A Guide to Wild Flowers Between the Capes

Greenish Flowers

Ammophila arenaria
European beach grass
British Columbia to San Diego County, California
Family Poaceae

There are two distinct beach grasses that inhabit our dunes and hug our coastline. The most prevalent is European beachgrass, Ammophila arenaria (the genus means “sand lover”), a deeply rooted, narrow bladed grass introduced in 1868 to stabilize drifting sand around San Francisco. Sand dunes drift with the wind onto roadways, homes, across pastures, and into streams, and planting beachgrass was considered a means of preventing sand redistribution. The Soil Conservation Service and the Bureau of Land Management began planting major tracts of Ammophila, along with scotch broom and native shore pines, in the 1930s and 40s to slow wind erosion. Ammophila has spread to many dunes from California to British Columbia, producing large, steep foredunes in place of the gentle sloping dunes that were there prior to the grasses’ introduction.


Atriplex patula
Saltbush, spear orache, spearscale
Alaska to California, most of North America
Family Chenopodiaceae

Saltbush is an annual, possibly introduced from Europe, that inhabits the higher reaches of the salt marsh on the inside shore of Netarts Spit, higher generally than Saliconia, the other nearby Chenopod. It is a creeping but sometimes erect herb that can be easily recognized by its arrowhead-shaped leaves with lateral projections sticking out on each side(hastate). Flowers, either male or female, are small and greenish on terminal spikes or panicles that originate in leaf axils. There are several varieties or subspecies that tend to hybridize.


Cardionema ramosissimum
Washington to Northern California
Family Caryophyllaceae

This perennial, prostrate herb is strictly coastal, where it grows as mats across sand dunes beaches. The leaves have needle-like tips which can be painful when encountered barefoot. Flowers are small, distributed along the stem, and have five sepals also with sharp tips. You can find Sandmat while walking along the road heading north from the Cape Lookout State Park camp ground.




Carex macrocephala
Big-headed sedge, large-headed sedge
Alaska to Oregon
Family Cyperaceae

This short, light green sedge grows in sand just above the high tide line in patches along the inside shoreline of Netarts Bay and between Netarts and Oceanside. Plants are generally dioecious, that is male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. The picture to the right shows both the smaller male flowers and a larger female flower. Female flowers can be an inch in diameter and over two inches long. Its bracts are tipped with sharp spines. However, occasionally flowers can have both male and female parts, the male structures residing above the female structures. Leaves are strap-shaped, and the plant spreads by rhizomesCarex macrocephala, also native to Japan and Eastern Russia, has recently been found in New Jersey. However, here in Oregon it has decreased in abundance in the last thirty years and in some areas is considered endangered.

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Carex obnupta
Slough sedge
British Columbia to California
Family Cyperaceae

This sedge is common around shoreline of Netarts Bay and in the camp ground of Cape Lookout State Park. It can be easily recognized by its inflorescence which is made up of two sets of nearly sessile, brownish-purple spikes. One set near the end of the triangular flower stalk consist of one to three male flowers. A few inches lower is a set of drooping female spikes. Each female spike is subtended by a pair of long, narrow, leaf-like bracts. The dark green leaves, long and narrow, have creases running their length, giving them, in cross section, a gull-winged appearance. Carex obnupta is the most common sedge in the lowlands west of the Cascades. It thrives in damp places, such as salt and freshwater marshes, stream banks, bogs, sloughs, and lake shores.

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Distichlis spicata var. spicata
Seashore salt grass
British Columbia to California
Family Poaceae

Seashore or Coastal Salt Grass forms a dense mat in the salt marsh around Netarts Bay, and it occurs in patches near the freshwater seeps along the beach between Happy Camp and Oceanside where waves wash at high tide. It is a spreading, often prostrate, rhizomatous grass that resembles Bermuda grass, with its leaves parted into two vertical ranks (that is, it is distichous – hense the generic name). There are several varieties of salt grass, some coastal and some inland, allowing the range of the species to extend through most United States, southern Canada, and Central and South America. Some areas of the country, such as Florida, consider salt grass an invasive plant.

All varieties can tolerate some level of saline or alkaline conditions. D. spicata var. spicata can tolerate salinity up to full seawater, although at higher salt concentrations the plants become dwarfed. The grass can accumulate salt.

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Elymus mollis
American dunegrass, dune wildrye
Alaska to Southern California
Family Poaceae

The other grass is the native dunegrass, Elymus mollis (also Leymus mollis) which has been suppressed along the Pacific coast by Ammophila. It has wider blades, up to 15 millimeters, and has a more robust spike inflorescence. You can find the two grasses mixed or in individual patches, but Elymus appears to inhabit beaches more than high dunes. Both grasses spread by extensive rhizomes. The pictures below compare the two grasses. Elymus was used by native peoples for baskets and mats.

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Ammophila (left) and Elymus (right)

Hedera helix
English ivy
British Columbia to California, many other states
Family Araliaceae

English ivy is an escaped cultivar that has become another nuisance plant in the Pacific Northwest and many other parts of the country. Native to the Caucus Mountains in Central Asia, it was introduced into the United States in the late 1700s as a decorative evergreen to adorn buildings, fences, gateways, and hillsides. It climbs and is fast growing, hardy, pest free, and can be pruned and trained into attractive shapes, but like other invaders with no natural controls, it has become a rampant pest. It has sticky aerial roots that allow the plants to cling to surfaces and spread to become either a dense ground cover or clinging vine, but it chokes out native plants by blocking the light they need to survive. It can engulf and weaken trees until they succumb to smothering, or are blown down in wind storms due to the added weight of the ivy. 

The ivy comes in two forms, juvenile and mature. The juvenile form is the sterile, spreading and climbing vine with its three to five-lobed, palmate leaves that we usually encounter. It spreads strictly by vegetative growth. Under the right conditions of nutrients, water and light, it can morph into the mature flowering form with ovate leaves, helical inflorescence, purplish-black berries. The berries and vegetation can be toxic to many mammals and birds.

You can see massive growths of English ivy on the hillside just above the beach at Oceanside, probably planted there to stabilize the bank against erosion. The Douglas fir trees covered in ivy pictured below are along Fall Creek, up the trail from the beach.

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Juncus balticus
Baltic rush
Alaska to California, much of North America
Family Juncaceae

This rhizomatous, perennial herb inhabits sand dunes, freshwater marshes, and salt marshes along the Pacific Coast. On Netarts Bay, it occupies a vast marsh at the bay’s southern end where it is bordered higher on the shoreline by the sedge Carex obnupa or the dune grass Elymus mollis. It is often flooded at high tide. Baltic rush can be recognized by its round, wiry, stiff, green stems. Leaves are reduced to sheaths. The inflorescence is rather loose, not compact or globular as in similar rushes, and it is located on the side of the stem, well above its halfway point. The lower picture to the right shows the light brown C. obnupa bordering the bright green J. balticus.

There seems to be some confusion about identification and the taxonomy of this rush. The Heather Stout et. al. (1976) report on Netarts Bay identifies it as J. leseurii, a misspelling of J. lesuerii. Kosloff (2005) recognizes this plant as the Baltic rush J. arcticus var. balticus. Ceska (2006) distinguishes between J. arcticus var. balticus and J. balticus, saying that the latter is the only one of the two that grows in salt marshes (http://www.ou.edu/cas/botany-micro/ben/ben358.html).  I am going with J. balticus. There are many varieties of this rush distributed through North America.

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Plantago lanceolata
English or lance-leaf plantain
Alaska to California, most of North America
Family Plantaginaceae

When I was a kid, my friends and I would sit on our weedy football field at school during our lunch hour and pick the firm spikes from the local plantain (probably English), fold the peduncle around the base of a spike, pull on the loop formed by the fold, and like a miniature catapult, ‘launch’ the spikes at each other. Such is my childhood memory of plantains. Many of the plantains in the United States have been introduced from Europe or, if native, have their European counterparts. English plantain, a perennial, was introduced from Eurasia and has spread widely. The leaves are basal and lance-shaped with several veins running the length of each leaf. Flowers in the terminal spike are green. Stamens bloom from the base of the spike toward the tip, forming an encircling stamen band around the spike. In our area, English plantain grows from the upper shore, usually out of the splash zone, to inland.

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Plantago major
Common plantain, broadleaf plantain
All States and Provinces
Family Plantaginaceae

This cosmopolitan perennial is a European introduction that is common in moist soils, especially in lawns, paths, and trafficked areas. Its broad leaves with conspicuous radiating veins and long petioles are arranged in a ground-hugging, basal rosette. Flowers are in a dense spike atop a long stem. The generic name comes from the Latin word “planta”, referring to the sole of a foot. You can find this plantain in the Cape Lookout State Park campground.

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Plantago maritima
Seaside plantain
Alaska to California, several Eastern States
Family Plantaginaceae

Seaside plantain, also called goose-tongue, is native to North America but does have a European relative, var. maritima, and there are other subspecies spread around the world. The P. maritima we have in our area is truly a coastal plant, found only in salt marshes and seashores. Here there are two varieties, var. juncoides that prefers salt marshes and moist saline habitats and a California variety, var. californica, found along drier parts of the coast such as dunes and bluffs. The plant has long, narrow leaves that spread from its base. Its four-petaled flowers are arranged in a spike that can be several inches long. It is a perennial that likes to grow in salt marshes, especially the southern end of Netarts Bay, among cobbles at the upper edge of the beach, or at the base of sandy bluffs.


Myrica californica
California wax myrtle
British Columbia to California

Family Myricaceae

Also called Morella californica, wax myrtle is a shrub or small tree up to 15 feet tall or more with narrow and slightly toothed, shiny leaves about four inches long and clusters of staminate and/or pistilate spikes. Flowers of the latter develop into spherical, reddish to purplish-black, waxy fruits. It is a relative of the more famous bayberry of the northeastern states, Myrica pennsylvanica, the wax of which is used in bayberry candles, popular at Christmas. Wax myrtle grows at low, coastal elevations from Washington to Southern California. It blooms from spring to early summer, producing greenish to reddish pistillate and staminate (female and male) catkins at the base of the leaves. The plant is considered medicinal, the bark and roots used by herbalist and in folk medicine for blood circulation, bacterial infections, coughs and sore throats. 


Rhamnus purshiana
Cascara, cascara buckthorn
British Columbia to California
Family Rhamnaceae

Also called Frangula purshiana, cascara, common in our area, can be considered either a large shrub or small tree. It grows as an understory plant in shaded forest. Flowers, growing in clusters, are small, greenish white to greenish yellow, with five petals that are pointed, five sepals, and five stamens. Leaves are alternate, obovate to oblong, strongly pinnately veined, and deciduous. Fruit are berries that ripen to blue-black color in the summer.

Cascara means “bark” in Spanish, and extracts of aged bark, which contain anthraquinones, chemicals that stimulate movement of the large intestine, have been used for centuries by coastal Native Americans and later by immigrants as a powerful laxative. Early settlers called cascara “chitticum”, which comes from Chinook Jargon, a Pacific Northwest pidgin language, and is translated as “shit come”.

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Rumex crispus
Curly dock
Throughout the United States and Canada
Family Polygonaceae

Curly dock is a perennial introduced from Europe via imported bales of alfalfa. It can be aggressive and is considered a noxious weed in many areas, but it is not in the Oregon noxious weed lists. It can be a tall plant, four feet or more, with both large basal and smaller stem leaves. It gets its species name from the curly, crisp edges of its leaves. One other way to recognize this plant is by the hardened swelling on the perianth, the sepals/petals of the flower, as shown in the lower, close-up picture. The inflorescence turns rust brown as the flowers age. Besides growing along roadside and in open fields, it is common in tidal marshes and along the driftwood line of beaches. The picture to the right was taken on Netarts Spit.


Rumex maritimus
Golden or seaside dock
Many states and Canadian Provinces
Family Polygonaceae

Golden or Seaside dock is a low, robust, spreading, annual or biennual dock that likes damp, rather saline places and can be seen along upper beaches, especially around the freshwater seeps. Its lanceolate leaves are up to six inches long and, instead of being mainly basal, run along the entire stem. The flowers are in dense whorled clusters branching near the ends of the stems, often at leaf axilsRumex maritimus is not just confined to the coast. It can be found all over the west, midwest, and northeast. Like some other species of Rumex (including sour dock), golden dock contains high levels of oxalic acid which gives the plant a distinct sour taste. Oxalic acid is poisonous, so the plant should not be eaten in quantity. It can affect calcium metabolism, leading to a mineral deficiency. People who are prone to arthritis, rheumatism, kidney stones, gout and hyperacidity may find their conditions aggravated by eating golden dock.

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Salix hookariana
Hooker’s willow, dune willow, coast willow
Alaska through Northern California
Family Salicaceae

All along the bottom of the hillside from Oceanside to Netarts, just above beach, and many places along the edge of Netarts Bay and on Netarts Spit, is Hooker’s Willow, a brushy shrub up the 30 feet high that thrives in moist environments near the coast. Its obovate leaves, dark green on top, grayish and hairy underneath, drop during fall and emerge in spring. Male and female catkins appear during March and April, often before the leaves. This willow, like others, is a good soil stabilizer and reduces bank erosion. Pictured below from the left are leaves, pollen-producing male catkins, and seed-producing female catkins.

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Schoenoplectus americanus
American three-square, chair-makers bullrush
Alaska to California, many other states
Family Cyperaceae

Also known as Scirpus americaus, this sedge grows in a green-grey band, closest to the edge of Netarts Bay, and is almost always covered with seawater at high tide. It can also be found in patches along the upper beach just south of Oceanside. It typically grows in salt and freshwater marshes. Stems (not leaves) are three angled, appearing like a triangle in cross-section. It is a rhizomatous perennial monocot with its flowers arranged in a spikelet arising from a single bract on the side of the stem.

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Typha latifolia
Broadleaf cattail, common cattail, reedmace, bullrush
Alaska to California, nearly all of North America
Family Typhaceae

Cattails are native aquatic plants that can be found locally in a few of the marshes that border Netarts Bay and are fed by freshwater streams. One such marsh is near the junction of Netarts Bay Drive and Whiskey Creek Road, at Hamm Road. They have long, grass-like leaves, each at least one-half inch wide, a few of which alternate along the stem but most are basal. Basal leaves are the longest.  Flowers are tiny and numerous and tightly packed on a tall terminal spike, the pistillate flowers below the staminate flowers. Cattails are perennials with large rhizomes that can be eaten. To read more about cattails and how they were used by native peoples, check out the “Ethnobotany Corner” in the January 2009 Netarts Bay Today Newsletter (Vol.1, No.1).


Boschniakia hookeri
Small groundcone
British Columbia to Northern California

This strange looking coastal plant, lacks chlorophyll, and is parasitic on the roots of salal (Gaultheria shallon) and occasionally a few other members of the Ericaceae. It appears in late spring, often yellowish when young and dark red to purple when mature, and it grows to about four inches tall. Its leaves have been reduced to bracts with pointed tips. Flowers are irregular, the upper petal forming a hood. They are arranged into a dense spike, each subtended by a bract. The base of the groundcone, when young, can be eaten raw. The generic name is after a Russian botanist and the specific name is after a British botanist.


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