Plant Species of the Borrego Desert: Boraginaceae: Cryptantha species, Popcorn Flowers


Table of Contents

Introduction
How To Identify Our Most Common Three Species (C. angustifolia, C. barbigera and C. maritima)
How To Identify the Other Species
      C. decipiens and C. utahensis
List of Species, Abundances, Geographic Ranges, Habit and Habitat
Species Pages
      C. angustifolia
      Cryptantha barbigera vars. barbigera, fergusoniae and C. intermedia
      C. micrantha
      C. pterocarya


Introduction

Cryptantha species have a reputation for being hard to distinguish, since the characteristics that separate the species in the keys are all minute, and few of them show up in a photograph of the flower. However, nearly all of our species are distinctive enough that they can be immediately recognized in the field at a glance, especially the most common species.

Of course, it is not a piece of cake to learn how to recognize them in the field; it will take some work. It took me several years of studying them in the field before I was able to recognize most of the species at a glance, and even after that, I sometimes needed to refresh my knowledge from year to year for species I don't see regularly. But it is hard to underestimate how incredibly pleased I was when I no longer had to make detailed measurements on specimens to identify them!

When I teach fellow botanists how to distinguish the species, it generally takes a full season for them to pick up the gestalt differences and the key observations needed. So don't expect you can read this page and then become able to distinguish all of our Cryptantha species! You need to go out in the field and study them.

Nearly all of our Cryptantha species can be distinguished by simple measurements of the width of the flower and the length of the calyx in flower and fruit. These measurements can easily be obtained from a photograph of the flowers from the side that also includes a scale like one's finger. Only a few species require observations of the seeds (called nutlets), even though it is widely thought that nutlets are necessary to identify all species of Cryptantha. This is how I learned the species of Cryptanthas here, and what I used to learn and validate my early deductions from visual recognition.

This page formerly held a formal key to our Cryptantha species, along with a table of their distinguishing characteristics. While that page is still accurate, it usually is unnecessary to go into such detail to distinguish our species.

Although we are rich with Cryptantha species in the Borrego Desert, with 16 clearly-separate taxa, we have three species that are much more common than the others, collectively being about 2/3 of all Cryptantha plants in the entire Borrego Desert, and an even higher percentage of the Cryptantha plants found on the desert floor. Most of the other Cryptantha species live in the canyons and mountains slopes above the desert floor.

None of our Cryptantha species are like the namesake of this genus, which had inconspicuous flowers that self-fertilized without opening, and thus was named from the Greek krypto, "to hide, hidden," and anthos, "flower," and thus meaning "hidden flower" (Charters 2009).

Btw, taxonomists have been busy and the genus Cryptantha has been split into four genera. The three "new" genera are all very old names that were restored. I'll ignore the new names to keep these pages in conformity with the published Jepson Manual Second Edition.

How To Identify Our Most Common Three Species

Our three most common species are

These can usually be identified at a glance, as shown in the photographs below! After you get familiar with these taxa, which will take some time in the field studying Cryptanthas, you can even identify them from a standing position.

Fig. 1 shows pictures of entire plants of these three taxa, all taken from the same area at the same time, to show how different they look (details on how to discriminate them are given below). If you have a picture of a Cryptantha from the Borrego Desert, and it is one of these three taxa (odds are 61% that this is true), all you really need to do is match pictures of the plant to get the determination. And since most of the other Cryptantha species look distinctly different from these three species, if your picture doesn't match, you may well have one of our other 13 taxa.


C. angustifolia on the left, with long narrow leaves (that's what angustifolia means) and larger flowers. C. maritima on the right, with tiny flowers and much different leaves. Note the pen at upper right for scale.

C. barbigera var. barbigera, showing a much more robust plant, with wider leaves than either of the other two species.
Fig. 1. Photographs of the three most common Cryptantha species, all from the Alcoholic Pass trailhead from 23 February 2010. Click on the pictures for larger versions.

Table 1 gives more information about each of these three taxa, including where they live and how to identify them, including links to pictures that show the characteristics.

Table 1. The Three Most Common Species of Cryptantha in the Borrego Desert

Scientific NameCommon NameHabitatIdentification Tips
Cryptantha angustifolianarrow-leaved cryptantha Flattish, sandy areas, often occurring in fields with many plants, generally below 1000 feet elevation, but up to 1730 feet Its flowers are strongly in two parallel rows on each inflorescence branch, especially in age, looking like marching soldiers. Other species also have flowers in two parallel rows, but they don't look quite like the ones of this species.

Its flowers are usually larger than those of the other two species, and range from 1 to 5 mm in width.

Cryptantha barbigera var. barbigerabearded cryptantha Everyplace, especially among boulders, typically at their base, from the desert floor to at least 5450 feet elevation. The calyx is very fuzzy wuzzy, looking very "bearded", just like its common name. However, it takes a bit of experience in paying attention to Cryptantha species to pick up this gestalt, since nearly all Cryptanthas have a bristly calyx. The flowers often just barely peek out of the calyx, enhancing the fuzzy-wuzzy appearance.

This species has a longer calyx in flower and fruit than the other two species, usually longer than 4 mm in fl and up to 9-10 mm in fruit. Its flower is intermediate in size of these three species, with a width of 1 to 3 mm.

This species is more robust than the other two, with bigger, wider leaves.

Cryptantha maritimaGuadalupe cryptantha Dry areas below 1235 feet elevation The entire plant is harsh-bristly, and can be identified even as a dead skeleton from the persistent harsh bristles.

This has the tiniest flowers of these three species, with a flower only 0.5 to 1.5 mm in width.

How To Identify the Other Species

C. decipiens and C. utahensis

C. decipiens and C. utahensis are often recognizable at a glance as well, at least in age. When the plant is just beginning to bloom, they are somewhat similar in appearance, and are more difficult to tell apart.

Fig. 2 shows mature inflorescences of each species side by side. In addition to the large scale differences, the mature fruit of C. decipiens is ascending-appressed to the inflorescence axis, and the calyx has a constriction toward the tip, with the calyx lobes spreading apart above that constriction.

Fig. 2. The mature inflorescences of C. utahensis (left) and C. decipiens (right). The flowers are mostly finished in these inflorescences and closed up; see photograph of fresh flowers for C. decipiens. Click on the picture for a larger version.


Pictures of other species will be added in the future.

List of Species, Abundances, Geographic Ranges, Habit and Habitat

(not provided yet)

Species Pages

C. angustifolia

Cryptantha barbigera vars. barbigera, fergusoniae and C. intermedia

C. micrantha

C. pterocarya


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Comments and feedback: Tom Chester
Updated 23 January 2016