Jocie and I took a morning earlier this week to revisit the Trent River estuary with the idea of looking for unusual plants that sometimes turn up at the mouths of rivers. It wasn’t a promising day and, while it wasn’t raining on the way out through the tall grass and fields of entire-leaved gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia), the dark clouds over the land were moving seaward as we walked out to the water’s edge. By the time we circled back along the beach and began to follow a small tributary back to the parking area, it was raining heavily.
It was then that we noticed the large-flowered collomia (Collomia grandiflora). At that point in our short walk, we were pretty focused on making it back to the car, but these flowers made us pause. They looked familiar (and we later realized that we had likely seen them in the Okanagan), but seemed out of place here at the mouth of the Trent. Unfortunately, it was too wet to photograph them, but we made a mental note of the sticky terminal cluster of tube-like salmon coloured flowers. There weren’t too many plants and they only appeared to be in this one location where a small tributary from the river joined the beach.
At home we consulted the Illustrated Flora of BC and our trusty copies of Pojar and MacKinnon (Plants of Coastal British Columbia) and Parish, Coupe and Lloyd (Plants of Southern Interior BC). Having narrowed it down to the genus of Collomia, it was fairly easy to figure out that our plant was the large-flowered collomia. There are records of this plant on Vancouver Island but they seem to be few and far between. eFlora BC has an excellent map that shows records across the water at Goose Spit in Comox (1915—John M. Macoun), the Somass River estuary in Port Alberni (1915—William Carter), the Nanaimo River estuary (1970—Chris Brayshaw), and the Cowichan River (several records). More records show up further south around Victoria and the Saanich penisula. Collomia wasn’t found when the Trent River estuary was surveyed by the Comox Valley Naturalists in the 1980s.
I went out the following day when the weather was a bit better and spent some time photographing the flowers. There are about 20 plants in a small area that seemed to be relatively clear of invasive plants like hedge bindweed (Convolvulus arvenis) that is making inroads into the grass meadows. I was also able to find a couple more large-flowered collomia in the open areas behind the drift logs at the top of the beach. Also growing in the same area were several seaside fiddleneck (Amsinckia spectabilis)—I’ll post some images of these later in the week.
Large-flowered collomia gets a mention in Pojar but not a main entry, so it’s easy to miss it. eflora BC has a detailed description of the plant and its habitat. One of the distinctive features of the plant is the terminal cluster of salmon coloured flowers. The leaves below the cluster are wider than the alternate leaves on the stem below.
The seeds are definitely sticky to touch and close examination reveals the sticky glandular hairs. The genus name references this stickiness since it comes from the Greek kolla which means “glue.” The stamens (and pollen) are generally blue in colour.
Thinking about the number of small and large rivers emptying into the Salish Sea on the east side of Vancouver Island and looking at the distribution map on eFlora, I wonder about the scarcity of records for this plant north of Nanaimo. eFlora describes it as infrequent on south Vancouver Island, but perhaps with a bit of diligent searching more will be found. Estuaries are very dynamic ecosystems and plant communities are always changing. It might be worth spending some time looking for this (and other) beautiful plants at other river mouths. Like the naturalist John Macoun (1831-1920), you might just make your own interesting discovery!
On the old Island Highway 19A drive south from Courtenay through Royston. Look for Carey Place on the left hand side of the road just before the Trent River bridge. Drive to the end of the short road and park. Rubber boots recommended, ideally you should explore at low tide.