Tuesday, May 2, 2017

California Spring Extravaganza 1.The Golden Fields of Antelope Valley

When I heard about the succession of big rainstorms in California this winter, I
couldn't resist returning to my old stomping grounds. The news media were predicting the biggest wildflower display in years, and my gut was telling me the same thing.  Southern California, like South Africa is a rugged, dry land, with hot rainless summers.  Rain falls in the winter, and when adequate and consistent supports a rich and varied array of spring wildflowers.  One never can be sure exactly when the peak display will be, so making flight reservations from Florida involves some educated guessing.  Having been out before in March, I choose the last weekend of March and early April for the trip.  I wasn't disappointed.
California poppies (Eschscholtiz californica, Papaveraceae)
were at peak bloom, but on this day a strong cold wind
prevented them from opening fully.

Arriving in LA in the morning, my wife and I grabbed our rental car and headed north.  We stopped briefly to pick up our friend Chung-Shu who had flown in from New Jersey the night before, and then made a bee-line for the Antelope Valley State Poppy Preserve.  Though having seen California poppies many times before  (see For the love of poppies), I had not seen this preserve and wanted to check it out.  Chung-Shu had become an avid bird-watcher after retirement, and hearing about our trip, decided he'd like to see what all the hub-bub about wildflowers was about.

He was not disappointed, and may have picked up another hobby as he turned his birding camera toward the brilliant blooms.  Poppies were out in force, but a strong cold wind that day was shaking them violently, preventing them from opening fully and making photography a challenge.

"Goldfields," Lasthenia californica (Asteraceae) paints the
valleys and hillsides of the Antelope Valley a bright yellow.
Although the star attraction at Antelope Valley is the California poppy, there are other species that help to paint the valleys and hillsides in different shades of yellow and orange, hence the subtitle "the Golden Fields of Antelope Valley." Equally conspicuous in spots is a plant actually called "goldfields" (Lasthenia californica) which is in the sunflower family.
The compound flowers of Lasthenia feature a
puffy mound of disk flowers in the center.

Adding a subtler touch of orange or yellow was Amsinckia tessellata, whose small flowers appear over time on coiled, fiddlehead- like inflorescences.

Amsinckia tesselata (Boraginaceae) is locally abundant, though the small flowers are individually

Yellow and orange were dominant, but not the only colors present.  The brilliant blue Phacelia tanacetifolia flooded some pockets along the hillsides, and the tiny Lupinus bicolor seemed to be everywhere.  The purple heads of Dichelostemma capitatum  could be seen lifted high above the fields of Lasthenia, and the tiny cranesbill, Erodium cicucutarium  (Geraniaceae) was everywhere.
The yellow-orange flowers of Amsinckia
open in sequence from a coiled

Phacelia tanacetifolia (Boraginaceae), or Lacey Phacelia is abundant in small patches. Photo by Chung-Shu Yang. 
The flowers of Phacelia are in tight coils, and are
in the same family as Amsinckia.
Lupinus bicolor is one of the smallest lupines, and easily overlooked.
We passed the poppy preserve again the next day, hoping that the winds would have died down,  but they hadn't, so we continued west, our goal to cross the mountains and have a look at coastal wildflowers. We thought, like the thousands of other tourists, that if you've seen the poppy preserve, you've seen all that the Antelope Valley has to offer.  Wrong!

Dichelostoma capitatum (Asparagaceae) waves its purple heads above a field of Lasthenia.

The flowers of Dichelostoma capitatum superficially
resemble crocuses, but are more closely related to Asparagus
Like other members of the Geranium
family, Dicranum has peculiar, long,
pointed fruits, that when dry curl and
twist to help dril the seed into the
The small flowers of Dicranum cicutarium
would be our companions throughout
southern California.

The Arthur B.Ripley Desert Woodland State Park contains
some fine stands of Joshua tree and juniper.
A short way down the road is a delightful little preserve called The Arthur B. Ripley Desert Woodland State Park.  One doesn't see fields of colorful wildflowers here, but lots of more subtle treasures, like some fine old Joshua trees, junipers, and the odd gymnosperm, Ephedra. Asian species of Ephedra are the source of the drug ephedrine, but this is lacking in the American species, some of which were used to make "Mormon tea."

Salvia columbariae blooming at the Ripley Park.
There were to be sure wildflowers at the Ripley Preserve, but more perennial shrubs than ephemeral herbs. We found several members of the Asteraceae, and a beautiful blue mint, Salvia columbariae.

Lupinus longiflora.
Oenothera deltoides. A tiny specimen of Lupinus bicolor is
just to the left of center.

But the biggest surprise was yet to come. As we moved further west toward the mountains, we entered another region of spectacular wildflowers.  We found another lupine, Lupinus longifolia, and the white evening primrose, Oenothera deltoides, growing along the roadside, and then a spectacular sight.  Finally we found that the hills at the west end of Antelope Valley were painted with another brilliant shade of yellow, not from goldfields or California poppy, but from another member of the Asteraceae, Coreopsis bigelovii.  Perhaps I should have subtitled this segment "Fifty shades of yellow."

With our expectations more than met, we happily started across the mountains toward the Pacific Ocean.

At the western end of Antelope Valley, Coreopsis bigelovii, adds brilliant patches of yellow.

The sunflower-like blooms of Coreopsis.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Taiwan 3. Plants without flowers

Crypsinus hastatus is a small fern found growing
on the trunks and branches of trees in the cool
The dominant conifer in Taiwan is a member of the
cypress family,  Chamecyparis obtusa var formosana.  
It might be thought of as "Taiwan's redwood." Historically.
 it was valued for construction of palaces and temples, 
both here and in Japan.  The massive, old-growth trees are 
mostly gone, but new plantations abound. 

The mountains of Taiwan are typically rainy and cool, ideal places for non-flowering plants such as mosses, liverworts, club mosses, ferns, and gymnosperms.  Though lacking the colors of flowering plants and often overlooked, such plants provide varied and fascinating vegetative structures essential to the mountain vegetation. Unfortunately, they are more difficult to identify, usually requiring attention to details that can only be seen under a microscope, and this being a casual trip, I did not have the tools or the permits to collect specimens for later study.  Be that as it may, I found a decent resource online, the Flora of Taiwan, which has helped me narrow down the choices.  So ID's on most of these are educated guesses, and I look forward to corrections from people who know.
The stump of an ancient Taiwan cypress tree provides a home for numerous
mosses, club mosses and ferns at Alishan Park.

More than a dozen species of the club moss genus, Selaginella, live in Taiwan.
This one appears to be S. nipponica or S. boninensis.  Club mosses are vascular
plants, unlike true mosses.

Selaginella doederleinii has more flattened, fern-like shoots.
Large, thallose liverworts are abundant in Taiwan.
A Marchantia-like liverwort, sporting gemmae cups, peeks out from a mat of unidentified moss.

Liverworts sometimes form continuous mats along moist, rocky hillsides.
A distant relative of Selaginella, Lycopodium cernuum, is widespread in the world, occuring here in the mountains of Taiwan.
An unidentified fern hangs from rocky crevasses.

A moss with an interesting palmate growth form.

One of five species of Alsophila native to Taiwan

A bird's-nest fern, Asplenium - one of dozens in Taiwan

Another fern decorates a rocky wall. ID anyone?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Taiwan 2. December Wildflowers

The large grass, Miscanthus sinensis, dominates much of the
open land in Taiwan, with spectacular bloom spikes in
In my previous installment, I focused on some of the spectacular cultivated plants of Taiwan. Here I return to my core subject of wildflowers.  We usually use the term wildflower for native plants, as opposed to cultivated plants and invasive weeds from elsewhere.  In Taiwan, however, it is sometimes difficult to tell what is truly native and what has been brought from somewhere else.

In the spectacular Taroko Gorge, a species of Hibiscus greets
December visitors.

A close-up of the Hibscus from Taroko, which may
be either H. taiwaniensis or H. mutabilis
People, known today as Taiwan Aborigines, have been in Taiwan for at least 6000 years, having migrated here from southern China.  Those first people most likely brought some plants with them, on purpose as well as by accident.  Their descendants didn't stay put , and became master boat-builders and navigators. The ancestors of the Austronesian people who  eventually colonized much of the Pacific,  parts of Asia, and Madagascar., originated in Taiwan . In their comings and goings, these sailors probably brought other plants.  300-400 years ago, another wave of immigration from the mainland, this time of Han Chinese, came to the island, giving rise to ethnic Taiwanese.

With the introduction of Chinese civilization to Taiwan came more trade and active interest in horticulture, and likely more "non-native" plants.  Be that as it may, these are some of the  wild plants that I found blooming in Taiwan during the month of December.

Our three weeks in Taiwan took us to Taroko Gorge, Alishan, and Sun Moon Lake in the central mountains, as well as tropical Kenting National Park in the south, and Yangmingshan National Park in the North.

A species of Pandanus from the southern end of Taiwan.
Ipomoea pes-caprae grows along Taiwan's beaches as it does
in Florida and tropical beaches around the world.
So we saw truly tropical plants, such as screw pine (Pandanus spp.) and beach morning glory (Ipomoea pes-caprae) which can be found on tropical and subtropical beaches throughout the world.  Surprisingly, we also saw many plants blooming in the central mountains, where it was already decidedly chilly.  Except for the highest peaks, there is no real winter in Taiwan, so one can find flowers year-round.
Phoenix hanceana is the native member of the date palm
genus in Taiwan.  Here it is growing along the wind-swept
coastal bluffs in Kenting National Park.
Evolvulus alsinoides is another member of the 
morning glory family, Convolvulaceae.

Yellow members of the sunflower family, Asteraceae, 
are common in the mountains. 

Another late-blooming yellow Asteraceae from the mountains
Tithonia diversifolia blooms abundantly on mountain slopes
west of Alishan.

A morning glory, Ipomoea cheirophylla, is common along
roadsides throughout Taiwan.
A wild begonia blooms in the Yangmingshan National Park  near Taipei.

A yellow member of the mint family, Salvia nipponica, continues
to bloom in Yangmingshan at about 2500 ft elevation, despite chilly
December temperatures.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Taiwan 1. Island of Flowers

The coastline of Taiwan consists of hundreds of  miles of
sandy beaches as well as rocky cliffs.
Imagine Florida, with its subtropical climate and sunny, palm-lined beaches.  But instead of a patchwork of lakes and swamps in the center, imagine a mountain range, with peaks reaching to almost 13,000 feet. Well, then you'd have Taiwan. The mountains add hugely to the botanical diversity of the island, being clad in tropical to subtropical rain forest at the  lower elevations and mossy cloud forests higher up. Snow falls in the winter at the highest elevations. So it is an exciting place for a botanical excursion. 
The massive central mountain range of Taiwan contains many peaks over 10,000 feet in elevation.

Taiwan is actually smaller and a bit further south than Florida.  It's roughly 1/4 the size of peninsular Florida, which makes its massive mountain range even more impressive.  Its northern tip is at about the same latitude as the Everglades, and its southern tip would be somewhere in Cuba.  The Tropic of Cancer runs through the middle of the island.  But you get the analogy: Florida with a touch of the Andes.

I was recently there, as often, for non-botanical purposes, but with camera ready, I recorded as much as I could of the plant life I saw.  This first installment can be considered a special version of this website, which should be called "I brake for not-so-wildflowers," as I will focus on the cultivated plant life of Taiwan.  Cultivated plants are often also quite brake-worthy.

Visitors from all  over Taiwan enjoy the many varieties of chrysanthemum displayed at the annual show in December.

The first weekend after our arrival in late November, my brother-in-law took us to the former residence of the late President, Chiang Kai-Shek, which is now the site of the annual Chrysanthemum Festival.  Chrysanthemums originated in China, where there are many wild relatives.  The Chinese began cultivating and breeding Chrysanthemums over 3500 years ago, and now there are thousands of hybrids and cultivated varieties.  They are derived originally from Chrysanthemum indicum, but have involved hybridization with other species.

Some non-chrysanthemums, such as this Liatris, add
variety to the exhibition.
Chrysanthemum trees are constructed for the annual show.
Numerous varieties of chrysanthemum are
displayed and labeled.

Traveling around Taiwan, one sees many other cultivated plants, including marvelous varieties of tropical fruit, orchids, flowering trees, and plants that make a Floridian feel at home, like hibiscus, orchid trees (Bauhinia spp.), bougainvillea, and at the time I was there, poinsettias blooming along the highways.  Even some of the weeds are the same, like the annoying beggar tick, Bidens pilosa, whose prickly achenes will stick all over your clothes if you carelessly walk into a patch of them.

Betel nut palms (Areca catechu) are everywhere in the Taiwan
One thing not common in Florida is the betel nut palm, which is literally everywhere in Taiwan.  That is because formerly the disgusting habit of chewing betel nut was widespread here, as it has been throughout southeast Asia and the Pacific.  In fact it is still relatively common in Taiwan, though chewing in public is strongly discouraged.  Betel nut contains a mild stimulant, and is habit-forming.  It is sold primarily in peculiar little glass-enclosed booths located with fair frequency along city streets and highways.  Distinctive flashing lights outside the booth identify the facilities to prowling betel-addicts.

Radiating spokes of flashing
lights indicate the location of
a betel nut booth.
The booths are typically "manned" by attractive young women, and this evidently is part of the modern betel nut culture - a little eye-candy to go along with your chewing pleasure.  Signs in many places boast that they have the most beautiful betel nut "queen" at their facility.   There are stories that in some locations the girls are dressed in bikinis (or less!), and you can only imagine where that might lead.

The other major attraction among the cultivated plants of Taiwan is the variety of fruit.  We arrived during the sugar apple (Annona squamosa) harvest season, and had the pleasure of sampling two different varieties: the standard sugar apple and the pineapple sugar apple. The tough skin of the sugar apple separates around its scale-like units when ripe to reveal the sweet creamy fruit surrounding several to many hard black seeds.  Dragon fruit and bananas were also fruiting, but they tend to be ripening all year long.
Giant models of sugar apple fruits welcome
visitors to one of the major growing areas in
Sugar apple fruits are protected by paper bags as they ripen.
Sugar apples are ready for customers at a roadside stand.
Roselle is the fruit-like fleshy calyx of Hibiscus
sabdariffa, and quite popular in Taiwan.

Calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) for the florist trade are grown in
running water in Taiwan.
One surprise was to find a calla lily farm in the mountains east of Taipei.  We'd just come down from Yang Ming Mountain, where we had seen a rich community of native plants (to be described in a future installment) and were looking for a lunch spot.  Someone recommended  a new restaurant, which happened to opened by a calla lily grower in the middle of his farm.  Calla lilies are native to South Africa (see South Africa, part 1), and of course are a staple of the floral trade throughout the world.