March is the bridge between the early bloomers of wildflowers like shooting stars and milkmaids and the late bloomers I’ve written about like golden banners, Andrew’s clintonia, and columbine.
A showy flower that blooms in March is the smooth mullet, a native plant that resembles a sunflower. The Pomo tribe uses its seeds in pinole, much like hikers today include commercially grown sunflower seeds in their trail mix. Unlike the narrow-leaved mullet’s ear of the same genus, this flower actually has large leaves that resemble a mullet’s ears. The genus name Wyethia is for Nathaniel Wyeth, who was an entrepreneur, not a botanist.
In 1832 Wyeth decided to lead an expedition to Oregon, where there was supposedly money to be made in the fur trade. He sold stock for $40 and led an overland journey while sending goods by boat to meet them at the mouth of the Columbia River. Everything that could have gone wrong did – the guide quit, and when a remnant of the party finally reached the Columbia River, they found that the ship with supplies had been lost in the Hawaiian Islands and the fur trade had already reached its peak.
On his way back to Boston, he stopped in Idaho and picked up flowers for his friend Thomas Nuttall at Harvard. One of them was smooth mullet ears, and Nuttall named the genus after him. (Nuttall has a woodpecker and a subspecies of white-crowned sparrow—both in Marin—named in his honor, as well as his name appears as the specific name nuttallii in common acidity and the yellow-billed magpie, an honor that Audubon granted him.)
Look for smooth mullet ears in Cascade Canyon Open Space Preserve at the start of High Water Trail, Indian Valley Open Space, China Camp State Park, and San Pedro Mountain Preserve.
While most elementary school kids can tell you that our state flower is the California poppy, few know how much perseverance it took to push through something that might seem fairly uncontroversial.
California was the first state to proclaim a state flower. In 1890, the California State Floral Society came up with three candidates, but the California poppy won hands down. Senator Guy Earl introduced a bill to pass the California poppy in 1897. It passed with a single dissenting vote in the state Senate and near-unanimity in the state Assembly, but then the government. James Budd refused to sign the bill “thus ignoring the general feeling and wish of the people, and for political reasons, as was well understood at the time”, according to JG Lemmon, president of the National Floral Emblem of American Society.
In 1899, at the end of Budd’s term, she asked Assemblyman J.A. Bliss of Oakland to reintroduce a bill to make the poppy the state flower, and again he passed both branches almost unanimously. But, once again, politics got involved.
Governor Henry Gage backed another U.S. Senate candidate besides Bliss, so he refused to sign the bill. This time, Lemmon reported that there was “great outrage shown by the people of the state” and the Assembly passed the bill despite its veto. However, the Senate failed to show equal courage in challenging Governor Gage, and the bill died again.
When Gage’s term ended in 1903, Lemmon tried again, and Governor George Pardee finally signed and approved Senate Bill 251 on March 2, 1903, making the California poppy our state flower.
There are lots of great poppy displays in Marin, but one of my favorites is in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, down Miwok Trail from Wolf Ridge Trail to Bunker Road.
With flowers come pollinators. Some flowers offer nectar to pollinators, some offer pollen, and some offer both. In Marin, overwintering queen bumblebees may hibernate for a short time, sometimes only a month. Our most common bumblebees are the yellow-faced bumblebee and the black-tailed bumblebee. Once you get familiar with these, you can start looking for the more unusual ones like the fogbelt bumblebee, also called the dark bumblebee, which is usually seen from March onwards.
Wendy Dreskin has run the Meandering in Marin Nature/Hiking course at the College of Marin since 1998 and teaches other nature courses for adults and children. To contact her, go to wendydreskin.com