Most first-time visitors to the northern part of California’s Central Valley take special note of the Sutter Buttes and wonder what they are. They look like – and are – a mountain range that simply rises from the valley floor in northern Sutter County near Yuba City. More specifically, the Buttes are a circular formation of volcanic lava domes about 10 miles in diameter, sometimes called the world’s smallest mountain range. Although there is a small parcel of land that belongs to California State Parks, this park parcel is not open to the public. The remainder of the Buttes is private property and is accessible to the public only through Middle Mountain Interpretive Hikes, which leads hikes and interpretive walks. My visit, with a group of fellow wildflower enthusiasts, was made possible via a docent-led wildflower interpretive walk.
The wildflowers are especially plentiful and beautiful in the spring, after winter rains and before summer heat sets in. The Central Valley is notoriously warm in summer, and the heat is magnified in the Buttes. After the plentiful rains of the 2016-17 winter season the hilly areas of the Buttes have become a lush green wonderland. Much of the land is grazed by cattle or sheep, and the grassy hills are dotted with oaks, many blue oaks (Quercus douglasii).
The walk was basically a loop with an extension, totaling just over 4 miles. The orange dot on the GPS track shows the starting point. There are no formal trails in the Buttes, though there are a few ranch roads and informal trails.
Although the initial climb up to a small ridge was steep enough to get everyone’s circulation going, the elevation gains were relatively modest (less than 800 feet total gain) and moderate.
The walk began with an introduction to the native Maidu people and their culture (see, for example, this article). As visitors to a relatively undisturbed part of their land, including the mountains with special significance, we were encouraged to treat the area and its natural resources with appropriate respect. Some of the numerous rocks were probably acorn grinding rocks. Also, rock walls may have defined land parcels later owned by European immigrants who began the ranching activities that continue to the present. Near one of the rock walls was a sign noting “snake xing,” a reminder that in warm weather rattlesnakes are active in the area.
In other areas of California (for example, Anza-Borrego State Park and Carrizo Plains National Monument) the spring 2017 wildflower blooms are being characterized as super-blooms, with acres and miles of colorful carpets of flowers. The Sutter Buttes wildflowers are perhaps more typical of spring wildflower blooms, with more subtle colors and a preponderance of smaller-sized blooms. We saw a nice variety of wildflowers: some familiar to me and some new ones. It’s always a good wildflower day when I find and identify – sometimes with assistance – a few new species!
Some of the familiar species included filaree (Erodium sp.), seep monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus), popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys sp.), miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata or C. parviflora), and blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), as well as a few early Ithuriel’s spear (Triteleia laxa) and ookow (Dichelostemma congestum). An interesting note: the several filaree species are all non-natives, and most have long, pointed “bills” to which the seeds are attached. I have seen these many times, and the bills are typically about 1 inch long; the ones we saw here were more like 3 to 4 inches long!
The initial hillside we walked up was a treasure trove of flowers, though many were small and so you needed to pay attention to what was nearby. We took our time: in fact, we spent an hour and 20 minutes just walking about a half mile to the top of the ridge! One of my favorites was wild carnation (Petrorhagia dubia), also called hairypink or pink grass. Although it is a non-native, the detail in the petals is exquisite. The pink color is even more intense than it appears in the picture.
Scattered here and there was fiddleneck, probably common fiddleneck (Amsinckia intermedia) based on the coloration of the blossoms. I am beginning to appreciate that the differing colors of fields of fiddleneck are due to the differences in the coloration of the individual blossoms. These blossoms were mostly yellow, with subtle orange highlights.
One of the “new” species was valley tassel (Castilleja attenuata), also called narrow-leaved owl’s clover. The blossoms on this plant were only beginning to develop the small spots that give rise to the owl-like appearance, which can only be appreciated up close. Note the filaree “bill” in the background.
Another “new” species was Sierra mock stonecrop (Sedella pumila), also called dwarf cliff sedum. The blossoms are less than 1/2 inch in diameter.
We saw others on the hillside that I did not successfully photograph, including pretty face (Triteleia ixioides), rose clover (Trifolium hirtum), cowbag clover (Trifolium depauperatum), and baby star (Leptosiphon bicolor). The last two were first-timers, and I was a bit disappointed that I did not get any good pictures – but they were also hard to photograph!
We did take occasional breaks from the wildflowers to appreciate the scenery around us. The weather forecast for the day had been unsettled. We were fortunate that there was no rain, but some low clouds created a misty feel around some of the rocky formations.
As we continued up the hill, we noted some phacelia. Because of the location it is tempting to identify it as rock phacelia (Phacelia egena) but there are other possibilities that are difficult for me to distinguish, especially since I was not careful to note the leaf shape.
Another favorite is Douglas’ violet (Viola douglasii). The back side of the petals is a dark maroon/purple color, as is the pretty and delicate pattern on the front of the petals.
We also found some fringepod (Thysanocarpus curvipes, I think) or hairy lacepod. I think the picture shows seed pods rather than blossoms, but they illustrate the origin of the common name lacepod. They were hard to photograph, and I was lucky to get this picture!
Finally we reached the top of the hillside, after finding what seemed like an amazing variety of wildflowers, and descended as we continued on our loop route. Soon we found our first cluster of baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii). This blossom held a couple of drops of dew or rain, and the petals looked as though they had been a small snack for a critter.
During the course of the walk we encountered several gray mule ears (Wyethia helenioides). I thought the size of the central cluster of disc flowers, compared to the ray flowers, was impressive.
A bit farther down the hill we found two interesting types of clover. First was tomcat clover (Trifolium wildenovii), which I’ve seen a few times previously.
A few minutes later we found some white-tipped clover (Trifolium variegatum), which happened to be a new species for me. Note that the colors are similar, but the patterns different, for these two species of clover.
In a few places we found lupine: relatively small plants, perhaps 8-10 inches tall. The blossoms had white areas with small purple spots. There are many species of lupine, and these characteristics – along with the location and month – most likely narrowed the possibilities to sky lupine (Lupinus nanus) or bicolor lupine (Lupinus bicolor).
A special find was California plantain (Plantago erecta). In some geographic areas, this plant is a critical food source for certain endangered butterfly species. I am not aware that there is a similar situation in the Sutter Buttes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some local butterflies favor it. The plant is quite small, perhaps 3 inches tall with the flower head about 1/2 inch tall, and is usually very difficult to photograph since it often grows among other grasses and plants. Someone had pulled one of the plants to pass around for us to view using magnifying glasses, and this facilitated my picture.
We also found some woodland star. I have seen this flower many times before, but as a result of this walk I learned that there are several different species that can be difficult to distinguish – at least, for me. I think this is either common woodland star (Lithophragma affine) or Bolander’s woodland star (Lithophragma bolanderi).
We passed a nice example of an acorn granary: a dead oak tree in which acorn woodpeckers had stored hundreds, if not thousands, of acorns by making rows of holes and storing an acorn in each hole.
Where the GPS track shows a right turn we again began to climb. Throughout the walk we came to fences separating either property parcels or grazing areas. As we approached one such fence we had a nice view of a formation known as Twin Peaks, less than 2 miles away.
On the out-and-back portion of the walk we were in search of a few specific things. One was a small cluster of Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla), with beautiful purple and white petals.
Another was some canyon larkspur (Delphinium nudicaule), which were even more of an orange color than the picture shows.
After reaching a fence where the informal path we were following became quite overgrown, we turned around, retraced our path downhill, and completed the loop to our starting point. For most of us it was a first-time visit to the Sutter Buttes, and we were pleased that we had seen so much variety in the wildflowers – and that we had not been rained upon. Several of us were already making plans to return some other time, either for another wildflower walk or for one of the guided hikes.
After I left Yuba City and was on my return to the Bay Area, I noted numerous sunflower-like plants growing next to the road’s shoulder and stopped to take pictures. It turns out that they are common sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), most likely escapees from the local farming areas, which typically rotate crops (sunflower is one of the crops). The profusion of ray flowers is the key characteristic for identifying this sunflower species; all candidate sunflowers typically bloom later in the year, so this was a bit of a surprise.
Somehow, a surprise wildflower sighting seemed a fitting end to a day full of wildflower finds.