Flowers and Plants of California by Ella M. Sexton


"When California was wild," says John Muir, "it was one sweet bee-garden throughout its entire length, and from the snowy Sierra to the ocean."

There were so many yellow poppies in this great unfenced garden, that the Spanish sailing along the coast called it the "Land of Fire" from the golden flowers covering the hills. Near Pasadena, in Southern California, these poppy fields may still be seen glowing so brightly in the sun that you do not wonder at the name "Cape Las Flores," or Flower Cape, which the sailors also gave to this part of the country.

The poppy is our best-known wild flower, planted by Mother Nature before white men ever visited these shores. When the Spanish settled here they called the poppy copa de oro, or cup of gold. The gold hunters spoke of it as the California gold flower, and sent the pressed poppies home in their letters. But its correct name is the Eschscholtzia (esh-sholt'si-a), from the name of a German botanist and naturalist, who studied the plant and wrote about it almost a hundred years ago.

From February to May the poppies are most plentiful, but a few may be found almost every month in the year. Have you noticed the finely cut green leaves, and the pointed green nightcap that covers each bud till the morning sunshine coaxes off the cap and unfolds the four satiny golden petals? The flowers love the sun and close up on dark, cloudy days, or if brought into the house. But put them in a sunny window the next morning, and you may watch the cups of gold open to the light.

Some of the poppies are a deep orange-color, while others are a pale yellow. And as you walk through the fields you may pick a hundred at each step, so thick do the plants grow. The wild bees find a yellow dust called pollen or "bee-bread" in the poppy, the same golden powder that rubs off on your nose, when you put it too close to this cup of gold or to lilies.

Then in this "unfenced garden" were also the baby blue-eyes, whose pretty pale-blue blossoms come early in the spring, each one with a drop of honey at the foot of its honey path, as the black lines on its petals are called.

Can you name twenty kinds of wild flowers? Around San Francisco and the bay counties you will count, after the poppy and baby blue-eyes, the shining yellow buttercup, the blue and yellow lupines that grow in the sand, the tall thistle whose sharp, prickly leaves and thorny red blossoms spell "Let-me-alone," the blue flag-lilies and red paint-brush, yellow cream-cups, and wild mustard, and an orange pentstemon. These with many yellow compositæ or flowers like the dandelion, you will find growing on the windy hills and dry, sunny places. Hiding away in quiet corners are the blue-eyed grass, and a wild purple hyacinth, the scarlet columbine swinging its golden tassels, shy blue larkspur, a small yellow sunflower, and wild pink roses. Among the ferns in shady, wet nooks are white trilliums and a delicate pink bleeding-heart, while the wild blue violets and yellow pansies love the warm, rocky hillside.

Mariposas, or butterfly tulips of many colors, grow in the foot-hills and mountains. Perhaps our most beautiful wild flowers are the lilies, of which we have over a dozen kinds. In the redwood forests there is a tall, lovely pink lily, and many brown-spotted yellow tiger-lilies. Up in the mountain pines a snowy white Washington lily sometimes covers a mountain side with its tall stems bearing dozens of sweet waxen blossoms. In the wet, swampy places bright red, and many small orange lilies bloom in late summer.

In the high Sierras are found strange and pretty blossoms unlike the flowers of valleys and sea-coast. There you will see the mountain-heather with pink, purple, or dainty white bells, the goldenrod, and gentians blue as the sky. Strangest of all is the snow-plant. This curious thing sends up a thick, fleshy spike a foot or so in height and set closely with bright scarlet flowers. It grows where the snow has just melted round the fir trees, and leaf, stem, and blossom are all the same glowing red.

Most of the valley and coast wild-flowers bloom and ripen their seeds before the dry summer begins. Such plants die and wither away in the heat, but their seeds are safe on the warm ground till fall rains soak the earth and set them growing again. In the high mountains a thick blanket of snow covers the sleeping seeds till May or June, and then sunshine wakes them once more.

No doubt you have seen many of our shrubs or tall bush-plants in your vacations. Do you remember the sweet creamy white azaleas and the buckeyes that grow along the creeks in the redwoods? And the feathery blue blossoms of the wild lilac crowding in close thickets up the hillsides? One of our shrubs is a holiday visitor, the Christmas-berry, whose bright-red clusters trim your house at that gay, happy season. The manzanita is another pretty bush, with pink bells that ripen to small scarlet apples in the fall.

Usually, these and other shrubs cover the hillsides with a thick, matted tangle of stems and branches almost impossible to get through. This chaparral, as the Spanish called it, clothes the foot-hills and mountain sides with a close growth through which deer and bears alone can travel and make trails or runways. Great stretches of buckthorn in the north, and of sage-brush in the south, cover the wild lands, while in the sandy desert tall, prickly cactus, yucca, and mesquite grow with the sage-brush in the blazing sun.


Only a few of California's wild plants and flowers have been now called to your notice. But children have sharp eyes, and you will find many more to inquire about in your vacation days. Then the blackberries and thimble-berries will be ripe, and the pink salmon-berry in the redwoods. Perhaps you will look for and dig up the soaproot, that onion-like bulb of one of the lily family with which the Indians make a soapy lather to wash their clothes. Let us hope you will know and keep away from the "poison-oak," the low bush with pretty red leaves, for its leaves are apt to make your skin swell up and blister wherever they touch you.

What a long and pleasant story might be told you of our state's real gardens! Perhaps your teacher will give you an hour to talk about your home gardens, and to see how much you can tell about them. You may have flowers the year round, if you live on the coast, or in the warm valleys where no Jack Frost comes with his icy breath to kill the tender plants. In such genial climates roses and geraniums bloom all year, and only rest when the gardener cuts them back; and most of the shrubs and trees in parks and gardens are always fresh and green.

Florists who raise flowers to sell find that here they can grow the choicest and finest carnations, roses, and all the garden blossoms you know so well. Many of these florists deal only in flower-seeds, and bulbs or roots of the lilies to send to the Eastern states or abroad, where people greatly prize California flowers.


Plants and trees from all parts of the world thrive here, also. You have seen the palms, the tall sword-palm with its great spike of snowy bloom in the spring, the fan-palm whose dried and trimmed leaves are really used for fans, and, perhaps, the date-palm. This tree was planted round the Missions by the Padres, and some, more than a hundred years old, are still standing at the San Gabriel Mission. These, and the magnolia with its large creamy blossoms, as well as the graceful pepper-tree, are natives of warm, southern lands, while the eucalyptus, or gum-tree, was brought here from Australia.

Look round, children, as you walk to and from school, or in the park, and try to know and name the green things growing there, the flowers and plants sent to make our world a pleasant place to live in.