Take a Virtual Wild Plant Walk

My mother’s postage-stamp suburban garden was my childhood laboratory. Some days, I think I missed my calling as a botanist: I collected nectar from honeysuckle flowers, one drop at a time. I ground up four o’clock flowers to make dyes, opened up their powdery seeds, nibbled at mallow cheese wheels, popped the papery seed capsules of hummingbird vines, soaked gardenias in water to make perfume, and tried to make glue out of the sticky, bitter, milky sap in rattlesnake weed. (As an adult, I found out that a number of these things are actually toxic, so it’s a good thing my mom didn’t have oleanders in her garden.)

I’m still into plants. Kevin picked up some edible wild plant guides for me (including the classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons), so my interest has taken a new direction lately. I don’t think it’ll come down to having to forage for food, but I kind of like having that option if things get really bad at some point. And for me, learning about plants is one way I acknowledge, respect, and appreciate the world around me. There are others, but this is one of my favorite ways.

Come on a virtual guided plant walk with me! Let’s go to my favorite open space, the Fremont Older Open Space. I’ve been walking the trails in this park for almost ten years at this point, have seen it in every season, and know its seasonal and yearly rhythms. If you can have a friendship with a place, I have one with this preserve. I’m no expert, but I’d like to introduce you to some of the denizens of this park.

It’s July, so things are bone dry, despite a few days of unseasonal rain last month. There are rolling golden hills with thigh-high dried grasses that have gone to seed, green coast live oaks with deep roots and twisted trunks, and the hardier, tougher wildflowers that have replaced April and May’s delicate vetches, lupines, and golden poppies. Under the hot California sun, mounds of leafy green poison oak are already turning red. The insects buzz around you; the shrill whine of a cloud of midges, the cicadas off in the grasses.

Here’s a flash of yellow in the bushes to one side as we head up the hill: it’s sticky monkey flower.

Sticky monkey flower is a member of the Mimulus family. It concentrates sodium chloride from the soil so it has a salty, bitter taste. Native Americans used to use it as a salt substitute. (At least according to Wikipedia.)

Down by the creek, we come across these pretty green leafy plants. Don’t touch! It’s stinging nettle and has lots of tiny hollow hairs that contain histamine. Incidentally, stinging nettle is fine to eat as a salad green once it’s been lightly steamed. I’ve also heard it used for medicinal teas. Just be sure to pick it with gloves.

And here’s another creekside plant that bites back:

Wild blackberries have sharp thorns all over the vines. The leaves often come in threes, but you can tell it’s not poison oak because of the thorns (well, and the berries). Most parks have policies against foraging, so we sample a berry each — they really do have a sweet, wild perfume compared to farmed blackberries — and move on.

Once we leave the creek, things are looking a bit withered. All the purple thistles (actually an invasive species) have dried out and died this year, and I’ve noticed that it’s a bad year for manroot, a curling vine that produces big, eyeball-sized green spiky balls. I think the late rains and cold spring might have affected its growth. Maybe next year.

Moving on…here’s something interesting: towering 5′ clusters of white flowers on skinny green stalks with fern-like leaves. Notice the purple spots on the stems. Kinda pretty, isn’t it?

It’s poison hemlock. Same stuff Socrates succumbed to. (And yes, it’s an invasive species in California.) Every part of this plant is extremely toxic, and to make things worse, it can look like edible family members such as parsnips and wild carrot (Queen Anne’s Lace). The primary toxic alkaloid is coniine, a neurotoxin that causes muscular and respiratory paralysis, and then death from lack of oxygen. Since I’m pretty sure you don’t want to have a taste, let’s leave the hemlock and keep going.

Getting a little tired and hot? Let’s duck into the woods. The California buckeyes are still in flower — big 1′ long pinkish white spikes that have a delicate, sweet scent. You can often smell them before you see them around a bend in the path. Buckeyes have distinctive palmate leaves (leaves spread out from a central point, like fingers on a hand) and are related to chestnuts. Native Americans used the poisonous nuts to stun fish in the water to make them easier to catch. The buckeyes are blooming late this year due to the cool weather; usually they’re all done by early June.

Not everything in this park is poisonous. Just to the side of the buckeye is a nice patch of miner’s lettuce, an edible leafy green that miners ate to get their vitamin C. (It was either that or get scurvy.) It’s said to taste a bit like spinach, but I have to confess I’ve never tried it. The small white flowers grow on top of round, disk-shaped leaves, making it highly recognizable. If you look closely at the image, you’ll see some blackberry leaves underneath. Watch out for those thorns!

I could go on, but you might be bored at this point. If you’re not, it really doesn’t take much to learn how to identify at least some of the plants around you. A local field guide helps, but just as often as not, I’ve had luck typing things like ‘spiky purple flower’  into Google image search.

This is your mission, should you choose to accept it: get outside and learn something about the plants near you. Tell me what you discover and enjoy being outdoors!

15 responses to this post.

  1. Wow, Jennifer, beautiful post! I love it! Wow, the beautiful imagery, photographs, and description! I’m going to bookmark this and read a couple times. It made me smile! :o) Have you read my special post I wrote a cpl years ago for Earth Day : “Enjoy A Nature Walk On Earth Day?” If not, I’m sure you’ll love it! Peace, Love, and Earth Tree Hugs, my dear sweet greenie Earth Steward Friend!


    • Thanks, D.A.! I’m glad you enjoyed the virtual excursion. 🙂 I think I remember reading your post, but I’ll have to go and revisit it soon because the details are escaping me.


  2. Ohhhh, I love a good forest walk. I took the kids today on one, each with a small pail, to collect “treasures” – an interesting leaf here, a bit of moss there, a pretty purple flower, some pine cones, a bit of bark. It really got us talking about the forest and about nature, and had them looking closer at the environment around them. I don’t know who enjoyed it more, me or the kids! Sounds like you have a beautiful place to also go – very different from where I am, so thanks for the “walk”!


    • Hi Sherry,
      What a terrific way to get your kids engaged with the outside world! I orient myself by plants wherever I go. At first, everything is totally alien and unfamiliar, but as I started to recognize and name plants, and become used to the way they smell, I start to feel more comfortable being there. I love being in a place long enough to see all four of its seasons.


  3. Lovely post, Jennifer. Now that my Sierra Club contract is over, I no longer have a semi-wild space on my doorstep, and the city park a few blocks away from my home just doesn’t cut it, as you can well imagine. Thanks for letting me escape to this beautiful open space and learn about what’s growing in your neck of the woods!


    • Hi Andrea,
      I’m sorry to hear you don’t have access to a preserve anymore. 😦 I feel healthier when I do and notice that I am more prone to depression when I don’t get out there regularly. Glad you enjoyed the virtual plant walk. If you’re ever in my area, we should go on a real one!


  4. What a great tour Jennifer! I have used stinging nettle for allergies-but had no idea what the plant looked like. I think I need to go on a real walk with you-I think everything is poison ivy!


    • Hi Lori,
      I actually don’t have a good idea of what poison ivy looks like, since only poison oak grows around here. Plants change so much even within different parts of the same preserve that I’m sure I’d be lost on the east coast! I’m actually in the process of looking for some native/edible plant walks to participate in. I bet there are some around you, too. Could be a fun thing to do with the kids this summer!


  5. Awesome, thanks for introducing us to this particular trail! I would love to learn more about wild foraging. It seems you know a lot about plants! Maybe you should have been a botanist ;P I’d love to go on a real walk sometime, and perhaps the botanist in you can rub off on me a little 🙂


    • Hi Lynn,
      Absolutely! Give me a call if you’re in or near my town and we’ll go out for a real walk in these woods. Emily is also a plant enthusiast (I think you both are bio majors), so we could try to coordinate with her, too.


  6. How lovely and fun. I didn’t know stinging nettles contained histamine! I’ve been around a few million blackberry patches. Amazing, poison hemlock right out in the open! I’d love to try out the miner’s grass; I could use a little extra Vitamin C.

    You are tempting me to learn more about the plants all around me!


    • Hi Sandra,
      I borrowed a tree guide from the bookstore in Pahoa for my trip, and I had fun learning about Hawaii’s native trees. The book might still be at the shop if you’re curious! One of my favorite things about Hawaii was just how lush it all was, and how different the plants looked from the ones I’m used to.

      I was surprised about the hemlock, too, but as it turns out, plenty of wild plants are pretty toxic. Considering how much info is contained in herb lore and Native American traditions, I think they must have gone through a lot of trial and error!


  7. I fell in love with Sticky Monkey Flower when we vacationed in Point Reyes. I planted some in my then yard and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m reminded that it is yet another plant I’ve not put in here.

    I love going on park walks and checking out the natives. BTW, have you been to the SF Arboretum? They have a wonderful native garden. I’m going to see if Flannel Bush will grow in my yard (I’m on the Peninsula).


    • Hi Green Bean,
      How exciting that we live close enough together that we recognize the same plants! I haven’t been to the Arboretum in many years, but I think they were having some sort of poisonous plant exhibit, which I’d love to go see.

      I had to look up flannel bush. I don’t think it grows in my favorite park. I’m so used to its collection of plants that the flora anywhere else seems pretty exotic!


  8. […] summer I took you on a virtual plant walk of my favorite preserve, the Fremont Older Open Space. Unfortunately, by July, things are pretty […]


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