Early Spring Understory Blossoms

If you are observant, the forest’s meandering and dappled light is just now illuminating the beginning of spring’s wildflowers. Patches of bright blue, pure white, pale pink, and startling yellow are the first of the sequence of forest understory flowers that bloom now through August in the Central Coast’s many types of forests.

Hound’s Tongue’s Leaves and Flowers

Perhaps named for the pink, in-rolled first leaves emerging from damp leaf litter, hound’s tongue provides the forest’s tallest and brightest blue bouquets. This is a perennial wildflower most commonly found in sunnier patches in forests with oaks and Douglas firs. It must taste bad because I never see it browsed by deer or rodents. A California wildflower book from 1897 says that ‘in the old days’ people thought you could put the leaves under your feet in your shoes and then dogs wouldn’t bark at you. Many gardeners are familiar with a near look-alike relative, borage. The healthiest plants make many flowers, widely spaced on a branching two-foot-tall inflorescence. Today, I saw bumble bees, honeybees, and hover flies visiting the flowers. Bumble bees were especially numerous, and when they latch onto the flowers, which are much smaller than they are, the whole plant bobs and waves, drawing attention from other pollinators. One plant in a hundred produces light purple-pink blossoms instead of the normal blue. This makes me wonder if we are witnessing the blue era of hound’s tongue…maybe one day eons from now, this species will evolve purple or red flowers.

Hooked Fruit

If they get pollinated, each hound’s tongue flower will make a cluster of 4 fruit that hang tight to the stem until they snag on a passing animal. Starting late Spring, a forest walk will make you clean your clothes, and in that mass of messy seeds pinched from your socks, you might encounter these wild borage seeds. The seeds are oval and fat with just enough hooks to grab onto someone’s fur. These hitchhiking seeds are the species’ way of establishing new patches, reducing competition with the parents. This might be especially useful when new colonies might establish in post fire areas.

Cynoglossom grande, Hound’s tongue, a bright blue understory wildflower

Catapulting Seeds

Another plant starting to bloom in the forest understory catapults its seeds for dispersal. Once ripe, the fleshy pods explode when touched, sending seeds into the air and many feet away. Since I’ve introduced this surprising behavior to many botanists, I’m guessing you’ll also be surprised about which plant has this trick: redwood sorrel! Yes, a plant with which many people are familiar performs this little-known novelty. You’ll have to get good at recognizing a ripe seed pod before you can experience it.

Sparkling Sorrel

With the recent dry, warm weather, redwood sorrel has started to carpet the redwood forest understory with beautiful pink to white blossoms mixed with its lush medium green, 3-leafleted leaves. Come Saint Patrick’s Day, you might purchase sorrel or see it displayed, but you’ll never find a 4-leaved redwood sorrel (really, shamrocks are clovers, and it is possible to find a four-leaved clover!) In full sun on a hot day, redwood sorrel leaves fold down to keep from roasting. But, in the more typical cool dark understory, each leaflet tilts and turns, orienting independently to maximize light capture with the passing sun rays. The flowers open above the leaves and soon there will be so many redwood sorrel flowers that the forest floor will sparkle like the many stars of the night sky.

More White Forest Flowers

Another white to pink early spring forest flower is in full bloom right now, growing on the edge of patches of redwood and out into Douglas fir and oak groves. Milk maids is a relative of cress and has bright 4-petaled flowers, normally quite white (but ones near my house are quite pink). The description of this plant from the aforementioned 1897 book by Mary Parsons ‘The Wild Flowers of California’ deserves quoting:

“What a rapture we always feel over this first blossom of the year! – not only for its own sake, but for the hopes and promises it holds out, the visions it raises of spring, with flower-covered meadows, running brooks, buds swelling everywhere, bird-songs, and air rife with perfumes”

Milk maids is attracting a beautiful butterfly that matches its white flowers. The mustard white butterfly is the earliest butterfly you’ll see…besides the overwintering Monarchs…and you’ll almost certainly see it if you find a big patch of milk maids, upon which it lays its eggs. When the eggs hatch, the larvae will grow up feeding on milkmaid leaves. Once the larvae have pupated and grow into butterflies, they sip nectar from and pollinate milkmaid flowers. In this way, milk maids and mustard white butterflies have a close partnership.

Violá Violets!

The forest violets have started blooming including my favorite, redwood violet, which makes carpets along banks and on steep slopes in many places near Bonny Doon. Redwood violet has bright yellow flowers that, like redwood sorrel, peek up well above a dense mat of leaves. If you look closely, you’ll see tiny dark red lines in the throat of the flower that lead pollinators to seek rewards inside of the flower. Redwood violet leaves are nearly round, except when you find the telltale sign of the butterfly that feeds on them.

Redwood violets with their vivid yellow blossoms bedecking the post fire understory

Violet Feeding Silverspot Butterflies

Silverspot butterfly larvae carve out semi-circular scallops in redwood violet leaves and, when you see those bite marks, that is likely the only hint that this butterfly larvae is around, because they feed at night! Arboretum Director Ray Collett alerted me about these silverspot butterflies 30 years ago. He had met a butterfly collector who pointed out Bonny Doon silverspot butterflies that matched the endangered Callipe Silverspot previously known only from San Bruno Mountain in South San Francisco. With that tip, a conservation geneticist friend of mine recently hunted our local one for a while but only caught one, which looks promising to be at least closely related to the endangered one, but more work needs to be done. Meanwhile, later in spring, we can be on the lookout for these mysterious and rapidly flying orange butterflies with silver spotted underwings that feed late at night on the beautiful yellow violet carpets of Bonny Doon.

The Parade of Spring

These early spring wildflowers are just the beginning of the succession of wildflowers brightening the shade of our forests. As the days get warmer and longer, each week will bring a new suite of species into bloom. The flowers are stewarded by pollinators in conjunction with mountain lions which chase around the deer enough so not every flower is munched. Human stewardship is helpful, too. We can help not only by controlling invasive forest species (forget-me-not, French broom, periwinkle, etc) but also by not planting what might be new invasive species, one day. In the future, perhaps we’ll appreciate the native wildflowers enough to propagate them for our gardens. With these native species come a wealth of pollinators including butterflies that rely on native wildflowers for their larval stages. Planned correctly, your forest garden will have a natural succession of flowers, bringing different colors to every season without any additional water and with little need for tending.

  • this story brought to you via my column the prior week in Bruce Bratton’s weekly blog at BrattonOnline.com

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