Economy of the Vegetable Kingdom

darlingtonia bog

Serpentine California

California contains an amazing range of climate and landscape, and within that, a diversity of plants. Rare plants are more likely to be found in a unique environment and California excels in unique environments.

Over 44% of all vascular (plants having roots, shoots, stems, and leaves to tap into soil, air and sunlight) plant species worldwide are endemic to one of the 25 hotspots of biodiversity that cover less than 2% of the land surface on Earth
Norman Myers, 2000

California is one of those hotspots with close to 2000 plants found nowhere else on earth. Some of our most unusual residents live in tiny pockets of particular habitat. These pockets are like islands where many of the plants look nothing like those in the areas that surround them. Some of our rare plants also specialize in serpentine soils (low in normal essential nutrients, high in magnesium, iron, toxic heavy metals, nickel, and chromium); in California, around 215 plant varieties only grow in serpentine soils. Serpentine regions of California represent only about one percent of the land surface, or about 1,600 square miles of habitat. This is the largest exposure of serpentine in North America. Serpentine is also California's State Rock, declared so in 1965. We were, of course, the first state to name a state rock.

Coyote Ridge is one of our local examples of a serpentine habitat. In this case, grasslands provide a home to the endangered Santa Clara Valley dudleya (Dudleya setchellii) as well as other rare or endangered species. The University of California Botanical Garden in Berkeley is another nearby destination to get a glimpse of a serpentine display established by Roger Raiche.

Darlingtonia Californica

A particularly unique environment is the bog or fen, one of California's wetland habitats. Bogs and fens support some of the most engaging native plants in the United States, carnivorous plants. The fact that these plants derive nutrition from insects rather than soil allows them to thrive in conditions where other plants fail.

darlingtonia californica

Darlingtonia californica (the Cobra Lily or California pitcher plant) is a pitfall pitcher plant, it attracts insects through color and scent. Once insects climb inside they are trapped by downward-pointing hairs preventing them from climbing out. Transparent windows on the plants dome also trick insects into heading for false exits. Once trapped they are digested by symbiotic bacteria and other commensals that live inside the pitcher. Darlingtonia also grow along streams and can be found only in northern California and up into southern Oregon.

You can visit them in two accessible sites in California, the Darlingtonia Trail along the Smith River National Recreation Area and Butterfly Valley Botanical Area in Plumas National Forest. Butterfly Valley is named for its resemblance to a butterfly shape as seen from aerial photos. During the 1870s, Rebecca Merritt Austin (1832-1919), a teacher and citizen scientist, spent many days in Butterfly near Quincy, studying the unusual plants of the area. She made a large number of detailed observations, conducted experiments and collected specimens, contributing greatly to our knowledge of these plants today.

darlingtonia flowers

Mrs. Austin sat down by a splendid plant and at once commenced the close scrutiny which she has continued to give the living plant so many weeks and months since. Some 11 patches of Darlintonia she has found in and around Butterfly, generally clustered around cool springs on a southern slope and at an elevation of about 4000 to 5000 feet. Another insect-devouring plant grows in the same bogs with it, Drosera rotundifolia; and on both these plants Mrs. Austin has bestowed observation and experiment that will be read with interest in lands beyond the sea, for she is as good at noting and reporting as at experimenting.

J. G. Lemmon

darlingtonia flower

The flowers of the Darlingtonia plant are very distinct and slightly separate from the main body. Peak blooming season is May through July.

leopard lily

Companion plants grow in bog or fen areas including the Leopard Lily or California Tiger Lily (Lilium pardalinum). California Lady Slipper orchids (Cypripedium californicum) can sometimes be found along with the California Coneflower (Rudbeckia californicum) and a variety of other serpentine tolerant plant life.


Another carnivorous plant, Drosera rotundifolia, the roundleaf sundew, can grow nearby in similar areas. These are also perennials native to California and across North America. Sundews exude a sticky substance that traps insects. Two more local carnivores are Pinguicula macroceras (the California butterwort or horned butterwort) found on serpentine rock outcroppings along streams and rivers and Utricularia macrorhiza (a common bladderwort) found in lakes, ponds, wet marshes, and rivers and streams.

Things to Do

Populations in the wild are declining because of habitat destruction and over-collection. You can visit wildlife and botanical preserves to see our flora out in the wild. You can find many varieties of native plants to include in a home garden in order to create your own habitat to enjoy. Our local Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority and Santa Clara Valley Native Plant Society Chapter have events, classes and more. The Urban Open Space Grant Program is still open for applications through August 26th for Public Agencies, Schools and School Districts, and Non-profits.

Learn More

Follow these links to learn more about places to visit:

Follow these links to learn more about carnivorous plants:

Read More

Read more about it at the Library:

Explore the California Room

Check out these items in the California Room:

pacific rural press

The Pacific Rural Press, Volume 9, Number 13, March 27, 1875
Economy of the Vegetable Kingdom, Professor C. E. Bessey



So many links, so much to study. Thanks again for another great science adventure: places to go, things to do, books to read.

I look forward to the journey myself!

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