Purple Haze: Los Gatos Wildflower Tromp

One of the best wildflower hikes in Santa Clara Valley yields a profusion of blossoms in shades of violet and blue.

Story and photos by Traci Hukill

March 26, 2015—The blues and purples own the hills outside of Los Gatos right now. Last evening as the sun made its way down the western sky toward the dark bulk of Mt. El Sereno, it illuminated along the trail hundreds of cool-hued blooms nodding in the slight breeze. Most profuse: brodiaea, also known as blue dicks. (Optional Beavis and Butthead laugh right here.) Tall and graceful, with bare stems and a cluster of fluted blossoms at the top of each plant, these range in color from pale blue to pinkish-violet. Along Jones Trail in Lexington County Park and St. Joseph's Hill OSP, and then along Manzanita Trail in St. Joe's, they are dotting the trailside in great numbers. Photographing them is tricky, since any breeze sets them to quivering, but against the new (and this year surely short-lived) greenery, their color can be stunning.

Right in there with them, often literally, are the blue-eyed grasses, small, pert members of the iris family with dark stripes on vibrant purple petals and yellow centers. I also saw loads of purple nightshade shrubs. Dusty-green foliage offsets papery, pale lilac flowers with slightly malevolent-looking yellow bits, which makes sense when you consider that this plant is seriously toxic. Sure are pretty, though!

And the Pacific hound's tongue! Gorgeous French blue, sometimes pinkish, with a fetching little white ring around the stamen, characterizes these tiny but striking little flowers. There aren't many of them, and my attempts to photograph them failed abysmally, but look along the upper side of Jones Trail in the shadier, more protected stretches, and you'll likely spot them. Keep an eye out for one or two lupines.

So yes, these blues and violets are the unchallenged stars of the exposed trails of St. Joe's right now, but there are contenders. Oh yes, there are serious contenders, my friends. Delicate pink hedge nettle had yours truly hunkering in knee-deep tickly grasses for a shot. At higher elevations along Novitiate Trail and Manzanita, one or two stands of Indian warriors practically vibrate in vermillion glory against the parched, pale hillside to which they cling, and California poppies wave like little friendship flags advertising Golden State goodness. Monkeyflowers spring from their dark-green, sticky foliage, and on a limited stretch of Manzanita Trail, a patch of gorgeous woolly sunflowers—which adore hot, dry, rocky conditions—pertly redefine the charm of "little yellow flowers."

Surprisingly (to me at least) a few wild irises are blooming on Manzanita Trail, which seems awfully high and hot. The irises in this neighborhood—I saw some on Priest Rock trail just a mile or so away—have a lovely old-timey look to them, being creamy white (as opposed to bright white) with lead-colored striping in the petals. It's an elegant change from the inky purple, violet and pale lilac I see in the wild Douglas irises on the western and southern side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. A look at the Society for Pacific Coast Iris page suggests they may be Purdy's or Fernald's irises.

This trail has a nice surprise for wildflower lovers, but I didn't spy it until I was on my way back to the parking area overlooking Lexington Reservoir, probably because some outcrop or greenery obstructed it from the other direction. Not far from a cluster of hounds tongue on Jones Trail, in a shaded area, are two bright crimson, birdlike (or is that totally freaking alien?) blooms: columbine.

Go now, ye flower lovers! Just bring along some Skin-So-Soft, Eau de Citronella or whatever you use to keep flies at bay; they're terrible at St. Joe's right now (it happens a few times a year) and can be quite the torment if you stop to sip water or take a photo. (We're going to try one of these homemade fly repellents; we'll let you know how it worked.)

DIRECTIONS: To visit St. Joseph's Hill Open Space Preserve from Los Gatos or San Jose, take Highway 17 south out of Los Gatos to the Bear Creek Road overpass. Cross over the highway and get back on Highway 17 northbound; the Alma Bridge Road exit is on the right. Cross over the Lexington Reservoir dam and park in the County parking lot ($6) or across from it (free). Open sunrise to sunset. Map to St. Joseph's Hill OSP.

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