Tidy Tips, an overlooked California superbloom superstar

The news of California’s superbloom has probably reached your newsfeeds, or at least one of them. Blazing bright orange poppies, tall purple stalks of lupines, and endless patches of bright yellow dots have been covering hillsides through central and southern California. Of course, shades of deep pink, bright white, lush green, golden hues and everything natural in between can be enjoyed by those who seek it. One of the more common flowers that folks will be enjoying are tidytips, of the genus Layia. While most people will call any daisy-esc flower with a yellow inside and white tips, there are many many species of tidytips. In this blog, I’m going to explore some of those tidy tips I’ve seen this spring. One of them smells like banana candies, two are quite rare, and the others have their own unique features to appreciate, and the last one you can plant in your own garden! 

Genus Layia

For context, the genus Layia is a group of annual daisy-like flowering plants native to North and Central America, in the Asteraceae family. They are commonly known as tidy tips due to their distinctive flower heads with yellow rays (“petals”) which often have white or cream-colored tips. While their distinctive petal color pattern somewhat makes sense for their common name, the genus was named after Naturalist George Tradescant Lay. Some species are cultivated as ornamental plants, while others are important components of natural habitats and are used for erosion control and soil stabilization. They are generally easy to grow and maintain, making them a popular choice for gardeners and landscapers.

Now onto four Layia species we observed this spring:

Pale-yellow Layia, Layia heterotricha

If I told you this one smelled like banana cream pie or banana artificial flavor would you believe me? Well too bad, it’s true! Whether you like the taste of fake banana candies, this plant’s signature scent is one of its key characteristics! 

We went after this species in Carrizo Plain National Monument, located in San Luis Obispo County, and the site of one of California’s best spots to see the 2023 superbloom. But you won’t find this plant by looking out the window, or even on a short jaunt into the hills. This bebe took some effort! But it was worth it for the whiffs of a tropical banana and apple floral concoction. 

Blooms: April – June 

Habitat: Open clayey or sandy soil, sometimes  in alkaline soils in Cismontane woodland, coastal scrub, pinyon and juniper woodland, valley and foothill grassland

Floristic Provinces: South Sierra Nevada Foothills, Tehachapi Mountains, San Joaquin Valley, Inner and Outer South Coast Ranges, Western Transverse Ranges

Distinguishing Features: 

  • No disk pappus
  • Plant is glandular
  • Apple/banana scented
  • Basal rosette leaves usually minutely dentate to minutely serrate (coarsely toothed)
  • Ray corolla is white or cream colored 

Endangered, but holding on:

This Layia is endangered, it has a rare plant rank of 1B.1, the rarest of the rare in California botanical speak. So like any other endangered plant or animal, this species used to be much more abundant, which is also apparent in herbarium collections. So what happened? Its significant decline has been due to agricultural conversion, grazing intensity, expansion of non-native annual grasses as well as road and wind energy development. More existing sites may go unnoticed as some populations “appear only in very wet years” (CNPS Rare Plant Inventory). This could be the case with the population we saw, and that population was very colonial, which has also been noted for this species (CNPS Rare Plant Inventory). 

Layia pentachaeta ssp. albida

This lovely Layia we observed at a somewhat odd place. While it felt like we were trespassing while driving through citrus groves. But the spot (Lat: 35.305586 Lon: -118.800169) is actually open to the public. Unfortunately its a bit of a trash heap, and located at a cell tower. Dodging trash, and between flipping boards for lizards Layia pentachaeta ssp. albida stood tall and bright, even amongst the other flowering natives. 

Blooms: March-May

Habitat: Grassy or open areas of clay or sandy soils

Floristic Provinces: South Sierra Nevada Foothills, Tehachapi Mountain Area, San Joaquin Valley, Inner South Coast Ranges

Distinguishing Features:

  • No disk pappus
  • Plant glandular
  • Stem is not purple-streaked
  • Involucre is more or less hemispheric 
  • Plant is strongly lemon or acrid scented
  • Anthers yellow to brown
  • Yellow Rays

How to separate it from other Layias:

“It is separable from subsp. pentachaeta, the yellow-rayed Layia of the Sierran foothills to
the north of it, principally by the flower-color. On the other hand, subsp. albida is
suggestive of L. glandulosa subsp. glandulosa, which occurs in the same geographic
area, for the two possess common whitish rays, hirsute or hispid herbage, and a
similar habit. In fact, albida is readily separable from that form of glandulosa bearing
no inner wool on the pappus only by its more numerous and slenderer pappus-bristles.
Usually, however, the herbage, leaf-cut, and odor are also distinctive guides, and no
true intergrades between the species have been discovered.” Expert taken from Taxonomic Notes on the California Flora, 1958

Munz’s Tidytips, Layia munzii

At the end of march in Carrizo Plains the temps were cool, and the ground was saturated, so it was quite a chilly and muddy morning. With our extra layers on and our feet getting globs of alkali soil stuck to our feet, we looked around the southern part of Soda Lake (which had water) in search of a few different plants. One of those plants was Munz’s Tidytips, and we found ooodles of them! Yahoo! This beauty is rated as a 1B.2 plant, meaning it’s endemic to California and is fairly threatened .

Blooms: March-April
Habitat: Alkali clay soils in wetland-riparian, occasionally elsewhere in shadscale and chenopod scrub, valley and foothill grassland
Floristic Provinces: San Joaquin Valley

Distinguishing Features:

  • Disk pappus present
  • plant glandular
  • Paleae in 1 series
  • Disk pappus elliptic or lance-linear to ovate (not bristle-like)
  • Ray is proximally yellow and distally white
  • Anthers dark purple
  • Ray flowers 6-15 in 1 series
  • Stem not purple-streaked
  • Found in San Joaquin Valley

Interesting historical tidbit:

An article titled Rare Species as Examples of Plant Evolution from the “Great Basin Memoirs,” by G. Ledyard Stebbins looks at the evolution of a variety of plant species, including Layia species, one being, Layia munzii, the other two L. jonesii, and L. leucopappa. All three can hybridize easily and the hybrid is partly fertile, as these species occupy neighboring spots within the same overall area. In the paper, Stebbins writes that “the climate of this region was drastically changed in the Pleistocene. It seems likely that the splitting of these three populations from each other was post-Pleistocene, about six to eight thousand years ago.” The paper goes on to say that “L. munzii can be found in the small valleys of the inner south coast range . . .and is on the borderline of being rare in a dry season, but is certainly not endangered.”

Tidy Tips, Layia platyglossa

The phrase is normally “best for last,” but I saved the “most common for last.” We’ve seen these all over central and south California. It likes a variety of habitats from the high desert to valley floors. Like other native plants, their populations were reduced once Europeans arrived with their agricultural aspirations and domestic livestock obsession. It used to be naturally found in the Mojave Desert, Arizona, and Utah in dry low-elevation habitats. Nowadays you can find it in California, Mexico, Baja California, and even on Guadalupe Island (Pacific Ocean).

Blooms: February-May
Habitat: Slopes in Northern Coastal Scrub, Yellow Pine Forest, Foothill Woodland, Chaparral, Valley Grassland, and other plant communities. It also can be found outside of California in western N Am.
Floristic Provinces: found in 18 floristic provinces ranging throughout the state

Distinguishing Features:

  • No disk pappus
  • Plant glandular
  • Unscented
  • Basal leaves lobed (not minutely dentate to minutely serrate)
  • Stem not purple-streaked, involucre more or less hemispheric
  • Ray yellow throughout or distally white
  • Anthers are more or less purple but sometimes yellow to brown in the southwestern part of it’s range

For the gardeners:

Unlike the other Layia in this blog post, Layia platyglossa is cultivated and can be found in commercial wildflower seed mixes. Plant native plants folks! It’s the easiest switch you can do as a gardener or homeowner! The species is also used in habitat restoration projects, because not only is it a good plant for pollinators for insects like native bees, it’s seeds are desired by birds for food.

Field of mostly Layia heterotricha in Carrizo Plain NM
In conclusion. . .

The Layia flower genus offers an excellent opportunity to experience and appreciate the natural beauty of California, especially during this spring’s superbloom. But never fear you can find these most species in a normal year. In addition to their striking yellow and white petals, Layia flowers also serve an essential ecological role in providing a habitat for pollinators. By exploring the natural world and appreciating the beauty of flowers like Layias, you can gain a greater understanding and appreciation for the environment and the importance of protecting it, and they are ding dang dong adorable.

References & useful links:


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