Flower Powers

A late bloomer in the old-growth redwood forest, the small Pacific enchanter's nightshade casts a curious spell.

by Daniel Williford

Circe, the enchantress
Up close, you must gaze
For the beauty is subtle
Though nonetheless fantastic
Drawing you in
In a sort of odyssey
Of a curious magnitude
Rendering one
Wondering and captivated
…Circe, the enchantress

Hopefully, even those without a degree in the Classics can understand the cryptic quality of the above passage. Even if you do not, read on to uncover the charismatic charms of the small Pacific enchanter’s nightshade, Circaea alpina ssp. pacifica.

Nestled in the redwood grove in front of the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park Visitor’s Center and along the Redwood Grove Loop Trail (look around trail markers #2 and #4), you will see an herbaceous plant almost resembling a wild basil, with a curious flower blossoming that demands closer observation. Don’t resist. Draw near and have a look.

The first thing you might notice are the roundish ovate leaves growing opposite one another along the stem. The small two-petaled white flower requires you to intimately examine it and ponder the deep notch in each of the petals. Take a look at the two pointed sepals (outer petals) oriented 90 degrees from the quirky petals. Carpeting the old-growth redwood floor, this plant is a welcome surprise during the late spring after much of everything else has already blossomed.

Not a true nightshade, the enchanter’s nightshade belongs to the evening primrose family (Onagraceae). Though curiously not noted in John Hunter Thomas’ 1961 Flora of Santa Cruz Mountains of California, it is listed in the 2012 Jepson Manual as growing in this region, just as it is in the new Annotated Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Santa Cruz County put together by Dylan Neubauer. This captivating plant is native to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. And it must be enchanting, as its range is quite large, even extending beyond the borders of our fair state to Canada and Montana. In California, its range circumnavigates the Central Valley, growing in the Santa Cruz Mountains, up the North Coast Range and into the Klamath Mountains, east to the Cascades, and south down the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. There is also a population of these lovely flowers way down in the San Bernardino Mountains!

Homer’s The Odyssey, the epic poem from Ancient Greece written over 2,500 years ago, tells the tale of Odysseus. After the Trojan War, Odysseus tries to find his way home past many obstacles, one being on the island of the enchanting goddess Circe. Odysseus eventually overpowers the sorceress, and with her unlikely help he ultimately makes it back to Ithaca to be reunited with his family and the land that was his home. Circe is traditionally said to have used a European form of the enchanter's nightshade to turn Odysseus' men into swine; hence the scientific name Circaea.

Who knew this seemingly nondescript white flower could be allied with such a legacy of allure? Take your time to get to know our small Pacific enchanter’s nightshade, share your enthusiasm and knowledge about this flower with others, and then watch them fall under its spell!

Daniel Williford is a plant enthusiast with a particular focus on California native plants. Having lived in Mendocino and San Diego, he now calls Santa Cruz home. This has given him the wonderful opportunity to experience the beautiful floristic diversity throughout this amazing state. Working for a variety of organizations (California State Parks, public schools and outdoor science schools), he has taught outdoor and environmental education for all ages. Currently, he serves as the park interpreter at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton.