Scientific Name: Achyrachaena mollis
Family Name: Sunflower (Asteraceae). Includes garden favorites like daisies, marigolds, chrysanthemums, dahlias, and zinnias, as well as less favored dandelions and thistles. Family relatives at Edgewood include tidy tips, mule ears, yarrow, sagebrush, coyote brush, pineapple weed, thistles, and tarweeds. Plants in this family make one or both of two kinds of flowers, which combine (or not) to create three kinds of flower heads. Sunflowers and mule ears have both; ray flowers ring the outside and disk flowers fill the middle. Some, like pineapple weed growing in the trails, have disk flowers only. Others, like some dandelions, have ray flowers only. Blow wives have both: orange-red ray flowers and yellow-red disk flowers.
Description: The large white flower heads grow on a soft-hairy stem that can get about 16 inches (40 cm) tall. Crowning each seed are two series of papery scales that differ in length, which may contribute to the helicopter-like spin when blown off the stem, and certainly contributes beauty. Pay close attention to the scales to avoid confusion with less showy parachuting relatives. For more, see Jepson’s eFlora description.
Notes: Blow-wives are unusual because they are easily missed when in full bloom (bottom left photo), but hard to ignore when fully in fruit (bottom right photo).
They don’t “open” until ready to deploy seeds, then produce a showy round head. Like Tidy Tips, the name seems to be both singular and plural: “Look, dear, that’s a blow-wives!” This makes sense when you consider that these are composite flowers, so what people loosely refer to as a “flower” is actually a head of multiple flowers, each producing a single seed. Each ripe seed is equipped with shiny white scales that create a propeller-like parachute that catches the wind. If you find one of the seeds on the ground near the plant, pick it up and let it drop to watch it twirl to the ground—or catch and ride the wind.
Finding it at Edgewood: Blow-wives bloom from April to May. It’s abundant in Edgewood’s grasslands, especially along the Serpentine Loop and on the Sylvan Trail. See map below.
Corelli, T. Flowering Plants of Edgewood Natural Preserve. Half Moon Bay, CA: Monocot Press, 2004.
Information compiled by Carolyn Strange and Anna Lee