Ipomopsis aggregata is a plant of many names, both scientific and common. A member of the Phlox Family (Polemoniaceae), this extremely variable wildflower is surrounded in taxonomic confusion, much of which has to do with the flower color. It varies between scarlet red, sometimes speckled with white, to pale pink, yellowish or white speckled with red. Over the years it has been classified in as many as eight different Polemoniaceae genera. Currently I aggregata appears to be the preferred scientific designation, with many named subspecies.
The common names for I aggregata include skyrocket, desert trumpet, foxfire and skunk flower (because of a faint skunk smell to the glandular foliage). A synonym for this native biennial, or short-lived perennial, is Gilia aggregata, one of the prior designations. For that reason scarlet gilia is another colloquial name. That is the name I first called I aggregata, and continue to do so.
Scarlet gilia is widely spread throughout the western United States. It prefers dry, rocky, open sites at moderate to fairly high altitudes (3,500 – 10,300 feet).
The stems of scarlet gilia arise from an elongate, carrot-like taproot, are often branched and generally grow to about 3 feet in height. However, under ideal conditions, scarlet gilia can reach six feet in height.
The leaves are divided into narrow, linear lobes and are covered in fine, shaggy hairs. Most scarlet gilia leaves are clustered near the base of the stems with sparse upper stem leaves.
Scarlet gilia flowers are organized in parts of five. They occur in the upper leaf axils and the tops of stems. The five petals are united to form a tubular corolla with the narrow, pointed lobes spreading from the top of the tube and flexing slightly backward. The stamens protrude above the corolla. Each flower has five hairy, pointed bracts that end in a spine. As the flower matures the bracts turn a purplish color.
Fruits of scarlet gilia are dry capsules that split open spontaneously when ripe to release the seeds.
Scarlet gilia depends on long-tongued birds and insects for pollination, primarily moths and hummingbirds.
The genus name, Ipomopsis, is from Greek and means “of striking appearance”. The species designation of scarlet gilia means “brought together” in Latin and refers to the petal growth pattern.
The scarlet colored flowers were photographed along CA Highway 89 east of Bartle while the white/red speckled specimens grew in the Shasta Trinity National Forest along the road to the Brewer Creek Trailhead (both in July in Siskiyou County CA).