California Sea Lavender

Limonium californicum

small purple and white flowers on a branch

There are four different species of sea lavender, sometimes called statice, at the San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve, but only California sea lavender (Limonium californicum) is native to California. The others have been introduced to this area, and have established as part of the local flora, sometimes becoming invasive at the coast, at the beach, and along roadsides.

Superficially similar, the four species of sea lavenders are distinguished by their blooming period, by the length and shape of their leaves and by their flower color and arrangement on the flowering stalks. California sea lavender produces smaller and paler flowers than the others and the airy cluster gives the plant a more delicate appearance.

Other Common Names:

Sea lavender, Sealavender, Western marsh rosemary, statice

Description

California sea lavender is an herbaceous perennial with a basal rosette of leaves and a reddish woody base. Leaf blades are thick, leathery, obovate to oblong and four to eight inches (10 – 20 cm) long, with smooth, often wavy margins. Leaves are tapered at the base to a short petiole that is often crescentic in cross section and may have small wings. Small sunken salt glands dot the blade surface.

Slender flowering stalks are loosely and repeatedly forked and reach 18 inches (55 cm) tall. Extensive clusters of numerous small bisexual flowers occur along one side of terminal branchlets. The small flowers are less than 0.25 inches (0.6 cm) long. The calyx is a short, five-lobed tube with five ribs that give it a wrinkled appearance. It is greenish or reddish on the outer half. The five-lobed, tubular corolla is pale violet to white and only slightly longer than the calyx. There are five stamens that do not extend beyond the corolla; anthers are purple and shed yellow pollen. The pistil has a superior ovary and five styles. The tiny, one-seeded capsuledevelops within the persistent calyx. California sea lavender blooms from June to November.1

overhead view of leafy plant
close up of small purple flower pods blooming
close up of purple flowers on a branch

Distribution

California sea lavender is native to western North America from Oregon to Baja California. It is often common in coastal areas below 525 feet (160 m), in sandy soils and salt marshes, especially around the San Francisco Bay and in coastal southern California.

California sea lavender is not common in the Reserve. Small populations occur in the northern part of West Basin and in East Basin along the access road to Stonebridge Mesa. In the past there has been a single plant along the East-West trail near Santa Inez, but it has not been found recently.

ariel view of the different parts of the conservancy

Classification

Sea lavenders (Limonium spp.) are dicot angiosperms in the plumbago family (Plumbaginaceae, also called the leadwort family), which includes about 400 species of annuals or perennial subshrubs or vines, mostly associated with saline soils. California sea lavender is one of only two species of this family native to California; the other is sea pink (Armeria maritima).

Plants in the leadwort family are characterized by undivided leaves that often bear salt glands on the surface that allow them to survive in salty places. Flowers are radially symmetrical and bisexual, with five petals and five thin and membranous sepals, which may be more colorful and showy than the petals, and which remain attached to the fruit until maturity – long after the true petals fall. There are five stamens and five styles which are sometimes fused into a single column.

There are four other species of Limonium in the Reserve, the invasive European sea lavendar (L. duriusculum), Algerian sea lavender (L. ramosissimum), wavyleaf sea lavender (L. sinuatum),  and the familiar statice or Perez’s sea lavender (L. perezii).48

At least one variety of California sea lavender (var. mexicanum) has been accepted in the past but it is not currently recognized.2

leafy plant on the ground
close up of small purple flower bloomed
plant arms extended with flowers on each

Ecology

Like many of the species of the plumbago family, California sea lavender has salt glands in the leaves. These excrete salts dissolved in the water taken up by the plant roots, allowing them satisfy their water needs with saline water and to survive in salty areas.

close up of purple flowers on the end of branches
microscopic view of leaf with white dots on it

Human Uses

The young leaves of California sea lavender were boiled and eaten as vegetables by the Kumeyaay.16 The Ohlone tribes, of San Francisco and Monterrey Bays, made a decoction of the plant for medicinal use such as treatment of internal injuries and urinary problems, or cleansing the blood.282

Recently, it has been reported that the extracts of California sea lavender can help prevent some types of food poisoning.391

close up of branch end with small purple flowers
close up of branches containing mini purple flowers

Interesting Facts

It is generally agreed that the name of the genus Limonium, comes from the Greek word ”leimon”, which means marsh.21 There is less agreement about the origin of the family name Plumbaginaceae. It may come from the Latin word for lead, “plumbum”,21 which would explain the alternate family name, leadwort.

But why? Some believe that plants in the plumbago family were used to treat lead poisoning; this would explain the alternate family name, leadwort.44 Others postulate an eye disorder, called “plumbum”, that was treated by some plants in the family; but no record of an eye problem with that name exists today.176 Other scientists have suggested that the name comes from the lead-gray color produced by the salty coating left on the leaf surface by the salt glands.176 What do you think?

leafy plant growing from ground with 6 leaves
microscopic view of small purple flowers
branch ends with mini purple flowers

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