Flowers – Evolution




Philosophical and religious considerations aside, the primary “purpose” of all organisms, whether they are plants, animals, fungi, bacteria or viruses, is to grow and reproduce. Success or failure is determined by the number of viable descendants that remain to carry on the lineage when the parent dies. The bottom line is progeny.

Spring is the season for this renewal. We are now immersed in the energy of successfully reproducing beings. Mother gray whales and calves move up the coast, new‑born foals and fawns cavort in pastures, English sparrow babies beg beetles from every cornice, tree frogs chorus in cattle ponds and wildflowers illuminate the entire scene.

Floristically speaking it has been a disappointing year in most of California with notable exceptions. I had the good fortune to spend a month in Death Valley and the Mojave this spring. It was the best floral display in 14 years. The desert floor was ablaze. Under the gray‑green shrubs was a frenzy of activity; as far as the eye could see the flowers stretched.

The Sierran foothills, which are usually glowing with the orange and blue of poppies and lupines in April, were depressing shades of withered brown. Fortunately for west Marin the coastal areas are another delightful exception. Run, don’t walk, to Chimney Rock, Abbotts Lagoon, Palomarin, and/or Muir Beach. There are still many wildflowers to see: Checkerblooms, Bog Lupines, Pussy Ears, Douglas Iris, Blue‑eyed Grass, Cream Cups, Tidy Tips, Giant Chickweed, Meadowfoam, Indian Paintbrush, Red Maids, Wild Flax, Linanthus, Mustard, Seaside Daisies, Bush Lupines, Buttercups, Phacelia, Sheep Sorrel, Yarrow, and many others.

Flowers……we give them to each other during times of overwhelming grief or intense happiness. At funerals they remind us of the joy and power of the living, at weddings we use them to celebrate the joining of two humans, and at the birth of a child flowers symbolize hope and new life.

This universal sense of “flower power” (forgive me) is understandable. Part of a flower’s beauty lies in the fact that it is most glorious right before death. There is a sense of the intransigence of life in a flower. It yells out to us, “BE HERE NOW! Behold, admire and smell me. Tomorrow is too late, I will be gone, faded and dying.” So will we.

Yet flowers do not exist solely to delight our senses or increase our existential awareness; their primary function is to aid in the procreation of the plant.

The world was not always such a bright place. Three hundred million years ago the gymnosperms (ginkgos, cycads, redwoods, pines and their long‑extinct relatives) were the dominant plant form accompanied by mosses, ferns and liverworts. The landscape was full of various shades of green but missing were the brilliant yellows, blues, violets, reds and oranges of the flowering plants. Sure there were interesting dinosaurs and giant insects but something was definitely lacking.

Beginning about 100 million years ago the flowering plants (angiosperms in the official nomenclature) burst upon the scene. Many evolved mechanisms (bright petals, scent‑producing cells, nectar glands, protein‑rich pollen grains) to entice animals to act as pollen vectors. The animals in turn specialized in feeding on flowers. Bees, flies, moths, wasps, butterflies, hummingbirds and even bats changed with the evolving flower structures. Many plants and animals now depend on one another for survival. This evolutionary dance has resulted in an explosion of color and smell in our world.

Gymnosperms, especially conifers, are still common and very successful but have been dominated by the angiosperms which have spread to every conceivable corner of the earth. Flowering plants now make up over 90% of the species. If success is measured by offspring then we are truly living in the Age of Dandelions.

Words for Flowers


Well I never thought I would say it ….I am getting sick of the rain. If it ever stops we will get on with spring. Already flowers are blooming in the deserts, the Sierra foothills and even the San Joaquin Valley. I suspect that April in West Marin is going to be very showy this year. To whet your appetite for the upcoming display I would like to share a few of my favorite flower word origins.

We have about 16 or so different lupines growing in Marin. They are familiar to every one that lives in the West. I was amazed to discover that the Texas Bluebonnet was just a lupine. The word literally means wolf. This name originates from two mistaken beliefs. Lupines belong to the pea family and one of the characteristics of this plant family is the ability to utilize atmospheric nitrogen. Special bacteria associated with the roots fix this important compound and enable these plants to live in very poor soils. The people in Europe noticed this and thought the lupines were robbing the soil of nutrients (first mistake) just like wolves rob people of food (second mistake.) The lupines actually nourish the soil and wolves don’t rob people. Wolves are just being wolves. But the name has stuck.

Deadly nightshade is a common garden weed and is found growing along fireroads and trails in moist, shaded places. It is also known as Belladonna. It belongs to the tomato/potato family which is not only known for some very fine foodstuffs but also a whole bevy of very toxic chemicals. By the way I have the perfect way to rid yourself of an unwanted spouse. Green potatoes. Everyone has noticed that potatoes left out in the sun will turn green. A poison is created in the green skin that is not destroyed by cooking and tends to concentrate in the liver. It may take 5, 10, 15 years or so for complete liver failure and death. Oh, green potatoes again tonight dear? By the way if this isn’t your plan, you should cut the green skin away to be safe.

Anyway, deadly nightshade has a poison in it called atropine, an antispasmodic drug that is an antidote for nerve gas. Physicians use it to dilate the pupils for examinations. The ladies in Italy did the same thing years ago to their eyes to enhance their beauty, hence the name Belladonna (pretty woman). The next logical question is ..”why are dilated pupils considered beautiful?” I’ll let you think about for a minute….hmm, de dum, dum…give up yet? One of the early signs of sexual excitation is dilation of the pupils. Blood also rushes to the cheeks (that’s why women wear rouge) and blood engorges the lips (lipstick enhances this effect). The nostrils swell a little bit too but they haven’t figured out a way to imitate that. In other words when most women get dressed up they are carefully approximating a sexual flush. My mother hates to hear that.

Daisy. Apparently some of these species that grow in Great Britain close up at night and in Old English were called “daeges eage” or days eye. This eventually evolved into our word, daisy.

Columbine. This beautiful red flower (blooming now) resembles a cluster of five doves all huddled together. From the latin for dove, columba, columbine means anything that is dovelike. The dove “heads” are the flower spurs reflexing back. On the inside of the spurs are nectaries containing sugar that hummingbirds feed on. The blue kind that grows in the Rockies is the state flower of Colorado.

Nasturtium. When I first visited Stinson Beach in the mid-1970’s I was envious of the abundance of nasturtiums that grew wildly over everything. This was a flower I had cultivated carefully in my garden in Tennessee, but here in West Marin it is an untamed burst of colors flowing out from tended gardens. The name is once again from latin, nasus “nose” and torquere “twist”. They have a peppery flavor that will literally “twist your nose.” The orange, yellow or red flowers make a great addition to a green salad.

Dandelion. Another common garden weed brought from Europe and it, of course, is from the French, dent de lion or the tooth of the lion. This refers to the serrated edges of the leaves which reminded someone of the snarl of a lion. The modern French however call this plant, pissenlit. Which literally means “piss in your bed.” The roots of dandelions are commonly dried and roasted and mixed with coffee. Both are diuretics, that is they take water out of tissues and put it in the bladder. A folk legend persists that he who picks a dandelion will pee in the bed that night. Ahh the French.

Brown Bear – Admiralty Island


Admiralty Island at 1500 square miles is just slightly smaller than the state of Delaware. On this wilderness island in southeast Alaska roam 1500 brownies. And I am not referring to cookies or young girl scouts. The grizzly bears along the Alaskan coast are commonly called brown bears, coloquially known as brownies. This name distinguishes them from their smaller relatives, the black bears. Admiralty Island has the densest concentration of bears in the world, an average of one bear per square mile!

An early biologist once identified over 75 different species of grizzly bears just in North America. Now most taxonomists believe that the European brown bear, the grizzly and the Alaskan brown bear are the same species, Ursus arctos. Physical variations merely reflect different races of the same bear. Once these bears ranged across the northern hemisphere. But now Alaska and Canada remain the only significant refuges for these magnificent beings.

Grizzlies are the largest land carnivore on the planet. One Alaskan Kodiak bear weighed 1500 lbs and was over nine feet tall. However most grizzlies are much smaller than the coastal variety. This size discrepancy is primarily due to the difference in diet. The inland bears have no ready source of meat. Upon emerging from their winter sleep they feed on grasses, sedges and, if they are lucky, a winter‑killed moose. These grizzlies spend an inordinate amount of time hunting ground squirrels and other small rodents and may occasionally kill a moose calf. So even though the bears are considered meat eaters, 80% of their diet is vegetable matter or carrion.

The coastal variety of the grizzly grows much larger because of an abundant source of meat‑‑salmon. There are five species of this migratory fish that frequent southeast Alaska. Every summer millions move up streams and rivers to spawn and die. The brownies are waiting for them. Normally brown bears avoid contact with other bears except during the mating season. But during the salmon runs their interpersonal bear‑space decreases. They gather to gorge themselves on fish flesh. Later in the season they will only eat the skin, brains and roe for it is these organs that provide the much needed fat for the long winter sleep.

Last week I visited Admiralty Island. In grizzly country there is always an edge, a certain uncertainty. When hiking you must not carry food, you must not be quiet and you must not be unarmed. Fortunately human flesh is not considered haute cuisine by the grizzly but the animals are still unpredictable. Grizzly bears can run 50 yards in three seconds, they can swim rapidly, and they can easily destroy a small tree. There is no running and no escape from these bears. In this place the grizzly is king and only a gun allows humans the illusion of security.

In a two hour visit at dusk we watched four bears interact along Pack Creek, a well‑known bear and salmon spot. One small brownie (only 500 lbs.) ran down the creek chasing and then catching a large king salmon. As the bear ate the fish six bald eagles, two ravens and several crows flew in hoping for a piece of the action. Then we saw two other bears mate at the edge of the forest. A quick coupling.

Shortly afterwards the female from the pair caught a fish. Then the male chased off a large brown male that was exhibiting too much interest in the female. That large brown male in turn began to chase after the first small bear. It was getting hard to keep score. Unfortunately both bears headed right at us, the big one pursuing the little one. Pulses quickened, cameras clicked. Our guide quickly began to load his ancient double‑barreled shotgun and told us quietly and urgently to back up onto the tidal flat. I definitely did not want to be at the bottom of a bear pecking order.

The conflict soon ended amicably and the chased bear ran into the forest. Ecstatic we walked back to our skiff. To these bears we were just forked curiosities, neither dangerous nor tasty. I felt honored to be there and thrilled to witness brown bears going about the business of being brown bears.

Gophers – A True Story


There were fifteen of us standing around in a circle staring down at the ground. Occasionally cheers would erupt as I attempted to entice a gopher out of his hole. The audience was mostly teachers and naturalists taking my class, “Natural History for Educators”, at the Point Reyes National Seashore. If there is a single mammal likely to be encountered (though maybe not seen) in a school yard or during a casual stroll through any park, it is the gopher.

By placing pieces of a carrot farther and farther from his hole, I had managed to gradually lure the gopher out into the open. Eventually we were able to see the entire body as he darted up, grabbed the morsel and quickly slid backwards into its hole. As I was describing the gopher’s adaptations for a life under the ground, one of the participants spontaneously put his car keys down in place of the carrot. The gopher came up, grabbed the keys and disappeared. Whoops.

The gopher was back up in seconds, without the keys. The look on the man’s face was priceless…..”the stupidest thing I ever did….”. Our raucous laughter was soon replaced by concern. How could we get the keys back out of the gopher’s hole?

Gophers occupy virtually every habitat throughout the western and central United States. They are mostly missing east of the Mississippi. These busy little rodents dig, claw and bite their way through the soil, collectively creating thousands of miles of underground tunnels. The net impact is enormous and not always detrimental to human interests. Dr. Grinnel, the well‑known University of California biologist, once said that the farmers in the San Joaquin Valley owe their rich agricultural lands to the diggings of mountain pocket gophers high up in the Sierra Nevada. Gophers have speeded up the revegetation of Mt. St. Helens. In some areas gophers were not killed by the volcanic eruption but survived the heat blast because they were underground. When the dust cleared, the gophers roto‑tilled the ash into the soil and their stockpiled seeds germinated and helped to restore the native vegetation. The CCC couldn’t have done any better.

Our resident species and the one found throughout most of California is the Botta Pocket Gopher, Thomomys bottae. The “pocket” refers to two fur‑lined reversible pouches found outside the mouth on both cheeks. Essentially these are two built‑in purses for storing food. The gopher’s lips close behind the four prominent front teeth; this prevents dirt from getting down the throat. Gophers prefer loamy soil but they are capable of gnawing their way through heavy clay with their incisors. As the teeth wear out they continue to grow at the rate of a foot a year! Gophers use their chest to push the soil from their burrows up to the surface, creating the characteristic mounds. Basically a gopher is a foot‑long, buck‑toothed, underground, bulldozing rat.

My wife is normally a gentle person; she’s been known to escort houseflies out the door. But if she could have a limited thermo‑ nuclear war against the gopher in our garden, she would. I do mean gopher not gophers, because it is usually only one animal that damages a garden or yard. “Gaufre”, French for honeycomb, was the word used by early French settlers in North American for this mammal. This well describes their actions. A single pocket gopher has 2,000 square feet of tunnels! They continually burrow searching for food ‑‑ succulent roots, bulbs and our Swiss Chard plants.

Back to the missing keys. I ran over to the Park maintenance yard and grabbed a shovel. By this time an even larger crowd was gathering, offering unwanted advice. We decided to methodically dig from the hole outward in a circular pattern. Suddenly a man called out, “Hold everything, I’ve got just the solution.” He tromped back from his Winnebago with a metal detector. Beep, beep, beep. “Dig here.” And there in a side burrow surrounded by pieces of carrot and grass stems were the keys. I suppose that all is well that ends well. Except that we made a mess of the gopher’s pantry.



Nearly a year ago we had the coldest winter in recorded history. For five days last December it was bitterly coldwater pipes broke, ponds froze over, cars wouldn’t start. I recall looking out my window and noticing that the leaves of all the Eucalyptus trees were a different color; they were severely burned by the cold. I rejoiced and leapt about the room singing… “Ding, dong the Eukes are dead, the wicked Eukes, the wicked Eukes…ding, dong the wicked Eukes are dead.”

I am prejudiced; I hate blue gum eucalyptus trees. There is nothing more depressing to me that a sprawling grove of those monstrous giants. I see them for what they are — gigantic, obnoxious, invading weeds. They create ecological deserts wherever they grow. The leaves are full of oils and acids that poison the soil so that nothing can thrive under the trees except other eukes or other invasive weeds. Few insects can feed on the pungent leaves so there are few birds that frequent the branches. In a native oak woodland songbirds prosper and the air is alive with their sounds but in a eucalyptus forest it’s depressingly quiet, only the sounds of rustling leaves, creaking branches and dripping fog. No life. I really do get melancholy in one of those forests.

In Australia and Tasmania where blue gums are native they are known as widow-makers because of the propensity for large branches to fall without warning. Indeed several years ago a falling branch killed a woman in Larkspur. Even though the tree itself is resistant to fire the accumulated litter under eucalyptus burns very hot. Fire departments also hate eukes.

To be fair there are a few (very few) redeeming features of the trees. Many of the monarch butterfly roosting sites in central California are in eucalyptus groves. Hummingbirds like the flowers and honeybees make good eucalyptus honey. The leaves make pleasant smelling but ineffective flea collars. They make great windbreaks and are occasionally used as nesting sites by red-tail hawks, great horned owls and turkey vultures. I generally have the same opinion about eucalyptus trees as I do attorneys —- there are entirely too many in California and they tend to crap up the environment, however there are a few scattered good ones.

It is now abundantly clear that my rejoicing about the fate of our eucalyptus weeds was premature. Except for some of the young trees they all survived the winter and are now doing fine. Many of the state and national parks have a mandate to try to restore native California vegetation. This is virtually an impossible task but a worthy one. Right now on Angel Island non-native Monterey pines and eucalyptus trees are being removed; they will be replaced with natives — oaks, bays and toyons. But before this project could get underway a group popped up called P.O.E.T, Preserve Our Eucalyptus Trees. They lobbied against the removal of the eucalyptus. These folks obviously came from the Joyce Kilmer school of thought…”I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” They believe that all trees are good. I appreciate that a field full of stumps is aesthetically displeasing and those eucalyptus trees did go to a lot of trouble to grow, but ultimately the environment is better served with a healthy native oak woodland than a desert of eucalyptus trees.

Recently the state has begun to remove some of the exotic trees at the Marconi Conference Center on the shores of Tomales Bay and well-meaning people are up in arms about it. Identify historic or important trees and remove the rest. We don’t need any more eucalyptus in this state. In 1895 a double row of 1000 eucalyptus trees was planted in Mendocino County; these trees and their descendants now cover 93 acres!

Years ago I attended a lecture given by a member of the Native Plant Society of Australia. The woman was showing wonderful views of their magnificent eucalyptus forests. In the final slide she showed members of her group hacking and pulling up Monterey pines. These trees, widely planted as a timber crop in the southern hemisphere, were invading their forests and displacing the native eucalyptus trees. Another good tree but in the wrong place.