Author photo

By Jon Hammond
contributing writer 

Bird's Eye Gilia: a beautiful flower with secret markings

Land of Four Seasons

 

April 27, 2024



Jon Hammond.

In favorable years like this one, Bird's Eye Gilia grows in profusion.

This wildflower year in the Tehachapi Mountains may not be a superbloom (whatever that means), but a slightly wetter than usual winter and spring has produced some beautiful flowering events here and there. One of the species that benefitted from this year's conditions is a gorgeous low-growing wildflower named Bird's Eye Gilia.

This flower is not on most people's "wildflower must-see" list, but it should be, because these little blossoms are charmingly beautiful. Bird's Eye Gilia even has secret markings that people are unable to see. They are native to California, and are found all around the Central Valley, on the hillsides and mountains that surround that enormous plain.

Because of their beauty and pleasant fragrance, Bird's Eye Gilia (Gilia tricolor) are grown in gardens throughout Europe and England, where these annuals thrive. They are so popular as an ornamental plant, in fact, that gardeners across the Atlantic may be more familiar with them than people living here, where Bird's Eye Gilia grows wild.

One thing is certain about plants in the Gilia genus: Kern County is one of their favorite places to grow. Kern County has an incredible 28 different species and an additional 10 subspecies of Gilia. It is the second largest plant genus in the county, outnumbered only by the first place finisher, Eriogonum, the wild buckwheats, which number 37 species and 9 subspecies.

So Kern County has many different Gilia species. Bird's Eye Gilia's specific name is tricolor because each of the flowers actually has three distinct colors. The most noticeable is the violet or lilac blue outer edge of each petal, which gives a colony of Bird's Eye Gilia a distinctive purplish appearance when viewed from an angle, like when you're looking up a hillside at them.

The middle part of the petals is white, which is most noticeable when you are standing over them, looking down at a blooming cluster of them. And then the lowest part of the petals, which are fused together into a tube, is actually yellow, though you have to peer closely to see this color. They also have pale blue stamens.

But there is another color, which we cannot not see: ultraviolet. There are some flowers, like Gilia and some other members of the Polemoniaceae, or Phlox family, that use ultraviolet markings on their flowers to help pollinators reach the reproductive parts of the flower.

Called nectar guides, these are lines on the petals that direct insects to the pollen and nectar. Butterflies and bees can see hues on the ultraviolet part of the color spectrum that are invisible to humans.

These markings are like traffic lane lines or parking lot stripes to guide insects to where they want to be – where the nectar and pollen are. This helps the make the pollination process more efficient.

While many insects can see ultraviolet, humans and most mammals cannot, with a few exceptions. Certain rodents and bats can see ultraviolet, though scientists are unsure why. Reindeer can also see ultraviolet, a talent they use to help them find lichen to eat in the Arctic.

Some birds can perceive ultraviolet as well, and there are raptors who can see ultraviolet given off by traces of urine left in vegetation along rodent trails. So when flying above, hawks can look down and spot mouse trails in the grass more easily.

Because birds of prey are sometimes killed in collisions with wind turbine blades, there were once proposals to paint portions of wind turbine blades with ultraviolet paint, which would be invisible to people but might help raptors see and avoid the spinning turbine blades.

Research (and a certain amount of common sense) determined that hawks, falcons or eagles don't fly into the rotor path of turbine blades because they can't see them. It is more likely that raptors are so focused on other things, like hunting or migration, that they simply underestimate the dangers that the turbines pose. So marking wind turbine blades with ultraviolet paint was an idea that didn't go anywhere.

But Bird's Eye Gilia and other flowers evolved their ultraviolet patterns over many thousands or even millions of years, and it seems to aid in their pollination.

Jon Hammond.

Bird's Eye Gilia are beautiful small wildflowers that thrive in the Tehachapi Mountains.

If you'd like to see Bird's Eye Gilia in person, I suggest taking a drive. Take Highway 58 west and get off at the Caliente turnoff, then drive past the community of Caliente a few miles and take the upper road, which is known officially as Caliente-Bodfish Road, and unofficially as the Lion's Trail (sometimes spelled "Lyons Trail"). There are some beautiful colonies of Bird's Eye Gilia, as well as other wildflowers including Popcorn Flower, Buttercups, Goldfields, Chia and more.

You could also take the lower road, Caliente Creek Road, through Twin Oaks and loop around to Walker Basin and come back on the Lion's Trail. The creeks are flowing, grass is still green, flowers are abundant and it's all scenic and even dreamlike right now.

Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at tehachapimtnlover@gmail.com.

 
 

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