Tidy Tips (Layia platyglossa)

Having grown up in the nursery business in southern California, my interest in plants centered solely around the unusual and the exotic. In particular, plants from far-off tropical regions captured my fancy, as I imagined myself trudging through tropical rain forests in search of new never-before-seen specimens. I collected peperomias, palms, philodendrons, cycads, ferns, beaucarnias, ficus, tradescantias, you name it. If it was from a distant land, somewhere I’d like to travel, I collected it. Ironically, I didn’t develop an interest in California’s native flora as a youngster, even though I spent a great deal of time traversing our San Diego canyons and mesas. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but it really wasn’t until attending college in San Luis Obispo that I paid any attention at all to our native plant communities. And only while in graduate school at San Francisco State University did I develop an educated appreciation for the phenomenal species diversity with which we are blessed.

As a college student, a horticulture professor gave me my first introduction to California’s plant communities. It was during a slide show that I saw images of the spring bloom on the Carizzo Plain and Mojave Desert, a day that literally and figuratively opened my eyes. When I finally saw a real spring bloom in person, I was breathless. No, really breathless. Hay fever, you know. But despite incessant sniffles and sneezing fits, I was hooked. (I have since discovered that regular allergy shots can eliminate my springtime symptoms, which has greatly added to my enjoyment of our annual grassland displays.)

Among California’s coast and inland grasslands is a host of exquisite springtime wildflowers. From the golden poppy, the very essence of California, to lupines, to owl’s clover and goldfields, California’s fleeting seasonal burst of color is truly something to behold.

One of my favorite annual wildflowers has always been tidy-tips. Perhaps as much for its quaint common name as its appearance, tidy-tips always catches my eye. This member of the daisy family (Asteraceae), is a short-lived, low-growing annual. Tidy-tips has glandular, unscented herbage. Leaves are one- quarter inch to four inches long, linear to oblanceolate, and sometimes fleshy. The lower leaves are often lobed. Inflorescences are made up of bright yellow disk flowers and yellow ray flowers distinctly tipped with white. In the Bay Area, flowers appear from March to May.

The genus Layia is named for George Tradescant Lay (1792-1845), botanist on the ship HMS Blossom which visited California in 1827. It was on this same vessel that Captain Frederick W. Beechy misinterpreted Juan Manual de Ayala’s 1775 map of San Francisco Bay, assigning the name Isla de las Alcatraces to what is now known as Alcatraz. The island originally assigned this name was then christened by Captain Beechy as Yerba Buena Island.

Tidy-tips is one of 14 species in the genus occurring in California, all of which are restricted to the state (with the exception of the widely distributed Layia glandulosa). In fact, all of the species of Layia occurring in North America can be found here. For those who care, tidy-tips belongs to the tarweed tribe Heliantheae, which also includes such genera as Madia, Hemizonia, Centromadia, Holocarpha, Blepharizonia, and Achyrachaena, among others.

Tidy-tips is distributed in the northwestern, central western, and southwestern regions of the state, as well as the Central Valley. It occurs mostly below 6,500 feet in elevation, and is found in chaparral, foothill woodland, northern coastal scrub, valley and foothill grassland, and yellow pine forest habitats.

In A Flora of San Francisco, California (1958), Howell, Raven, and Rubtzoff cite recorded locations for tidy-tips at Point Lobos, Sunset Heights, Lake Merced, Twin Peaks, San Miguel Hills, Potrero, and on serpentine at the Presidio and Hunters Point. In San Francisco County, it is only extant in the Presidio, at Inspiration Point in relatively thin serpentine soils, and has been extirpated from all other locations. Given its limited distribution in San Francisco, the Yerba Buena Chapter of the CNPS has placed tidy-tips on its list of locally-significant plant species. It is not otherwise regarded as a special-status species by the California Department of Fish and Game and has no protected status as a rare plant under state or federal law.

Tidy-tips is uncommon on San Bruno Mountain, occurring in grasslands in Colma Canyon and on the Ridge Trail. Elsewhere on the Peninsula, it occurs at Mori Point, Crystal Springs Reservoir, Sawyer Ridge, near La Honda, Woodside, near Stanford, Black Mountain, San Jose, Swanton, near Mill Creek, Hilton Airport, near Felton, and near Mount Hermon. In the East Bay, tidy-tips can be found in the East Bay Hills at Mt. Diablo, Altamont Hills, Livermore Valley, Antioch Dunes, and the Mt. Hamilton area. In the North Bay, it occurs on Mount Tamalpais, Tiburon, Inverness Ridge, and the Point Reyes Peninsula. It is uncommon in Sonoma County.

Spring is coming. Last year’s floral display was phenomenal. Unfortunately, that’s no guarantee that 2006 will be a repeat as the bloom varies tremendously from year to year. Nonetheless, it’s a good time to start planning a visit to your favorite springtime destinations. For a splendid display of annual wildflowers (including tidy-tips) close to home, try Mori Point south of Pacifica. Shoot for May, when you can wander the cliff tops in the sunshine, overlooking the Pacific, while surrounding yourself in a spectacular burst of color.