Along the Path: A Young Person’s Guide to Exploring Nature

Sunflower Surprises

By Susan Rothrock Deo

What looks like a single flower may be hundreds of tiny flowers.

Southern California’s rainy season will soon be upon us — we hope! The hills will be alive with sunny golden flowers. Tall, ethereal mustard with its cloud of pale yellow flowers is one of these. That’s an “imported” plant, however, not native to our landscape, but beautiful nonetheless. The native plant that catches my eye the most is the California bush sunflower, Encelia californica. I love its golden yellow, cheery flowers. To me it’s one of the greatest examples of adaptation around. Most of the year the plant looks dead: no real leaves to speak of, brittle brown stems with no green color, and no flowers. But give Encelia the suggestion of water, even the tiniest of misting, and it comes alive; leaves appear and flowers burst out all over its many branches. California bush sunflower knows how to survive in our warm, dry climate. It’s an opportunist. It colonizes disturbed areas, but is also a main resident of our special California sage scrub, the native habitat we recognize most around the South Bay, especially in Palos Verdes.

In the fall, new growth begins on the plants. Then, when the rains begin, you see the real changes. Encelia californica has a strong odor and is rough to the touch. This perennial (a plant that comes back year after year) bush with its semi-woody stems grows to about five feet tall. It has dark green leaves, about two inches long that are green on both sides. The leaves “alternate” up the stem (no two are directly across from each other). The California bush sunflower blooms from March to June in our coastal sage scrub habitat, though you can find some blooming almost year round in places where they get natural – or human-provided – watering.

Our sunflower is related to the tall garden sunflower we grow for its edible seeds and its beauty. Sunflowers are composites, a special group of flowering plants. Each of their “flowers” is not what we normally think of as a single flower, like a rose or tulip. Instead, each sunflower is a “composite” of tens to hundreds of little flowers of two types! How can this be? Let’s start with the botanical definition of a flower: the reproductive structure of a seed-bearing plant. The flower is where a seed begins. So one big garden sunflower can produce many sunflower seeds because each flower head is a “composite” of many tiny flowers. It is the same with the California bush sunflower. The so called “petals” that extend like the sun’s golden rays from the central dark brown disk are individual ray flowers, each with one long, visible petal. And the central disk is made up of hundreds of tiny disk flowers jam-packed together, each of them capable of producing a seed.

On your next nature walk bring a magnifying glass and get up close and personal with these amazing flowers.

Susan Deo has taught life science and environmental education from preschool through college. A docent with Los Serenos de Point Vicente, she has published short stories and essays and is working on picture books and middle grade novels.

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