Ramalina menziesii

Ramalina menziesii

Lace Lichen

This “plant” is actually a pairing of convenience of two organisms neither of which is considered a plant in current thinking. It is a kind of lichen which is made up of an alga and a fungus. It is a partnership of convenience because the partners stay together only under conditions that neither could survive alone. When conditions favor one or the other, the favored partner leaves (alga) or expels its partner (the fungus).

Why isn’t it a plant, or more to the point, what is a plant? Based on Classical Greek definition, plants formed a variable group of organisms held together primarily by not being animals. Once the microscope was invented and biologists saw that the living world was far more complex than anyone could have imagined, the old definition became harder to defend. Especially troubling was a group of unicellular and colonial organisms (now in kingdom Protista) that formed a continuous series from definitely animals to definitely plants. This meant that groups in the center possessed a combination of animal and plant characteristics. For example they were green, thus photosynthetic, but they moved and some even captured prey as well.

The really hard organisms to place were those that produced (or captured) chloroplasts when the environment was well lit and relatively poor in nutrients and expelled these same chloroplasts when light was absent and organic food plentiful. That is, they could be “animals” or “plants” depending on the conditions. These organisms were claimed by both botanists and zoologists and thus have two legitimate scientific names.

Yes, I know that you learned in high school biology that every known organism on earth has one and only one correct scientific name. That’s true only if there were only one Nomenclatural Code. But there are two – one for animals and a second for all organisms originally considered plants. The lichen (which is a stable, predictable pair of organisms), has a lichen name. The lichen discussed in this article is lace lichen, Ramalina menziesii. Note that since the partners making up lace lichen can live separately, the partners will have their own names as well.

I was unable to find out the individual scientific names of the partners. However, from the internet, it appears that the algal partner is a green alga (Chlorophyta) and the fungal partner is one the more primitive members of the sac fungi (Ascomycota). This lichen is one of the types that attaches itself to the surface of twigs of living trees and shrubs. So when talking about this lichen we need to mention a third partner. In the Elfin Forest that partner is usually the pygmy form of the coast live oak, Quercus agrifolia, common in the forest.

Lace lichen does best where humidity and coastal on shore winds are highest, so it is particularly abundant along the immediate coast from south-east Alaska to Baja, Mexico. Since lace lichen attaches itself to the outside of a branch or twig, it is what biologists calls an epiphyte. Epiphytes do not harm their host because they are not taking any nutrients from the host. My way of describing the relationship is that an epiphyte is a plant that gets its room from its host, but not its board.

The only way I can perceive of lace lichen being a problem for its usual oak tree host is if it got so massive that its weight caused the twig to break; a very low probability. According to an entry on the internet, lace lichen is actually beneficial to its oak host because it captures air born moistures and nutrients. When the fragile lichen is broken apart, it adds these nutrients to the soil which helps its host. Another internet item noted that small herbivorous animals will not only eat any lace lichen that falls on the ground, but will fight others for the privilege.

Another value that lichens give to their environment is that they utilize sulfur in their photosynthesis. This makes lace lichen, as well as other lichens, important in removing excess sulfur from the air. Lace lichen is also extremely susceptible to air pollution. Therefore it can be used a measure of air quality. Lichen present = good air; lichen absent = bad air. Because lace lichen grows very rapidly, when air pollution is removed, it grows back quickly.

The fungal partner provides most of the actual mass of lichen. Therefore the shape or form lichen takes will be determined by the pattern of growth of the fungal partner. Lichens are considered to have one of three basic growth forms. These are a flat coating of a surface (crustose), a series of flat plates raised from the surface (foliose) or 3-D mass of strings (fruticose). Looking at Bonnie’s drawing assures that lace lichen is a fruticose lichen. Closer examination of the top of her drawing, where the plant would be attached to the twig, shows some wider strands. Attached to these strands are the fungal reproductive structures. In this case, they resemble tiny challis cups. The fungal spores are produced on the upper surface, inside the cup. Note, this is the way the fungus reproduces. The algal partner must figure out how to reproduce on its own. That said, there is a way for the pair to spread together and that is by fragmentation. I suspect that random fragmentation is the most common method by which lichens spread.

When I first came to California, lace lichen was known by another common name. This was “Spanish moss.” However this name is very misleading since it is in no way a moss. It neither resembles any known moss nor is it related to mosses. Even worse, calling this lichen, “Spanish moss”, leads to confusion with the Spanish moss from the South-eastern United States, which is also not a moss. It is flowering plant in the same family as pineapple. The only thing lace lichen has in common with true Spanish moss is its color (gray-green), basic form, and its epiphytic habit.

One last item of which I was reminded while researching lace lichen on the internet is that the California Lichen Society is pushing the California Legislature to designate lace lichen as the state lichen. This would be good for the lichen as well as for its host trees. In the interior of California, one of the commoner hosts is valley oak which is having trouble reproducing due to pressure from agriculture.

by Dirk Walters, illustrations by Bonnie Walters | Dirk and Bonnie Walters are long-time CNPS-SLO members, contributors, and board/committee participants. In addition to his work at Cal Poly, Dirk is the current CNPS-SLO Historian.
Urtica dioica

Urtica dioica

Hoary Stinging Nettle

Urtica dioica subsp. holosericea

This month’s plant is one most of us try to avoid. This is because of the trichomes (hairs) that cover its stem and leaves. The hairs have a bulbous base filled with a fluid that when deposited on unprotected skin causes a burning or stinging sensation. Bonnie has drawn a couple of these hairs. It turns out that the irritating fluid is most effective if deposited in a cut. To insure this cut, the sharp point of the hair breaks off leaving a jagged tip which when dragged along the skin results in a tiny cut. While the cut is being made, lateral and/or downward pressure on the hair’s base causes the fluid in the hair to be forced up and out the hollow hair stem to be deposited in the fine cut caused by the broken tip. That is, the stinging hairs are each tiny hypodermic needles.

If you haven’t guessed the plant by now, it’s the true stinging nettle, Urtica dioica subsp. holosericea. Our common or hoary stinging nettle is a subspecies of a very wide ranging species that is found throughout the North American and Eurasian continents. The new Jepson Manual indicates that our subspecies are native. However, the Eurasian subspecies, U. dioica ssp. dioca, is an extremely widespread weed as it has been widely introduced in North America. Apparently there is at least one unconfirmed report of the Eurasian subspecies in California.

So what does one do if one runs into a patch of stinging nettle? My professor in college told us to “wash the itchy area well and then douse it with rubbing alcohol which will cause the itch to disappear in one-half hour.” He would then add, “If you do nothing the itch will go away in 30 minutes.” I’ll let each of you decide whether to treat stinging nettle irritation or not.

Dr. Rhonda Riggins added one additional stinging nettle story. On field trips, when she would find stinging nettle, she would say that she was so strong, that the nettle didn’t bother her. To prove it, she would grab a nettle plant and pull it out. Her students were impressed. However, she had a trick! She was careful to limit her exposure to the palm of her hand where she, as well as most of us, have thick calluses. In other words, the delicate hairs couldn’t penetrate these calluses, so didn’t cause any harm.

Stinging nettles are partial to moist soils and are found most often near streams. They can also be found near springs or in hollows in coastal sand dunes that are low enough to approach the water table. The genus name, Urtica, is derived from Latin and means “to burn” referring to the stinging sensation one receives when brushing up against the plant. I have to admit that I prefer to say the genus name reminds us that to come in contact with this plant (h)urts! Also of note, is that stinging nettle pain begins immediately on contact. This is in contrast to poison oak (Toxicodendron diversiloba) which usually takes ½ hour or more to stimulate your immune system for itching that lasts much longer than ½ hour.

The species epithet, dioica, is short for dioecious. Dioecious is a fancy botanical term for stamens and pistils borne in separate flowers on separate plants, Therefore the plants are considered to be unisexual or bearing either staminate (male) or pistilate (female) flowers but not both.

According to The Jepson Manual our western variety of stinging nettle is the hoary (stinging) nettle. “Hoary” is used in the common name to indicate that this subspecies has many more stinging hairs than the other subspecies found in California.

The common name, nettle, is used for many plants, not just ones possessing stinging hairs. It’s used for any plant that possesses hairs that look like they might sting. Our most common example of this use is the totally unrelated mint, hedge nettle, Stachys bullata.

Hedge nettle is common along streams too. Having spent all these words, telling why you should avoid this plant, I need to point out that the Eurasian subspecies of this plant has been widely used in the old world as a spinach substitute and rennet. Boiling denatures the irritating fluid and softens the hairs. Boiling the roots can produce a yellow dye. Stems produce a strong fiber which has been favorably compared to another stem fiber, linen.

by Dirk Walters, illustrations by Bonnie Walters | Dirk and Bonnie Walters are long-time CNPS-SLO members, contributors, and board/committee participants. In addition to his work at Cal Poly, Dirk is the current CNPS-SLO Historian.
Penstemon heterophylla

Penstemon heterophylla

Foothill Penstemon

Bonnie’s cover for this Obispoensis was used for a banquet program cover back in 1984. We have no record of it ever being used as a newsletter cover. We would welcome a note form anyone who might remember it (drwalters@charter.net or 543-7051). You might notice something else about the appearance of the drawing. It has much more fine detail than Bonnie’s drawings used in Dr. Keil’s and my textbook or more recent newsletters. This is because it was done to size (3½ x 3½ inches) using fine drawing pens. It was not drawn to be reduced or enlarged. Bonnie’s more recent drawings are done with in less detail because they are meant to be reduced. Also, Dirk encourages simple drawings that distill the plant down to basic characteristics.

The plant is P. heterophyllus (or Penstemon heterophylla) depending on which flower book is used. I’ve seen both in the literature. The most recent Jepson Manual uses the name, P. heterophyllus. The correct ending depends on whether one considers the genus name, Penstemon, to be masculine or feminine or neuter. Of course, in reality, it is both as the flowers contain both male stamens and a female pistil. But in Latin, which all scientific names are considered, almost everything has to be assigned a gender whether it was appropriate or not. Second, in Latin, an adjective usually has the very same ending as the noun it modifies. For example, the scientific name for our common black sage is Salvia mellifera. However, following Latin rules can create exceptions. The most common one is with trees.

Trees were considered by the Romans to be feminine. Therefore the masculine noun for the oaks is Quercus but the adjectives that make up its specific epithet must be feminine. So we get the scientific name for the coast live oak, Quercus agrifolia. The other exception is when the noun or the adjective is irregular. When this occurs, one almost just has to memorize the endings since rules don’t seem to work. At least, I haven’t been able to make consistent sense out of them.

I’ve found two common names for this plant. They are foothill penstemon and blue bedder penstemon. The former name refers to it habitat or range. It is widespread in the interior foothills up to over 5,000 feet (1700 m) throughout much of interior California.

I’ve observed it to be particularly common in the mountains behind Santa Barbara and in the Sierra Nevada. (We should see much of it on the President’s Trip this coming June 16-17.) I’ve found it to be quite variable in flower color. Most of the time it is a bright bluish pink color, but it can be pinkish blue or even completely blue. Its habit is to branch profusely with its branches lying flat until they turn up at the tips.

Note Bonnie’s habit sketch. This habit would make it an excellent plant to fill in a flower bed, thus the latter common name, bedder penstemon. Although blue flower color is less common than pink, many of the pictures of this plant I saw on the Web were of plants bearing large, dark blue flowers. I interpret this observation to mean that what are being put on the Web are garden plants selected for their larger size and bluer colored flowers. Since the plant is commonly found on disturbed edges of roads and paths or where vegetation is scattered, I suspect it should readily adapt to the organized disturbance we call gardening. Oh, most important, the most easily recognized character of this species is its YELLOW BUDS!

Lastly, I haven’t mentioned the family to which this plant belongs. If you think it is obviously in the figwort family you would be behind the times. It seems that a number of species were hiding in this family. Recent taxonomic work using newly discovered tools of DNA sequencing and sophisticated computer based comparison methods discovered their deceit. Before the availability of these modern tools, taxonomists depended on characters that were relatively “visible” to the naked eye or simple microscopic and biochemical characters. Similarity was determined by the taxonomist’s gestalt and/or with the help of relatively simple computer programs that assess similarity.

One obvious character that separated the old Scrophulariaceae from the old Plantaginaceae (plantains) was the size of their flowers. Plantains had very tiny, tightly clustered flowers so that casual observers would often not even know they were in full bloom when they were. In contrast, almost all the old Scrophulariaceae had large, readily visible flowers. So, seemingly it was easy to tell the two families apart. But, if one got out the microscope and examined the tiny flowers in the plantain family, one discovered that they were, in fact, just tiny figwort flowers. This became clearer when the newer computer analysis determined that most of the genera of these two families fell out in same cluster, i.e., they were more similar to each other than they were to the few genera left in Scrophulariaceae – e.g. figwort, Scrophularia. So, beautiful, large-flowered foothill penstemon was transferred to its rightful place in the formally all small-flowered Plantaginaceae.

by Dirk Walters, illustrations by Bonnie Walters | Dirk and Bonnie Walters are long-time CNPS-SLO members, contributors, and board/committee participants. In addition to his work at Cal Poly, Dirk is the current CNPS-SLO Historian.
Carpobrotus chilensis and C. edulis

Carpobrotus chilensis and C. edulis

Ice plant

Bonnie’s drawing is a generalized drawing representing two species commonly called ice plants. They both are fairly common along the coast and within freeway and railroad right-of-ways. The two species are Carpobrotus chilensis and C. edulis. They should be easy to distinguish. According to the new Jepson Manual, C. chilensis has smaller flowers (3-5 cm compared to 8-10 cm) and leaves (4-7 cm as compared to 6-10 cm in C. edulis).

Flower colors are reported to be different as well. C. edulis produces yellow petals while petals in C. chilensis flowers are reddish to pinkish. However, color can be misleading as the yellow flowers of C. edulis dry pinkish.Newly dry flowers in both species are quite showy.

Most identification manuals indicate that the two species can be separated on the shape of their succulent leaf cross-sections – rounded triangular in C. chilensis and sharp triangular in C. edulis. C. edulis is said to have the leaf angle pointing away from the stem axis bearing a few teeth toward their tip. I have to admit that I haven’t observed that character particularly in our area.

After indicating how different these two species are, I need to report that the literature also reports that they hybridize. In other words, separation may not be quite as easy as the characters would indicate.

I find the common name, ice plant, to be misleading, but understandable. First, let’s look at the misleading part. There is nothing in their appearance that indicates ice. Their ranges, like most of us people in Southern California, avoid areas where any significant ice would be found. I suspect the water in their succulent leaves would quickly freeze if they were exposed to severe or even extended near freezing temperatures. Growing ice crystals in their water filled cells would destroy cell membranes causing cell death which leads to leaf and plant death. So where does the common name, ice plant, come from?

I believe this is an example of a common name being more stable than the scientific name. Until the early to middle of the last century the species now found in Carprobrotus, along with a number of other cultivated succulent ground covers, were all included in a single large genus, Mesembryanthemum. Some even separated Mesembryanthemum into its own family Mesembryanthemaceae due to their showy petals. Today, there is essential unanimity that not only should old genus, the Mesembryanthemum, be split up but that it belongs in the family Aizoaceae. The non-ice plant genera in the Aizoaceae lack showy flowers because they lack showy petals. Think New Zealand spinach, Tetragonia expansa.

There is a plant still in the genus, Mesembryanthemum, whose stems and leaves surfaces are covered with large silvery cells that resemble ice crystals at a distance. This species, Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, is occasionally found around Morro Bay. I believe the common name for this species with this distinctive surface feature became the default common name for all the species in the broadly defined genus, Mesembryanthemum.

In older flower books, C. chilensis is said to be native to coastal California. How could this be? I’m guessing that it was a very early introduction. I assume it went like this: An early merchant ship delivered its cargo to southern Africa. It didn’t have a full load to pick up there, so it filled out its cargo hold with ballast. In the early days, ballast consisted of soil dug up from a nearby beach. That beach soil contained seeds and probably also pieces of ice plant. (I observed a “dried” succulent growing off a several year old herbarium sheet at my undergraduate school.) The ship then sailed to Chile and/or California where it picked up a full load of paying cargo. To make room for this paying cargo, it just dumped the African soil on New World beaches. It makes sense to me that this happened before the first botanical surveys were done in California so that the species was recorded as “native.” It should also be noted that C. chilensis appears to me to be a little less invasive than is C. edulis. That is, native plant diversity seems to be diminished less.

Oh, I haven’t given the individual species common names besides the generic name, ice plant. The only name I know for C. edulis is freeway ice plant. The edulis part of the scientific name refers to the fruit being eaten by southern African peoples. A source on the internet noted that young leaves were also cut up into salads. The Jepson Manual gives C. chilensis the common name of sea fig. This is a much better name than the older, and I assume politically incorrect, name Hottentot fig. Both species were widely planted as a ground cover, especially on steep, bare slopes. I believe they are no longer recommended for this purpose. Their leaves and stems are heavy; their roots are shallow. Thus, when the soil becomes saturated, the shallow roots and heavy wet stems and leaves actually increase soil slumping. Of course, this was exactly what they were planted in the first place to prevent.

by Dirk Walters, illustrations by Bonnie Walters | Dirk and Bonnie Walters are long-time CNPS-SLO members, contributors, and board/committee participants. In addition to his work at Cal Poly, Dirk is the current CNPS-SLO Historian.
Monolopia lanceolata

Monolopia lanceolata

Hillside Daisy

monolopia-bonnieThis drawing was done for an Obispoensis cover by Bonnie back in 1993. It is on one of our wildflowers that may make an appearance in the eastern portion of our Chapter area. It is extremely common on the Carrizo Plain where it can turn hillsides a bright yellow in good years. A site on the internet reported that 2005 and 2011 were particularly good years. It can also be found on the tops of small rises and mounds. I have not seen the plant at Shell Creek, but I know it to be present in road cuts just a few miles to the east. The species is mostly restricted to Southern California interior coastal ranges and the Mohave Desert. It is listed as inhabiting grasslands and openings in foothill woodland and chaparral. In our area it definitely prefers to grow where vegetation is sparse. This is probably why it is particularly showy on south and west facing slopes in the Temblors.

gray-scale photo of M. congdonii

gray-scale photo of M. congdonii

The plant is Monolopia lanceolata. It is one of our many yellow-flowered members of the sunflower family or Asteraceae (Compositae). I’ve always called the plant by the common name, hillside daisy, but it appears that there are two new common names spreading through the literature. These are “common monolopia” and “common false turtleback.” The second name (common monolopia) alludes to the fact it is the very widespread and tends to form huge colonies where it does grow. The problem with a plant like hillside daisy is that, although it is very common, there is hardly any thing written about it other than barebones taxonomic and ecological data. This makes writing anything about it rather difficult.

Now, enter a third common name, “common false turtleback.” This one is totally new to me. The true turtlebacks are in the genus in the sunflower family, Psathyrotes. According to the literature, the two species in the genus Psathyrotes are found throughout much of the desert southwest. One species, P. ramosissima, is clearly the model for the turtleback name. It is a low shrub that forms a gray mound which, in the drawings and photos, clearly resembles the back of a gray turtle. The problem, at first glance, resides in the flowers. The largish yellow flowers of the hillside daisy just don’t resemble the smallish, inconspicuous flowers of the true turtlebacks. Turtleback ray flowers lack the showy, flat ligules found in most species of Monolopia.

gray-scale photo of M. congdonii

gray-scale photo of M. congdonii

Back in 1993, The Jepson Manual had four species in the genus Monolopia. The new Jepson Manual has five due to the transfer of a species from the genus Lembertia. The new addition is a rare plant known as San Joaquin wooly threads or Congdon’s woolly threads and is a federally listed rare plant, Monolopia (Lembertia) congdonii. This species is found in a very few scattered locations on the Carrizo Plain and has been more or less removed from the rest of its historical range. It has very small, inconspicuous heads that superficially resemble the heads in the true turtlebacks. Non-flowering monolopias and the turtlebacks are similar. Both have gray stems and foliage. Both produce heads surrounded with prominent gray bracts.


by Dirk Walters, illustrations by Bonnie Walters | Dirk and Bonnie Walters are long-time CNPS-SLO members, contributors, and board/committee participants. In addition to his work at Cal Poly, Dirk is the current CNPS-SLO Historian.
Camissonia cheiranthifolia

Camissonia cheiranthifolia

Beach sun cup

Camissonia cheiranthifolia is one of the few plants that bloom year around along our coast. It is found most commonly on the unstable, sandy hillocks immediately in-shore from the beach. It can also occasionally found on disturbed sandy soils away from the immediate coast, but this is very rare. Its range is from southern Oregon to just into Baja. In the northern part of it range it is basically a perennial herb. It becomes somewhat woody in the southern portion of its range. Being somewhat in the middle, it can be either in our chapter area (San Luis Obispo county). It is quite variable here. Behind the windy beaches it’s a flat ground cover, while in sheltered areas it is taller and less spreading.

I’ve seen a few green plants with no surface hairs, but most of our plants are more or less hairy. Some petals have red spots at their base while others lack these spots. What looks like a very large bud arising from the angle between the leaf below the flower and the stem in Bonnie’s drawing is actually the elongate fruit, which becomes twisted as it matures. Flower size is also quite variable.

Before 1969 beach sun cups were in the genus Oenothera. At that time the common name applied to this entire genus was “evening primrose.” So, Camissonia cheiranthifolia would have been called “beach evening primrose” or simply and misleadingly, beach primrose. However that common name is quite misleading; primrose is a name better applied to a totally different and unrelated group of plants in the true primrose family (Primulaceae) which include the shooting star and the pimpernel.

The only trait that sun cups and true primroses share is their general tubular shaped flowers. Sun cups (with other members of its family, Onagraceae) have four separate petals instead of the five fused petals found in the primroses. In fact, the flowers of Onagraceae, including the sun cups, have a distinctive set of characteristics. They produce flowers that possess four sepals, four petals, eight stamens, attached to the top of a generally thin, elongated ovary which displays a four-parted structure.

The distinctive characteristics of the Onagraceae family can be summarized as CA4 CO4 A8/G 4 . CA is short for calyx which is the collective term for the sepals. CO stands for the corolla, the collective term for the petals. A is the abbreviation for andrecium, which translates as all the “male things,” the stamens. G stands for gynoecium (female thing), which represents the four-parted ovary, style, and stigma. The circled 4 indicates that the four subunits (carpels) that make up the gynoecium are fused into a single pistil.

Why did Dr. Peter Raven separate the sun cups from the evening primroses when they share so many family characters? First and most easily observed is the stigma. A look at Bonnie’s drawing will show it to resemble a single, wide, hemispherical cap as opposed to the four hair-like stigma branches found in the true evening primroses. A second trait is harder to determine. True evening primroses produce their flowers at dusk and bloom through the night and fade in the morning. Sun cup flowers open at dawn and bloom during the day. This means the two genera have different pollinators since their flowers are open at different times of the day.

Evening primroses would be expected to be visited by night-flying animals such as moths whereas sun cups would be visited by day-flying ones. While researching tidbits to include about beach sun cups, I came across the discussion of the species in the book by Mary Coffeen titled Central Coast Wild Flowers. In it she reprints part of an article about the Morro Bay Sand Spit by my friend and former Cal Poly professor, Wayne Williams. In it he describes the pollination of beach sun cup and as follows:

“The plant’s bright yellow flowers cover new sand deposits everywhere along the sand spit, enhancing dune stability. Its blossoms face down wind. The pollinator is an exceptionally large bumblebee (Bombus sp.). We have all heard how bumblebees manage to fly despite the aerodynamic engineering theory that would render them landbound because of their weight and size. These bees deftly approach the beach primrose flowers by flying upwind for greatest flight stability. Their powerful thorax muscles and large size allow them to survive within this niche, gathering food and pollinating, because of the downwind direction of the primrose corollas. Since the primrose is decumbent where wind speed is slowest, the bees can also work over large territories. I have watched these bees and have never seen any other species pollinating beach primroses at the sand dunes. This symbiosis between plant and insect allows both the plant and the bumblebee to thrive and reproduce.”

Just imagine how much observation time required to allow one to come up with this kind of natural history fact. There are lots more yet to be discovered. That’s why natural areas like the Elfin Forest are so important.

by Dirk Walters, illustrations by Bonnie Walters | Dirk and Bonnie Walters are long-time CNPS-SLO members, contributors, and board/committee participants. In addition to his work at Cal Poly, Dirk is the current CNPS-SLO Historian.
Atriplex watsonii

Atriplex watsonii

Watson’s Salt Bush

The plant featured on this cover of the Obispoensis would not generally be considered worthy of presentation to a general audience. Its flowers are tiny; its appearance mundane. It belongs to a plant family past students in Cal Poly’s Field Botany class nick named the “Uglyaceae.” It grows along the uppermost edge of coastal salt marshes and edges of coastal sand dunes. However, even though it is a salt marsh plant you probably won’t have to worry about getting your feet wet. This is because it grows where it gets inundated only by the highest of tides. It is Atriplex watsonii, or the Watson’s salt bush or Watson’s orach. The model for this plant was growing in the in the uppermost reaches of Morro Bay salt marsh.

The recognized common names are just translations of the scientific name which often happens to nondescript looking species. Watsonii is named in honor of Sereno Watson (1826-1892) who worked as a curator in the Gray Herbarium and was a student of plants of the Western United States. He was a participant in the Clarence King expedition that studied the natural history, especially geology, of California in the middle of the 19th Century. He published the Botany of the King Expedition in 1871.

Orach is derived from the Middle English common name for the plants included in this genus. Salt bush is the more contemporary common name applied to all members of this genus. This is in spite of the fact that not all of them grow in salty soils or are bushes. It is true that most members of the genus do favor or require salty or alkaline soils. The habit of this salt bush is a prostrate to mounded perennial herb. It has very thin stems, that spread out latterly, becoming mounded only in the center. At its tallest it is less than 10 inches tall. However, individual plants can grow to several feet in width.

Watson’s Salt Bush (Atriplex watsonii)

Watson’s Salt Bush (Atriplex watsonii)

The drawn plant is in fruit. Why show it in fruit? Well, the most obvious reason is that as this is written it is fall/winter and this is when it is in fruit. But, more important, it would be even less exciting when it is in bloom as the flowers are very tiny. Male (staminate) flowers are borne on separate plants from the the female (pistilate) plants (dioecious). The male flower clusters are located in the axils of leaves and are in the form of short, dense spikes. The plant shown is pistillate. We know this because there are clusters of small, paired bracts in the angle between stem and leaf base (axils). Bonnie has drawn one of these “bract sandwiches.” One would expect to find a dry, single-seeded fruit between the two bracts, but most of the bract pairs are empty. Like many plants that occur in difficult environments, such as salt marshes, most of their resource budget is expended on just surviving rather than on sexual reproduction. A second evolutionary consideration is that the probability of a new individual plant’s establishment in difficult environments is itself extremely low. So, why waste energy producing seeds when they will have an extremely low probability of finding an available site in which to germinate and grow.

Some may have noticed that I have not identified the family to which salt bushes belong. This is because my old taxonomy texts and the upcoming Jepson Manual are going to place it in different families. Classically, before DNA sequence data, salt bushes were placed in the goosefoot family, Chenopodiaceae. When the DNA sequence data became available, it was noted that genera of the mostly temperate zone chenopods and the mostly tropical family, Amaranthaceae, came out together. This led to some taxonomists to combine the two families into one. Since Amaranthaceae is the older name, it had “priority” over the name Chenopodiaceae. Therefore, if the two families are combined, then the Rules of Botanical Nomenclature require that Amaranthaceae be used. The classical Amaranthaceae contains only three genera in California (only one of them the very common & weedy pigweeds, Amaranthus) In contrast, the classical Chenopodiaceae loom large. It consists of at least 17 genera and many species.

Although most common in deserts, the family is found in many other habitats as well. In other words, the classical Chenopodiaceae contains many species that dominate many habitats in California, whereas the classical Amaranthaceae are minor components which most of us see only in our weedy flora.

by Dirk Walters, illustrations by Bonnie Walters | Dirk and Bonnie Walters are long-time CNPS-SLO members, contributors, and board/committee participants. In addition to his work at Cal Poly, Dirk is the current CNPS-SLO Historian.
Stachys bullata

Stachys bullata

Hedge Nettle

The plant for the cover of this OBISPOENSIS is found in many habitats from dry to moist and from wood edge to open fields. It is found primarily in the coastal area west of the Santa Lucia mountain divide.

It’s common or California hedge-nettle (Stachys bullata). This species is certainly not rare but it is not overly abundant either. It’s widespread but snooty where it grows. The flower books and floras state that it is found in our shrub lands (coastal scrub, dune scrub & chaparral) as well as oak forests. This is true, but if one wants to find it look in these communities where the soils tend to be moist.

I tend to think of it occupying the drier edge of the riparian habitat. As surface streams dry hedge nettles will move into the stream bed itself. The species can be found in relatively dry areas such as the Elfin Forest and Sargeant Cypress Forest found on West Cuesta Ridge. Both areas have lots of fog and contain plant species that are able to condense fog onto their leaves and stems. Leaves and stems, however are poor absorbers of liquid water, so the water drips off onto the soil surface where it sinks to where the plant’s roots absorb it. Fog drip is a significant source of water.

I remember reading a Cal Poly Biology Department senior project done for Dr. Robert Rodin many years ago. They found that rain gauges placed under the trees recorded over 20 inches more water than ones placed in the open.

The “hedge” part of the common name, I assume, comes from the habit of these plants to grow in fence rows and along roadsides, especially the old world species. The “nettle” part of the common name comes from its resemblance to the stinging nettle (Urtica). The surface of leaves and stems are coated by short stiff hairs. These hairs merely impart a sandpapery feel, but do not cause the rash and itching or pain of the true stinging nettle. I find it a rather pleasant feel and you have to touch them to get the pleasant citrusy odor that arises from the bruised leaves.

Stachys is fairly large (ca. 300 sp. worldwide, 8 CA & 5 SLO Co.) genus of mints (Lamiaceae or Labiatae). It contains a number of plants used as food or medicine, particularly in the Old World. The medicinal plants generally go by the common name of betony while the ones producing edible tubers go by the various names. These include chorogi, Chinese or Japanese artichoke, knotroot. I found no reference to any of our California Stachys species, including S. bullata, possessing either edible or medicinal properties. The closest I came was one suggestion that leaves might to be tried as a poultice. That is, bruise a few leaves in warm water and apply the mixture to minor wounds and rashes. This is how the various betony species are used around the world and is the explanation for another common name for the species in this genus, woundwort.

References to hedge nettles are noticeably absent from my California native gardening books. The current Jepson Manual recommends that they be planted in areas where they get occasional water (3-4 times during dry season). It indicates that native hedge nettles are very hardy and might work in an area that needs stabilization. However, they caution that being hardy, they can become invasive.

by Dirk Walters, illustrations by Bonnie Walters | Dirk and Bonnie Walters are long-time CNPS-SLO members, contributors, and board/committee participants. In addition to his work at Cal Poly, Dirk is the current CNPS-SLO Historian.
Avena fatua & A. barbata

Avena fatua & A. barbata

Wild and Domesticated Oats

One or the other or both wild species, common (Avena fatua) or slender (A. barbata) wild oats are extremely widespread all along the Pacific Coast. They can be found in vacant lots, roadsides, pastures, and yes, even in our beautifully kept native plant gardens. This doesn’t mean that we’re bad gardeners, just that this genus produces very effective weeds.

Identifying Wild Oats

Wild oats are members of the grass family (Poaceae or Gramineae). Oats have some of the largest flowers in this family of otherwise tiny to minute flowers.

Parts of Oats (Avena spp.)

Parts of Oats (Avena spp.)

Their parts are almost large enough to be seen with the naked eye. Individual grass flowers are aggregated into tiny clusters (spikelets). The spikelets are the readily visible units hanging down in the photograph and drawing.

Each oat spikelet consists of two large scales (bracts or more specifically glumes) surrounding two to three small flowers called florets. Each floret contains the 3 male organs (stamens) and a single pistil consisting of a basal ovary and two feathery stigmas. The stamens and pistils can’t be seen in the drawings or photo as they are totally hidden between to additional bracts.

The outer (and the only one visible) is the canoe-shaped lemma and a totally surrounded, thin palea. There are no recognizable sepals or petals. In the wild oat species, a stout bristle arises from the back of the lemma. This bristle is known as an awn. After the pistil is pollinated, its single seed matures and fuses to the inner ovary wall to become the unique fruit produced only by the grasses (caryopsis or grain).

The seed coat and ovary walls, when removed from the grain, are the bran we can buy at grocery and health food stores. In oats, the outside of the developing grain adheres to the inside of lemma and palea. This means that seed dispersal in oats (as well as most other grasses) is actually floret dispersal. The awn plays a vital role in this dispersal. The long, stout awns are bent in the middle; they bend or straighten depending on moisture availability. When it is moist, the awns absorb water and straighten at the bend. This causes the floret body (including enclosed seed) to be pushed forward. When it is dry, the awn flexes at the bend. Why doesn’t it pull the floret back? Notice the short, backward oriented “hairs” at the base of the floret. As the floret dries, these flip out and prevent it from being pulled backwards. Thus the floret is consistently pushed forward until it buries itself under a clod or it falls into a crack in the soil. Either way, the process both disperses and plants the oat seed.

Local Oats

There are three species of oats listed in Hoover’s SLO County flora. Two of the species possess a moderate to stout awn. These are the slender oat (Avena barbata) and the common oat (A. fatua). The third species in found occasionally along road sides and in fields where it had been grown. It is the domesticated oat (A. sativa). Domesticated oats produce larger grains and either totally lack an awn or if awns are present, they are weak. The lack of an awn would make the domesticated oats much better for animal feed.


The origin of oats is somewhat controversial. It is for sure, Old World and domestication most likely took place somewhere in the area surrounding the eastern Mediterranean Sea. It is rarely mentioned in literature of the early cultures of this area and then only as animal feed. It probably didn’t stack up well against the dominate grains of the area, wheat and barley. It seems to have had better acceptance further north and east in Central Eastern Europe and adjacent Western Asia. Here it became quite important, but not much as a human food but the mainstay of horse diet. It is from this area that the first mounted soldiers arose and horses allowed them readily to conquer the surrounding “horseless” peoples.

The conquering of horseless cultures by horse-mounted armies was repeated whenever it occurred. It even was a factor in Spain’s defeat of the Aztecs and Incas. Interestingly, the re-introduction of the feral horses into North America apparently caused the then agricultural Great Plains Native Americans to become mobile buffalo hunters. Why all this discussion of the horse? Because it was probably the need to bring grain on ships to feed the horses that introduced oats into California and beyond.

Uses of Oats by the Chumash

According to Jan Timbrook, the Chumash used the grains of wild oats and chia (Salvia colunbariae) seeds in a concoction. Wild oats (along with any native grasses growing with them) were beaten or striped into baskets. The chaff was beaten off with a mallet against rocks. The flour was separated from the chaff by winnowing. The flour was mixed with water and chia was added. It provided both energy and protein.

Controlling with Herbicides

There’s one more human-wild oat interaction worth mentioning. The July 2, 2011 Science News reports that herbicide resistant wild oats infects at least 4.9 MILLION hectares. This is over 1 million hectares more area than the second place plant water hemp.

First off, wild oats are not particularly “naturally” resistant to herbicides. Second, the article discusses herbicide resistance that is transferred to wild (weedy) plants from genetically modified crops. The way emphasized in the article, is via transfer of the herbicide resistant genes from genetically engineered crops to the weed via ordinary transfer of pollen. The crops are engineered to have a high tolerance for a specific herbicide. Then the farmer is assured that he may use large amounts of the herbicide to kill weeds without affecting the crop.

Unfortunately, many plant species can transfer pollen BETWEEN DIFFERENT species. Once the gene for herbicide resistance is in the weed, then it will spread rapidly via ordinary natural selection processes. When herbicides are applied wholesale as they are in modern monoculture agriculture, a few individuals that received the genetically modified gene are more likely to survive and produce seedlings that also carry the gene and are therefore resistant also. These seedling grow up and produce more and more resistant plants at an ever increasing rate. If you remember much about evolution, you can see that farmers are both supplying the source of the gene as well as applying a strong selection pressure for the spread of the resistance gene. The last is the same process, by the way, that creates antibiotic resistant microbes when we over use antibiotics. Only microbes often do it in a shorter time due to their faster reproductive rate.

The article talks primarily about a class of herbicides known as glyphosates which is found in a wide variety of herbicides including Roundup. It is this component that crop breeders have been adding to the genome of crops. The article talks primarily about resistance in and around crop fields, especially around grain fields. I suspect Roundup and Fusilade work in your garden because resistance is not universal. It just hasn’t reached isolated areas like your garden. Let’s hope it never does! But I hope it does raise a red flag about over use of any chemical pesticide. There is no genetic resistance to mechanical pulling of weeds!

by Dirk Walters, illustrations by Bonnie Walters | Dirk and Bonnie Walters are long-time CNPS-SLO members, contributors, and board/committee participants. In addition to his work at Cal Poly, Dirk is the current CNPS-SLO Historian.
Schoenoplectus californicus

Schoenoplectus californicus

California Tule and Common Tule

The illustration below is a set of drawings Bonnie did for Dr. David Keil’s and my plant taxonomy text plus a new one of the plants’ growth form. These species grow in areas where the soil is at least seasonally wet. These species require lots of fresh water but are capable of surviving periodic short exposures to salt water. They are commonly called tule or bull-rush. These tall (usually over 6 ft. or 2 m) more or less grass-like perennial plants resemble spears or pikes as they have no apparent leaves. (Leaves, except for short ones just below the flowers, are restricted to sheaths at the base of the stem.) Their flowers are borne in clusters just below their often sharp tips. There is a potential problem with the two common names given.

These names have been used for members of two different genera from two separate plant families — the sedge (Cyperaceae) and the rush (Juncaceae) families. A look at Bonnie’s drawings will show that the illustrated plant is clearly a sedge. How does one know? When I first took a plant taxonomy course, I learned a little rhyme which aided in identification of the three common “grass-like” families — the rushes, sedges and grasses (Poaceae). It goes, “Rushes are round, sedges have edges, and grass comes in joints.” “The grass comes in joints” part is a corruption of what the rhyme historically said. Since I was in college in the sixties and the corruption dates from then, I never learned the correct, that is, original wording. Maybe someone can help me out. Bonnie has shown a stem cross section. Note that it is triangular although the “edges” are rounded. Further, the flower clusters are sedge-like, produced in minute elongate clusters called spikelets. Each tiny flower is hidden behind a single bract. In these species the perianth (sepals and petals), is represented by dry, flat ribbons. Because “rush” is the name commonly used for members of the Juncaceae, I prefer the name tule over bull-rush.

There are two species of tule commonly found in our coastal wetlands. They are the common tule, S. acutus and the California tule, S. californicus. According to Robert Hoover, a third  species of tule (S. olneyi) with its very sharply triangular stems is “occasional in marshes near the coast and rare inland.” I’ve not actually identified this species so I know essentially nothing about it. The two common species are fairly easy to distinguish.

Tule, illustrated by Bonnie Walters

Tule, illustrated by Bonnie Walters

California tule has bright green stems that are bluntly triangular while common tule possesses a grey-green round stem. The illustration is of a California tule.


A word about the ‘S.’ or genus name in the two species binomials. According to Jan Timbrook (2007) in her book, Chumash Ethnobotany, the correct genus name, according the Flora of North America Project and presumably the new Jepson Manual when it is published, hopefully later this year, will be Schoenoplectus. However, none of the current floras use this name so Jan Timbrook decided to continue to use the long established name, Scirpus. Tules have two extensive chapters in Jan Timbrook’s book. She indicates the Chumash recognized two kinds of tule based on their cross sections — flat (actually not a tule but the cattail) and round, tule redondo. Some other tribes did acknowledge the difference between the triangular and round stem tule. As might be expected from two chapters devoted to one type of plant in an ethno-botany book, native people had many uses for the tule. Seeds, rhizomes, and young shoots were sometimes eaten although one source indicated that they felt gathering them for food (especially the seeds) was not worth the effort. The stems were bundled and the bundles overlapped to produce a thatching for Chumash dwellings. Bundles were also tied together in such a way to form a canoe-like water craft. Stems were also used extensively to form mats used in many ways. There are many other uses but I’ve not space to discuss them. However, I feel I have to mention one last use I did find intriguing. Poorer classes of women wove skirts out of tule because they couldn’t afford the animal skins used for clothing by the upper classes of Chumash. I guess I was naive enough to think sorting into economic classes was found only in modern economic and political systems.

by Dirk Walters, illustrations by Bonnie Walters | Dirk and Bonnie Walters are long-time CNPS-SLO members, contributors, and board/committee participants. In addition to his work at Cal Poly, Dirk is the current CNPS-SLO Historian.