Choris’s Corn Flower (Plagiobothrys chorisianus var. chorisianus)

Unlike much of the rest of the country, winter in the Bay Area brings renewed life and reminders that spring is not far off. And although I’m writing this during a cold spell in late December, the days are sunny, the hillsides have greened up nicely, and I’ve even seen a few poppies in flower already. By the time this article is published, we will be in the throes of spring and there will be ample wildflowers to view. One group you might want to try adding to your life list is the popcorn flowers.

The borage family (Boraginaceae), also known as the forget-me-not family, is a relatively large group comprised of some 100 genera and 2,000 species worldwide. The family occurs throughout temperate and subtropical regions of the northern and southern hemispheres, but has its major center of distribution in the Mediterranean region. Economic uses of borages include garden plants (e.g., heliotrope, bluebells, forget-me-not), herbs (e.g., comfrey), and dyes (e.g., alkanet, a reddish dye used to stain wood and marble, and to color medicines, wines, and cosmetics).

California is host to 188 indigenous members of the borage family. These include such genera as Amsinckia (fiddleneck), Cryptantha, Cynoglossum (hound’s tongue), Hackelia (stickseed), Harpagonella (grapplinghook), Heliotropium (heliotrope), Mertensia (bluebells), Pectocarya (combseed), Plagiobothrys (popcorn flower), and Tiquilia (crinklemat), among others. In California, Cryptantha and Plagiobothrys are the two most species-rich members of the family, each with 62 native taxa here.

The popcorn flowers are prostrate to erect, annual or perennial herbs, less than one-and-a-half feet tall. They generally have strigose (i.e., bearing stiff, straight, sharp, and appressed hairs) stems branching at or near the base. Like all members of the Boraginaceae, they bear small, five-petaled flowers in scorpioid racemes (i.e., coiled inflorescences that look like a scorpion’s tail) that mature sequentially as the “tail” uncoils. The popcorn flowers can be difficult to distinguish from the cryptanthas out of flower. In fact, without a strong gestalt for the genera, you will need mature flowers and fruits with nutlets to tell them apart—not exactly a user-friendly field trait for the casual botanist. But it does account for the name, which combines the Greek words plagios (on the side), and bothrys (a pit, referring to a feature of the seed). If you can’t find it in A Flora of San Francisco, California, you’ll have to look for it by its former name, Allocarya.

Of the 62 California taxa of Plagiobothrys, two are listed as endangered under the federal or state endangered species acts; three are presumed extinct in California; seven are on the CNPS List 1B (rare, threatened, or endangered in California and elsewhere), and one is on the CNPS List 2 (rare, threatened, or endangered in California but more common elsewhere). Two more taxa are considered species of special concern. There is some question about the validity of Choris’s popcorn flower as a distinct taxon, as it appears to intergrade with P. c. var. hickmanii, and some of the trait differences between the two varieties might be environmentally induced.

Plagiobothrys chorisianus (var. chorisianus) is an annual herb recorded only from Santa Cruz, San Mateo, San Francisco, and Alameda counties. Considered a species of wetlands, Choris’s popcorn flower occurs in moist, grassy places in coastal prairie, coastal scrub, and chaparral habitats below 525 feet above sea level. The California Natural Diversity Database includes only 12 records for the variety, nine of which are recent and likely to be extant, and all of which are restricted to San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. Most of these records describe the habitats in which it was found as wet, grassy swales and meadows near the coast. Choris’s popcorn flower is distinguished by its relatively large white flowers, which are nearly a half inch wide. Flowering occurs March through June.

Choris’s popcorn flower is named for Login Andreevich Choris, an artist who sailed on the Russian vessel Rurik as part of the Kotzebue Expedition from 1815 to 1818. He accompanied Johann F.G. von Eschscholtz and Adelbert von Chamisso, who collected the type specimen of Choris’s popcorn flower near the Presidio in 1816. Within San Francisco, Choris’s popcorn flower was recorded from near Lobos Creek, Golden Gate Park, Mt. Olympus, Clarendon Heights, Twin Peaks, and the Potrero District. As Peter Raven reported in the San Francisco flora, although the species had been extirpated from the central city itself, it could still be found in 1958 covering entire fields in Visitacion Valley.

Three other species of Plagiobothrys occurred historically in San Francisco: the state-listed endangered San Francisco popcorn flower (P. diffusus), bracted popcorn flower (P. bracteatus), and stalked popcorn flower (P. stipitatus). To the best of my knowledge, no populations of these remain anywhere in the city. Another two species, Torrey’s popcorn flower (P. torreyi var. diffusus) and Greene’s popcorn flower (P. reticulatus var. rossianorum), were recorded in the Presidio as recently the 1950s, but they have not been sighted lately. You’ll have to travel to Marin County for your best chances to see popcorn flowers.

Choris’s popcorn flower is on the CNPS List 1B.2, which indicates that it is regarded as rare, threatened, or endangered in California. If it is a valid taxon, its geographic distribution is very limited and it is threatened by development. Regardless of whether or not a plant species is included on any state or federal lists, species included on the CNPS List 1A, 1B, and 2 are considered to meet the criteria for listing as rare in California. Pursuant to the guidelines of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), it is therefore mandatory that impacts to Choris’s popcorn flower be evaluated during preparation of CEQA documents (e.g., Environmental Impact Reports, Mitigated Negative Declarations). So as you head out next spring, be sure to take a good hand lens—just in case you stumble across a popcorn flower.