Thursday, February 13, 2020

Go and Catch a Falling Star

Padre's shooting star, Primula clevelandii: is a beautiful, ethereal and ephemeral native wildflower that blooms in winter and is one of the first harbingers of spring in Malibu and throughout the Santa Monica Mountains.

Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind.

—John Donne, "Song"

In a wet year, shooting stars flourish, covering whole hillsides with delicate pink stars. 

It's easy to catch a shooting star in Malibu in February, when Padre's shooting star, a beautiful and ephemeral native wildflower, blooms, but this flowering is short-lived. Look fast to catch a glimpse of this rare beauty.

You know how they always tell you to memorize the scientific names of plants because thay remain constant? That is not also so. Padre's shooting star was recently reclassified from Dodecatheon clevelandii to Primula clevelandii. The change to primula highlight's this flower's place in the primrose family. Like garden varieties of primrose, P. clevelandii grows from a rosette of leaves. Clevelandii is in honor of San Diego civic leader and avid amateur naturalist Daniel Cleveland.

Daniel Cleveland (1838-1929) founded banks, facilitated railroads, hospitals, schools, libraries—buying 2000 books to start a San Diego library, and co-founded the Natural History Society of San Diego. In return, he is remembered in a host of scientific names for California flora and fauna, including Primula clevelandii.

Spring of 2020 isn't going to be a super bloom—early rain dried out quickly, leaving poor conditions for most wildflowers, but the shooting stars got an early start and are experiencing a moderately strong year.  I photographed this field of stars on the Conejo Valley side of the Santa Monica Mountains. This species likes the kind of north-facing hillside with rain seepage. Because it blooms early, it rarely faces competition from other plants.

Padre's shooting stars range from soft pink to cherry pink to almost white. This is the only member of the primula family in the Santa Monica Mountains, but  that pen-nib-shaped flower is a reminder that the exotic-looking cyclamens one buys at the nursery for a bit of winter color in the house are also members of the primula family.

An almost white shooting star. The only one in a vast field of pink.

You are more likely to spot this beautiful wildflower on the north side of the Santa Monica Mountains, especially in volcanic soils. This is a protected species, so please take only photographs and be careful not to step on the rosettes of leaves—this species is sensitive to soil compression and won't bloom again if it is trampled.

Shooting stars grow from a basal rosette of leaves. Like the garden variety of primrose, this plant is "spring deciduous," dying back after blooming and regrowing from its roots after the first winter rains.

The star-like flowers quickly turn into balloon-like seed capsules. When the seeds are mature, the capsule bursts open, shooting the seeds far and wide like a mini catapult.

The previous year's flower skeletons can provide a welcome clue of where to look for flowers the following year.

This year's flowers blooming among the ghosts of last year's bloom.

So, go and catch a shooting star, but hurry, because like the celestial phenomenon this beautiful flower is named for, it is a fleeting beauty, and this year's flowering will be shorter than usual due to dry conditions and drying winds. 

At the risk of jinxing myself by putting it in print, I'm hoping this post will be the first in a new series of natural history posts in 2020. If you enjoy the Malibu Post, blog please follow us on Instagram @malibupost, check out, where I write biweekly articles on nature, history and the environment, and look for a second volume of my book "Life in Malibu," arriving in time for the holidays.

Thanks for reading! Hope to see you here again soon,

Suzanne Guldimann
February 12, 2020

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