Trouble with Triphysaria

by Doreen Smith

Many plants’ Latin names and family designations were changed radically In the Jepson Manual, 2012 edition. The owl’s clovers were divided into three different genera: Castilleja, Orthocarpus, and Triphysaria.

Marin has several species and subspecies of the genus Triphysaria that may look very alike when made into herbarium vouchers. The keys made from such pressed brown material are difficult to interpret. Live flowering plants in color are much easier to identify, but there are still confusing sources where the identifications are incorrect. For instance, on the poster at the Chimney Rock trailhead on Point Reyes, the photograph described as “Triphysaria eriantha ssp. rosea” is really the rare “Triphysaria floribunda”, San Francisco owl’s clover. Even though the responsible Seashore staff have been informed several times over about the errors in the last 10 years, updates have failed to happen.

Noticing the color of the two fused back petals making up the galea, “the beak,” is very helpful in getting to which species you’ve found. It is either purple (T. pusilla and T. eriantha) or pale greenish (T. floribunda and T. versicolor).
Marin has the following species and subspecies of Triphysaria; only one other California species exists, found in the south of the state:
Triphysaria pusilla (least owl’s clover) is the easiest to recognize; it usually has reddish-purple leaves and extremely small reddish flowers on a tiny plant.
Triphysaria floribunda (San Francisco owl’s clover, CNPS List 1B) is white- to cream-flowered, each floret of the compact inflorescence is small, and each has exserted stamens.
In Triphysaria eriantha ssp. rosea (rosy butter ‘n’ eggs), the galea is purple, other petals can be either white or pink, and the petal color does not change with aging of the flower.
Triphysaria eriantha ssp. eriantha (butter ‘n’ eggs) is yellow-flowered and there is a purple galea at the back of each floret. Though common in much of California, it’s uncommon in Marin County and found only on a serpentine outcrop on the Leiss Ranch at the south end of Chileno Valley.
Triphysaria versicolor ssp. versicolor (white-pink butter and eggs) is uncommon in Marin, and is found on the flatlands of the Lunny “G” Ranch at Pt. Reyes. The flowers have a pale galea; the puffy petals open white then fade pink.
Triphysaria versicolor ssp. faucibarbata, (butter and eggs) is the most common here. It’s a yellow-flowered species and its florets have a pale or greenish galea.

Photos by Vernon Smith

Triphysaria eriantha ssp. rosea – (rosy owl’s-clover)


Triphysaria floribunda – (San Francisco owl’s- clover LIST1B.2)


Triphysaria pusilla – (little Triphysaria)


Triphysaria eriantha ssp. eriantha – (purple-beak owl’s-clover)


Photo by Vernon Smith

Triphysaria versicolor ssp. versicolor


Triphysaria versicolor var. faucibarbata – (butter-and-eggs)