Belly Flowers

In a few recent posts I’ve used the phrase “belly flowers”, regional slang for plants that you need to be on the ground to see. That’s a bit of an exaggeration (knees will do in most cases), but it makes the point. There’s no official definition, of course, but offhand I’d say about a dozen or so of my Death Valley finds could be called belly flowers.


desert star and a Cryptantha species, with 77mm lens cap

Since I’m enamored of tiny flowers, I was charmed to find these plants. I’ve written about a few already (the two gilias and Fremont’s phacelia). Over the next few days I’ll write about a few more.


purplemat, broad-leaved gilia, desert star, and Cryptantha species, with dime for scale

Potomac Gorge Update


round-lobed hepatica
Anemone americana
(formerly Hepatica nobilis var obtusa)


Yesterday was so lovely, I had to take a break from writing about Death Valley wildflowers and go hike the Billy Goat B trail. It’s the season for ephemerals, the delicate-leaved, dainty-flowered, low-growing plants that will completely disappear for the year in two months (or less).

Seen on Thursday, March 24:



And five turtles on a log in the canal




This should be the first great weekend for wildflower viewing in the gorge.


Two Cacti, Not Blooming

beavertail cactus
Opuntia basilaris


cotton-top cactus
Echinocactus polycephalus


While exploring the area around the globemallow I came across two different types of cactus plants.  One was well in bud, so I made it a point to go back two days later, right before leaving for the flight home. No luck. Still in bud.


Beavertail looks a lot like the familiar prickly pear cactus (it’s in the same genus), but it lacks spines. There are four varieties; I have no idea which one this is. Here’s a picture of it in flower. [sob]

Cotton-top cactus is distinctive because of its form (polycephalus means “many heads”). You can see from this photo how it got its common name:

By the way, if you’re scrambling up a scree where cotton-top are growing, choose to pass the plants on the downslope. I figured this out just a few steps shy of one of the beasts, where sure enough I lost my footing and went for a bit of a slide. It could have been comic in a Road-Runner sort of way. More likely it would have been really painful.


I Brake for Wildflowers…

…wouldn’t you?

Heading north on Scotty’s Castle Road in not-as-desolate-as-it-appears Death Valley, I spied a big ball of apricot. Apricot?! I’d seen many yellow flowers, and white, and purple and blue and pink, and even some orange dodder looking like balls of Silly String, but this was completely different. Knowing that no cars were behind (good situational awareness), I was able to brake pretty aggressively and have another look before rounding a corner. Half a mile later there was a turnout wide enough to allow a safe u-turn*, then back I went to have a close look at this:


It’s globemallow, aka desert mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua, Malvaceae), a perennial forb that can grow to three feet tall and three feet wide. When winters are wet, it puts forth an exceptional display. It’s found in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. I’d love to have one in my garden, but the mid-Atlantic is just too wet for a xerophyte like this.

Once stopped at this site, I got my camera bag and water bottles and set off exploring the nearby wash and a mini-butte, where I found plenty of belly flowers and two nifty cacti, neither of which were flowering. More on these another time. This is the only specimen of globemallow I saw on the entire trip.


*those of you who know about my former vocation can imagine how tempted I was to pull a bootleg instead

Two Broads

(right) broad-leaved gilia
Aliciella latifolia ssp. latifolia
(formerly Gilia latifolia)


(below) broad-flowered gilia
Gilia cana ssp. speciformis



Thirty three native species of gilias (some no longer in the genus Gilia) grow in the US; all but two of these can only be found west of the Rockies. Broad-flowered gilia is found only in California and Nevada, while broad-leaved gilia can be found in those states plus Utah and Arizona. Both of these plants are annuals, consisting of a basal rosette of leaves and flowers on wispy stems just a few inches above the ground.  Both species are annuals.



As you can see, broad-leaved gilia really does have broad leaves, and tiny little dark pink flowers. Broad-flowered gilia has much smaller, deeply indented leaves and larger flowers, light purple with blue throats.








penny and thumbnail for scale