Walk the hills around San Francisco in the spring with your kids and you’ll understand the real meaning of flower power. It’s the spring of love for all the pretty plants whose fragile life spans only a handful of weeks and whose colors brighten up forests and grasslands with rainbow spots. Red, orange, violet, pink, yellow – all the nuances of a paint box can be found from serpentine soils to mossy undergrowth. But wait, how many of these flowers can your kiddos name? Learn to identify the most common flowers with your kid and next time you see them outdoors, they will be like old friends you’re glad to see again. Better even, your family will gain a new sense of belonging in nature.
1. California Poppy
Bow down to the California State Flower! The bright orange flower with five petals grows in many different habitat types and along roadsides – unmistakable! Did you know this pretty flower was used to cure toothaches by Native Americans? It’s illegal to pick it now so you can only take a photograph to bring back home.
2. Bush Sticky Monkey FlowerA kid favorite because of the leaves you press between your fingers until the bottom sticks, the monkey flower grows as a bush with orange blossoms on rocky cliffs and hillsides. Their funny face flowers are supposed to look like grinning monkeys – do you agree?
3. Bush LupineOne of the stars of local butterfly gardens, the bush lupine counts many different species in the Bay Area but the most common ones have silvery leaves that look like multi-fingered hands and a large spike of beautiful blue to purple flowers. Some species are small and delicate, and others grow as large bushes with large prominent flower heads. If you are lucky, you might spy butterflies or caterpillars feeding on the nectar.
4. Shooting StarsThis early bloomer looks like a flower which has been blown inside out, like an umbrella on a very windy day. White, pink to magenta the flowers droop slightly at the top of the stem with the petals pointing upwards – resembling a comet or meteor. Newly hatched insects use this nectar-rich flower as food and insects in turn feed spiders, lizards and birds.
5. Douglas IrisThis blue and white iris is a common coastal flower that grows naturally within sight of the ocean. Look for it on bluffs and treeless grassy hillsides, but also in forest clearings where the sun is abundant.
6. Indian PaintbrushIndian Paintbrush really does look like a paintbrush and you will recognize it easily. Often found on coastal bluffs, this native herb bears bright red to rose flowers at the end of a spike. To add a vivid story to this flower, read Tomie de Paola’s book “The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush.”
7. Owl CloverRelated to the Indian paintbrush, this flower is more pink/magenta and even purple in color. If you look closely, you will find white areas with magenta eyes on each flower – looking like miniature barn owls looking out of a pink tree.
8. California ButtercupWith bright yellow petals, this small meadow flower seems to be covered in glossy butter and has inspired interesting folklore. For instance, buttercups were regarded as harbingers of good luck and during the Middle Ages were worn by lovers at the time of betrothal. Also in Medieval times, beggars rubbed the buttercup on their skin to garner sympathy and collect more money. Indeed, the buttercup’s sap is toxic, irritant and produced sores on their skins. The flower is also very bitter and despite the name, even animals won’t eat it. Now look close and see if its leaves resemble little frog feet – the flower’s Latin name is “ranunculus” which means little frog.
9. Wild MustardCare for a hot dog plant? Almost kidding, but not quite. You’ve probably already seen incredible patches of these bright yellow flowers in the fields or in vineyards or the Bay Area. These flowers are actually a variety of wild mustard whose flowers taste like mustard and their crushed dried seeds could be used to produce the popular condiment.
10. Mules EarsThis is our largest native sunflower, a species that has such large leaves that they look like green mule’s ears sticking up out of the grass. The bright yellow sunflower heads, actually made up of hundreds of flowers working together to attract pollinators, greatly resemble their garden cousin.
11. Blue-Eyed GrassNot a grass at all, this pretty blue flower is actually an Iris! It sometimes hides in areas with tall grass and has grass-like leaves. The purple bloom is lovely and when you look closer you’ll see a beautiful yellow center and darker purple “stripes” leading the pollinator to the bulls-eye in the middle of the flower.
12. Crimson ColumbineCool fact: Native Americans ground its toxic seeds into a paste to get rid of head lice. Trail fact: look for this beautiful red and yellow flower in partial or full shade, near creeks and moist areas. If you wait long enough, you might see other nature visitors too – the flower’s nectar lures and feeds hummingbirds and butterflies.
Next time you find wildflowers on the trail, snap a shot and bring it home for identification – it might have cool history and uses. What’s your favorite wildflower?