There’s Gold in them Hills: Wildflower Season

It’s wildflower season again and after years of drought the blooms are making up for lost time.  I choose the Gold Country (California foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mts.) this year as a hot spot.  We started near Yosemite and made our way north on HW 49 – and various floriferous side roads. 

California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)  and gold fields (Lasthenia californica)

The discovery of gold in 1848 sparked the largest mass migration in U.S. history.  Prospectors moved from one strike to the next along rivers and streams .  Today there are remnants of diggings, rusting machinery, stamp mills and old camps. There are historic towns and wonderful plant diversity.  The California golden poppy has replaced the “gold in dem der hills.”

Gold fields a common sight in spring.

The small flowers above,aptly named “gold fields,”  are in the daisy family.

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Shooting stars- Dodecatheon hendersonii

I found a field of shooting stars too.

Numerous creeks flow out of the foothills of the Sierras and into rivers that eventually join the San Joaquin River, one of California’s largest. 

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Below is the Stanislaus River.Stanislaus_pse1230

Old bridge over the Stanislaus. A sign says it was covered to make it last longer.  In the foreground are the remains of an old stamp mill, which crushed rock for extraction of gold ore.covrd bridge Stanislaus_pse1232

Many wildflowers have evolved to root in serpentine soil and gravels – which are toxic to most other plant life.  This is Bitter root – Lewisia rediviva (named after explorer M. Lewis of Lewis and Clarke fame).Lewisia r_pse1185

I was hunting for one particular wildflower I’d never seen: a fawn lily,  Erythronium tuolumnensii – and was excited to find it….  The thrill of the chase.

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Fawn lily –  Erythronium tuolumnensii


Below: wait for it – it’s a brief  slide show ( or click if feeling impatient 😉 )

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Lupins and goldfields in front of snickering horse.

Is that horse sticking his tongue out at me?


horse grin_pse1224Yeah pretty funny trying to ruin my shot. (I did not photo-shop this horse – he really was mocking me.  So disrespectful!)

The one(s) that got away 😉 :  I had some fabulous photos of a place famous (with botanists anyway) for wildflowers near Yosemite Park.  That night I downloaded over one hundred photos to my laptop and was going through them, deleting those that were out of focus etc. and taking pleasure in the ones that were sharp.  Long story short, my laptop died and I’d deleted the photos in the camera card to make room for the next day’s findings.  I paid a computer guy to retrieve them and he found everything else – that I had already backed up, except those photos I had driven many hours to take.  Ah well another year, and excuse for another trip!

Baby Birds


We’ve had two nests next to the house. The first was by the back door. We tried to avoid going out that way, but when mom (a house finch) flew away one day I peeked in and there were at least two half-naked chicks had hatched (click to enlarge).

almost ready to fledge...(See photo of adult finch above)

almost ready to fledge…

The handsome red-breasted dad helped too. A week or two later the nest was empty – I hope they made it!

Note the strong bill on this male house finch (

A male house finch (



I discovered the second nest when (almost starting) to clean a window that isn’t used a lot. There were three little blue eggs and a week later these two chicks. When I opened the shade to take this picture, they opened their beaks thinking mother was back with food.

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I’ve peeked once since and they are bigger now with wing feathers marked dark  and light. I read they only nest for about 10 days and then they are on their own! Want to guess what they are? I haven’t got a good glimpse of the mother but she is a “grey-brown twitter” larger than a finch, with a long, square tail. Maybe a California towhee?

(Hey guys instead of sending me emails, please comment below to share with all. {I know the “comment” lettering is small and faint but it is there should you wish to click on it!}  Thanks.)

Cross-species Relationships: a lesson from the animal kingdom

My writer friend Nona Mock Wyman sent me this lovely little picture story about a rhesus macaque monkey who has adopted a stray puppy in Rode, India.  An example of cross-species caring and relationships.

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The monkey has been seen to defend the little dog from other strays, (you can just make out the pup by the front wheel).mono 2

and looks after it like a mother, even making sure the puppy eats first.

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“People who have seen them, speak of their strong mutual affection and described their bond as the most caring thing in the world — to take care of a puppy in danger and protect him like a parent,” reports Zee News.


The unusual pair have become inseparable.mono4

She cares for the puppy as if it were her own baby. (I hope she doesn’t expect him to learn to jump from limb to limb!)mono 6


Locals have started to leave food out for the pair. 🙂

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Their affection gives us a valuable lesson about taking care of each other.


In spring, my blog becomes a forum for my “wildflowering.” On a hillside in northern California grow two rare Mariposa lilies, listed by the Native Plant Society as endangered.  Why are they so rare?  Why do they occur only in limited locales?

This one is Calochortus umbellatus or Oakland star-tulip. The species is found almost exclusively in the San Francisco Bay Area, although there are a few isolated populations to the north.  The flowers are tiny usually less than 2 cm. (about an inch) across.

Oakland star tulip - C. umbellatus

Oakland star tulip – C. umbellatus, CCM

C umbellatus_recm 762 I’ve been trying to get a good photo for years, but enlarging to that size requires perfect focus, no wind and steady hands (or a “ground” tripod).  That assumes I’ve driven to Ring Mountain at the peak time.  Happily this year I found dozens of them.

Ring Mountain lies north of San Francisco, on the Tiburon Peninsula of Marin County and is really more of a large hill than a mountain.

Map of SF Bay showing the location of Ring Mt.

Map of SF Bay showing the location of Ring Mt.

What makes it rather unique is its serpentine soil, derived from ultramafic metamorphosed rocks that have been brought to the surface by mantle driven tectonic activity.  Serpentine soils are chemically harsh and toxic to most plants, so that the plants that evolved there have developed a tolerance – or even a preference – for the minerology (high in metals like magnesium, but low in calcium and nitrogen).


Tiburon lily Ring Mt 5-13-08 015-2

Calochortus tiburonensis, Tiburon Lily. CCM

Several species occur ONLY on Ring Mountain and no where else on earth for this reason. Calochortus tiburonensis is an example.  This can be a difficult flower to spot and not only for its small size (little more than a centimeter across). You can be looking at it, and not see it.  (If you visit the mountain be careful not to step or sit on them!)  The gold-greenish-brown colors are camouflaged against grasses and rocks.

Calochortus tiburonensis - Ring Mt 013-2

C. tiburonensis, CCM

Aren’t they unique looking? I love their funny “beards.”  A fire or some other disaster and the whole species could be gone forever.  So I visit them every year and admire their view of the Bay.

C. tiburonensis overlooking SF Bay. Photo@ by Mary Gerritsen

C. tiburonensis overlooking SF Bay. Photo@ Mary Gerritsen



DEATH VALLEY: A Natural History In Pictures

 DEATH VALLEY National Park, located in the southwest corner of California, bordering Nevada, is a land of extremes: a below-sea-level basin, steady drought and record summer heat. Yet it harbors both delicate (rare wildflowers and tiny fish) and harsh beauty (striking landforms and geology).

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Opuntia basilaris – Beavertail Cactus. CCM

       It isn’t usually known for flowers – only exceptional rainfall brings on a bloom from seeds that have lain dormant for years. (Click on the small pictures below to enlarge.)

People come for the extreme climate (believe it or not) and landscapes. The valley itself is a rift basin or graben (an area dropped down between two or more faults). In fact it is one of many within the Basin and Range geomorphic province which covers much of the western USA and northern Mexico.

Badwater Basin - salt flats in the distance.

Badwater Basin – salt flats in the distance. CCM

DV Salt Flat_pse0670Photo: Badwater Basin salt flat (middle right); the colorful rocks on the left are volcanic. The valley (basin) sits 282 feet (86 m) below sea level, while Mount Whitney, only 85 miles (137 km) to the west, rises to 14,505 feet (4,421 m) in the Sierra Nevadas.  A lake filled the valley in wetter times and left behind salt and borax minerals.

Geology in the park is amazing, stretching in age from 1.7 billion years old Precambrian metamorphosed  rocks to Cenozoic and Pleistocene sedimentary rocks, volcanics and modern sand dunes.

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Sand dunes. CCM

My husband, an expert in depositional environments, recognized  sedimentary rocks belonging to shallow seas, lakes and braided streams and alluvial fans.The sedimentary layers shown in the photo below were probably deposited by a braided stream and later uplifted and tilted .

An ancient braided stream. CCM

An ancient braided stream. CCM

Periods of extensive volcanism and tectonic deformation shaped the landscape.

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Volcanism left behind the colours in these hills at “Artist’s Palette.” CCM


ODDITIES: Some very peculiar plants grow in the desert including, Desert trumpet, Eriogonum inflatum (love the name!)…

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(click on arrows to see the 3 slides)  Desert candle, Caulanthus inflatus (even better!)  above, grows 3-4 ft tall.

And this weird plant, called dodder:

DVmts and flwrs w-sky_pse0629

Wildflowers and dodder (bright orange) in a wash with colorful volcanic hills in the background. CCM

I kept seeing these gorgeous orange “bushes” but looking closely I realized the bizarre orange matter (it looks something like soft fishing line) was twining itself around other plants.

(Click on the small pictures above to enlarge.) Although colorful, this plant is parasitic and unfortunately destructive.

Then there are the mysterious  “Sailing Stones” found on a dried-up, flat lake-bed, each one followed by a track incised in the earth. Some of these furrows are straight, others are curved, but how did they form? They appear to have been dragged, but no one has ever seen the rocks move.

Magic rock (one of dozens). Photo thanks to Jon Sullivan

Magic rock (one of dozens). Thanks to Jon Sullivan for sharing this photo.

There have been a number of studies, the most promising hypotheses contends that the movement is due to ice, which occasionally forms on the desert floor. “The ice causes virtually no friction…so the stones are able to glide with just a slight breeze.”   For more information read:

Death Valley Facts:

  • A temperature of 134 degrees F (56.7 C), a century ago is thought to be the highest ever recorded anywhere.  Summer is regularly over 110F (>43C); 116 F (>47C) was the average high last July and August. Flora and fauna live on the edge and biologists worry about desert species surviving a change to an even hotter climate.
  • The Death Valley region is the northernmost part of the Mojave Desert, in California.
  • A rain shadow effect makes it North America’s driest spot, receiving about 1.5 inches (38 mm) of rainfall annually in the lowlands like at Badwater; however that more than doubled for this rainfall season.
  • Several springs derive water from a regional aquifer.  Much of the water has been there since the cooler and wetter climate of the Pleistocene ice ages. Today’s drier climate does not provide enough precipitation to recharge the aquifer.
  • In 1977, Death Valley was one of the filming locations  used by director George Lucas for Star Wars.


When I first visited Death Valley (way back) in my college days, you would occasionally see old wagons like these or even Model T’s stuck in the sand.  I remember Dr. Webb, my geology professor, pulled out tools and scavenged a rusting car for parts for his own Model T!

Old wagon Death Vly_auto-e0562~~

Comments? Questions?  Ask me anything about this post.


Late in the season there was a most unusual storm that brought twice the normal annual rainfall to the northern desert in a matter of days. The silver lining in this dark cloud is that it bode well for wildflower season. (The bad news was a flash flood destroyed or damaged roads and buildings in the park.) Rain occurred again in early 2016, but I only heard that there was a “super bloom” after it was well underway.

DVNP 2016 by Diane Miliard

DVNP 2016 by Diane Miliard

Being that this this is known to happen in Death Valley only once or twice in a lifetime, we started looking for tickets to the nearest airport (Las Vegas, Nevada-  a two hour drive to DV), lodging (not easy), car rental etc. Having accomplished that, we arrived a couple of days later, just in time to catch the last phase of the flowers. It was worth it.


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Yellow primroses, purple phacelia and chicory. CCM

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Desert primrose ( C. brevipipe), by CCM

The most common wildflowers in the park were Camissonia brevipes or desert primrose (shown carpeting the desert in the first two photos and a close up above) phacelias and chicories. Wednesday we got off the main road, checked out the middle of the park and found those flowers.  Two different species of Phacelias  are shown below: the top row is P. calthiflora (based on the short stamen and color) or possibly  P. campanularia (based on leaf form and white spot in corolla); bottom right is P. crenulata and the last photo shows the two species

side by side.

DesertChicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana)

DesertChicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana) by CCM


Thursday we drove to the north only to find Scotty’s Castle Road closed by the flood. Not to be deterred we walked up the now dry wash into the canyon and were amply rewarded with a wealth of species. My husband discovered our first “Five-spot” and then we saw many more after that.

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A baby Eremalche rotundifolia

I spotted this red plant (above) up the wash, assumed it was a flower and walked over to discover it was an infant 5- spot;  the red leaves discourage predators from eating tender shoots.


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Friday we woke up to high winds- anathema to photographing delicate flowers.  I had to make wind breaks with my body and jacket, but even then had to patiently wait until the wind subsided for a moment and quick: click!  I did capture a few macros, but soon gave up and just hiked around and decided to try my hand at landscapes.  But that’s next week…(It took me too long to go though my many photographs and longer to  identify the species of those I didn’t know – i.e.most of them!)

While I would never visit the desert in summer – or even winter – it is a whole different landscape in spring if the area has received some rain.  Have you been there?

Planting WILDFLOWERS could help Feed the World


photo from Conservation Magazine, Feb.2016

Well, being a wildflower aficionado,  I love this idea – beauty and agriculture producing enough food for the growing, global population. I’ve written about the problems with mono-cultures (large tracts of banana  and coffee crops in Latin America succumbing to diseases) and increasing biodiversity is the clue to healthy crops and environment.

Central California supplies most of the nations produce. (Photo Lupins poppies by CCMacKInnon)

Central California supplies most of the nations produce. (Lupins and poppies; photo by CC MacKinnon)



The  information below is from Conservation Magazine at the University of Washington:

“Many studies have shown that planting strips of wildflowers amidst croplands can increase species of insects and birds that act as an all-natural pest control, reducing or eliminating the need for pesticides.” In Switzerland many “farms that have implemented wildflower strips as part of a government subsidy program that aims to boost biodiversity on farm lands.”


Swallowtail butterfly pollinates wildflowers. (Photo by CCMacKinnon)

In a study published recently in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment they found that the presence of nearby species-rich wildflower strips increased winter wheat production by 10 percent as compared to control fields.  The paper did not take into account any losses in yields that farmers would incur if they set aside arable lands for wildflower strips (however my guess is that the balance of nature would at least balance out the yield as 10% is a big  effect).


Save these landscapes. (Arvin, CA photo by CCMacKInnon)

Save these landscapes. (Arvin, CA photo by CCMacKinnon)

What do you think… win win? (Like this post? Share it on your favorite social networking site.)


The full article can be found here: