I found myself blue during February, reading news reports about California’s drought, wondering about whether we’d have dramatic displays of spring flowers. I’ve found a few blooms on hikes, but it wasn’t until the first rainy week we had that I allowed myself to hope for displays. Many of my March weekends were committed, so as soon as I had free time on a retreat in Ben Lomond I headed into the redwoods with my camera. I found more mushrooms under the redwoods than blossoms, but redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana) and Milk Maids (Cardamine californica) glowed in the gloom. On a steep hillside, with a little more light than the rest of the canyon allowed, I found five-petaled blue flowers in coiled clusters.
I promptly set to documenting the plant.
Cynoglossum grande in Yosemite, California
One of the first flowers I met when I began to observe California wildflowers was Pacific hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum grande). The intensely blue flowers gave me a thrill of delight on a very wet day at Edgewood Preserve. At home, I scoured online flower guides of blue California flowers. Hound’s tongue? Really? What a name!
As I progressed in my skills of identifying flowers, I ran across the borage family a number of times. Botanical identification of these plants mentioned the scorpoid cymes, the curling structure that became a strong identifying clue that a plant belonged to the family. Once I knew about the coiled structure, I began to see them everywhere.
Heliotropium curassavicum var. oculatum in Inyo county, California
The discovery of blue blossoms, coiling off the stem, was to meet a plant with a strong family resemblance to native flowers I’ve seen. In this case, though, the familiarity wasn’t just that of the family, but of cottage gardens and nostalgic note cards and fabric patterns. A forget-me-not, I was certain.
Plant morphology, the study of plant structures, makes careful distinctions of all the stem-, leaf-, and flower-like bits that seem indistinguishable at first. Precise and complete guides document the size, shape, or absence of all the structural elements. The most respected guide to California native plants is The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California, with an online version for all to use.
For the forget-me-not genus, Myosotis, one starts with the key to the six species growing uncultivated in California. I’ve learned from my disappointment in other identifications how important it is to document many different parts of the plants. The distinguishing characteristics are not consistent though. You may be able to specify a plant on the basis of flower color in one genus, but another species will have wildly variable blossom colors. The traditional dichotomous key helps one identify a plant by guiding the user through a varity of comparisons: this or that? That or this?
The first distinction in the forget-me-not key is on the quality of the hairs on the outer layer of the flower, the calyx. These hairs are typical of the Borage family. The bed-head wildness of this flower’s hairs distinguish the species from Myosotis laxa and M. scorpioides. Another observation at this same angle reveals that the the calyx’s lobes — the individual green blades — are all the same length. This distinguishes the species from M. verna in Jepson’s key. Three of the six possibilities gone!
Where the buds are opening, the petals are visible as pink, while on the open flowers the petals are blue. This, too, is a fairly common feature of some Borage family flowers. If the flower had started in bud as yellow, then turning blue, it would be identified as M. discolor. (That name points to the naming botanist’s opinion of that color sequence.) If my specimen had deep blue flowers, it would be M. micrantha. This leaves Myosotis latifolia as the identification for my specimen.
To have used the key not to exclude all the other options but to navigate to the identification directly, I would have had to have seen the plant in seed, and known whether the plant grew year after year. Admittedly, a third criterion was the size of the flower, but my estimation of millimeters is not as accurate as I should like.
Given an identification of Myosotis latifolia, I can turn to the full description of the plant. I read the description and compare. For example, the leaves at the base of the plant have a different shape from those that grow on the stalk. Some aspects are the family resemblance, such as how the stalk leaves (cauline) grow in an alternating fashion.
One of the clues that may be used to identify where a flower’s stem begins is finding a leaf-like structure that marks a joint with the main stem. These structures are called bracts, and on some plants they are very small and scale-like. Jepson describes Myosotis latifolia as having leaf-like bracts, a third leaf shape to compare to the leaves of the base and those on the stem.
The flower is described as salverform: a wide flat plate-like shape. Jepson notes, “appendages prominent, yellow.” These structures on the petal are also known as fornices (fornix, singular) and are another common feature of the Borage family.
The classic Borage family scorpoid cyme is a shared feature of the Myosotis genus. The physical structure just seems like one coiled stem. However, the careful study of this botanical structure has led to the precision of the descriptive word cyme.
To imagine this structure, first imagine a daisy on its stem. The flower’s stem can be distinguished with care from the main stem of the plant. The daisy terminates the stem, so it is referred to as a terminal flower. Imagine then just under the daisy there is a branching stem that ends with another daisy, and under that daisy a third branching stem, each successively younger and smaller. This is how the structures that make up that tight coil are related to one another.
I am finding a joy in navigating all these details of the Borage family. It’s certainly possible to enjoy flowers without examining every detail, but learning to see these fine distinctions is like learning the unique eccentricities and preferences of one’s loves. Without seeing the variations, it may be easy to dismiss the one native forget-me-not as unnecessary given the five species that have arrived since the non-native plants began arriving after 1492. Often times the various structures have evolved for a reason, in partnership with other living things in the ecosystem. I want to remember the distinctions so I can greet the different species in the field. Forget-me-not, indeed.