Discover Spring: SMCMoA's Resource Guide to The Wild Flowers of California

Saint Mary's College Museum of Art | Museum from Home

"To the thoughtless, a flower is often a trivial thing—beautiful perhaps, and worthy of a passing glance—but that is all. But to the mind open to the great truths of the universe, it takes on a deeper significance."

-The Wild Flowers of California 


The Wild Flowers of California


The Wild Flowers of California Guide 


As the seasons shift, California's rolling hills transform into lush green oases speckled with orange poppies and bursts of cherry blossoms that blanket the East Bay landscape. Spring is here, and as many of us are venturing on hikes through trails in our communities, we cross paths with spectacular blossoms and flowers. The smells and the fragrances overwhelm our senses as questions flood our minds: 'That is an unusual plant, what kind is it? Can I touch that flower? Is that poison oak? Where have I seen that blossom before?'  Mary Elizabeth Parsons, United States, 1859-1947. untitled. watercolor on paper.

I imagine these questions initially fueled the thoughts of Mary Elizabeth Parsons over a century ago, as she embarked on a journey to create one of the first field guides to identify and classify the wild flowers of California. Parsons (b. 1859 in Chicago) moved to the Bay Area in her formative youth and later studied in San Francisco at the John Hopkins Institute of Art. During her studies in the 1890s, Parsons would venture into natural gardens and outside spaces, sketching alongside fellow artists Alice Brown Chittenden and Margaret Warriner Buck. During this period, Parsons began a project with Warriner Buck to record and catalog the flowers encountered. This resulted in the 1897 publication of The Wild Flowers of California: Their Names, Haunts, and Habits. 

Republished multiple times over the past century, The Wild Flowers of California represents a  collaborative project between the two artists and naturalists Mary Elizabeth Parsons and Margaret Warriner Buck. Both women exuded the era's persona of the "new woman." Parsons, a represented artist in SMCMoA's exhibition Feminizing Permanencesought to create a guide specific to California flora. Parsons intended the guide as a West Coast version to complement the previously published (1893) Mrs. William Starr Dana's plant guide, How to Know the Wild Flowers, which mainly addressed East Coast fauna. Recognizing a need to identify the West Coast foliage, Parsons observed and recorded field notes on the plants she and Warriner Buck encountered on their hikes and excursions. Later, Parsons transcribed these notes into precise guide entries, taking into consideration her audience and other similar plants as points of comparison. Ultimately, Parsons determined to organize the book classifying the flowers by color. Indeed, she credits her book's organization to Dana's guide. Despite both women working as artists, the pen-and-ink illustrations (over 100 engraved into plates for the book's publication) are drawn by Warriner Buck and not by  Parsons. The original printing plates made from these illustrations for the 1897 publication version were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. The 1906 edition (pictured above) was printed with new plates following the disaster.

The Project Gutenberg EBook digitalized the 1897 version in 2012, and you can access it below. 

The Wild Flowers of California


Selected Coloring Pages + Plant Descriptions


One of the 1906 printed versions was intentionally designed so the buyer of the book could hand-color the illustrations as they encountered the flowers, either in nature or through Parsons' written description -in essence, a 20th-century guide and adult coloring book.  As modern society recently experienced a resurgence of coloring books aimed at adult audiences, the Saint Mary's Collge Museum of Art folds Parsons and Warriner Buck's originally developed field guide into a creative experience where one can respond through artistic choices of color.   

Below you will find a chart featuring a selected five illustrations with the descriptions published in the 1897 edition of The Wild Flowers of California. You can select these images to print the attached coloring pages.  Please be mindful, and only use these materials for educational + nonprofit endeavors. 


Wild Flowers of California Coloring Sheets
California Poppy


Eschscholtzia Californica, Cham. Poppy Family. 

Stems.—Twelve to eighteen inches high; branching. Leaves.—Alternate; finely dissected; glaucous. Flowers.—Two or three inches across; usually orange; but ranging from that to white. Summit of the peduncle enlarging into a cup-shaped torus or disk, upon the upper inner surface of which are borne the calyx, corolla, and stamens. Calyx.—A pointed green cap, falling early. Petals.—Four. Stamens.—Numerous, in four groups, in front of the petals. Anthers linear. Ovary.—One-celled. Style short. Stigmas four to six; unequal. Capsule.—Cylindrical; ten-nerved; two or three inches long. Hab.—Throughout California.


Thy satin vesture richer is than looms

Of Orient weave for raiment of her kings!

Not dyes of olden Tyre, not precious things Regathered from the long-forgotten tombs

Of buried empires, not the iris plumes

That wave upon the tropics' myriad wings,

Not all proud Sheba's queenly offerings

Could match the golden marvel of thy blooms.

For thou art nurtured from the treasure-veins

Of this fair land; thy golden rootlets sup

Her sands of gold—of gold thy petals spun.

Her golden glory, thou! On hills and plains,

Lifting, exultant, every kingly cup.

Brimmed with the golden vintage of the sun.

—Ina D. Coolbrith

Golden Stars


Bloomeria aurea, Kell. Lily Family.

Bulb.—Six lines in diameter. Leaf.—Solitary; about equaling the scape; three to six lines broad. Scape.—Six to eighteen inches high. Flowers.—Yellow; fifteen to sixty in an umbel. Perianth.—About an inch across. Stamens.—Six; with cup-shaped appendages. Ovary.—Three-celled. Style club-shaped. Stigma three-lobed. Hab.—The Coast Ranges, from Monterey to San Diego.

Just as the floral procession begins to slacken a little before the oncoming of summer, the fields suddenly blossom out anew and twinkle with millions of the golden stars of the Bloomeria. These plants are closely allied to the Brodiæas, and by some authorities are classed as such. They are especially characterized by the structure of the stamens, which rise out of a tiny cup. Under a glass this cup is seen to be granular, somewhat flattened, and furnished with two cusps, or points. The anthers are a very pretty Nile or peacock green.



Cotyledon Californicum, Trelease. Stonecrop or Orpine Family.

(For flower structure, see Cotyledon lanceolata.) Hab.—Central California.

The word "cotyledon" signifies any cup-shaped hollow or cavity, and has been applied to the plants of this genus on account of the manner of growth of the leaves, which is usually in a hollow rosette. The fleshy leaves are often covered with a bloom or a floury powder. These plants are familiar to most of us, as some of the species are extensively cultivated in our gardens as border-plants. Owing to their habit of producing a circle of young plants around the parent, they are commonly called "hen-and-chickens." We have several native species, which are usually found upon warm, rocky hill-slopes, or upon rocks near the sea.

C. Californicum is a beautiful form, with pointed, ovate leaves, of a light glaucous green, often tinged with pink. Its flowers are yellow, and have their petals distinct almost to the base, and its carpels are distinct. We are told that the Indians make soothing poultices of these leaves.

Posion Oak


Rhus diversiloba, Torr. and Gray. Poison-Oak or Cashew Family. 

Shrubs.—Three to fifteen feet high. Leaflets.—One to four inches long. Flowers.—Greenish white; small. Sepals and Petals.—Usually five. Stamens.—As many or twice as many as the petals. Ovary.—One-celled. Styles three: distinct or united. Fruit.—A small, dry, striate, whitish drupe. Hab.—Throughout California.

The presence of the poison-oak in our woods and fields makes these outdoor haunts forbidden pleasures to persons who are susceptible to it. It is closely allied to the poison-ivy of the Eastern States, and very similar in its effects. It is a charming shrub in appearance, with beautiful glossy, shapely leaves; and in early summer, when it turns to many shades of scarlet and purple-bronze, it is especially alluring to the unsuspecting. It is quite diverse in its habit, sometimes appearing as an erect shrub, and again climbing trees or rock surfaces, by means of small aerial rootlets, to a considerable height. Horses eat the leaves without injury; and the honey which the bees distill from its small greenish-white flowers is said to be excellent.

Many low plants seek the shelter of these shrubs, and some of our loveliest flowers, such as Clarkias, Godetias, Collinsias, Brodiæas, and larkspurs, seem to realize that immunity from human marauders is to be had within its safe retreat.

The remedies for oak-poisoning are numerous; and it may not be out of place to mention a few of them here. Different remedies are required by different individuals. Any of the following plants may be made into a tea and used as a wash: Grindelia, manzanita, wild peony, California holly, and Rhamnus Purshiania, or Californica. Hot solutions of soda, Epsom salts, or saltpeter are helpful to many, and the bulb of the[ 10] soap-root,—Chlorogalum pomeridianum—pounded to a paste and used as a salve, allowing it to dry upon the surface and remain for some hours at least, is considered excellent. In fact, any pure toilet soap may be used in the same manner.

White Owl's Clover


Orthocarpus versicolor, Greene. Figwort Family.

Slender; seldom branching or more than six inches high. Herbage slightly reddish. Leaves.—Cleft into filiform divisions at the apex. Flowers.—Pure white, fading pinkish; very fragrant. Lower lip of the corolla with three very large sacs. Folds of the throat densely bearded. (See Orthocarpus.) Hab.—San Francisco and Marin County.

During the spring the meadows about San Francisco are luxuriantly covered with the pretty blossoms of the owl's clover, which make snowy patches in some places. Unlike the other species of Orthocarpus, this has delightfully fragrant blossoms.

I do not know why this plant should be accredited to the owl and called clover, unless the quizzical-looking little blossoms are suggestive of the wise bird. But with all his wisdom, I doubt if he would recognize his clover.



Share your creative response with us

Please share your interpretations and coloring visions with us, via email or our social media handles on Facebook and Instagram @smcmoa. We hope you enjoy this guide as you venture into the California landscape this spring for hikes, exploration, and meditative relief. Be well.


Click on the button below to experience the exhibition Feminizing Permanence. 

Visit Exhibition