Common Cryptantha

Cryptantha intermedia

Patch of small white flowers in a field
Spilled popcorn or fresh snow? | Santa Carina trailhead | March 2016

Locally, common cryptantha (Cryptantha intermedia) is most often referred to as popcorn flower; however, popcorn flower is an umbrella name for several similar native species in two genera that are distinguished by small differences in the shapes and surface textures of the tiny nutlets. Telling them apart without a microscope can be difficult. In the Reserve, common cryptantha is the largest and most abundant but C. micromeres and Plagiobothrys collinus are also found.

Popcorn flowers are aptly named, as the small clusters of flowers resemble popcorn spilled across the ground. En masse they form blankets of blazing white. The Spanish called them nievitas, meaning little snow because the large patches of white flowers reminded them of snow.

In spring, common cryptantha is abundant in open or disturbed areas throughout The Reserve, often mixing with yellow fiddlenecks and sun cups.

Other Common Names:

Popcorn flower, large-flowered cryptantha, cat's eye, common cat's-eyes, clearwater cryptantha, white forget-me-not

Description 4,11,23,34,59

Common cryptantha is one of several species often referred to as popcorn flowers.23,473 It is a low growing, gray-green annual, erect or spreading to two feet (60 cm) in height. The leaves are linear to narrowly ovate, up to 2 inches (5 cm) in length, sessile and sparse along the stems. Stems and leaves are covered with long, stiff, erect hairs and finer hairs laying flat against the stem called “setose” hairs. (Two references specify an absence of setose hairs as a characteristic distinguishing common cryptantha in the Santa Monica Mountains from other species,3,4 but this conflicts with the description of Jepson2 as well as with our San Elijo Reserve specimens and may be a local variation.)

Flowers are born along one side of a terminal stalk that is initially tightly coiled, (scorpioid), unfurling as the buds mature and resembling a fiddleneck. Flowers open near the top of the coil, and seeds develop below along the elongating stalk. The clusters generally occur in pairs or groups of three. Flowers are radially symmetrical and bisexual. There are five sepals that are fused at the base with five linear lobes covered with dense hairs. The white flowers are short-trumpet shaped, with five rounded lobes. The corolla is constricted at the top of the throat by five small appendages that range in color from from white to bright yellow. There are five stamens and a single pistil. Neither project from the throat and so are difficult to observe. Plants bloom March through July, earlier when winter rains come early.

The sepals persist around the developing fruit, lining  the elongating post-flower peduncle. Fruits are small nutlets (one seeded fruits that do not open). Fruits are triangular-ovate (somewhat like a bicycle seat), less than 1/8 inch (2 mm) long, shiny brown, with the surface covered with minute bumps and a distinct groove on the underside.

Microscopic view of brown nutlets

Mature nutlets | Santa Helena trailhead | June 2018

Long green stems with spikes

Stems and leaves have long stiff hairs | Santa Florencia overlook | February 2012

Small white flowers on a stem that has spikes

Young flower stalks still mostly coiled | Santa Carina trailhead | March 2016

Distribution 7,11,59,89

Common cryptantha is native to the west coast of North America, from Washington state into Baja California and east into Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona. In southern California, it is the most common popcorn flower between the coast and the mountains, throughout the chaparral and coastal sage scrub below 6,000 feet (1,900 m). It is most common in disturbed soils such as along roadsides and after fires.14,174

Common cryptantha is an abundant spring flower in the Reserve, especially along the sides of the trails on the south side of the estuary and in newly restored areas. It often forms large, eye-catching patches and swaths of bright white, sometimes sprinkled with the yellows, oranges, and purples of other small flowers.

Classification 2,44,143,468

Common cryptantha is a dicot angiosperm in the borage family (Boraginaceae). Typical plants in the borage family are covered by stiff hairs, have flowers that develop along a coiled (“scorpioid”) stalk and a fruit that splits into 1-4 one-seeded nutlets.  This family is large, and until recently it was split it into several smaller families.41,59  Many of the best known members of this family are not native, including the garden heliotrope and forget-me-not, and culinary borage.41

Plants in the borage family that are found in the Reserve include fiesta flower (Pholistoma auritum), coast fiddleneck (Amsinkiamenziesii) and common phacelia (Phacelia distans).48

Several species are commonly called popcorn flower.473 These are very similar and difficult to tell apart; some of my most useful references don’t try.24,468 In preparing this profile, I found photographs in my collection from three different genera that I had initially failed to distinguish.

Jepson recognizes two spatially separated varieties, var. intermedia and var. hendersonii depending upon the presence of spreading bristles on the midvein of the calyx. Our plants are var. intermedia.

Alternate Scientific Names:

Cryptantha fragilis, Cryptantha grandiflora, Cryptantha hendersonii

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
Bush of white flowers

Older stalks with fruit developing below flowers | Rios trailhead | April 2017

Microscopic view of stiff hairs on green long stem

Stiff hairs along stem | Santa Helena trailhead | April 2018

Small white flowers with yellow center

Young flower stalks with open flowers at tops of coils | Santa Carina trailhead | March 2019

Ecology 27,174,226

The first spring following a fire often produces a spectacular floral patchwork of yellow and orange and purple and white.

Since only the kiss of flame is needed to rouse dormant seeds from decades-long sleep,
is it not strange that botanists do not turn arsonists on occasion that some floral phoenix
might arise from the ashes? John Thomas Howell, American botanist36

Some of the species, obligate fire-followers, are seen only after a burn. These species have seeds that require heat or chemical cue from smoke or charred wood to initiate growth. The seeds of facultative fire-followers don’t require fire to germinate, but some aspect of fire improves their germination rate. After a bloom fire-followers leave behind a seed bank stored in the soil with seeds that may last decades until the next fire. Between fires the plants are slowly overgrown by the larger perennials and shrubs of the sage scrub and chaparral, finding refuge in scattered open areas.174

Common cryptantha is a facultative fire follower.14,281 Studies of common cryptantha show that roughly half the seeds will germinate under normal, non-burn situations. When stimulated by some cue emitted from charred wood, the germination rate increases significantly.170

Small white flowers with green stems

This species often volunteers in our revegetation areas | Santa Carina trailhead | March 2012

White flowers between two large bushes

Santa Carina trailhead | March 2012

Field of small white flowers

Rios trailhead | March 2018

Human Uses  

As yet we have found no reports of common cryptantha used by our local native Americans. A few Cryptantha species in Arizona and New Mexico were used by Navajos, mainly for medicinal purposes.282 An infusion of one unidentified species, locally known as Hollowstomach, was taken to stay slender.

In central California, unsorted species of Cryptantha made up one of many types of small seeds collectively gathered for food sources.474 Indeed, so important were seeds that competition among local groups over seed-gathering grounds lead to frequent conflicts. Among the numerous types of seeds collected, chia (Salvia columbariae) is most often mentioned, but other species with San Elijo representatives included California poppy (Eschscholzia spp.), yellow pincushion (Chaenactis spp.) lupines (Lupinus spp.) and phacelias (Phacelia spp.). Often, the tiny seeds were gathered in quantities by beating the ripe seed heads over, broad, shallow, tightly woven baskets.75,174

White flowers and yellow flowers

Popcorn flowers and sun cups | Santa Carina trailhead | April 2017

Closeup of white flower with five petals and yellow center

Santa Helena trailhead | April 2018

Field of bundles of white flowers

Santa Carina trailhead | March 2016

Interesting Facts 23,174

The Spanish called the popcorn flowers “nievitas”, meaning little snow because fields of the white flowers reminded them of fresh snow.

Field of small white flowers

Popcorn or snow? | Rios trailhead | March 2017

Three bundles of white flowers

Photo credit: Denise Stillinger | April 2007

Group of white flowers

Santa Carina trailhead | February 2015

Photo Gallery