“…thou canst not stir a flower without troubling of a star.”
Francis Thomson, English poet
Few spring sights in Sonoma County are as uplifting as the faces of the flowers that decorate our hillsides and valleys in a palette of lavenders and dark purples, creamy yellows and oranges, pinkish whites and everything in between. What we call the “early spring” wildflowers — like our delicate milkmaids and nodding shooting stars — actually begin to show up in the North Bay region in January and February, sometimes even December. Mid-March, however, is the main event. What better excuse to get outside with a sketchbook, or a camera, or just an appreciative eye.
Whatever your own floral favorites, it is humbling to remember that flowers are not only beautiful but essential: we owe them a great debt. As so eloquently described by anthropologist and naturalist Loren Eisley in his 1946 essay “How Flowers Changed the World,” without flowers, the world as we know it — including the emergence of humans — would never have existed. To appreciate this connection that ties us to the emergence of flowering plants, we must look not only at a flower’s pretty face, but deep into the core of its being.
What is a wildflower?
There are as many definitions of wildflower as there are books or websites that feature them. Typically, wildflower watchers tend to focus on herbaceous annual plants with showy colorful petals. Grasses get left out because their wind-pollinated flowers lack petals and although beautiful in their own right, they are difficult to see with the naked eye. Strict native plant enthusiasts will rule out flowers that are not native to California, like the famous (or infamous, depending on one’s viewpoint) field mustard that paints Wine Country yellow in February, but originally arrived in California with the early Spanish settlers.
A narrow focus on the colorful cuties, however, leaves out the majority of flowering plants. From the weed in a sidewalk crack to a towering oak with its dangling pollen flowers called catkins, flowers are everywhere you look in nature. For my part, I will look deep into the face of any flower because each of them tells an amazing story. As for defining wildflowers, I do draw the line at ecosystem-destroying invasive species like the field marigold or vineyard calendula (Calendula arvensis) that is invading our natural areas to the exclusion of other species.
What do you see?
Flowers come in so many colors, shapes, and sizes that it’s hard to believe they all evolved from the same four sets of structures — the sepals, the petals, the male reproductive parts (the stamens) and the female reproductive part (the pistil). In a simple flower, like a milkmaid or a buttercup, each of these sets of structures is distinct and easy to observe. The sepals are the outer-most structures, often but not always green, whose job is to protect the flower when it is in bud. Then come the petals which are often, but not always, showy and colorful, whose job is to attract a pollinator. Inside the petals are the stamens with their pollen-producing anthers on top and at the center of it all is the pistil.
Over evolutionary time, flowering plants have used these basic building blocks to create a diversity of blooms that boggles the mind. The next time you go for a walk in one of our local parks, take a hand-lens (or even better, close-focus binoculars) and look closely at an iris, or a lupine, or any kind of daisy. It’s difficult if not impossible to distinguish four distinct sets of structures. Some flowers are exclusively male or exclusively female, thus lacking stamens or a pistil, respectively. In others, petals and/or sepals are fused into elongated tubes to attract specialist pollinators like hummingbirds or butterflies. The flowers of our local sky lupine (Lupinus nanus) hide their reproductive parts inside a pea flower, part of which changes color after being pollinated. The result? Increased efficiency for foraging bees who are directed by color to seek nectar only from those flowers that have yet to be visited. In blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) the stamens are fused into a tiny white crown that hides the pollen inside. The trap-like flowers of Dutchman’s pipe (Aristolochia californica), which lack petals altogether, are formed from fused sepals. With an odor similar to rotting flesh, the pipe lures tiny flies inside and only releases them after the flower is pollinated.