Saturday, July 14, 2007

California Poppy

Common name: California poppy
Scientific name: Eschscholzia californica
Range: southern Washington to northern Baja California, east to Nevada and Sonoran desert southwest
More information: The California poppy is a stunningly colorful and elegantly simple flower to behold. Here are five interesting facts about Eschscholzia californica (source: Wikipedia):

1. It is the state flower of California.

If you enter the state by road, you'll be keen to this immediately (it's on the welcome signs). It also graces the road signs for scenic routes, and lots of "Greetings from California!" postcards. Apparently, it was adopted as state flower around the turn of the last century--by a landslide vote over the Mariposa lily and the Matilija poppy.

2. It was named for Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz, one of many 19th century naturalists who helped to explore and catalogue many taxonomically unchartered islands and territories of the "Far Side of the World"--particularly much Californian flora and fauna. He was also, in my opinion, a handsome fellow.
Eschscholtz, a Baltic-German, was professor of anatomy and director of zoological cabinet at the University of Tartu (which is located in present-day Estonia, then Imperial Russia). From 1815-1818 he was ship's physician and naturalist on the Russian circumnavigational expeditionary ship Rurik, a voyage which enabled him to collect along the rim of the Bering Sea, the Pacific Islands, California, and South America. (Says Wikipedia, "The other naturalist was the botanist Adelbert von Chamisso who took over Eschscholtz’ specimens excepting insects on completion of the voyage. The two were close friends and Chamisso named the California poppy Eschscholtzia californica in his honor.") On a later voyage, Eschscholtz returned to California where he collected over 100 unique species of beetles near Fort Ross, the southernmost Russian fort. (You know that the Creator loves beetles, right?)

3. In places where it has been introduced, it seems to be even more successful than in its native range.

According to Wikipedia: "Because of its beauty and ease of growing, the California poppy was introduced into several regions with similar Mediterranean climates. It is commercially sold and widely naturalized in Australia, and was introduced to South Africa, Chile, and Argentina....

"Introduced populations have been noted to be larger and more reproductively successful than native ones (Elton, 1958), and there has been much speculation as to why. Increase in resource availability, decreased competition, and release from enemy pressure have all been proposed as explanations.

"One hypothesis is that the resources devoted in the native range to a defense strategy, can in the absence of enemies be devoted to increased growth and reproduction (the EICA hypothesis, Blossey & Nötzold, 1995). However, this is not the case with introduced populations of E. californica in Chile: the Chilean populations were actually more resistant to Californian caterpillars than the native populations (Leger and Forister, 2005)."

4. It is reported that at the peak of blooming season, orange petals seem to cover all 1,745 acres of the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve.

Antelope Valley is located in northern Los Angeles County. (This is definitely going on my list of places to visit!)

5. As with other members of the Poppy family, it contains narcotic alkaloids, which have sedative and analgesic properties.

According to reports, however, these properties are relatively mild in the California poppy. Hmm... does that mean Elaine should have eaten California poppy seed muffins, instead of Opium ones?

Friday, July 6, 2007

Giant Green Anemone

Scientific name: Anthopleura xanthogrammica
Common name: Giant Green Anemone
Range: Alaska to Panama.
More information: The name "anemone" refers to a type of flower; "sea anemone" is a metaphor, as these are animals of the Phylum Cnidaria. Cnidarians consist of the jellyfish, corals, and sea anemones. The name is Greek for "nettle"--another plant metaphor referring to the fact that jellyfish, sea anemones, and coral all possess tentalces with the ability to sting.

(Another prominently shared characteristic that unites members of this group is their similar larval development--many jellyfish larvae resemble sea anemones).

Ever since my first visit to a California tidepool last year, I have been fascinated with the Giant Green Anemone, and have sought in vain for a detailed and trustworthy online account of their life history. Supposedly, they live a remarkably long time, and are capable of detaching themselves from their substrate and "swimming" in search of more profitable territory. (Then reattaching themselves; they are otherwise firmly attached to the rock at their cylindrical base.)

I have learned through experience that the Giant Green Anemone's sting is incapable of penetrating human flesh. The worst I have felt is a slight "sticky" tingling. They will close their tentacles upon any thing that might drop into their "oral disk" (the central 'bulls eye'-like structure, see above), presumably this is how they capture their food. I note that crabs seem to possess immunity to the anemone's stinging tentacles. Sea urchins and mussels, do not fare so well. This I know from the touch tanks at Aquarium of the Pacific. See disclaimer, below.*

Pictured above is one individual, about six inches in diameter, in a shallow tidal crevasse located on the Dana Point headland. In the background are other individuals.

*Please note that, in order to promote biological ignorance, superstition, and general contempt for a naturalist's joyful curiosity, the State of California forbids the touching or picking up of rocks, shells, or any living organism on California's coasts, regardless of how abundant that organism is, or whether your action falls well outside the range of what could be considered harmful to the organism. Yes, this is the People's Republic of California. But your own state probably has similar draconian measures in place.

Check out the wildlife laws in Illinois, for example:

"It is also against the law for anyone to live trap and relocate any wild animal without a nuisance trapping permit from the state of Illinois - even on their own property. Fines starting at $500.00 per animal and time in jail can be given to those who decide to break the wildlife laws."

ADDENDUM: Here's a reminder that clicking on any photo will reveal a higher resolution. That's especially recommended for this picture.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Striped Shore Crab

Scientific name: Pachygrapsus crassipes
Common name: Striped Shore Crab
Range: Oregon to Baja California
More information: P. crassipes has a very close cousin, P. transversus (the Mottled Shore Crab), who occupies the Atlantic coast--from North Carolina south to Uruguay.

The above photo was taken near low tide at a Laguna Beach tidepool. I observed, several days later, that nearly all of the crabs encountered at a tidepool at high tide in nearby Corona del Mar were Striped Shore Crabs.

To find out more, including what these crabs eat, see this entry at VR Tidepool (a really old website).

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Harlequin Bug

Scientific name: Murgantia histrionica
Common name: Harlequin Bug; Calico back; Calico Bug; Fire Bug
Range: throughout U.S. as well as Canada adjacent to New England; especially southern U.S.
More information: The above photo is of a later nymph. He is feeding on bladderpod in Crystal Cove State Park, near Laguna Beach, June 2006.

See Harlequin bug entry at Natural History of Orange County; entry

UPDATE, 7/7/07: I came across a whole bunch of these bugs while walking on a trail near my apartment (Salt Creek Park) in early June, again feeding on a bladderpod plant. They were definitely in a different stage of development, as their markings were of a noticeably different pattern.

Saturday, June 9, 2007


Jacaranda tree growing by La Brea Tar Pits.

Jacaranda leaves, flower, and fruit, up close.

Jacaranda tree growing by my apartment.

Scientific name: Jacaranda mimosifolia
Common name: Jacaranda; Green Ebony; Brazilian Rose Wood; Blue Jacaranda, Black Poui
Range: native to Argentina and Bolivia
More information:

Jacaranda entry at California

"Blue Jacaranda" at Wikipedia

"Jacaranda" (genus) at Wikipedia

Friday, June 8, 2007

Weeping Bottlebrush

Scientific name: Callistemon viminalis
Common name: Weeping Bottlebrush
Range: pending
More information: pending

Here in Orange County and in the Los Angeles area, I've seen many members of the myrtle family in the form of medium-sized eucalyptus trees as well as large, woody bushes.


So it's worth noting that this is definitely not the only species of myrtle used in landscaping here in Orange County. (More on the other species, later...)

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Bush Monkeyflower

Scientific name: Mimulus aurantiacus
Common name: Bush monkeyflower, Sticky monkeyflower
Range: southwestern Oregon through most of California (according to Wikipedia entry)
More information: entry, Bush monkeyflower; Wikipedia entry, "Mimulus aurantiacus"

It is sometimes called "Sticky monkeyflower", presumably because the leaves are sticky to the touch. (I will have to try this.)

According to Introduction to the Plant Life of Southern California (Rundel and Gustafson), the name "monkeyflower" refers to the two-lipped flowers which resemble small faces (from the front).

Also, even within southern California, the flowers vary quite noticeably in shape and color--a curious fact worth further exploration. (Rundel and Gustafson mention that this "may reflect an evolving change from bee to hummingbird pollination").

The stigma (female part) of the monkeyflower is sensitive to touch, like a few other plants (e.g. Mimosa). It closes shut a few seconds after being touched. (Again, I will have to try this!)

This website says that the young leaves and stems can be eaten, but are quite bitter, and that also it was used as a poultice by Indians.

According to the Wikipedia entry, monkeyflower "grows in many climates and will thrive in many types of soil, wet, dry, sandy, or rocky. It even grows in serpentine, a soil that most plants have difficulty thriving in because of its unique mineral composition."

The above photo was taken Sunday on the rim of Badlands Park (elev. about 1000 ft.), at the southernmost edge of Aliso & Woods Canyon, overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Monarch Beach.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

California Sea Lion

Scientific name: Zalophus californianus
Common name: California Sea Lion
Range: coastal northern Pacific Ocean
More information:

The major distinction between sea lions and seals is that sea lions are "eared seals". (Seals are earless.) It's worth looking here for a comparative look at the skeletons of the seal and sea lions--this also gives you a sense of how similar the Pinnipeds (seals & sea lions) are to dogs, cats, and bears (mammals of the Order Carnivora, which includes dogs, bears, cats, weasels and their close relatives).

Within the Order Carnivora, evolutionary biologists have reason to believe Pinnipeds are Caniformes, or descendants of the same ancestor of dogs and bears. (Carnivorans are either Caniforms, or Feliforms). You can find a little bit about this at the entry for "Pinniped" on Wikipedia.

The above photos were taken Sunday while on a marine mammal boat cruise out of Dana Point. These sea lions are perched on "Seal Rock", which is just off the coast of the city of San Clemente in south Orange County (background). The dominant male sea lion stands out. Also, a cormorant is hanging out, on the far left. (Possibly a juvenile Double-crested cormorant?)

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Sea Lavender

Scientific name: Limonium californicum
Common names: Sea-lavender, Sea Lavender, Marsh Rosemary, California Statice
Range: Oregon to Baja California; common near coasts & other saline environments
More information: More photos at Common Plants of Upper Newport Bay; "Sea-lavender" entry at Wikipedia

Be sure to touch these flowers if you ever encounter them--the dried feeling of them is very distinctive. Sea-lavender is in the Leadwort Family of plants (so it's not a type of lavender or rosemary, despite its common names). There are only 3 species of Sea-lavender found in North America (compared with 120 worldwide, with most of those found in the Mediterranean and central Asia--see the Wikipedia entry).

Monday, June 4, 2007

Giant Keyhole Limpet

Scientific name: Megathura crenulata
Common name: Giant Keyhole Limpet
Range: Central California to Baja California.
More information: Entry from Molluscs [sic] of Orange County; possibly worth learning more about: immunological studies of Giant Keyhole Limpets; hemocyanin

Believe it or not, a limpet is a primitive type of gastropod (snail), and that's what this is. He obviously doesn't fit within his shell, though. Now, this is the only Giant Keyhole Limpet I've yet encountered, but, from all the photos of other specimens I've seen, this guy is unique in having an extremely small shell given his body size. The others are big, but the shell doesn't seem nearly as useless on them.

According to my Audubon field guide, the Giant Keyhole Limpet "feeds on algae and colonial tunicates. Native Americans used the conveniently perforated shell on wampum belts."
UPDATE, 7/7/07: I observed my second Giant Keyhole Limpet at a tidepool in Laguna Beach early last month. Its coloration was different from the above, and I got to see its underside and really get a sense of its anatomy. I will post photographs in a follow-up entry.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Pacific Tree Frog

Scientific name: Hyla regilla
Common name: Pacific Tree Frog
Range: British Columbia south to Baja California, west into Idaho & Nevada.
Also, "The Biogeography of Pacific Tree Frog" looks interesting.

The above photographs of a young Pacific Tree Frog were taken by me at Crystal Cove State Park in June of 2006.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Bush Poppy

Scientific name: Dendromecon rigida
Common name: Bush poppy
Range: California and Baja California, in Pacific Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada foothills.
More information: Wikipedia entry here. article & photos here.
I encountered Bush poppies in the Santa Ana Mountains while visiting last June--and that's the setting of this photo. These were growing on a southward-facing side of a slope, at an elevation of (I think) about 2000 ft.

Be prepared to see more photos of poppies in the next few weeks--I'd be remiss if I didn't showcase our state flower (California poppy), which I've lately seen blooming along Laguna Canyon Road.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Western Tussock Moth (caterpillar)

Species name: Orgyia vetusta
Common name: Western Tussock Moth
Range: California north to British Columbia; east to portions of Idaho and western Nevada.
More information:
This caterpillar has the costume of a dancing dragon at a Chinese parade.

Be sure to see an image of what it will ultimately become (see especially the second image on the left, here). My wife says, "Look at that moth--it's evil! No way am I going to let you keep that caterpillar."

This was my first encounter with this species. I found this caterpillar on a leaf of Toyon at a shopping complex about three miles inland from the coast (Laguna Niguel/Dana Point area).

A local biologist I've been corresponding with wrote, "The genus name tells you how they mate. ;7) And they say scientists have no sense of humor...".

Well, they stand corrected!

Thursday, May 31, 2007

California Ground Squirrel

Scientific name: Spermophilus beecheyi
Common name: California Ground Squirrel
Range: Baja California, California, Oregon, and now extending into Washington
More information: (includes further links at bottom of entry)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Diabolical Ironclad Beetle

Scientific name:Phloedes diabolicum

Common name: Diabolical Ironclad Beetle
Native range: Southwestern US
More information: Peter J. Bryant's guide to the Natural History of Orange County, California. See also Field Guide to California Beetles (Evans & Hogue), here at

I was taken aback a few weeks ago when I first encountered this bug (I moved here from Illinois five months ago). At first, rather foolishly, I thought it might be a large piece of soot that had rained down from the Catalina wildfire. You can imagine my surprise when its legs emerged and it began to move!

It was playing dead, as it's doing in the above photos as well. This, I've read, is a stereotypical behavior of ironclad beetles when encountered.

According to Evans & Hogue, they will easily feed on oatmeal in captivity, but they are probably fungivores in the wild. (I also heard a report that they will easily feed on carrots as well, and that seems to be doing the trick so far, for mine.)

It's reported by beetle collectors that the exoskeletons of ironclad beetles are so hard that it's difficult to drive a mounting pin through them.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Silky Oak

Scientific name: Grevillea robusta
Common names: Silk-Oak; Silky Oak
Native range: eastern Australia
More information: Characteristics and requirements at Worthwhile Wikipedia entry as well.

The attractive yellow-orange flowers you see on the Silky Oak are in fact sepals, not petals. The Silky Oak flower has no petals!

Some guests of mine recently bought a pair of wildly exotic flowers for me as a gift for my hospitality: "Pincushion Protea" (Leucospermum cordifolium), a South African member of the Protea, or Sugarbush family. They knew that these were flowers I'd seen before, and been enamored with, but had been unable to identify. (I hadn't even heard of the Protea family!)

Imagine my surprise when I scaled a wall this morning to take the above photo of the Silky Oak flowers. They have a basically similar look as the Pincushion Protea! (To understand, see the above link to Pincushion Protea). I noticed this, but lacking confidence in my still premature knowledge of plant families, I decided the similarity was probably just superficial ("analogous", as the evolutionary biologists say).


Silky Oak is in fact a member of the Protea Family, along with a mere 1,200 or so other species. According to the Wikipedia entry on the Protea, "The Proteaceae family... is an ancient one. Its ancestors grew in Gondwanaland, 300 million years ago. Proteaceae is divided into two subfamilies: the Proteoideae, best represented in southern Africa, and the Grevilleoideae, concentrated in Australia and South America and the other smaller segments of Gondwanaland that are now part of eastern Asia." Read more from this entry, and find out why Linnaeus named this family after the Greek god Proteus.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Matilija poppy

Scientific name: Romneya coulteri
Common names: Matilija poppy; tree poppy
Native range: Limited to southern California and northern Baja, see range map!
More information: See this entry at; also Wikipedia entry.

I noticied these blooming for the first time just this last week, near the intersection of Street of the Golden Lantern and Crown Valley Parkway, on the border of Dana Point and Laguna Niguel.

They are truly eye-catching!

I wouldn't have immediately recognized them if it weren't for the unbelievably realistic illustrations of A.R. Valentien, the early 20th century painter whose California plant portraits makes me want to own all of them and stare at them for hours!

See Valentien's illustration of the Matilija poppy. Other Valentien illustrations can be found here.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Toyon (California holly)

Scientific name: Heteromeles arbutifolia
Common names: Toyon; California holly; Christmas berry
Habitats: coastal sage scrub, chaparral, oak woodland
More information: See (This entry cites some interesting facts!)