Desert Combleaf

Desert combleaf (Polyctenium fremontii) is an uncommon (and sometimes considered threatened) wildflower that can be found in Oregon, California, Nevada and Idaho. There is also a disjunct population in Washington. One of the first wildflowers to bloom in the spring, desert combleaf grows in sagebrush deserts with gravelly clay-like soil, damp or wet meadows, shallow ponds, stony swales and dried vernal pools between 3,000 and 8,000 feet. It tolerates extremely dry conditions and seasonally wet conditions.

This native perennial grows in dense clumps from a branching, naked caudex (root stock). The simple stem (rarely branched) is woody at the base and sparsely to abundantly hairy. The sessile (without a stalk) leaves appear to be pinnately divided but are actually only deeply lobed and resemble a comb. The leaf lobe tips of desert combleaf often have a sharp, rigid point.

The flat-topped inflorescence at the top of the stem elongates in fruit. The flowers of desert combleaf have four oblong sepals, four white to light purple petals, six stamens and a superior ovary. The petals are wedge-shaped and squared off or rounded at the apex.

Desert combleaf fruits are long, hairless, linear siliques (two joined chambers with the seeds attached to the septum between the chambers). Siliques are characteristic of the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae) to which desert combleaf belongs. There are 12 to 28 seeds per silique.

Desert combleaf is also commonly called combleaf without the modifier. The genus comes from Greek (“polys/many” and “kteis or ktenos/comb”) and means “many combs”. John Charles Fremont (1813 – 1890), who collected plants on four journeys exploring Western United States, is honored by the species designation.

In April Leonard and I found these desert combleaf plants growing at Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Tulelake CA.

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