Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the May 8, 2005 Newsletter issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills somewhat east of Placerville, California, USA
FOOLED BY MUSTANG CLOVER

A while back on a walk with Fred -- he in his battery-powered, belt-tracked wheelchair -- we came upon a pretty bank of plants with very slender, unbranched stems bearing whorls of narrow, green leaves at their many stem nodes. Fred asked what they were and with a glance I said they looked like horsetails. "But I'm pretty sure I've seen this plant flowering," Fred replied, aware that horsetails, being very primitive spore producers, don't even bear flowers.

I took a closer look and, sure enough, flower buds were forming in the leaves' axils. Here was something unlike anything I'd ever seen. All I could do was to wait until flowers were produced.

This week the flowers appeared and I am just amazed. The instant I saw the clusters of pinkish white, salverform blossoms with tiny stamens attached to the corolla tube I knew I had something very near a Phlox. Knowing it was a member of the Phlox Family, the Polemoniaceae, it was easy to determine that the mystery plant was Mustang Clover, LINANTHUS MONTANUS. Of course Mustang Clover isn't a clover at all. This comes of cowboys and goldminers getting to name your plants. Anyway you can see the plant at www.mlode.com/~janetc/MustangClover.html

Time and time again since I've been here I've made such mistakes. A quick glance assures me that it's one thing, but then a closer look proves that it's another. In the same way that once you're into a new piece of music you can halfway guess what the rest of the piece will sound like, I've grown so used to how the Eastern Deciduous Forest Region puts itself together that I can make pretty good guesses about any new discoveries that come my way. But, here, the ecosystem's music tricks my expectations every chance it gets. It's like listening to a flute player in Timbuktu.

Well, it's good to be reminded to keep paying attention to things, not just assume things are what they seem, and to expect the world to throw me for a loop at any time. Moreover, I'm glad the reminder comes in the form of flower names and not something more organic or dangerous.