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A weed with a secret identity

The other day I went down on the hillside below my home with a small plastic container containing three tins’ worth of California poppy seeds, sold locally as souvenirs of California. The wet winter here had famously sprayed the wild lands with color as far as the eye could see, but the majority of it in our area was an invasive mustard, whose solid patches of bright yellow may prove a short-lived entertainment at the cost of a long-lived fire hazard. Amongst the color visible from our home, sadly, was a notable lack of the circus orange of the state flower, the California poppy. It was for this reason I struggled on uneven, sloping terrain dotted with gopher mounds and blanketed with dried grasses, the seeds of which cleverly inserted themselves into my socks (which created a 10-minute chore later to remove them, requiring turning the socks inside-out to pull the little barbed things through from the inside). In relatively clear areas I tossed little pinches of poppy seeds willy-nilly, doing my best impression of Johnny Appleseed (too bad my name isn’t Peter, as in Peter Poppy Seed). This section of hillside is soon to be visited by a large herd of goats, for fire suppression, and they will be eating more mustard than a stadium full of Dodger fans. I am hopeful that they also will be distributing, disturbing, embedding, and fertilizing poppy seeds, inviting a mini-super bloom next spring. 

On the way back toward the house, I encountered an unfamiliar small flowering plant, with lovely albeit minuscule orange buds. What was this? A wildflower? After all, this was a wildflower season for the record books. Perhaps this was a hidden gem, an unsung participant, due to its pea-sized blossoms. I carefully dug out a small ball of earth containing the plant and brought it to the house, where I did what everyone does for everything, I began an Internet search to identify it. Unfortunately, the super bloom this year in California meant that any search with both of the words “orange” and “flower” triggered an avalanche of images and links about the California poppy, seemingly ignoring every synonym for “tiny” I could think of. 

I visited wildflower databases. I scrolled through page after page of images of flowers. I entered descriptive terms as search criteria (leaf broader at base than middle, one blossom per stem, etc., etc.). All to naught. However, I could not accept that the identity of this plant was going to continue to evade me. I then took the step that occurs after every failed Google search: I slept on it. Refreshed, this morning, I sat down, and typed in the following inspired phrase: “trailing weed with tiny orange flowers.” And there it was, on the third line of images, at the link (lawnscience.co.uk). Unmistakable. I had tracked down the mysterious interloper. It was not what it pretended to be. It was not a wildflower, at all. It was a lowly weed. Charlatan! 

My disappointment, however, was short-lived when I saw the name: Anagallis arvensis; common name, scarlet pimpernel. As in, The Scarlet Pimpernel! Secret identity? Hard to identify? Pretending to be something it isn’t? Yes, yes, and yes. The Scarlet Pimpernel predated Zorro, Superman, and a host of other fictitious do-gooders who maintain a secret identity (but, admittedly, does trail Robin Hood by 600 years). The 1905 novel, the first in a series, recounts the tale of an apparently feckless aristocrat who, in fact, is the expert swordsman and clever escape artist who helps French aristocrats avoid the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. He is known only as “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” because the humble weed is his symbol. Life is such an entertainment. And I suppose it makes sense for the Scarlet Pimpernel to have a weed as his symbol – you can’t stop them, no matter how hard you try; they will escape you, and pop up somewhere else, including, in this case, a Southern California hillside, blending in with the crowd and going (largely) unnoticed.

Gary Stewart

Laguna Beach