Anemopsis californica is a member of the Saururaceae, or lizard’s-tail family, which contains only seven species in four genera. I have looked and looked and am unable to find a reference for why this family would have such an interesting common name. If anyone knows, please post a comment below!
Anemopsis californica is a herbaceous perennial species that forms tight, spreading mats and is found in the wild in alkaline and saline marshes of southwestern North America. It is increasingly gaining popularity with gardeners, who use the species as a pond plant and ground-cover in wet areas. For all its beauty in the spring, it is apparently quite ugly in the late summer and winter, and the staff at Las Pilatas Nursery recommend either mowing Anemopsis californica after flowering, or planting it with Eliocharis or Iris species.
Anemopsis californica is also known as yerba mansa, and was commonly used by native North Americans and early Californian settlers both as a food and a medicine. The highly fragrant root is edible raw or cooked, and the seeds can be pounded into a flour and baked into bread. Yerba mansa was used to treat a variety of ailments, from colds to scrapes to venereal disease.
Anemopsis californica forms a special type of inflorescence termed a pseudanthium, in which several tiny flowers (florets) are grouped together in a flower-like structure. The white petal-like structures in the photo are actually persistent bracts (an involucre) that surround the base of the actual inflorescence. The florets are grouped tightly on conical receptacle, or torus. The florets lack stalks, sepals, and petals, and are each subtended by a small white bract. These photos of Anemopsis californica flower heads clearly show the difference between the small floral bracts and the petal-like involucral bracts that surround the spike. At maturity, the conical structure detaches from the rest of the plant and (if it lands in a water body) disperses its numerous tiny seeds as it floats along the current.