Lantern Flowers: Crimson (Western) Columbine

Learn about this outstanding Californian wildflower – from its evolutionary history to the best time to see it bloom.

Crimson columbine is native to California.

Its full native range extends up north to Alaska’s coast, and east into Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. It is also found in areas of the Southwest. They are absent in California’s Central Valley.

Columbines are hypothesized to have arrived to North America 10,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Scientists hypothesize that the columbine ancestor made its way from Central Asia to Alaska thousands of years ago by the the Bering land bridge that connected Asia to North America. Evidence of the columbine’s travels have been supported by DNA analyses of columbine species from around the world.

After its arrival in Alaska, the columbine ancestor begin to radiate out to other parts of North America. The evolution of North American species is hypothesized to be driven by pollinator specialization. For example, multiple species of red columbines have adapted red flowers (distinct from blue and yellow-flowered columbines found in other parts of the U.S.) and higher sugar contents in their nectar – an adaptation thought to meet the demands of their hummingbird pollinators.

Wildflower Logo
Crimson columbine at Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve.

The best time to see crimson columbine bloom is March – May.

The plant can be found in forest and meadow habitats where the soil is moist.

The outer, red parts of the flower are actually sepals. The “true” petals are the yellow parts on the inside of the flower. Overall, the entire flower is about 2 inches long.

Crimson columbine attracts pollinators, including hummingbirds.

These flowers are also relatively deer-proof, making them a great option to include in a California native plant garden. For more tips on how to cultivate crimson columbines in your garden, check out these tips from the Las Pilitas Nursery.

Cool facts about crimson columbine:

  • Its genus name, Aquilegia, is derived from the latin word aquila, meaning “eagle”. This name is thought to refer to its upright red sepals, which look like an eagle’s talons.
  • The flower’s common name, columbine, is derived from the latin word columba, meaning dove-like.
  • Crimson columbine is a perennial plant.

Resources to learn more:

Sticky and Vibrant: Monkeyflower

True to their name, sticky monkeyflowers have a sticky resin on their leaves. Their flowers are thought to resemble a smiling monkey. Can you see it?

Sticky monkeyflower plants have dark green leaves and bright flowers.

Their leaves are 2 – 3 inches in length, and the plant itself grows to be 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall. Their flowers are orange, and they can be seen in bloom from April through October.

These beauties have also become popular to gardeners, resulting in many different color combinations ranging from deep red to peach.

Sticky monkeyflowers are actually sticky.

True to their name, their leaves have a sticky residue. The resin is thought to help protect from desiccation, or drying out, of the plant during particularly hot days.

Monkeyflower 2 Logo.jpg
Close-up of sticky monkeyflowers at Devil’s Slide in Pacifica.

Sticky monkeyflowers are wonderful garden plants.

Sticky monkeyflowers are drought-tolerant perennials, making them a water-wise plant that will return year after year. Their flowers also attract hummingbirds, bringing awesome wildlife to your garden.

If deer are a consideration in your area, monkeyflowers are also quite deer-resistant.

For more information on the species that you can plant in your own garden, check out this helpful page by the Las Pilitas Nursery.

Cool facts about sticky monkeyflowers:

  • Their genus, Mimulus, is related to the latin word mimus, meaning a mime or comic. This is thought to be because of the shape of their flower, which resembles a comic or mime.
  • Checkerspot butterflies will lay their eggs on sticky monkeyflowers.
  • The “monkeyflower” part of their name is derived from the shape of their flowers, which are thought to resemble smiling monkeys. I often have trouble seeing it, but try it yourself when you encounter them!
  • Sticky monkeyflowers were used by Native Americans as treatments for various ailments and as decorative pieces. For more information, check out this page by the National Park Service.

Resources to learn more:

Monkeyflower Logo
Sticky monkeyflowers blooming off the coast at Devil’s Slide Trail.

A Pop of Purple: Western Blue-eyed Grass

Despite its deceiving common name, blue-eyed grass is actually a part of the iris family! Learn this and more about this vibrant California native wildflower.

Western blue-eyed grass is a California native wildflower.

Its native range extends west of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It can be found outside of California as well, but the western species is restricted to the western part of the United States. There are many different varieties in California, including a “Devon Skies” variety that has a darker purple center.

Western blue-eyed grass is a “clumping” plant, meaning that it will grow from the center and form a mound.

They can grow 4 – 16 inches tall and equally as wide. Their flowers are less than an inch in diameter, and range from blue to purple in color.

Wildflower 2 Logo
Blue-eyed grass blooming at Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve.

The best time to view blooming western blue-eyed grass is April or May.

They can be found in a variety of habitats – ranging from redwood forests to grassy areas. To view these bright flowers, be sure to look for them on a sunny day – their flowers close when it’s cloudy.

Western blue-eyed grass is a perennial plant.

Perennial plants return each year after you plant them, whereas annual plants need to be replanted each year. If you plan on planting blue-eyed grass in your garden, you can count on seeing them return each year.

Cool facts about western blue-eyed grass:

  • Blue-eyed grass is not actually a grass – it belongs to the iris family (Iridaceae).
  • Blue-eyed grass flowers close up when it’s cloudy.
  • Its genus name means “pig snout” in latin – a name derived from foraging pigs digging up the plant.

Resources to learn more:

Bursts of Color: Indian Paintbrush

This parasitic beauty is a common flower along California’s trails. Learn more about its biology.

Indian paintbrushes are parasitic plants.

Indian paintbrushes can still photosynthesize just like any other plant, but they are better able to survive poor weather conditions by stealing from their neighbors.

Paintbrushes parasitize other plants using structures called haustoria. Haustoria attach to the roots of host plants, creating a connection that allows the paintbrush to steal nutrients and water.

Indian paintbrushes vary in color.

Paintbrushes can be found in shades of red, pink, and yellow. In California, they bloom from February to May, allowing you to witness their different colors.

The top “brush” of the plant isn’t a flower.

The top “brush” of the indian paintbrush deceptively looks like a flower. This showy top is actually composed of modified leaves, which house the flowers. The flowers themselves look like small tubes.

Paintbrush copy Logo.jpg
Paintbrush at Land’s End in San Francisco

Indian paintbrushes don’t make very good garden plants.

Because they are parasitic and require a host plant, it is very difficult to grow indian paintbrushes in your garden. While I’ve never tried it myself, gardeners have found success in growing paintbrushes in the same pot as a good host plant. For more information on how to grow paintbrushes, feel free to check out this paintbrush gardening article from SF Gate.

Cool facts about indian paintbrushes:

  • Indian paintbrushes belong to genus Castilleja, which includes over 200 species of plants. The species are spread throughout the United States and Mexico, with 35 in California alone.
  • The genus name of the indian paintbrush, Castilleja, was named for Spanish botanist Domingo Castillejo.

Resources to learn more: