umbellularia Californica, Nutt.), is the only representative of the olive family in the section visited. This is symmetrical in form, with thick, shining leaves. The flowers are borne in clusters, apparently at the ends of the straight branches. All parts of the tree are pervaded with a disagreeable odor, which becomes quite intense when the fresh foliage is broken, and it may excite sneezing in extreme cases.

Among forest trees, we saw the young bolls hanging from the recently clothed branches of the Platanus racemosa, Nutt., or sycamore. This tree, along with the live-oak (Quercus agrifolia, Nees), is common in the cañons, reaches a large size, and assumes picturesque forms and positions. The small male catkins were hanging from the short ultimate branches of the live-oak. Alnus rhombifolia, Nutt., was opening its gummy inflorescence, while the willows were arrayed in their delicate "pussies."

When we come to the introduced ligneous plants of the city roadside or plaza, where no water is supplied by irrigation, we find the blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus), from Australia, the most showy of the trees. These began to flower in Los Angeles by the 20th of January, and a month later those in Santa Barbara were so loaded with the large, top-shaped disks and their whorls of long, white, feathery stamens as to change the somber complexion of the tall, sparsely branched trees. The bees were sometimes so numerous in these trees as to remind one of an eastern basswood during honey-harvest. The pepper-tree, with its drooping, graceful, fern-like tops, seems to be always in flower. On the same plant may be seen all stages, from the small flower-buds to the ripe, rose-colored berries. This very popular shade-tree belongs with the sumacs and poison-ivy, and is pervaded with a bitter, milky juice. Various species of acacias were in bloom. Good specimens of phyllodia were obtained from these trees, loaded with their small spheres of fine flowers.

The orange, lemon, and lime, in the genus Citrus, are all examples of plants that may have flowers and ripe fruit at the same time. This is most frequently true of the lime, next of the lemon, and least of the orange. However, it was not difficult to find orange-trees as early as December bearing a ripening crop of fruit intermingled with sprays of the famous fragrant flowers. The most impressive floral display was in the almond-orchards, where, rising from the dry, cleanly-kept soil, there were thousands of peach-like trees in straight rows, still without leaves, but in full bloom. The whole area was one vast sea of pink or peach-color, and the January air was full of the humming bees and lazy butterflies which were here finding so much to eat that life seemed almost a burden to them. As with some other species then in bloom, the almond-trees had been encouraged by the dry, warm winter, and had blossomed earlier than usual. This is a dangerous event, for, should the subsequent weather be cold and wet, the fruits blight, and the crop is much injured.

The leading winter-flowering ornamental shrubs are the roses, of which enough in praise can not be said. The heliotropes have a wealth of bloom, and a fragrance that scents the whole air. Geraniums (Pelargoniums) cover the sides of houses, and display a blaze of scarlet flowers. When water is supplied, the whole list of garden flowers may be obtained in midwinter. A circle of callas around a fountain or water-tank, with spathes a foot across and as white as newly fallen snow, was no uncommon sight. But this paper deals only with the plants that grow without irrigation and bloom from the dust.

We remained long enough after the first rains fell to see the foothills begin to grow green, and were confidently informed that in a short time the warm days would quicken all vegetation into new life, and, in place of a few straggling plants, the whole face of the country would be covered with a variety of flowers more to be associated with fairyland than anything on earth. However this may be, there are enough species which do not give up the struggle upon the approach of drought, so that, if a person is really bent upon finding blossoms, he may succeed, even though he wade through dust to get them.


The Bishop of Bedford lately said, in a sermon, of evolution, that we had read our Bibles wrongly before, and may be reading them wrongly now; and protested against a hasty denunciation of what might be proved to have at least some elements of truth in it, and against a contemptuous rejection of theories that we might some day accept freely and as not inconsistent with God's Word.