Yes I know, yet another 70’s song reference, what can I say, Sly and the Family Stone put out some funky grooves with catchy titles. This will be another semi-regular feature whereby I hope to guide you through the arcane and mysterious world of plant taxonomy, sharpening your plant identification skills and enhancing your enjoyment of our local natives.
Let’s start with the basics before we dive into our first plant family. What the heck is a family anyway? Everyone loves a nice mnemonic:
Kings Play Chess On Fine Grained Sand
Yes it took something this lame to get me to finally memorize the hierarchy of biological classification
Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species
Whenever you see the Latin name for a plant it is the genus and species. Well we’re going to learn some of the well-represented families in our area.
The mint family (Lamiaceae) is one that you know more intimately than you think. The cooks among you are quite familiar with the aromatic qualities of many its members such as basil, rosemary, thyme, marjoram and oregano. You can barely drive half a block around Southern California without seeing the ubiquitous long stems of Mexican sage or lavender. None of these are natives but we have quite a few that you can find on virtually any trail.
Some general rules for identifying members of this family:
Usually small to medium shrubs, and a few wildflowers. While there are some trees (teak) or vines, you wouldn’t find them around here. Sages around here can get up to 5 feet tall and wide while wood mint can be less than 6 inches.
Minty, aromatic, fragrant to the touch
Leaves grow in pairs opposite each other, each pair up the stem at a 90 degree angle from the last.
Stems are often squarish, though not always
Now what will we find on our meanderings around Ojai? Let’s start with the sages. Most common around here is black sage.
OK this confused me for at least 2 years. Black sage has green leaves, light purple flowers… while purple sage:
Has greyish leaves and pink flowers. The leaves pf both purple and black sage upon a closer inspection have a pebbled texture, unlike white sage:
Which also his white/gray leaves, white/pink flowers, but much larger and smoother leaves. Also the strongest scent in my opinion. Also notice that white sage has the longest flower stalks, sometimes 6 feet plus on their own, usually persisting dead and brown into the next season. These 3 all generally love full sun and plenty of heat. Black then purple then white is generally the order that they bloom, starting around March.
Not quite done with the sages. Regular readers should be quite familiar with the shade loving hummingbird sage:
And if you love the Murietta trail at Matilija as much as I do you might recognize pitcher sage with its elegant white tubular flowers and soft fuzzy leaves.
Just a few more and I’ll let you get back to clipping your toenails.
My absolutely favorite numero uno native small shrub in the whole Southern California wide world, the inimitable Wooly blue curls
Need to keep a sharp eye out for this beauty. A couple of random specimens here and there. If you ask real polite-like I just might tell you where there’s a veritable forest of them, sensory overload at it’s best.
The wooly blues have a funky little annual cousin called vinegar weed, one of the more interesting scents I have ever come across in the wild
Go hunting around any well shaded moist areas and you are likely to run into hedge nettle, also known as wood mint. Like the sages it carries it pink flowers on a short stalk.
Finally, no discussion of native mints would be complete without chia. The seeds were a staple for the Chumash, you will usually find these on sunny rocky exposed hillsides, Horn Canyon and Howard Creek are my favorite spots. If you grab the flower head and it hurts like hell, you’ve found chia.
How bout one more just for good measure. This is a non-native but trust me you see it everywhere. Horehound is a European import used to make candy which is good for throat ailments and supposedly repels grasshoppers
So get out there and fondle some foliage…