By Alice Friedemann
About every 20 years the Carrizo plains, between Fresno and Paso Robles, bursts into fields of brilliant flowers so beautiful you won’t want to go back to work – suddenly you realize you’ve wasted your life and you’d rather picnic forever in fields of popcorn flowers, goldfields, and orange wind poppies.
Even ordinary years are beautiful.
The last time I was there I was on a botany field trip. We rocketed there in a white rental van, screaming past other cars. I was riding shot-gun in front, ready to grab the wheel at any moment in case the teacher, Stew, let go of the wheel while identifying plants at 70 miles per hour. After half an hour off the freeway, we wound through flower covered hills until something caught Stew’s eye and the van lurched to a quick stop by the side of the road.
Stew bounded up the slope, and the rest of us followed, not nearly as quickly, though I did suddenly rocket into the air before my brain could register what was happening. I had almost stepped on a rattle snake. His sleek body was heaped in loops and coils, and he didn’t make a sound, just stared at me from the shadows of the brush. One of the other students came rushing over and said the heart pounding I must have felt would be like running a mile, and I certainly agreed with him!
Stew had meanwhile slipped through strands of barbed wire to get to a large patch of scarlet onions he’d seen from the road.
Stew looks like the top half of a satyr, and could match Pan with his lust for life. In the modern world, he’s the god of native plants – you could drop him anywhere in California, Oregon, or Nevada and he’d know exactly where he was by what plants were around him. And like Pan, he’s full of mischief. I found some very odd leaves and berries on the ground, and when I asked what they were, he threw his arms around me and shouted to my husband below that he was going to kiss me as he dangled what I realized must be the mistletoe I’d found.
It seemed like the best flowers were always on nearly vertical slopes. Stew, all long arms and legs, gamboled up like a big spider while the rest of us gingerly tested each foothold, trying not to twist an ankle or fall.
The hills on the way to the Carrizo plain were dancing with yellow buttercups, tidytips and who knows what else, because here’s how plant people talk: “well, that must be in the Scrophulariaceae because it’s got bisexual calyx lobes and its fruit is septicidal, so it must be verbascum”.
That’s as Greek to me as it is to you, although I’ve had courses where I learned these terms. But my brain has yet to pollinate and flower in Latin, let alone memorize names like Asclepiadacea, Krascheninnikovia.
Yet if you don’t know the hundreds of terms used to describe plants, you can never become a botanic Sherlock Holmes, thumb through the nine pound Jepson manual, and key out which of the 5800 of species of plants you’re looking at.
I have to admit, I’m very fond of common names, which is frowned on in the botanic world since people call different plants the same common name. If you’ve ever been to Atlanta, Georgia then you know what I mean – every other street name has the word peach in it and it doesn’t take long before you’re completely lost.
But the sheer poetry of the common flower names in the Carrizo plains is wonderful, such as blow-wives, button celery, biscuit root, hog fennel, woolly marbles, mule fat, brickelbush, cheeseweed, snake’s head, silver puffs, spiny hop-sage, and witch’s hair.
The best time to go is late March and early April — call the Bureau of Land Management or find a wildflower trip report on the internet, since the best time to go varies from year to year.
After 25 years, Alice Friedemann managed to escape her day job as a systems engineer and architect. When she’s not traveling, throwing dinner parties, reading non-fiction, baking, volunteering to take 4th and 5th graders on hikes at Audubon Canyon Ranch, gardening, or walking, she’s in the back yard with her husband Jeffery listening to the birds and breezes, watching redwoods sway, and enjoying the cats, squirrels, scrub jays, skunks and other wildlife that roam our back yard. She’s been baking with whole grains for ten years, and spent the past three years making many batches of chips and crackers, which resulted in her cookbook “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers.”