The Island Naturalist True Stories From Catalina's Wildlands

Issue #46: WildFlowers

It’s springtime on Catalina... Seasonal rainfall has made the Island come alive as hillsides and valleys turn green and a rainbow of wildflowers begin to bloom. For a few short weeks, visitors are treated to a dizzying assortment of native blossoms - their vibrant petals dancing gently in the breeze. In this issue, we will highlight some of Catalina Island's more renown (and in some cases, rare) wildflowers.

by Alexa Johnson


Bold and Bright, These Spring Blooms Light Up Catalina's Landscape

It’s easy to see how the Indian paintbrush (Castilleja affinis ssp. affinis) got its name. The showy flowers look as if they’ve been dipped in red-orange paint. Indian paintbrush blooms from February to May and can be found across Catalina, thriving in the Island’s abundant chaparral, coastal sage scrub and grassland ecosystems. This plant is a partial parasite, using its roots to suck nutrients from the plants around it. Look for Indian paintbrush along the Hermit’s Gulch Trail, where it commonly grows within its host plants.

The brilliant crimson seen on Indian paintbrush are not actually petals, but in fact are bract leaves - which are specialized leaves that aid plants in the reproductive process. Photo: Jack Baldelli

Another appropriately named plant, the Sticky monkey flower, or Red bush monkey flower, (Mimulus aurantiacus) has a gooey resin on its leaves that deters insects from feeding on it. Observed in bloom from January to May, these red-orange flowers are thought to resemble a monkey’s face. This five-foot-tall shrub is common in the Island’s coastal sage scrub and chaparral habitats. A popular pollen source for bees and hummingbirds, it’s a valuable resource for wildlife. You can find sticky monkey flower along the Hour Trail on the hillsides above Avalon Canyon or growing throughout the Wrigley Memorial & Botanic Garden.

California’s Native Americans used to grind the Sticky monkey flower plant into a paste to treat minor burns or skin irritations. Photo: Jack Baldelli

Heart-leaved penstemon, or climbing penstemon (Keckiella cordifolia), is a vine-like plant that grows over the top of other shrubs. Its honeysuckle-like red-orange flowers bloom from March to August, bringing vibrant color to the dry, dull summer months. Its inch-long, heart-shaped leaves turn from deep green to brick-red late in the season and can be seen throughout Avalon Canyon, especially along the Garden to Sky Trail, along which it cascades over other shrubs and trees.

Heart-leaved penstamon are easily identifiable by their long red petals and bright yellow stamen. Photo: Jack Baldelli
“The earth laughs in flowers.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson


Delicate and Small, These Vibrant Flowers Bring Magic to the Island

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) are one of the most popular wildflowers on the Island. They can be identified by a cluster of four to 10 purple-blue flowers atop bare stema that’s one to two feet tall. These bloom from February through May and are abundant in grassland and coastal sage scrub habitats across the Island. The small onion-like bulbs at the bases of the stems are referred to as “grass nuts” and provided a source of starch for Native Americans and early settlers.

Blue dicks are one of wildflower watchers favorite blooms. Photo: Jack Baldelli

Blue dick bulbs were also popular with the feral pigs that once roamed Catalina Island, earning them the nickname “hog-onions.” Bernice Eastman Johnston wrote in her 1962 book, California’s Gabrielino Indians, “If today Santa Catalina Island were to be restored to the ownership of the Gabrielinos of old, it’s doubtful that they could live at their ancient high standard. Certainly, the busy pigs and piglets of the wild boar population must have enormously reduced one great resource, the roots which flourished so well that the Spanish reported them as part of the native export trade with the mainland. Their loss undoubtedly contributes to the great areas of loose, dusty soil, waiting to be washed or blown away at the first rain or gale.” In the decade since pigs have been removed from the Island, blue dicks and other native plants have rebounded on Catalina.

The violet pea-shaped flowers of the Silver bush lupine (Lupinus albifrons) grow in spiraling clusters around the top three to 12 inches of the plant’s stem and bloom from April to June. This silvery-green shrub is perfectly adapted to Catalina’s Mediterranean climate and varied topography. It thrives on dry, rocky slopes with good drainage and full sun. It is plentiful in the chaparral and coastal sage scrub communities, such as those found along Stage Road to the East Summit. Bitter-tasting toxins found in the leaves and flowers make them naturally deer resistant.

The bright blue flowers of the Silver brush lupine are often spotted growing right off the side of roads and trails. Photo: Jack Baldelli

The Island or Felt-leaf ceanothus (Ceanothus arboreus) is an inconspicuous tree-like shrub – until the spring, when masses of pale blue flowers engulf the plant. The tiny aromatic blooms of this plant form dense clusters that make it easy to identify, and have earned it the nickname California lilac. A Channel Islands endemic, Island ceanothus is only found on Catalina, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands. Unfortunately, this rare shrub is heavily browsed by the non-native mule deer on Catalina. In areas where it’s not protected, it has largely been eliminated. You can see some preserved, fenced-in specimens at the Nature Center in Avalon Canyon or along Stage Road.

Look upwards to spot the pale blue flowers of the felt-leaf ceanothus. Photo: Ken Owen
“I must have flowers, always, and always.” ― Claude Monet


These Bright and Breezy Blossoms Dominate Catalina's Hillsides

Giant coreopsis are one of the most recognizable flowers on Catalina. Photo: Jack Baldelli

Giant coreopsis (Leptosyne gigantea) can be found in small pockets along the coast of Southern California and on seven of the eight Channel Islands. It is considered an island giant, dwarfing its mainland relatives and reaching a height of four to 10 feet. Its thick woody stem supports candelabra-like branches that, from March to May, burst with tufts of fine green foliage and bright yellow flowers. On Catalina, it can be found on sea bluffs, rocky ridges or in road cuts, where deer can’t reach it. In the absence of non-native grazers, giant coreopsis forms Seussical forests like those found on the Northern Channel Islands. Look for it along Pebbly Beach Road, in the “tacos” along Airport Road and within the fence at the Ackerman Native Plant Nursery.

The California bush sunflower is one of the most abundant wildflowers on the island. Photo: Jack Baldelli

The California bush sunflower (Encelia californica) has one of the longest blooming seasons on the Island. From February until June, the daisy-like blossoms of the bush sunflower blanket Catalina’s hillsides in golden-yellow. This drought tolerant shrub forms dense clumps up to six feet across and five feet tall in most of the Island’s chaparral and coastal sage scrub communities. Preferring to grow on slopes, the bush sunflower helps to limit erosion with it sprawling roots and dense groundcover. Butterflies, bees and other insects are frequent visitors to the bush sunflower, making it popular with nature enthusiasts.

Like the California golden poppy on the mainland, the island bush poppy is a prolific and welcome sight on Catalina Island each spring. Photo: Jack Baldelli.

The Island bush poppy (Dendromecon harfordii) is another Channel Islands endemic, found only on Catalina, San Clemente, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands. The distinct yellow, four-petal flowers of the bush poppy flourish in the spring, but can be seen blooming year-round – it is one of the few plants to do so. It can also be identified by its pale green leaves and slender pea-like fruit. Growing up to 10 feet tall, the Island bush poppy is also referred to as a tree poppy due to its tall stature. Found on dry, eroded slopes, bush poppies also grow in the cuts along Airport and El Rancho Escondido Roads, out of the reach of deer.

“Wildflowers are the stuff of my heart!” ― Lady Bird Johnson

true or false:

The Malva Rosa Only Grows on Bird Rock?

True...sort of. Malva rosa was once presumed to be extinct on Catalina Island. Due to heavy predation by herbivores, including goats and deer, populations of this large shrub hadn’t been observed on Catalina in years. Researchers visiting Bird Rock, located off Isthmus Cove, recognized the beautiful pink and white hibiscus-like flowers of the malva rosa, where a few specimens had persevered on the guano-rich, predator-free rock.

With its striking three-inch-wide flowers, malva rosa is a popular ornamental plant that has now been planted on the mainland and on the other Channel Islands. On Catalina, it’s only seen on Bird Rock or within a fenced fortress, where it’s protected from grazing pressures.

"In joy or sadness, flowers are our constant friends." - Kozuko Okakura
The diversity in varieties and appearance makes Catalina Island one of the premier wildflower watching destinations in California. Photo: John Knapp


All photos: Jack Baldelli


Catalina native plants are available for your landscaping needs?

The Catalina Island Conservancy established the Ackerman Native Plant Nursery and seed collection facility at Middle Ranch to provide plant and seed material for its revegetation needs on the Island. The Nursery is also equipped to provide a wide selection of Catalina Island native plants for landscaping. Plants are produced following strict protocols to avoid negative impacts to native plant populations and to represent the unique biodiversity of the island.

Native plants are an excellent choice for your garden because they are drought tolerant and they provide food and habitat for the Island’s native wildlife. For a list of available plants you can contact the Ackerman Native Plant Nursery at (310) 510-1299 ext. 236, or click the button below.


Created By
Catalina Island Conservancy

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