A Special Phacelia

Last Sunday morning Steve and I headed out for a walk, and in less then an hour found Coville’s phacelia. Lots of it. So Monday I went back without Steve but with camera, tripod, and macro lens, and spent some quality time photographing this rare species.


Also known as buttercup scorpionweed, this phacelia is of course related to the phacelias in Anza-Borrego. You can see the similarities in these photos: hairy stems, hairy leaves, hairy calyces with five sepals, and corolla of five petals fused into a single, five-lobed tube.


The plants are annual forbs, growing more or less upright in a rather weak fashion. Literature describes them as up to a foot tall, but I’ve rarely seen them over six inches.



Coville’s phacelia has an odd distribution, with several disjunct populations located in Washington, DC, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, Fairfax County in Virginia, five counties in central North Carolina, and one county in southwestern Indiana.

However, according to natureserve.org:

In addition to the Potomac River (in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) and drainages of the Cape Fear and Tar Rivers in North Carolina, the species has recently been identified from the Ohio River drainage (in Ohio and West Virginia), the Wabash River drainage (in Indiana and Illinois), and Texas County, Missouri.

Except possibly it hasn’t: apparently authorities in several midwestern states do not differentiate between P. covillei and the very similar P. ranunculacea (oceanblue phacelia).



The Virginia Plant Atlas also shows it present in Halifax County (far southern Virginia). With respect to the taxonomic uncertainty, VPA comments:

This species has often been considered an eastern cytotype of Phacelia ranunculacea (Nutt.) Constance, which occupies similar habitats of the sc. U.S. in the lower Ohio and Mississippi River drainages. Sewell and Vincent (2006, Castanea 71: 192-209) found that the two taxa differ in chromosome number, subtle but consistent morphological characters, and overall distribution. However, morphological differences are fairly minor and the geographic split isn’t as clean as one might hope, as there are populations of P. covillei in the Ohio River drainage, as well as the Atlantic Piedmont. Nevertheless, Sewell and Vincent present a reasonable case for two species, especially since the different ploidy levels would prevent interbreeding.

Coville’s phacelia has the global conservation rank G3, defined as:

Either very rare and local throughout its range or distributed locally (even abundantly at some of its locations) in a restricted range (e.g., a single western state, a physiographic region in the East) or because of other factors making it vulnerable to extinction throughout its range; typically with 21 to 100 estimated occurrences.*

Its state rank in Maryland is S2:

State rare. Imperiled in Maryland because of rarity (typically 6 to 20 estimated occurrences or few remaining individuals or acres in the State) or because of some factor(s) making it vulnerable to becoming extirpated. Species with this rank are actively tracked by the Natural Heritage Program.*

And its state status is E:

Endangered; a species whose continued existence as a viable component of the State’s flora or fauna is determined to be in jeopardy.*


Over the past few years I’ve observed that Coville’s phacelia has a bloom period of three weeks, more or less, so it should still be around. Look for it along the Billy Goat B and C trails. It is indeed locally abundant.

*definitions from “Rare, Threatened, and Endangered Plants of Maryland” (August 2016), available as a .pdf at the Maryland DNR website

Similar Species in Similar Families

Phacelia species. Oh, that blue!

Last year during my Death Valley trip, Cryptanthas drove me crazy. There are something like 120 different species, many of which can only be reliably distinguished by examining the minute nutlets.

Cryptantha species




I saw plenty of Cryptanthas in Anza-Borrego, too, and decided not to bother much with them. Neat little flowers, but I would just have to accept that I wouldn’t be able to identify them fully.

a different Phacelia




Then there were the Phacelias. I saw plenty of them, too. Turns out there are about 170 species of Phacelia in North America. Not all of them are found in the Sonoran Desert, of course, but enough of them are.

Phacelia crenulata.

Phacelia nashiana. Unless it’s Phacelia minor.

Like Cryptanthas, the Phacelias are notoriously tricky to identify. I spent hours poring over botanical descriptions but my pictures contain only so much information, and often not the right sort. I didn’t get very far.

A different Cryptantha; the flower is about 1 mm wide.



I gave up when I discovered that there’s a species named Phacelia cryptantha.

Phacelia campanularia. I think. I hope.






While researching these plants, I tripped across another issue. Seems that authorities don’t quite agree on which family to place the genus Phacelia in. At one time, there were two separate but closely related families, Boraginaceae (borage) and Hydrophyllaceae (water-leaf).

Pholistoma membranaceum, Hydrophyllaceae. Unless it’s Boraginaceae. Or the Hydrophylloideae subfamily of Boraginaceae.


Recent research has resulted in the Hydrophyllaceae being considered a subfamily of the Boraginaceae, called Hydrophylloideae.  Not all authorities recognize this distinction, though, and research is ongoing. It’s another one of those areas of taxonomic uncertainty.

Amsinckia species, either A. tessellata or A. intermedia, Boraginaceae

Emmenanthe penduliflora, Hydrophyllaceae. Or Boraginaceae. Whatever.













In an attempt to make sense of all this, I went through several books* to get good technical descriptions of the two families’ characteristics, and came up with this chart:

Boraginaceae Hydrophyllaceae
form: forbs; rarely shrubs or trees forbs; rarely subshrubs
overall rough textured, hairy overall small, hairy
leaves: alternate alternate; rarely opposite
simple simple, sometimes compound
no stipules no stipules
often entire mostly lobed, rarely entire
coarsely hairy often hairy or stiff-hairy
inflorescence: helicoid or scorpioid cyme scorpioid cymes or flowers borne singly
flowers: often blue or white mostly blue, purple, white
regular (radially symmetrical) regular (radially symmetrical)
bisexual bisexual
5 sepals, separate 5 sepals, separate or fused
or deeply cleft to appear separate or deeply cleft to appear separate
5 petals, fused 5 petals, fused, often w/ appendages inside
5 stamens fused to corolla, alternate with petals 5 stamens fused to corolla, alternate with petals
? nectary disk present
anthers w/ longitudinal slits anthers w/ longitudinal slits
2 carpels, united, often 2 lobed 2 carpels, usually united
locules 4, usually 1-2 locules
ovules 1 per locule ovules 2 – many
ovary superior ovary superior
style 4-lobed style 2-lobed
stigma 2 lobed stigma capitate
fruit drupe or nutlets capsule

I’m not sure it helped, but it was an interesting exercise.

Phacelia cryptantha?!


Speaking of Phacelias, three of them are native to the Maryland Piedmont. Yesterday I found one blooming profusely and one of the others budding up. More on them in a few days.

another Cryptantha!

Phacelia and Amsinckia growing together, the devils.

*Botany in a Day, Thomas J. Elpel
Contemporary Plant Systematics, 3rd. ed., Dennis W. Woodland
How to Identify the Flowering Plant Families, John Philip Baumgardt
Photographic Atlas of Botany and Guide to Plant Identification, James L. Castner

Three Phacelias

The bright yellow fields of desert gold and yellowcups are eye-catching, but almost as common is a deep purple color that you almost have to be out of your car to see. Two species are responsible, both closely related: caltha-leaved phacelia and notch-leaved phacelia.

Something on the order of 167 native species of phacelia occur in the US and Canada. A few can be found in the east – including Miami mist and Coville’s; there are also species found in the South, or Mid-West, or north into Canada. But most phacelias seem to be found west of the Rocky Mountains.

According the the National Park Service, about six species are found in Death Valley. During my two and a half day jaunt I saw the two mentioned above, as well as a third: Fremont’s phacelia, which isn’t nearly as common or eye catching, but is wonderful in a belly flower sort of way.


caltha-leaved phacelia (Phacelia calthifolia), right


notch-leaved phacelia (Phacelia crenulata), below

Caltha-leaved phacelia (Phacelia calthifolia) gets its name (presumably) from the genus Caltha (marsh marigolds, among others), which is a name from the ancient Greek meaning “goblet”. The leaves are low to the ground, more-or-less round, and dark green.

The leaves of notch-leaved phacelia (Phacelia crenulata) are also dark green, but elongated and deeply indented:



Although the flowers of both species appear at first glance identical, the anthers of notch-leaved protrude well beyond the petals:






while caltha-leaved has a much tidier appearance:


I never saw these two species growing together. Nearby, maybe 20 yards apart, but not together.

Fremont’s phacelia (Phacelia fremontii), left and below


Fremont’s phacelia’s leaves are deeply notched, but quite different from notch-leaved, and there’s no mistaking the flower: it sits much closer to the ground than the other two species, and the flowers are a pleasing sky blue with yellow throats.

I found this third species at an elevation of about 5000′ above sea level, in the Dante’s View area.

Phacelias are in the Hydrophyllaceae, though some older references will place them in the Boraginaceae.

Bad News, Good News

The first week of March there were news reports about a “superbloom” of wildflowers in Death Valley. Since I had an airline credit to use, it was an easy decision to fly out and spend a few days there, just me and the camera.

I arrived late on Monday, March 7 to find the show not as spectacular as the news articles suggested. On March 9, an update was posted at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. The bad news: hot weather and a windstorm had damaged the flowers before my arrival. The good news: there were still plenty of flowers to see. And since I had never visited that part of the country, it was all new to me.

I believe I found about 30 different species of plants flowering, but I’m only just starting to go through the photos to identify them.  It’s a good way to pass time while sitting in an airport lounge awaiting the flight home.

Here’s a teaser: flowers in the badlands area of the Black Mountains near Artist’s Palette.  This view is looking southwest toward the Panamint range, with snow-covered Telescope Peak in the distance.  The yellow blossoms are desert sunflowers, aka desert gold (Geraea canescens, Asteraceae).  Also visible are the white-flowering gravel ghost (Atrichoseris platyphylla, Asteraceae) and purple caltha-leaved phacelia (Phacelia calthifolia, Hydrophyllaceae).

Variations on a Theme: Virginia Waterleaf and Broad-Leaved Waterleaf


aka eastern waterleaf; Hydrophyllum virginianum
and aka maple-leaved waterleaf; Hydrophyllum canadense
(some authorities place in Boraginaceae)

So you might be wondering, which species is pictured above?  I know the answer, but only because I took the picture.  The flowers of both species are almost identical.  The big difference is in the leaves.



Virginia waterleaf typically has three to seven deeply cut lobes…






…while the other resembles a maple leaf, with much shallower lobes.



Virginia waterleaf starts blooming in the Potomac Gorge around mid-May; broad-leaved starts about two weeks later.

Of the nine species of Hydrophyllum found across most of the US and Canada, these are the only two in the Maryland Piedmont.

Look closely at the leaves at the bottom of the picture – see the bluish splotches? That’s why they’re called “waterleaf”.  Only the young leaves display this characteristic.


Virginia waterleaf ranges from the Great Plains east to the coast, except the extreme south and the Maritime Provinces.  It’s a plant of special concern in Connecticut and Kentucky, and is threatened in New Hampshire and Tennessee.

Maple-leaved waterleaf has a similar range, but doesn’t extend as far west. It’s endangered in Massachusetts and New Jersey, and threatened in Vermont.

Both species are plants of deep woods, liking lots of shade and moist-to-dry, high organic content soils.  And both species’ flower color ranges from white to pink to lavender.  At bloom time, they are about the same height (around a foot), though I’ve noticed that Virginia waterleaf grows much taller than that once it’s done flowering.