Milkmaids (Cardamine californica) are one of the earliest wildflowers to bloom in the spring. Depending on location, this common member of the Mustard Family blooms as early as January and can be found into June. Late in the year it dries up and may be difficult to locate.
A perennial native, milkmaids can generally be found in moist, shaded areas (streambanks, grasslands, woodlands and slopes) mostly below 2,000 feet. Milkmaids range encompasses California, Western Oregon and Southwestern Washington. There are five varieties of C californica.
The simple, thick stem arises from a deep-seated rhizome. Although there are reports of milkmaids plants reaching 2 feet in height, they usually are much shorter growing to about 1 foot tall. The stem contains a watery sap.
Milkmaids leaves are variable in shape. The leaves arising from the rhizome are petioled and oval to round with entire to dentate margins that may be slightly wavy. The cauline (stem) leaves have leaflets that are rounded to lanceolate.
The white or very pale pink milkmaids flowers occur in loose clusters along the upper few inches of the stem. The 4 petals have faint, darker veins running lengthwise. The petals close in the late afternoon. The flower pedicels (stalks) nod before a rain thereby protecting the pollen. A two-chambered, superior ovary, 6 stamens with yellow anthers and 4 sepals complete milkmaids flowers.
The milkmaids fruit is a long, linear, flattened silique (pod-like with 2 chambers separated by a membranous partition). In the early 2,000s a restoration project involving milkmaids at the Presidio in San Francisco was hampered by a low seed set of about 8%. By hand pollinating the milkmaids flowers, seed set was increased to 85% improving the restoration results.
C californica is also commonly called California toothwort. Previously it was classified as Dentaria californica. The genus designation, Cardamine, derives from “kardamis” which is the Greek word for certain plants in the Mustard Family. Why the common name “milkmaids”? For lack of a better explanation, milkmaids seems appropriate enough for a small, white flower.
These milkmaids were growing in May along Myrtle Creek Botanical Trail in the Six Rivers National Recreation Area (Del Norte County CA).