Stalking the purple salsify

For years I have seen huge dandelion clocks in grassy waste areas. These seed heads are about 4 inches in diameter, much larger than any normal dandelion.

Oddly, I’ve not tried to identify them in the past — not even stopping the bike to get a better look.

There is something called Agoseris grandiflora, which sounds promising; I briefly wondered if these plants might be of that genus… But its seed heads are only about 2 inches in diameter. Not so great-flowered when compared to these.

So on Tuesday morning (~6:30am) I was running on More Mesa and I ran past one of these huge puffballs. Well — I stopped and looked at it. I’d assumed the plant was in the dandelion (chicory) tribe, but it didn’t really look like any chicory I’d seen before. Its leaves looked like blades of grass, and the stems branched in a way I didn’t expect for a chickory… Well, other tribes in the composite family have seed heads like that… I mean it must be a composite? Mustn’t it? With a seed like that? Surely.

Well, it can’t be a grass…

and the stem pattern doesn’t look like something a monocot would do…

I didn’t see any flowers though. No flowers, but lots of buds and a few seedheads. Hmph. I’ve never seen flowers on it. — Well dandelions close up their blooms at night, maybe this guy does too, and it’s still so early in the morning it hasn’t opened up.

So I went back at about 2pm in hopes the flowers would have come out by then, but without luck.

I did bring a little bit of broken ruler with me and measured one of the buds. It was 6cm long, that’s 2⅓ inches, and the seed head should be about twice that. I noticed that I could see inside the bud and what I saw didn’t look a bit like the bunch of ray flowers that I’d expect inside a chicory composite. It looked as though a bunch of seeds were forming inside what I’d taken to be a flower bud. Later I found a bud which was half gnawed through and the seeds were clearly visible inside (even later I found a bud where all the seeds had been eaten, leaving just the husk. I think something must like the seeds)

Unfortunately it was a windy day and all the seed heads from the morning had mostly blown away, but found one that was half left…

For a while I became enamored of the patterns made by the seeds (or the pappi hairs to be precise) and took lots of pictures.

But no luck on finding a flower. Maybe in the evening? I had pottery class that night and could not come back that evening (More Mesa is about 5 miles from my house, not really a long bike ride, I ride that twice (out and back), and the entire trip, plus checking all the plants I’d found takes about an hour and a half — anyway a visit entails a significant amount of time).

The next day, Wednesday, I returned about 6:30pm. Again, I found no flowers. So I tried invading the privacy of some of the buds to see if I were right and that some were flower buds and some were seed buds. The bracts (or whatever they are) pulled back easily (though they exuded a few drops of latexy sap — which is the kind of sap dandelions are supposed to have). And this bud did look more like something that might produce a flower someday with purple folded things at the end which might be petals rather than bits of white fluff which might be a pappus.

The day was even windier than the day before and at first I didn’t see any seed heads. But eventually I found one that was half open. This led me to speculate that perhaps the seed heads opened in the evening and then slowly got blown way over the course of the night and the next morning?

I was starting to have the grim feeling that I’d never find a flower. Did the thing bloom in the night? Maybe if I came back early in the morning I’d find the remnants of a flower. I began to fear that I might have to key it out. Without a flower that would probably be impossible. I can make mistakes keying out a genus with only 10 species… the thought of having to use a key that applied to all the members of the composite family in California did not appeal. (Jepson’s keys are not broken down by tribe, so I couldn’t just check the chickories).

Early the next morning I set out once again, and this time I did find a flower. One single flower. Whew, no wonder I’ve never seen a flower in the 20 years I’ve been in SB; it’s like pulling teeth trying to find one.

I went home happy. I asked CalFlora (as politely as I could) to show me all the flowers in the composite family that bloomed in Santa Barbara, and I dutifully looked at all 400+ of them.

Not one of them looked like the flower I had found.

Grrrrr. and damnit.


Maybe it opens up more later in the day. I went back about 2pm. I found my flower. It was tightly closed up.


But… there were lots of seed heads open. One plant had four open at once.

I went back the next morning, again about 6:30am and found that flower from the day before was still closed up, but that two more had opened. But they looked no different from what I’d already seen.

OK. Maybe if I show up about 9am I’ll see something?

Most days I’m busy about 9, but the next day was Saturday and I figured that on the way back from running practice I might be able to surprise a bloom.

I sort of gave up on trying to identify it myself, and posted a set of pictures on FaceBook asking people if anyone else could. One friend suggested that it looked like a salsifry (but the ones she knew were yellow, not purple). But there was a purple salsify. The flower didn’t look much like what I’d seen, but hey…

So Saturday dawned and I biked out beyond UCSB. I’m still supposed to be recovering, so I didn’t get do a tempo run with everyone else. Instead I went off in solitary meditation, fancy free. And on the Pond Trail of Coal Oil Point reserve I found some more of the whatever-it-was.

And one was blooming. It looked just like the flower of purple salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius).

I went to More Mesa on Monday and tromped around between 11:30 and 12:00 (or so) and found no open blooms though I examined ~40 plants. There were two buds which looked as if they had recently closed, and there were places where new side shoots were forming into new buds so I assume it will continue to bloom for a while yet…


7 Responses to “Stalking the purple salsify”

  1. Adger Says:

    Quite some change from the closed up dark (black?) thing to the wide-spread purple splurge below. what does CalFlora think about Purple Salsify?

  2. Jeff Rawlings Says:

    I have one at my house, George… I think all the blooms are done though.

    • georgeruns Says:

      Well, let me know if you do see another bloom… The ones at More Mesa are still producing new buds.

      How long do the blooms last? Am I right in guessing that it’s only for a few hours? Or do they come back the next day? And do they last longer on foggy days than sunny ones or something?

    • georgeruns Says:

      Why do you have one at the house? Is it a weed? Do you like the flower? or do you dig up the root and cook it?

  3. Nathan Cline Says:

    Salsify flowers open in the morning, and close before known. This is why one of this plant’s nicknames is “jack-go-to-bed-at-noon.”

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