Wildlife watch: Spring wildflowers to look out for

Early rains bring blooms of wildlflowers in Northern California

by Nicholas Wei, HoH Managing Editor

As spring unfolds, tiny hidden gems dot California’s renowned golden hills, now green with new life. Walking through our chaparral slopes and forests, one needs only to look more closely between blades of grass and thick brush to find our numerous native wildflowers. 

The early rains in November and December triggered native plants to germinate earlier than usual, and as a result, many are blooming much earlier than in typical years. Unfortunately, a bone-dry January caused many early sprouters to dry out before flowering or bloom before their insect pollinators became active, exacerbating stress on native wildflower population levels. Still, there remain many wildflower species to enjoy this season. Parks like Edgewood County Park, Rancho San Antonio and San Bruno Mountain, just to name a few, harbor abundant biodiversity!

Be sure not to pick wildflowers. Our native plants are meant for everyone to admire, and preventing them from setting seed hurts already-dwindling populations. Below are four common grassland or chaparral-native plants now adorning our hillsides.


Henderson’s shooting star on Feb. 14. The Primula hendersonii require buzz-pollination from bees to reproduce. (Nicholas Wei)

Primula hendersonii (Henderson’s shooting star)

This species belongs to a distinctive section of the primrose genus, Primula, called Dodecatheon. Species in sect. Dodecatheon have pendent flowers with dramatically reflexed petals, earning them the common name “shooting stars.” In a process called buzz-pollination, bees grab hold of the petals and vibrate their wings in order to shake the flower, which releases pollen from the pointed tip that comprises the anthers.


Common starlily on Feb. 14. Toxicoscordion fremontii are incredibly toxic to human and animal populations. (Nicholas Wei)

Toxicoscordion fremontii (Common starlily)

Common starlilies belong to a genus commonly known as deathcamas because they contain intensely toxic alkaloids. Indeed, the tribe of plants it falls under, Melanthieae, contains numerous species historically responsible for the poisonings of humans and grazing animals alike. Because of their potent lethality, the attractive, creamy flowers are pollinated only by specialist bees that tolerate their toxicity.


Blue dicks on Feb. 14. Dipterostemnon capitatus require fires or other periodic disturbances to maintain its populations. (Nicholas Wei)

Dipterostemnon capitatus (Blue dicks)

A wide-ranging species, blue dicks thrive in a variety of habitats in the western United States. Like other members of the subfamily Brodiaeoideae, it perennially resprouts from a corm, which is an underground storage organ much like a bulb, and its flowers are arranged in an umbel—the pedicels, or flower stalks, radiate from a common central point. This species depends on periodic disturbances (such as those caused by fire) to maintain its populations, as it blooms most readily in open areas where other plants do not overly shade it.


Denseflower owl’s clover on Feb. 14. Castilleja densiflora is a parasite and depends on other plants for nutrients. (Nicholas Wei)

Castilleja densiflora (Denseflower owl’s clover)

This showy species, which thrives in grassland and chaparral, belongs to the Orobanchaceae, a family that parasitizes other plants for nutrients. Like many other species in the family, Castilleja are hemiparasites, meaning they derive part of their nutrition from regular photosynthesis while simultaneously using modified roots called haustoria to penetrate the vascular system of host plants to rob them of nutrients. The vivid pink portions of this species’ inflorescence are in fact modified leaves called bracts, which surround the creamy pouchlike flowers.