Salt Heliotrope

Growing intermingled with the white-leafed phacelia (Phacelia hastata) discussed in my last post was salt heliotrope (Heliotropium curassavicum).  At first glance the two plants, because both have coiled clusters of small white flowers growing near the stem tips, might be considered the same species. However, on second glance it is easy to distinguish salt heliotrope from white-leafed phacelia because the differences are obvious.

Salt heliotrope grows as a low, mat-like plant six to eighteen inches in height. It can reproduce by seeds or rhizomes, producing dense stands. The stems are smooth with upcurving branches. The alternate leaves are blueish-green. The upper leaves have no stalks while the lower leaves possess short stalks or petioles. Both the stems and leaves have a whitish bloom that is easily wiped off. When severed from the plant the leaves and stems turn a purplish brown.

The inflorescence is a tight cluster of five-petaled tiny flowers at the stem tips. The flowers are arranged along one side of the coil. Usually two or three coils occur at the tip of each stem. The white flowers have yellow centers that turn purple as the flower matures.  The fruit contains four hard nutlets.

A member of the borage family, salt heliotrope is a native perennial that can be found throughout much of North America and parts of South America. Salt heliotrope prefers alkaline and saline soils. It can become a troublesome weed in cultivated and newly developed land, ditches, roadsides and waste areas.

The early Spanish Californians dried salt heliotrope leaves, which they then powdered for use in healing wounds. Native Americans ate the seeds. A purple dye can also be made from the plant. Birds, particularly quail, enjoy the seeds. Quail plant is one of the colloquial names for salt heliotrope as are seaside heliotrope, whiteweed, monkey tail and devilweed, among many other names.

These plants, along with white-leafed phacelia, were growing in a field in the McArthur Swamp (Shasta County CA).

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