Common Phacelia

Phacelia distans

purple flowers in a field growing from curled stems

Common phacelia (Phacelia distans) is an annual herb that blooms in the spring. It is also known by the common names blue phacelia and wild scorpionweed, since the clusters of flowers are composed of pale lavender to violet-blue individual flowers arranged in a coil that resembles a curled scorpion’s tail.

Common phacelia is native to southwestern US and northern Mexico, and can be found in many plant communities. In San Elijo Lagoon Ecological Reserve it is found in open or disturbed areas along the trails.

Other Common Names:

Blue phacelia, distant phacelia, wild scorpionweed, distant scorpionweed, wild heliotrope.

Description 2,4 23,59

Common phacelia is an annual herb with sprawling to erect reddish stems 6 to 30 inches (15 – 75 cm) long. The entire plant is coated with stiff hairs that are often glandular and sticky-tipped. Leaves alternate on the stem. They are usually 4 to 6 inches (10 – 15 cm) long, deeply divided, resembling the leaves of ferns.

Individual flowers of common phacelia are pale lavender to violet-blue with five round petals and stamens that extend slightly beyond the petals. Flowers are produced along a coiled stalk (a “scorpioid cyme”) with developing buds in the center of the coil. As the stalk unfurls, new flowers open at the base of the coil while seedpods develop along the older stalk, often giving the stalk the look of a caterpillar. Petals are deciduous.

Fruits are spherical, 5/64 to 1/8 in (2 – 3 mm) in diameter, on 3/64 to 1/8 in (1- 3 mm) stalks.

Common phacelia blooms from February to June.1

purple flowers blooming out of curved stems
curled stems with purple flowers growing from them
purple flowers with long pollen collectors

Distribution 67,89

Common phacelia is native to southwestern US and northern Mexico,112 but it has also been found in other states, such as Nevada,2 Rhode Island, Massachusetts114 and Wisconsin.113

It can be distributed in many plant communities, including woodlands, coastal sage scrub and chaparral, grasslands, meadows,7 and deserts.110, 115

In The Reserve, it is found in open areas or among exotic grasses along the south side of the Central and East Basins.

ariel view of the different parts of the conservancy

Classification 2,59

Common phacelia is a dicot angiosperm in the borage family (Boraginaceae).2 Plants in the borage family are coated by small, stiff hairs, and have flowers that are often located along a coiled stalk. Species of Phacelia were previously placed in the waterleaf family (Hydrophyllaceae), based on similar morphological characteristics. Subsequently, the availability of molecular data led to several reinterpretations of these plants including the merging of the waterleaf family into the borage family. This is the system currently used by Jepson,2 the authority for this Plant Guide. In 2016, the Boraginales Working Group reevaluated the borage complex and recommended a separate waterleaf family.422 Many botanists have accepted this revision and Phacelia is found listed in the Hydrophyllaceae in both oldest and more recent literature. Research into the relationships between the two groups is continuing and the systematics may still be evolving.
Perhaps the best known members of this family are the ornamental forget-me-not, and borage, an annual herb native to Central and Eastern Europe that is used in soups and salads.41
The family Boraginaceae contains approximately 120 genera and 2,300 species. Plants in this family are coated by small, stiff hairs, and have flowers that are often located along a coiled stalk.2
Other plants in the borage family that are found in the Reserve include fiesta flower (Pholistoma auritum), coast fiddleneck (Amsinkia menziesii) and popcorn flower (Cryptantha intermedia ).48
The genus Phacelia contains approximately 210 annual and perennial species mostly with blue to purple flowers with stamens that project beyond the corolla.2 Other species of Phacelia that have been reported from the Reserve are branching phacelia (P. ramosissima), giant flowered phacelia (P. grandiflora) and caterpillar phacelia  (P. cicutaria ssp. hispida) .48
Alternate Scientific Names:

Phacelia cinerea, Phacelia leptostachya

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
purple flowers on ends of dried out stems
deep purple flowers with 5 points bundled together
purple flowers with long pollen collectors


Common phacelia attracts native bees, honey bees and butterfly adults. Therefore, it has been considered for enhancing pollinator habitat.109

field of purple flowers throughout
field of purple flowers
multiple curved stems with purple leaves on top

Human Uses

The Kawaiisu, a Native American group from southeastern California, gathered and steamed the leaves and stems of common and branching phacelia (Phacelia distans, and P. ramosissima, respectively) during the spring, and they ate them as greens.75
Other species of phacelia were also used as vegetables by other Native American tribes. The Cherokee ate the leaves of P. dubia, and the Navajo and Kayenta, the leaves of P. heterophylla.107
bush of leaves and purple flowers
hiking trail lined with green leaf bushes and purple flower topped stems
green leaf plant with purple flowers scattered throughout

Interesting Facts

The name Phacelia comes from the Greek word “phakelos”, which means bundle, referring to the clusters of flowers typical of the species of this genus.21

purple flowers bundled together
close up of 3 stems with purple flowers
deep blue-purple flower close up

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