Checker Mallow (Sidalcea malvaeflora)

It’s the dawning of a new millennium. What better New Year’s resolution than to get out of the confines of our walled environments and tantalize our senses with the colors and textures of the natural world. Even in the midst of our crowded and busy city we have the opportunity to get away from it all with a short bus ride. With spring upon us, the days are getting longer; it’s time to step out of our shells.

During my travels in the central and southern portions of the state, one plant family always elicits a smile when found in the wild. While not a particularly diverse group, the mallow family (Malvaceae) includes some spectacular members. Related to the garden hibiscus, the family is characterized by mostly large, showy corollas with fused filament tubes in the center. Worldwide, the family includes some 100 genera with 2,000 species. It is best represented in South America but occurs throughout North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia. The family has great economic value, including such species as cotton (Gossypium spp.), okra (Hibiscus esculentus), China jute (Abutilon avicennae), and numerous ornamental species such as hollyhock (Alcea rosea). Hibiscus is the largest genus, with some 300 mostly tropical species.

Many people are surprised to learn that some showy members of the family are native to California. None is showier than rose-mallow (Hibiscus lasiocarpus), found on the banks of the San Joaquin/Sacramento River Delta. Other significant native genera include Indian mallow (Abutilon spp.), five-spot (Eremalche spp.), tree mallow (Lavatera spp.), bush mallow (Malacothamnus spp.), alkali mallow (Malvella leprosa), checker mallow or checker bloom (Sidalcea spp.), and globemallow (Sphaeralcea spp.). Of course, the non-native mallows (Malva spp.) inhabit just about every vacant lot in the southern two thirds of the state.

The family supports a large proportion of rare species. The 11 native genera include 49 native species and 38 subspecies. Of these, 40 taxa are included in the CNPS Inventory of Rare and Endangered Vascular Plants of California (2 on List 1A-presumed extinct in California; 23 on List 1B-rare, threatened, or endangered; 3 on List 2-rare, threatened, or endangered in California; and 8 on List 4-limited distribution).

Sidalcea, the genus with the most California species, is one of my favorites. It includes 18 species with 33 subspecies; 12 are listed in the CNPS Inventory. In the Bay Area, its most common member is Sidalcea malvaeflora ssp. malvaeflora. Much less common is another subspecies, S. m. ssp. purpurea. As is characteristic of the species, both taxa develop from a perennial rhizome and woody caudex. Leaves appear in early spring on stems that trail one to three feet. Purple to rose-pink flowers, up to two inches across, develop in dense terminal racemes or spikes from February through June. Subspecies purpurea is distinguished from ssp. malvaeflora by having purple calyces and stipules, basal leaves mostly less than two centimeters (0.8 inches) long, and hair-like (rather than stout) pedicels.

Sidalcea malvaeflora ssp. purpurea inhabits grassy slopes and openings in forests near the coast from southern Mendocino County to northern San Mateo County. In San Francisco, S. m. ssp. malvaeflora has been recorded historically from the Presidio, Lake Merced, Laguna Honda, Twin Peaks, McLaren Park, and Bayview Hill. It is still present on most of these locations, Bernal Hill, and other local open space preserves. Although S. m. ssp. purpurea has not been documented in the City, it could co-occur with its more common relative. If you find it, let us know!

While none of the Bay Area subspecies of S. malvaeflora are listed in the CNPS Inventory, subspecies purpurea is proposed for listing as a 1B:2-2-3 taxon. Such taxa are rare, threatened or endangered in California, distributed in a limited number of occurrences, endangered in a portion of their ranges, and endemic to California. List 1B species meet the criteria for listing pursuant to the state Fish and Game Code, and impacts must be considered during preparation of environmental documents relating to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Unfortunately, unless a species is formally listed as endangered, threatened, or rare by the state or federal governments, it has no official protection. CEQA provides for the protection of these “special-status species” only so far as the lead agency is willing to incorporate comments from the public, CNPS, or the Department of Fish and Game.