Craters and Poppies


Ubehebe Crater, in the northeastern part of Death Valley National Park, is a beautiful and fascinating geological feature, the remains of a volcanic explosion that happened only 300 to 800 years ago (estimates vary).  The crater is about half a mile wide and 600 feet deep, and there’s a trail that circumnavigates the top.



The area is covered in cinders and colorful gravel and only very few plants. Actually it was a great place to get specimen photos, since the plants grew so sparsely, and almost always well apart from each other.



I was poking about, alternately admiring the flowers and gaping at the geology, when (yet another) yellow flower caught my eye.



This is Mojave gold poppy, aka desert poppy, Eschscholzia glyptosperma (Papaveraceae).  I saw maybe half a dozen of them in a small area between the parking lot and the viewing area at the top of the crater. Note the elongated seedpod above the flowers in the photo to the right.

Apparently this poppy is common across the Mojave desert, but I didn’t see them anywhere else during my trip.


Small But Showy


lesser mohavea, aka golden desert snapdragon
Mohavea breviflora


And back to Death Valley…

Like so many other flowers I saw in Death Valley, lesser mohavea is found in the Mojave Desert of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. It’s an annual, growing to about eight inches tall.

Of course the common name makes me wonder, is there a greater mohavea? Apparently not. There’s only one other species in the genus (M. confertiflora), and its common name is ghostflower.



Bigelow monkeyflower
Mimulus bigelovii


While there are only two Mohavea species, there are 70 some Mimulus species, all but four of which are found in the western US. (I wrote last July about Allegheny monkeyflower and winged monkeyflower.) M. bigelovii has about the same range as lesser mohavea, stands at about the same height (though it can flower when much smaller), and is also an annual.


I’m All Ears


desert paintbrush (see below)
Castilleja species
[Scrophulariaceae in some older references]


When hunting wildflowers, obviously you have to keep your eyes open, and sometimes it helps to keep your nose open. But sometimes it pays to keep your ears open, too.

On my second day in Death Valley, I was waiting in line for the only loo in the lower Dante’s View parking area (loos are hard to come by in Death Valley) when I overheard the woman behind me say to her friend “did you see the Indian paintbrush?”

“No, where?” says the other woman.

“Right over there, behind my car,” says the first.

Well.  I wasn’t going to lose my place in line, but as soon as I finished that task I joined the small crowd gathered around this plant, the only specimen I saw on the trip.


Just like with the past few plants I’ve posted about, I had a bit of trouble nailing down which species this is. I finally decided on Castilleja applegatei ssp. martinii (one of four subspecies) because that’s the one in the pamphlet I purchased at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center; the description reads “May grow through shrubs for support; in mid to high elevations.” As you can see this was growing through a shrub, and that parking lot is a little under 5000′ above sea level.

However… I can never leave good enough alone.  Calflora doesn’t show that species growing anywhere near Dante’s View. A little more research, and I came up with another ID: C. chromosa. Which is a name no longer accepted by ITIS, which calls it C. angustifolia var. dubia.  Which is plausible. I don’t have the details to say which species it is.

About the common names… seldom have I seen so many variations.  These two species may be known variously as:

  • desert (Indian) paintbrush
  • wavyleaf (Indian) paintbrush
  • pine paintbrush
  • Martin’s paintbrush
  • showy northwestern (Indian) paintbrush

I dunno. Maybe I should just call it “paintbrush” and be done.

One More Belly Flower


Nama demissa


Sorry that I keep going back and forth between Death Valley and the Potomac Gorge. I still have lots to post about that trip, but things are happening fast at home, so the blog posts are going to bounce around for awhile yet.

So, back to Death Valley… Purplemat is not particularly showy, given that it stands no more than three inches above the ground, but it is pretty up close. There are two varieties, demissa and covillei; without more detailed pictures I can’t be sure, but I believe the plant shown here is the former.



penny for scale




About the botanic name: ITIS accepts the specific epithet demissa, and demissum as an unaccepted orthographic variant.  Nonetheless, you’ll see demissum often on the internet. Also, other sources place this plant in the Hydrophyllaceae.

view from above

Two Blazing Stars


Mentzelia species

Not unlike the case with cryptanthas, there are many species of Mentzelia (87 in North America), and they can be difficult to differentiate.

But not impossible. Based largely on location data from Calflora and BONAP, I’ve narrowed it down to M. albicaulis and M. obscura. Given that the former is found in a much larger area, and there are many more sightings of it in the Death Valley area (per Calflora), I’m placing odds on it being M. albicaulis (aka whitestem blazing star).



Death Valley blazing star, aka reflexed blazing star
Mentzellia reflexa

Death Valley blazing star is easier to identify, mostly because of the leaves.


Calflora considers in endemic to California, though BONAP shows it in several contiguous Mojave Desert counties, including ones in southern Nevada and northwest Arizona. At any rate, its range is much more limited than the first species.


All Mentzelias under discussion are annual forbs, though there are perennials and one vine in the genus.

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.