That Beautiful Borage Blue


Mertensia maritima
oyster plant, oysterleaf,
sea lungwort, sea bluebells
Icelandic: blálilja



When I spotted this single plant on a black pebble beach on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, I knew it right away for a member of the borage family. There’s something unmistakable about that shade of blue, especially when paired with those pink buds.

M. maritima occurs on beaches at higher latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, including Canada, Greenland, Svalbard, and parts of the British Isles. It’s found almost everywhere in coastal Iceland. In the US it can be found in coastal Alaska and northern New England. It’s endangered in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

There are about 60 species of Mertensia worldwide, but only one is present in Maryland: M. virginica (Virginia bluebells):



Myosotis arvensis
field forget-me-not
Icelandic: gleym-mér-ey

There are four other borage family species in Iceland, all in the genus Myosotis. I found this one in several places, including way north (near Akureyri) and way south (less than a hundred meters from the end of the glacier Sólheimajökull). Field forget-me-not is common in the lowlands of Iceland, except in the northeast and northwest.



field forget-me-not growing with two species of horsetail,
Equisteum pratense and E. variegatum

Field forget-me-not is found in Maryland as an alien, but we have a native, too: M. verna, spring forget-me-not:

It’s in the borage family, but it lacks that incredible blue color.

Remember my posts about Death Valley from earlier this year? The Cryptantha species I found there are also in the borage family. You can see the similarity in the flowers, even if the colors are different.

Hidden Flowers


Cryptantha (and maybe other) species
aka cat’s eyes; popcorn flowers


According to extensive research done at the San Diego State University, there are 130 species of cryptantha in North America. And by “cryptantha” I mean all the species formerly placed in the genus Cryptantha, which has been split into five genera (the other four are Emerocarya, Greeneocharis, Johnstonella, and Oreocarya). All of these are native to the western US.

Within those 130 species are 31 varieties. For the most part, the species are differentiated by details of the nutlets, which typically range in size from half a millimeter to as much as several millimeters. Even the large ones require a damn good hand lens, or better yet a dissecting microscope.

My interest in identifying and classifying wildflowers does not go this far, so uncharacteristically I will be content saying that I found several different species of cryptanthas (not necessarily Cryptanthas) during my recent Death Valley trip.

To give a sense of scale, the above close-up view was taken from this specimen (note the penny):

which might – might – be Cryptantha muricata (pointed cryptantha).

These are belly flowers for sure!  Here’s a different species:





And a third:












And winning the “wait, are those even flowers?!” prize:


The flowers in these two pictures (above and right) are less than one millimeter across.




Not a Cryptantha


Amsinckia tessellata
checker (or western or bristly) fiddleneck
aka devil’s lettuce


After looking at so many cryptanthas, I was sure that’s what this had to be. There are two yellow-flowering cryptanthas, this must be one of them, right?

Nope. It is in the borage family, though, so it’s not too distantly related. It’s an annual, with a range north and west from New Mexico into British Columbia, and, strangely, Missouri.

I thought I was done with this, then stumbled across references to other Amsinckia species. There are eleven species, about eight of which are in Death Valley. Not nearly as tricky to identify as the cryptanthas, but not so straightforward, either. It’s possible that the species pictured here is actually A. menziesii var. intermedia. I’m guessing it isn’t, though, based on my principle “when in doubt, choose the common one over the rare one.”  To confuse matters a little more (because that’s what taxonomy does), I think this is A. tessellata var. tessellata, rather than the less common variety gloriosa.


How Plants Grow in the Desert

I am no expert in wildflowers, especially not in desert wildflowers, but some things are obvious. Like, even desert plants need water. Take a look at this picture:


If you can, click to zoom in. How many plants do you see? How many different species? Notice how they’re all growing together in the lee of a small group of rocks.

I did a lot of poking about during my two and a half days in Death Valley, and it took no time at all to figure out that if you want to see wildflowers (beyond the fields of desert gold), you need to go where there’s moisture in the ground. On the shady side of a wash, up a narrow canyon, into gullies and gulches.

I have nothing special to say about this except that I love the tenacity of desert plants.

…oh, the answers: six plants, five different species. In the lower left
Chylismia claviformis ssp. claviformis (brown-eyed evening-primrose), Cryptantha muricata (pointed cryptantha), Phacelia calthifolia (caltha-leaved phacelia), and Aliciella latifolia ssp. latifolia (broad-leaved gilia). In the upper right, Cryptantha muricata and Geraea canescens (desert gold).


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